Here are the books my two book clubs read in 2019, month by month. Check them out. You might find a few to be of interest. At the bottom of the article, you’ll find links to the books we read in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. (Yeah, I slacked off for a couple of years.)
There There by Tommy Orange. What does it really mean to be an Indian/Native American/American Indian/Native? Orange’s vivid debut novel allows a unique cast—ranging from teenagers to elders—to pull this question apart even as they add a modern layer of complexity: They live in the urban landscape of Oakland, California.
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart. Barry Cohen has achieved the American Dream. He manages a hedge fund with $2.4 billion in assets. He lives in Tribeca and has a beautiful wife. He even has a case full of extremely expensive watches. He appears, at least on the surface, to be a highly unlikely candidate for a cross-country journey to find himself. But when we first meet Barry, he is stressed out and unhappy, and he is bleeding because his wife recently attacked him. Soon we learn that there is more imperfection in his life: his son is autistic and an SEC investigation is hanging over his head.
An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn. Daniel Mendelsohn skillfully interweaves a compelling father and son narrative along with commentary on the text of the Odyssey. The prose is superb, the characters engaging and the narrative makes the reader interested enough to continue reading.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Enger brings us eleven-year-old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy in the Midwest who has reason to believe in miracles. Along with his sister and father, Reuben finds himself on a cross-country search for his outlaw older brother who has been charged with murder. Their journey unfolds like a revelation, and its conclusion shows how family, love, and faith can stand up to the most terrifying of enemies, and the most tragic of fates.
Noir: A Novel by Christopher Moore. Madcap novelist Christopher Moore offers up this zany noir set on the mean streets of post-World War II San Francisco. It features a diverse cast of characters, including a hapless bartender; his Chinese sidekick; a doll with sharp angles and dangerous curves; a tight-lipped Air Force general; a wisecracking waif; Petey, a black mamba; and many more.
Red Notice by Bill Browder. Browder’s business saga meshes well with the story of corruption and murder in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. You’ll learn much more about the Magnitsky Act and why Donald Trump Jr. was talking with Russians about “adoptions.”
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Considered by many the greatest war novel of all time, All Quiet on the Western Front is Erich Maria Remarque’s masterpiece of the German experience during World War I.
BONUS Book: This month, we also read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. The book is a series of anecdotes about O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam, written many years after his return to the USA. The writing is elegant and engaging. The stories are written from a close point of view giving a real sense of being with the characters: of sharing their experiences in a vivid and thought provoking way.
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro. When she takes a DNA test, Shapiro learns her orthodox Jewish father is not her biological father. Written with generosity and honesty, Inheritance takes the modern phenomenon of casual DNA testing and builds a deeply personal narrative around it.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. This book turns a true crime story–about feathers stolen from a British museum–into a thriller. Interesting exploration of the world of people who tie fishing flies for sport or hobby and their desire to get their hands on rare feathers to pursue their passion.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World is a searching vision of an unequal, technologically-advanced future where humans are genetically bred, socially indoctrinated, and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively uphold an authoritarian ruling order–all at the cost of their freedom, their humanity, and perhaps their souls.
Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers by Ben Goldfarb. If you aren’t already, Ben Goldfarb’s book will make you a fan of these intelligent, inventive, resilient rodents—and might just tail-slap a politician or two into realizing how much we need them to restore our critical wetlands.”
Best. Movie. Year. Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery. In 1999, Hollywood exploded: Fight Club. The Matrix. Office Space. Election. The Blair Witch Project. The Sixth Sense. Being John Malkovich. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. American Beauty. The Virgin Suicides. Boys Don’t Cry. The Best Man. Three Kings. Magnolia. Raftery argues it was the best movie year ever. You may disagree, but this book is still an interesting look at an influential year.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. A novel of great intensity and power, and inspired by a true story, The Cellist of Sarajevo poignantly explores how war can change one’s definition of humanity, the effect of music on our emotional endurance, and how a romance with the rituals of daily life can itself be a form of resistance.
Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford. For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off—a healthy boy “to a good home,” which turns out to be a brothel.
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. Ex-Green Beret George Hayduke has returned from war to find his beloved southwestern desert threatened by industrial development. Joining with Bronx exile and feminist saboteur Bonnie Abzug, wilderness guide and outcast Mormon Seldom Seen Smith, and libertarian billboard torcher Doc Sarvis, M.D., Hayduke is ready to fight the strip miners, the clear-cutters, and the highway, dam, and bridge builders who are threatening the natural habitat. The Monkey Wrench Gang is on the move, and peaceful coexistence be damned!
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. In this follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. The novel is based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. Machines Like Me takes place in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first synthetic humans and—with Miranda’s help—he designs Adam’s personality. The near-perfect human that emerges is beautiful, strong, and clever. It isn’t long before a love triangle soon forms, and these three beings confront a profound moral dilemma.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. Since its publication in 1996, George Saunders’s debut collection has grown in esteem from a cherished cult classic to a masterpiece of the form, inspiring an entire generation of writers along the way. In six stories and a novella, Saunders hatches an unforgettable cast of characters, each struggling to survive in an increasingly haywire world.
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, was stunned to discover that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. But their surprise would pale in comparison to what they were about to discover when the committee insisted on honoring him. For Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Otto and Anna Quangel receive a letter informing them that their son, a soldier in the German army, has been killed in the invasion of France. The Quangels later decide to engage in a secret plan to inform Germans about the reality of Nazism—leaving anonymous messages on postcards in places throughout Berlin—a decision that sets off a series of events and an intense manhunt that demonstrates what life was really like in the Third Reich.
In Hoffa’s Shadow by Jack Goldsmith. In Hoffa’s Shadow tells the moving story of how Jack Goldsmith reunited with Chuckie O’Brien, the stepfather he’d disowned, and then set out to unravel one of the twentieth century’s most persistent mysteries and Chuckie’s role in it. Along the way, Goldsmith explores Jimmy Hoffa’s rise and fall and why the golden age of blue-collar America came to an end, while also casting new light on the century-old surveillance state, the architects of Hoffa’s disappearance, and the heartrending complexities of love and loyalty.
Darkside and Arcadia, two plays by Tom Stoppard. Darkside is Stoppard’s one-hour play loosely based on Pink Floyd’s album, The Dark Side of the Moon. The other play, Arcadia, alternates between two centuries and explores the nature of truth and time, the difference between the Classical and the Romantic temperament, and the disruptive influence of sex on our orbits in life. In a large country house in Derbyshire in April 1809 sit Lady Thomasina Coverly, aged thirteen, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge. Through the window may be seen some of the 500 acres inclusive of lake where Capability Brown’s idealized landscape is about to give way to the picturesque Gothic style–“everything but vampires,” as the garden historian Hannah Jarvis remarks to Bernard Nightingale when they stand in the same room 180 years later. Bernard has arrived to uncover the scandal which is said to have taken place when Lord Byron stayed at Sidley Park.
Thanks for your good work regarding Bonhoeffer’s “Discipleship.” Wondering if you make your teaching notes available to others. I’m heading to Berlin (through Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) and I’m interested in offering a class in my community here when I get back. (www.popmn.org)
Thanks for considering this.
Paul, yes, no problem. That’s why I make them available! If you think of it, let me know how the class goes.