Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan lists her favorite books of 2005, including novels by Mary Gaitskill and Kazuo Ishiguro, and memoirs by Joan Didion and J.R. Moehringer.
Day to Day book editor Karen Grigsby Bates bolsters her on-air summer reading recommendations with this extended list.
Princesses by Flora Fraser (Knopf): Fraser's book is an absorbing biography of how six very different young women — some of them quite accomplished — managed to have lives despite their father's suffocating possessiveness. Eighteenth-century soap opera and history all in one fell swoop.
1776 by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster): This is on my To Be Read list, because the people who have read it are raving about it — even if academics sniff it's not completely, totally accurate. The historian known for his splendid books on Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt has apparently done a really fine job of humanizing George Washington, and highlighting a single year that was the make-it-or-break-it 12 months in the new United States of America.
Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island by Jill Nelson (Doubleday): This is a loving look at a summer spot that's been cherished by generations of East Coast families, written by a Vineyard veteran. Nelson wants the reader to know that more than a century before Bill Clinton made the Vineyard famous, black families were gathering there to enjoy the summer landscape and the spiritual sustenance they received from each other. Part history, part extended family photo album, it's a very charming book.
Fat Girl by Judith Moore (Hudson Street Press): An unsparing account of growing up fat and scorned that is so well written that you keep turning pages, even as you flinch.
Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir by Karl Fleming (PublicAffairs): Journalist Fleming recounts his childhood in a Depression-era orphanage in Wilson, N.C. (he and his sister were placed there by a mother who couldn't afford to keep them after their father died). His grim origins instilled in Fleming a zeal for social justice that found a happy home in his long career as a distinguished journalist, first in newspapers, then at Newsweek during the turbulent 1960s. Fleming's own evolution is reflected in the country's struggle to become a place that truly tries to offer liberty and justice for all.
Bodies in Motion by Mary Jane Mohanraj (HarperCollins): A series of beautifully written stories about the interlocked histories of two modern Sri Lankan families. There's a lot of tension between the traditional way of life espoused by the older generations of these upper classes families and their children, many of whom are being educated in America. Things like the changing position of women, sexual mores, sense of familial obligation are all told through the book's central characters. People who love family sagas, who liked Ahrundati Roy's The God of Small Things and Jumpa Lahiri's The Namesake will enjoy this book.
I Got Somebody In Staunton by William Henry Lewis (Amistad): A series of short stories that examines race in America from several different perspectives. The title story is about a black college professor who runs into trouble when a white working-class young woman bums a ride from him as he goes south to visit his dying uncle. Edward P Jones, whose novel The Known World was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2004, loved this book, and so did I.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf): Part English boarding school novel, part sci-fi, very Ishiguro. This wistful story about a students at a top-tier boarding school centers on their special calling: they are human clones, whose various body parts will be harvested for humans over the course of several years. Ishiguro's quiet, detail-filled narration is heartbreakingly beautiful. Ish fans who loved his most famous novel, The Remains of the Day, will recognize the similar stillness that saturates the book.
72 Hour Hold by Bebe Moore Campbell (Knopf): The title comes from the legally mandated maximum amount of time a patient can be held without her consent in a hospital or mental institution. The novel's heroine, Keri, is a divorced, African American mother who has fashioned a happy life for herself and her accomplished teenaged daughter. But their comfortable upper middle class life unravels quickly when 18-year-old Trina begins to present signs of bipolar disorder. Keri's struggle to find appropriate treatment for her child — and get Trina to accept it — is an odyssey that almost breaks her, but that ultimately accomplishes its goal. Moore Campbell, who has personal knowledge of this struggle, says she wrote 72 Hour Hold partly to de-stigmatize mental illness for black families, who have often been loath to recognize it. This very human story transcends race, and shows afresh how family can grow far beyond the people who are one's blood relations.
Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill (Soho Crime — August release): Readers who were charmed by Cotterill's first novel, last year's The Coroner's Lunch, will be delighted to see that his hero, the witty seventy-something Dr. Siri Paiboun, is back again. Set in Laos, a Southeast Asian country most Americans know hardly at all, the series neatly manages to include an engrossing mystery — in this case, who or what is killing Lao citizens one by one — political and folk history and a lot of sly satire of the country's modern Communist system. In Thirty-Three Teeth, there's a priceless scene where local Communist leaders call a meeting of the country's shamans to demands that the spirits they command obey the party or leave. It says everything about the by-the-book mentality that makes the party so easy for its own citizens to mock mercilessly. (The book's title refers to a characteristic that certain mystics — and the Lord Buddha himself — are said to possess.)
Fire Sale by Sara Peretsky (Putnam Adult): V.I. Warskawski is back! Veteran mystery writer Sara Peretsky throws multiple socioeconomic issues — globalization, immigration, evangelism and oh yes, murder — at her hard-headed private investigator. V.I. steps into her latest intrigue when she returns to her South Chicago high school to coach a girls' basketball team. Peretsky is one of the best mystery writers in the business. You can certainly start here if you don't know her series, but you'd be doing yourself a favor if you went back to the beginning and read through the whole lot.
For Young Readers
Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee & Low Books): This book, designed for elementary school students, tells the story of Sammy Lee, a Korean American kid who discovered and fell in love with diving when he was about 12 years old. But he couldn't practice much: His Fresno, Calif., hometown was segregated, and colored people (small 'c') were restricted to one day a week at the public pool. Sammy wasn't only fighting prejudice — he was fighting his father, who was making huge sacrifices so his son could become scholar, not an athlete. So as Sammy goes to college, they make a deal: If he will pursue his studies as diligently as he does his dream of becoming a diver, his father promises to back Sammy all the way. How Sammy manages to become the first Korean-American to win an Olympic gold medal and a distinguished physician is a true story and a formidable illustration of what can happen when grit and grace combine forces to achieve a difficult goal. Children with be entranced by Lee's illustrations, and the adults who read to them will enjoy hearing Yoo narrate Sammy's story.
For Middle School Readers
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett (Scholastic): This debut novel has been hailed as "more accurate than the Da Vinci Code" by some adults who've read it, and young people seem to agree that for once, the old folks have got it right. Follow sixth grade friends Petra and Calder when they try to discover what's really happened to a valuable painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. The painting was en route to the Chicago Art Institute in the kids' hometown when — poof. The thief leaves behind three letters and a series of clues; solving the mystery involves puzzles, coded letters, psychic intuition — and blue M & Ms. Some intelligent film development person should snap this up bring it to the big screen soon.
Older Young Readers
47 by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown): Mosley tells the grim details of daily slave life in a way that draws in even reluctant readers. It's written from the perspective of a 14-year-old slave boy whose only name is a number, because his owner considers him less than human. 47 meets Tall John, a runaway slave about his age. Tall John seems to possess magical powers that he uses for healing and liberation. (He is a variation of the slave folk hero High John the Conqueror, a mystical being from Africa sent to protect slaves and help them to freedom.) The lessons 47 learns from Tall John — self sacrifice, bravery and the continued resistance to enslavement — are wrapped in a tense story that young minds honed on action-adventure stories will recognize and appreciate. (If you're nice, your kid might loan it to you when he's finished.)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J. K. Rowling (Arthur A. Levine Books, July 16 release): Need we say more?
Roadfood by Jane and Michael Stern (Broadway): This is the sixth edition of the Sterns' 1977 classic, which was a great guide to hidden culinary treasures around the country. If you're taking a car trip this summer, you want the Sterns in the back seat, telling you where the best ice cream, lobster rolls, grilled cheese sandwiches and barbeque can be found. Pie from a chain when you can have homemade peach cinnamon cobbler in the town you're passing through? Think about it.
The Summerhouse Cookbook: Easy Recipes for When You Have Better Things to Do with Your Time by Debra Ponzek and Gerlyn Delaney Graham (Clarkson Potter): The point of this book — whether or not you have a summer house — is to do enough prep work that you spend less time in the kitchen and more time on the patio or at the beach or park with the people you're feeding. Works for us! The emphasis is on fresh, seasonal ingredients easily found at farmer's markets and grocery stores around the country. The results: heirloom tomato salad, grilled pesto shrimp, lemon blueberry muffins that smell and taste of summer.
Paula Deen and Friends: Living It Up, Southern Style by Paula Dean (Simon & Schuster): Food Network enthusiasts will recognize this silver-haired Savannah, Ga., chef immediately. She started an in-home catering business when she had no other choice but to do it that way: Deen was a long-time agoraphobic — she was afraid to go beyond the borders of her own house. But business at The Bag Lady (named for the trademarked sacks) was so good, eventually she had to leave the house for bigger space. Now, a decade later, Deen is a one-woman industry: cookbooks, cooking classes with her grown sons at her Savannah restaurant. Her own show on the Food Network showcases her easygoing manner. Deen says Southerners are compulsively hospitable. This book, organized by occasion, shows readers how to entertain with knockout results without knocking themselves out. Southern fried chicken, shrimp and grits, fresh coleslaw and a head-spinning array of desserts — there's something here for everybody.
Never Let Me Go is the sixth novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for The Remains of the Day — a book of quiet desperation in a British household, brought to life on the screen by actor Anthony Hopkins.
The author, born to Japanese parents in Great Britain, talks with Karen Grigsby Bates about his latest work, praised by critics as a deceptively simple tale set in a private school in the English countryside, where nothing is as it seems and the horrible truth is slowly revealed.
From Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That'll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn't necessarily because they think I'm fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who've been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I'm not trying to boast. But then I do know for a fact they've been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as "agitated," even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying "calm." I've developed a kind of instinct around donors. I know when to hang around and comfort them, when to leave them to themselves; when to listen to everything they have to say, and when just to shrug and tell them to snap out of it.
Anyway, I'm not making any big claims for myself. I know carers, working now, who are just as good and don't get half the credit. If you're one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful — about my bedsit, my car, above all, the way I get to pick and choose who I look after. And I'm a Hailsham student — which is enough by itself sometimes to get people's backs up. Kathy H., they say, she gets to pick and choose, and she always chooses her own kind: people from Hailsham, or one of the other privileged estates. No wonder she has a great record. I've heard it said enough, so I'm sure you've heard it plenty more, and maybe there's something in it. But I'm not the first to be allowed to pick and choose, and I doubt if I'll be the last. And anyway, I've done my share of looking after donors brought up in every kind of place. By the time I finish, remember, I'll have done twelve years of this, and it's only for the last six they've let me choose.
And why shouldn't they? Carers aren't machines. You try and do your best for every donor, but in the end, it wears you down. You don't have unlimited patience and energy. So when you get a chance to choose, of course, you choose your own kind. That's natural. There's no way I could have gone on for as long as I have if I'd stopped feeling for my donors every step of the way. And anyway, if I'd never started choosing, how would I ever have got close again to Ruth and Tommy after all those years?
But these days, of course, there are fewer and fewer donors left who I remember, and so in practice, I haven't been choosing that much. As I say, the work gets a lot harder when you don't have that deeper link with the donor, and though I'll miss being a carer, it feels just about right to be finishing at last come the end of the year.
Ruth, incidentally, was only the third or fourth donor I got to choose. She already had a carer assigned to her at the time, and I remember it taking a bit of nerve on my part. But in the end I managed it, and the instant I saw her again, at that recovery centre in Dover, all our differences — while they didn't exactly vanish — seemed not nearly as important as all the other things: like the fact that we'd grown up together at Hailsham, the fact that we knew and remembered things no one else did. It's ever since then, I suppose, I started seeking out for my donors people from the past, and whenever I could, people from Hailsham.
There have been times over the years when I've tried to leave Hailsham behind, when I've told myself I shouldn't look back so much. But then there came a point when I just stopped resisting. It had to do with this particular donor I had once, in my third year as a carer; it was his reaction when I mentioned I was from Hailsham. He'd just come through his third donation, it hadn't gone well, and he must have known he wasn't going to make it. He could hardly breathe, but he looked towards me and said: "Hailsham. I bet that was a beautiful place." Then the next morning, when I was making conversation to keep his mind off it all, and I asked where he'd grown up, he mentioned some place in Dorset and his face beneath the blotches went into a completely new kind of grimace. And I realised then how desperately he didn't want reminded. Instead, he wanted to hear about Hailsham.
So over the next five or six days, I told him whatever he wanted to know, and he'd lie there, all hooked up, a gentle smile breaking through. He'd ask me about the big things and the little things. About our guardians, about how we each had our own collection chests under our beds, the football, the rounders, the little path that took you all round the outside of the main house, round all its nooks and crannies, the duck pond, the food, the view from the Art Room over the fields on a foggy morning. Sometimes he'd make me say things over and over; things I'd told him only the day before, he'd ask about like I'd never told him. "Did you have a sports pavilion?" "Which guardian was your special favourite?" At first I thought this was just the drugs, but then I realised his mind was clear enough. What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood. He knew he was close to completing and so that's what he was doing: getting me to describe things to him, so they'd really sink in, so that maybe during those sleepless nights, with the drugs and the pain and the exhaustion, the line would blur between what were my memories and what were his. That was when I first understood, really understood, just how lucky we'd been — Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us.
© 2005 Random House