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Ann W.'s Picks
Brief and brilliant, Jenny Offill doesn’t need page after page to trap us inside with the WEATHER. In precision-crafted paragraphs, we willingly follow a Brooklyn librarian down a doomsday rabbit hole as she tries to limit the world’s damage to those she loves. On the express bus to the demise of civilization, find a seat next to Lizzie for a wild and witty ride through the storm raging across America. An astute and satisfying read.
THE ILLNESS LESSON is finely crafted tale of gothic feminism. Not since duMaurier’s REBECCA has dread been so perfectly paced. A flock of nearly extinct red birds descends upon a bold social experiment in 1871: an intellectually rigorous boarding school -- for girls. The small staff includes Caroline Hood and her father, an aging philosopher determined to redeem his reputation. But when the students, begin to exhibit strange rashes and fits, the doctor is called. Modern women will recognize the humiliations that follow. If THE HANDMAID’S TALE imagines the future, THE ILLNESS LESSON reveals its sinister roots.
Clara Winter has never understood her mother. Now, Tamar is disappearing into early onset Alzheimer’s disease and the answers to her daughter’s questions are disappearing, too. At 31, Clara returns to the Adirondack town that holds the key to understanding the secrets her mother has stubbornly refused to answer. Seventeen years after we met them in Shadow Baby, Alison McGhee creates a believable, tender portrait of the love that persists between mother and daughter despite the barriers they’ve built to protect themselves. A compelling look at how well we can ever really know our mothers.
A sprawling, intensely imagined story, set in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, MANHATTAN BEACH thrums with danger and possibility. Times are hard and Anna Kerrigan’s family scatters like dice from a cup when war looms. Egan’s meticulous research, deft writing, and keen eye for human frailty deliver a complex tale of power and intrigue that reads like a thriller. Highly recommended
Louise Erdrich uses her literary powers to create a chilling portrait of America’s future. When evolution stops as mysteriously as it began, pregnancy and childbearing become issues of state security. A pregnant, young Ojibwe woman on the run from authorities tells this suspenseful and disturbing tale. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, women’s reproductive rights lie at the heart of this provocative and fast-paced story.
As war threatens England in the early days of World War II, the women of Chilbury in Kent find strength and comfort in song. A familiar tale of women who find their true strength in adversity, this novel of letters and journals has it all: love, heartbreak, jealousy, courage, desperation, and redemption. Fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the work of Helen Simonson will find a home in Chilbury. Sure to be a book club favorite.
An American master of short fiction, George Saunders’ first full-length novel is wildly inventive and completely mesmerizing. Part historical fiction, part ghost story, Saunders builds a moving tale of around actual 1862 newspaper accounts of President Abraham Lincoln’s solitary visits to a borrowed crypt to hold his dead eleven-year-old son, Will. Pitched into the graveyard, we are privy to intimate conversations between souls suspended between the world of the living and the world of the dead – the bardo of the Tibetan tradition. Packed with stories of love and lust, war and peace, compassion and regret, Lincoln in the Bardo creates a new literary form. Readers who let themselves be carried along by the current of this marvelous tale are richly rewarded.
Young and vivacious, the women at the heart of Kate Moore’s remarkable THE RADIUM GIRLS loved their jobs. In the 1920’s, the radium dial-painters were enchanted by the sparkling particles that glowed from the airplane dials and watches they detailed with tiny camel-hair brushes, shaped to a fine point with their lips and tongues. Radium dust infused their hair and skin, making them glow like stars in the dark. Soon, the gruesome effects of radium poisoning took its toll: jaws disintegrated, hips fractured, tumors grew. Dismissed as hysterical, these brave women fought to establish the rights of workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers for compensation. Moving, fast-paced, and exhaustively researched, RADIUM GIRLS puts a human face on workers rights in the modern world.
"Orphaned and sent into service as a housemaid at sixteen, Jane Fairchild expects little more from life than what she has in the English countryside in 1924. Her long clandestine love affair with the young heir next door ends in the early pages of MOTHERING SUNDAY, Graham Swift’s romance-like-you-haven’t-read-before. Brief and expansive, this little tour de force of a novel delivers a sharp blow to the heart that somehow manages to go on beating. With near-perfect prose, this one is short, sly, and sexy."
In his third novel, Peter Geye takes us deep into the wilderness of the human heart, disguised here as the forbidding territory of the Quetico, Minnesota’s vast northern borderlands. Like Steinbeck’s portrayal of the Salinas Valley in East of Eden, Geye creates a moving portrait of a place he knows and loves. Embedded in this heart-pounding adventure is a chilling story about the fragile membrane between love and hate. An epic tale with a literary heart, WINTERING reveals dangerous fissures in a family’s history and real costs of love withheld.
Geobiologist Hope Jahren invites us to visit her version of Oz, a shining city of miracles and magic, in her memoir LAB GIRL. Behind the curtain, the wizard is no balding, bespectacled fraud but a real, disheveled, and wickedly funny scientist whose joy of discovery makes us want to dye our hair green and dig in. From her Minnesota roots to her world-renowned research lab in Hawaii, Jahren reveals the passions that drive her work and sustain her in a competitive and often hostile scientific community. Her descriptions of trees and the soils they inhabit are so gorgeous, they will change how you view the world and the hope that we may yet save it from ourselves.