1. Borrowed Finery, by Paula Fox. Much of the power of this unaccountably moving memoir of a young girl rejected by her parents and moved from place to place throughout her childhood comes from Fox’s decision not to examine the past, but only to tell it, exquisitely, in one detailed fragment after another.
2. Aloft, by Chang-rae Lee. This first person account of a Long Island man at first turned me off by its chattiness and what I assumed would be a predictable mid-life trajectory, but by the end it had achieved a richness and depth that brought a lump to my throat.
3. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, by Steven Millhauser. On the surface, this book is a parody of a literary biography, but that, in combination with its exquisite description of childhood, psychological acuity and a stunning twist of an ending, blew me away. I loved this book and will never forget it. (Okay, that was two sentences, but this book totally deserves more than one sentence.)
4. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. Read all the reviews, saw the scathing letters to the editor, listened to the NPR interview, and decided I had to see for myself what the big fuss was about before I joined in with the excoriators: Lo and behold, I found her honest, self-deprecating, fearless, willing to stand with the courage of her convictions and funny as hell to boot.
5. The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith. When the brutality of the world threatens to pull me under once and for all, I go to the store and buy another in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni lift me up and remind me that gentleness, decency and kindness are still out there.
6. Get a Life: You Don’t Need a Million to Retire Well, by Ralph Warner. And isn’t that a good thing (the not needing a million part) – idly scanned this while waiting for my daughter in a thrift store, was taken by its practical advice on living a good life (more friends, more goodwill, more of what makes you happy, less worry about money, seeing as there’s an entire industry based on making you fear that you will never have enough of it anyway), paid $1.69 and finished it at home.
7. Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schalansky. Beautiful, haunting book of real places and (sometimes; it’s hard to tell) imagined stories behind them, complete with hand-drawn maps; a book that I keep beside my bed along with a bunch of poetry books, the better to read one entry at a time before dreaming.
8. The Grace of Silence, by Michele Norris. This memoir by my favorite NPR commentator (she grew up not far from where I live in south Minneapolis) includes stories about her family which she never knew until she researched this book, something which made me think hard about how silence within a family can both help and harm it. The unexpected bonus of this book is that I heard her beautiful, warm voice reading it to me in my head the whole way through. (Okay, that was two sentences too, but I’m tired, so please forgive me.)