Friday, January 24, 2014


Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain 

            Again, a book so many people have read that I needn’t say much about it, but it has everything I love in a book and more. It was another that helped launch me into a career in writing historical fiction. 

Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things

            I know of several people who adored every word of this book. I myself found it slow throughout the first two-thirds but then, when it got moving in the last third, I found it worth the wait. It’s a wildly ambitious book and beautifully written. Ms. Gilbert strives to put a character at a pivotal crossroads within scientific discovery and do it from the world of plants, not animals. It would be really easy to screw this up in a multitude of ways—I can only wince at the thought of trying it—but she not only achieves her lofty ambition but achieves it engagingly enough to sweep us along with her. The depth of her research is remarkable. I had mixed feelings about Alma Whittaker as a character for much of the book, but in the end I did feel I knew and admired her, and I expect I will remember her.

John Green

No Fault in Our Stars 

            A love story of teenagers with cancer? Sounds uplifting. By some miracle, it is. I think the miracle is John Green’s gift for voices—those elusive things that writers strive to get right. John Green has a truly remarkable knack for these, and out of it comes a book that teaches anyone who reads it something of how you endure a disease that strikes people in ways that make no sense and are completely unfair. By some further miracle it’s a book you can’t put down.

Mark Helprin

A Soldier of the Great War 

            Mark Helprin is a real writer’s writer, whatever that means. I think it means he tries really hard things in his writing and more often than not, he pulls them off. When he pulls them off especially well, it’s astounding. That’s what I think of A Soldier of the Great War, a book I completely adored and plan to read again. Not only is it a great read with a stellar main character, it’s a great primer on Word War I, a period I continue to wish to study more than I actually study it. Also, it’s worth mentioning that if you like short stories, Mark Helprin writes brilliant ones. He has several collections.

John Irving

Cider House Rules 

            This is a favorite book of my teen years and I still think of it fondly. John Irving’s perfectly-balanced plot is a model of how to construct one of these, and his premise and characters are completely unique. To my mind, the things he does well he does best in this book. (Also, the setting for the orphanage in the movie was the abandoned state hospital for the insane that I lived near in Northampton, MA for a number of years. Unfortunately torn down now, it was one of the coolest settings ever.)

Sarah Orne Jewett

Country of the Pointed Furs 

            I’ve counted this among my favorite books for many years but I confess that I haven’t re-read it in ten or more years, and I wonder if I will love it quite as well as I used to. Books are like that sometimes. Certainly I love the setting of this one—the story of an herbalist on the coast of Maine. It’s not a page-turner, though. More of a reflective meditation within a series of connected tales. And of course, lovely writing.