As an author and a bookstore owner, I am often asked to recommend books. My all-time favorites tower at Gramercy Books (plucked off by customers faster than our booksellers can replace them!) doesn’t change much because I’m very picky about what I will call a favorite. That being said, I wanted to share my thoughts about the dozen books I’ve read thus far in 2022!
Candy House, Free Love, and Hamnet would top this list—based on the quality of the writing, the imagination behind them, and the emotions evoked in me as a reader. Any one of these three, potentially, might be added to my favorites tower.
I look forward to hearing what you think of my mini-reviews and to reading more wonderful books during the remainder of 2022.
Having read the beloved twentieth century Hemingway classic A Farewell to Arms decades ago, I was drawn into every varied detail that permeates the story—whether the observation of a person, the reactions to the battlefield, or the protagonist’s passion for the beautiful English nurse who dies at the novel’s conclusion. Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross on the Italian front during World War I and he employs his journalistic and novelistic craft in the remarkable telling of this story. The edition I read featured Hemingway’s own 1948 introduction to an illustrated reissue of the book, a personal forward by his son, Patrick, and several alternative endings—Hemingway famously said that he rewrote the ending thirty-nine times to get the words right. The dialogue carries the same authenticity that the scene development and descriptions hold, as if you are listening in on a real conversation.
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan (to be released April 5th), considered a “sibling novel” to A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a clever and electrifying story with a huge cast of complex yet relatable characters, with surprising appearances from several key characters from the earlier book. Egan has created a fully realized near future world, one that can alter our connections, our memories, and our privacy. Her lens is both broad and close-up, allowing readers to see her characters internally and externally in this brave new world. She had one chapter that was only tweets, with one line that jumped out: “a smile is like a shield; it freezes your face into a mask you can hide behind.” I recall her novel, Look At Me, an intellectual thriller about identity and imposture. There are many layers to Egan’s deeply imagined tech world, and The Candy House is a novel worth a second read! (Join Gramercy Book Club discussion about The Candy House on April 27, 7 pm, moderated by author Nick White.)
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen is a 70’s-era story featuring a “seemingly” solid Midwestern family that Franzen inhabits, along with all of his characters, in the deepest way—to the point that you understand all their neuroses and psychoses—and you see their micro world alongside the macro contextual era they are living through. A somewhat overwrought novel, each of the major characters — Russ, his wife Marion, and three of their children: Clem, Becky, and Perry — suffer crises of faith and of morality. They stand at their own crossroads and study what the devil has on offer, what seems to be the theme of the Robert Johnson song from which the title partially comes. Franzen makes his characters so vulnerable and pitiful at times that there are many moments when they reach temporary enlightenment. Perhaps because this is the first of a trilogy, by the end of the story, they remain, for me, still vain, obsessed, and obtuse.
Family Happiness by the late Laurie Colwin, written in the early ‘80s, could be seen as a domestic fantasy, distant from our contemporary realities. Polly Solo-Miller Demarest lives a charmed life—husband, children, family closeness all appear perfect, but beneath the surface Polly is unsatisfied because she is taken for granted, which leads to her affair with an artist named Lincoln. Her family never notices because they never notice her. Her early euphoria turns to guilt, gloom and, finally, despair. She finds a girlfriend to confide in at her office, begins to talk to her husband again and—for the first time in her life—rather petulantly sasses her mother. Polly changes through her affair with Lincoln, stands up for herself and begins to appreciate what she has, but the book ends with her loving both men and continuing her affair. Although somewhat cheery in the telling, the prose is solid, the characters are well developed, and Colwin throws in dashes of humor for flavor.
I first came upon Tessa Hadley when reading one of her short stories in the New Yorker. Free Love is a beautifully told, accessible literary tale of mid-life desire in a 1960s drama where the protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, leaves her staid suburban lifestyle—her husband, Roger, and two children—for the allure of a younger man in swinging London. “I have to change my life, she thought. I can’t go on. Yet it’s quite impossible to change it. She saw how fatally Roger and the children and her home—the whole domestic edifice of their life together—held her fixed inside their shape, so that she couldn’t change her own life without bringing everyone else’s down around her.” And, in many ways, she does. The story is as fatally twisted as a Greek tragedy, yet Tessa Hadley treats each character with compassion. As a master storyteller and expert stylist, she seamlessly navigates from one’s point of view to another, so we get inside and move around each of their lives, even minor characters like a Grenadian trainee nurse whose revelations about the inequities of life as a working-class Black woman in 1960s London importantly broaden the novel’s scope into feminist concerns of that time.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a tour de force: the prose is exquisite, and there is a lyricism and rhythm to the writing and an attentive, sensory eye that O’Farrell uses to describe the robust nature of the countryside, and a portrait of its people and their pain. The intensity of the story about maternity and loss and death never really subsides—it unfolds fiercely at times—but O’Farrell manages to bring it to a tender and hopeful conclusion—that the greatest most shattering grief might heal, and we can “remember.” Evocative, engrossing, dreamlike, tragic, and redemptive.
The defining element of The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis, like all of her growing oeuvre, is an iconic architectural setting in New York City. Here Davis offers a captivating story of a missing diamond and the history of New York’s Henry Clay Frick House, before and after it became a museum. She quickly moves the plot forward, combining fact with fiction, and offers beautiful descriptions of the family’s art collection. The colliding narratives and comprehensive descriptions of the historic mansion will keep you reading into the night.
The biographical novel, The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher, tells the true story of Sylvia Beach who, through her legendary Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company that she founded in 1919, was the first person to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, fighting incredible odds to bring one of the important books of the twentieth century to the world. Along with Joyce, Shakespeare and Company is also intimately linked to Lost Generation writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Maher’s novel follows the many ups and downs of the classic’s publication, the long romantic partnership of Sylvia and fellow bookseller, Adrienne Monnier, and the difficult relationship that built between Sylvia and Joyce surrounding the publication of Ulysses.
The Shattering: America in the 1960s by historian Kevin Boyle (author of Arc of Justice which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2004) offers a lens into this volatile decade by reaching well before the decade started into the deep fissures of the nation’s political, social, and cultural fabric. Boyle focuses on three of the era’s central struggles: racial justice, the Vietnam War, and reproductive freedom. Reading this book today is illuminating, given that our country is split and battling on multiple fronts. All the political deceptions then, as they are now, were out of our hands. (Gramercy Books hosted Boyle in late January as part of its evening with authors series; esteemed civil rights and black power historian, Hasan Jeffries, served in the interlocutor role. That conversation can be seen here.)
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta (to be released on June 7th) is many things: of-the-moment cultural criticism, a darkly comic drama of human relationships in suburbia, a moving story, and a novel with intense momentum. For those who first met Tracy in Electionalmost twenty-five years ago, Perrotta’s upcoming book is sharp and perfectly executed, insightfully written from several different points of view, and is a witty and compulsive read. Authentic in its details, dialogue, and storyline, it takes place in a public high school, with Tracy, now the Assistant Principal, dealing with school politics. The narrative lets us look at the #MeToo movement and female ambition—how it’s perceived by society and what happens when you fall short of your goals.
Violeta by Isabel Allende chronicles the lives of an upper-class South American family across various historical events of the twentieth century. Bookended by pandemics — the Spanish flu and the Covid crisis—the novel recounts the feminist awakening of Violeta—both that of the transformation of her country and of her own personal evolution during her near-century life. The novel is best when the author expresses the real time relationships between its characters. As she moves toward the end of her life, the epistolary “talk” (the form for this novel) she gives to Camilo, her grandson, becomes philosophical. Much of the narrative is expository, with Allende taking us through history quickly and factually but through Violeta’s voice since the novel is in first person, so she succeeds in making the historical seem personal. Her protagonist lives rather clueless in a dictatorship regime while working hard and amassing wealth, living in comfort for the most part while her country bleeds around her. She is naïve and reckless as a young woman and becomes somewhat enlightened toward the end of her long life. (Gramercy Book Club discussed this novel, moderated by historian David Steigerwald, on March 23rd.)
I raced through What Happened to the Bennetts, Lisa Scottoline’s high-octane thriller whose normal suburban dad is thrown into one impossible situation after another. It begins with this hyper normal suburban family—court reporter Jason Bennett, his photographer wife Lucinda, daughter Allison, and son Ethan—driving home in their Mercedes from Allison’s soccer game when a pair of drug lords carjack the ride along a quiet road in Pennsylvania. A death ensues, the FBI pulls them into witness protection, and Scottoline throws in one complication after another as Jason takes matters in his own hands to get to the bottom of the horrific tragedy that is tearing his family apart. (Join Scottoline on April 5th at 7 pm in a virtual evening hosted by Gramercy Books!)
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. My second historical novel, A Ritchie Boy, was inspired by my immigrant father's role as a military intelligence office in World War II. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.