Catherine the Great: Portait of a Woman by Robert Massie
I don’t read a ton of nonfiction, but when I do, these are the type I like to read: really well done historical biographies. This one sounds good enough to devour.
“The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.
Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.
Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.
History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.”Also check out an interview with the author on NPR here.
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
This one sounds like the absolutely not-to-miss pick of the year. It won the Man Booker Prize this year. As they were discussing it, it reminded me a little of Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, where a main theme, as alluded to in the title, deals with reality vs. illusion: what we think we understand as truth vs. what is really true, and how those may not always line up. Here’s a quote from The Sense of an Ending that made me thirsty for more: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacies of documentation.”
“By an acclaimed writer at the height of his powers, The Sense of an Ending extends a streak of extraordinary books that began with the best-selling Arthur & George and continued with Nothing to Be Frightened Of and, most recently, Pulse.There’s an interview with the author available through NPR for this book as well. Check it out here.
This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he’d left all this behind as he built a life for himself, and by now his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement. But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.
A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting, with stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication, The Sense of an Ending is a brilliant new chapter in Julian Barnes’s oeuvre.”
The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Although seemingly a baseball book, this novel actually uses the sport more as a backdrop. The book really delves into that quest for self-identity. It was also one of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2011.
"At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.
Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others."
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
This novel sounds fascinating. It’s George Orwell’s 1984 meets Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. If that doesn’t sound promising, I don’t know what does. =)
“The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo.
A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.
As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.
A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.”
The Voice of the River
by Melanie Rae Thon
I picked this one out of the list because it just sounded so sweeping and ethereal, yet grounded in mother earth. It jumped out to me, and I just have a feeling that if I read this one, it would become an easy comfort read.
“Missing: seventeen-year-old Kai Dionne and his dog Talia.
The search for these two spans a single day, morning twilight to late evening, from the time Kai leaps in a half-frozen river to save the dog to the hour he and Talia are recovered. Each person who comes to the river brings his or her secret needs and desires; each has known loss, and all are survivors: a homeless boy tries to find himself, his lost twin, his double; a childless mother grieves for her son and daughter; a man who shot his father recalls a tender, intimate night “when the father was kind, and not afraid, and not angry.” Kai and Talia belong to, and are loved by, a whole community. As strangers work together toward a single cause, they become family—bound by love not only to the ones lost, but to all who gather.
The perceiving consciousness is oceanic and atmospheric, embracing all living beings, swirling around a person, a bird, a bear, trillium blooming in dark woods, snow, stones, pines singing—moving closer and closer, loving, finally merging, sensing and knowing as one, before lightly whirling out again to embrace and love another. This powerful current of shared memory and experience, this ceaseless prayer, is a celebration of life, all life, mystery and miracle within an immense animate landscape, a song of praise, the voice of the river.
Melanie Rae Thon opens a new genre: call it Eco Avant-Garde, a confession of faith, and a love song to the world.”
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg
I love an anthology, and that’s what this is, of sorts. There’s a long list of awesome authors who contributed to this book: Sherman Alexie, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, just to name a few. And the illustrations are, of course, amazing. See inside the book here. This is a great one to get if you just can't seem to find the right fit in the bookstore. I imagine there are few who wouldn't be drawn in by this book and still fewer who wouldn't be delighted to receive it as a gift.
"For more than twenty-five years, readers have been puzzling over the illustrations by this enigmatic artist. Thousands of children have been inspired to weave their own stories to go with his intriguingly titled pictures. And now, some of our most imaginative storytellers attempt to solve the perplexing mysteries of Harris Burdick.
Enter The Chronicles of Harris Burdick to read this incredible compendium of stories: magical, funny, creepy, poignant, inscrutable, these are tales you won’t soon forget.
Filling in for Harris Burdick here is an esteemed collection of highly decorated authors. Among the many accolades bestowed upon this illustrious group include one Pulitzer Prize, five Newbery Medals, three Newbery Honor awards, two Caldecott Medals, one Caldecott Honor award, three National Book Awards, eight National Book Award nominations, one Printz Award, five Boston Globe—Horn Book Awards, eight Bram Stoker Awards, five Coretta Scott King Awards, two Hugo Awards, and two O. Henry Awards. They have had an untold number of New York Times bestsellers."
Death Comes to Pemberley
by P.D. James
So, I haven’t had a lot of luck with P&P sequels, and I’ve even tried an Austen “mystery” before and it did not work. At all. However, this one comes highly recommended, and I’m really interested to see if I can finally chance on one that does the original justice. And, let’s be honest, I’ll probably keep trying just because I’ve always got hope . . . just a little hope. =)
“A rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.
It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.
Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.
Inspired by a lifelong passion for Austen, P. D. James masterfully re-creates the world of Pride and Prejudice, electrifying it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly crafted crime story, as only she can write it.”
You can also listen to NPR’s review here.
And here are the wonderful resources! You can listen to Radio West’s full Holiday Book Show here. And also see Ann and Michael’s Holiday Book Buying Guide here.