Best books to read during this or any year

January 4, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin --
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Hereís a list of some of the best books Iíve read over the past few years. Some are new, some are not. Some Iíve written about, some I havenít. They all have one thing in common, however: I was sorry to finish reading them. I present these 11 books in no particular order, starting with what must be two familiar titles:

1. "Angelaís Ashes" (1996) by Frank McCourt. This is a memoir of McCourtís childhood in Ireland and it describes the almost unrelieved misery of poverty. That said, why would anyone want to read it? Because, first of all, McCourt survived Ė sure sign of a relatively happy ending Ė and his writing is beautiful. He has a sly wit that makes a regular appearance. [ To Purchase this Book ] [ To Purchase this Book on Audio Cassette ]

2. "Cold Mountain" (1997) by Charles Frazier. [ 'Cold Mountain' sure to be a Civil War classic, the July 6, 1997 Printed Matter column ]   What a fabulous novel. Frazier caught the cadence of speech, the mood, the technology of the Civil War era. He adds to that a love story, which plays a secondary role, and a cast of rough characters inhabiting the hills of North Carolina. Brilliantly done. [ To Purchase this Book ]

3. "The Queen and I" (1992) by Sue Townsend. What if a new government came to power in England and kicked out the royal family? And what if the Windsors were then forced to live in public housing? Thatís the theme of "Queen and I" and itís a wonderfully imaginative novel that is funny, yes, but also cutting. A serious underlying theme points to the fact that the royals have a lot to learn about the cause and result of poverty. [ To Purchase this Book ]

4. "Di and I" (1995) by Peter Lefcourt is a novel I consider the American companion piece to "Queen and I." It, too, is imaginative and amusing but also has a more serious theme: Lefcourt suggests that Di must be very unhappy to even think about decamping to America with her children and living as a suburban housewife in Rancho Cucamonga. [ To Purchase this Book ]

5. "Into the Forest" (1997) by Jean Hegland. [ 'Into the Forest' gets an unqualified rave review, the March 2, 1997 Printed Matter column and Hegland's overnight success took about five years, the March 23, 1997 Printed Matter column ]   I thought, and still think, that this is a brilliant novel. It is packaged as science fiction because it describes the end of American society as we know it Ė but I think its very power comes from the fact that the end Hegland describes could so easily happen. Heglandís story involves two teen-age sisters and how they adapt to a new world. Original and powerful. [ To Purchase this Book ] [ To Purchase this Book on Audio Cassette ] [ To Purchase this Book in Paperback ]

6. "The Sparrow" (1996) by Mary Doria Russell. [ This year, an award is made for absence of sex, the February 23, 1997 Printed Matter column ]   'The Sparrow' also is billed as science fiction but as with most good science fiction today it is much more than that. It is a complex book about the Jesuitís first contact with life forms on a new planet and I applaud its originality. I think it will hold up over the years. [ To Purchase this Book ] [ To Purchase this Book on Audio Cassette ] [ To Purchase this Book in Paperback ]

7. "The Samuraiís Garden" (1994) by Gail Tsukiyama. Tsukiyama will be speaking at UC Davis on March 11, 1998, as part of a fund-raiser for the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center. I will be there to support both the writer and the center. Her book is deceptively simple Ė it is the story of a young Chinese boy who lives in a seaside village in Japan in the late 1930s after the Japanese have invaded China. The boy, who is recovering from TB, meets a leper woman and learns the villageís hidden secrets. [ To Purchase this Book in Paperback ]

8. "Pope Joan" (1996) by Donna Woolfolk Cross. [ 'Pope Joan' will make you wonder about history, herstory, the October 19, 1997 Printed Matter column ]   'Pope Joan' is a work of historical imagination and I think she proves her case. She suggests that a woman was able to enter a monastery, hide her sex, and receive the education and experience that would put her at the head of the Catholic Church in 853 A.D. Sometimes Crossí writing suffers, but she tells a good tale. It may even be true. [ To Purchase this Book ] [ To Purchase this Book in Paperback ]

9. "Giant Bones" (1997) by Peter Beagle. [ 'Giant Bones' marks Beagle's return to a familiar fantasy land, the September 21, 1997 Printed Matter column ]   This is an excellent collection of short stories by the famed storyteller. Set in the world of "The Innkeeperís Song," he introduces us to singers, sorcerers and servants in a familiar unfamiliar world. Try to attend a reading where you can hear the Davis resident read aloud from his work or read it aloud to your older children. [ To Purchase this Book in Paperback ]

10. "No Ordinary Time" (1994) by Doris Kearns Goodwin. [ Go back in time, join FDR, Eleanor at the White House, the February 5, 1995 Printed Matter column ]   This remains a great favorite of mine, which Iíve recommended to numerous others. Itís non-fiction, a history of the home front during World War II focusing on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. But itís more than that. It reads like a novel. Goodwin has a journalistís eye for the small detail that makes the whole period come alive. A truly wonderful book that will encourage many students to become historians. [ To Purchase this Book ] [ To Purchase this Book on Audio Cassette ] [ To Purchase this Book in Paperback ]

11. "Red China Blues" (1996) by Jan Wong. [ "Red China Blues" recounts story of changing China, the November 3, 1996 Printed Matter column and the related "Red China Blues," book discussion causes tempest at Peking University, the November 10, 1996 Printed Matter column ]   This is a one-of-a-kind memoir because Wong was actually a student in China during the Cultural Revolution. Years later, she returned to China as a Western journalist and found herself covering the Tiananmen Square massacre. Few people have lives quite as interesting. [ To Purchase this Book in Paperback ]

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