As the co-owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I primarily read new literary fiction, looking for contenders for our signed first editions program, Literati Cultura. But I also love a good memoir, travel narrative, and essay collection. I also try to mix things up when choosing titles for our monthly book club, which alternates fiction and nonfiction, both old and new. Below are a few of my all-time favorites and some of the newer gems I’ve discovered as a bookstore owner over these past five years.
This novel is based on author Brad Watson’s great-aunt, a woman coming of age in rural Mississippi at the beginning of the twentieth century. Born with a genital birth defect, Jane struggles to find her place in the world, especially since many of the traditional roles of a woman are closed off to her. A book I can revisit again and again, this is a novel to savor. The language is so beautiful you could pick any one sentence and admire its luminous beauty. But more than just a sentence level artistry, this book is quietly profound in its observations of human life. For fans of Marilynne Robinson or Elizabeth Strout, this gorgeous novel will stay with you long after the last page.
Literati, being in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, brings in a number of people looking for the perfect gift for an impending graduate. I often recommend this book because it provides the story of Julia Child’s adventurous, open-minded take on life and her nonlinear career path. It is inspiring to see her work her way into the male-dominated food world and witness how she challenged herself and those around her to explore new avenues in cooking, publishing, and television. Not to mention, we get to observe the important relationship she builds over the years with husband, Paul, and how together they weather the ups-and-downs along the way.
From the first perfectly soigné meal that she and her husband savored en route to their new life in Paris, Julia Child had an awakening that changed her life. Soon this tall, outspoken California girl was chatting with purveyors in local markets and enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu. Filled with photographs and laced with the good spirit that made her such an extraordinary success, Julia’s memoir of falling in love with French food makes for the perfect winter escape.
Many readers are familiar with Colum McCann’s National Book Award–winning novel LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN (also a favorite of mine), but not many people have read his equally exquisite novel DANCER. The novel imagines the life of professional dancer Rudolf Nureyev, told through various perspectives of those who knew him—some real-life characters like Margot Fonteyn, others fictional, like his shoemaker. The novel spans the decades, following Nureyev’s life in Soviet Russia and his eventual defection to the United States. The book becomes not just a portrait of the man but of all the places and lives he touched along the way. Transporting in all the best ways.
Spanning four decades and divergent worlds, this is the erotically charged story of the renowned Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. This historically inspired novel charts the extreme perfectionism and willful hedonism that drove the ballet star’s all-consuming artistic greatness, and reminds us that the thrill of the stage is both a curse and a redemption.
Rarely does a book affect me in the way this one did. I was so totally enraptured by Nina Riggs’s story and her gorgeous and often funny prose that I read it in a single sitting and never wanted it to end. It is a heartbreaking look at how Riggs learns to live as best as possible when faced with a daunting medical diagnosis. This memoir is filled with so much humor, heart, and honesty that you finish feeling such a profound sense of loss (Riggs passed away before the book went to press) but also you feel so lucky that she lived and created this amazing book. Read it and be changed.
Set in Prague during Communist rule, Hantá “saves” as many books from the compacting press as he can and collects them in his home. He may be simple, and at times just plain foolish, but he loves his books as ardently as any intellectual. Perhaps my favorite book of all time, I reread this book over and over again, and its beautiful, rambling sentences become my own kind of devotional. I absolutely love this book for its silly, misguided narrator and his compulsive love for the written word.
This is the best debut novel I’ve ever read. Period. Set during the Chechen Wars, Anthony Marra creates unforgettable characters who struggle to find meaning and beauty in humanity. Among the wreckage of war, they pick up tiny pieces of hope in improbable places. But beyond the artistry of the story, the elegance of Marra’s writing is astounding and prompted me to underline passages throughout. This remarkable novel will leave you wanting much more from this extremely talented young writer.
In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.
Well, yeah, you know Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling phenomenon ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. But do yourself a favor and read his amazing short stories. I thoroughly enjoyed both his story collections (the other being THE SHELL COLLECTOR), but particularly loved MEMORY WALL. The stories span the globe and genres—there is a touch of science fiction mixed with the literary—and leave you feeling utterly transformed. The meditations on time, memory, and loss are spectacular and provide a glimpse into the many dimensions of this complex and skillful writer.
In the wise and beautiful second collection from the acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestselling author of All the Light We Cannot See, and Cloud Cuckoo Land, "Doerr writes about the big questions, the imponderables, the major metaphysical dreads, and he does it fearlessly" (The New York Times Book Review).
Set on four continents, Anthony Doerr's new stories are about memory, the source of meaning and coherence in our lives, the fragile thread that connects us to ourselves and to others. Every hour, says Doerr, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear. Yet at the same time children, surveying territory that is entirely new to them, push back the darkness, form fresh memories, and remake the world.
In the luminous and beautiful title story, a young boy in South Africa comes to possess an old woman's secret, a piece of the past with the power to redeem a life. In "The River Nemunas," a teenage orphan moves from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather, and discovers a world in which myth becomes real. "Village 113," winner of an O'Henry Prize, is about the building of the Three Gorges Dam and the seed keeper who guards the history of a village soon to be submerged. And in "Afterworld," the radiant, cathartic final story, a woman who escaped the Holocaust is haunted by visions of her childhood friends in Germany, yet finds solace in the tender ministrations of her grandson.
Every story in Memory Wall is a reminder of the grandeur of life--of the mysterious beauty of seeds, of fossils, of sturgeon, of clouds, of radios, of leaves, of the breathtaking fortune of living in this universe. Doerr's language, his witness, his imagination, and his humanity are unparalleled in fiction today.
If there is one writer I’m legitimately in love with, it is Rebecca Solnit. Her writing is so gorgeous and hypnotic. While I adore many of her books, this is by far my favorite. In this collection of linked essays, Solnit considers storytelling in its many forms—and its impact on individuals, families, and the human race. She explores the riddles, fables, and fairy tales that we are told and those that we tell ourselves throughout our lives. A beautiful meditation on many things, including empathy, memory, and transience that will leave you feeling a new sense of awe and wonderment at what the written word can do.
You could call this novel heartbreaking. You could call it a punch in the gut. Or intricately devastating. Whatever you call it, this book is absolutely and terrifyingly brilliant. Like piercing shrapnel, Karan Mahajan’s story of a single small bomb in a small market in Delhi cuts deep into the unruly mess of loss—both physically and psychologically. In this novel, both Delhi and the characters within are scorched by a dazzling amount of suffering. Mahajan’s examination of the consequence of small decisions and the indiscriminate nature of terror is deftly demonstrated through sharply beautiful prose. An alarming wonder of artistic creation.
A startlingly impressive debut work, DESERT BOYS is a novel in stories. The central focus of the book is the people of Antelope Valley, a northern Los Angeles suburb in the Mojave Desert. Protagonist Daley Kushner emerges from the stories and grapples with the existential conundrum of wanting to form an identity both around place and also in spite of it. The prose and the storytelling are carefully nuanced, going beyond the traditional coming-of-age narrative. Chris McCormick explores how the stories we tell are often built upon a hazy reinterpretation of past places, people, and events. And that past, like the desert, can be both harsh and deceptively captivating.