Comprehensive booklist

2020 Booklist


January 15, 2020  The Mask of Apollo Mary Renault (366 pages) Lori’s house

Set in the 4th century BC in Greece, it is the story of the actor of Nikeratos, whose life intersects with events in Syracuse, where Plato attempted to mentor Dionysios the Younger after the death of his tyrant father and put into effect in the real world his political philosophy. This is one of my favorite novels by Renault, who can take real and significant historical events and weave a compelling narrative using them to bring the era alive and show how historical fiction can be serious literature. KP

February 19, 2020  Silence of the Girls Pat Barker (336 pages) Al's House

Pat Barker turns her fascination with behavior in war to the events of the Illiad—seen from the vantage point of the women in the camp—especially Brisies, taken as a war prize by Achilles. In the Guardian, Ellen Wilson, translator of the Norton Odyssey and the Modern Library Euripides, says that it is “an important, powerful, memorable book that invites us to look differently not only at The Iliad but at our own ways of telling stories about the past and the present, and at how anger and hatred play out in our societies." Gail

March 25, 2020 There,There Tommy Orange (288 page) Zoom meeting

Pulitzer Prize finalist. This debut novel follows twelve characters from Native communities traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. These are urban Indians, who know, "the sound of the freeway better than [they] do rivers ... the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than [they] do the smell of cedar or sage..." Joyce Carol Oates found this book “one of the most deeply moving and illuminating works of fiction in recent memory." Al

April 23, 2020 A Journal of the Plague Year Daniel Defoe Zoom meeting
Fictional but painstakingly researched novel about the London plague of 1685.


May 20, 2020 A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway Zoom meeting
Hemingway on life in Paris in the 20s. Perhaps his most fun book. OK - he’s not under oath, but nobody who wrote of those days was. Keith


June 17, 2020 The Good Soldier Ford Maddox Ford Zoom meeting
Encore reading of a book we first discussed in March 1997. At that time Gail wrote: The novel is about a small group of people in the early part of the century. The narrator is one of the principles, who has his own reasons, generally hidden from himself as well as from the reader, for telling his story the way he does.  That story is a tangle of infidelity, death, and melodramatic flights into madness, and as it progresses the readers perceptions of events and the characters continually shift.  It is, however, all miraculously controlled by the author.  Against all odds, he doesn't make ONE wrong move. Gail

July 22, 2020 Silver Sparrow Tayari Jones (340 pages) 

The author’s recent book, An American Marriage, seems to have gotten a lot of attention, but I wasn’t that impressed. However, I did love this book that she wrote earlier. In full disclosure, it’s a little YA (Judy Blume does one of the blurbs). It’s about a girl who is an “outside child” (her father is a bigamist) and lives in the shadow of her sister, who doesn’t know about her, but I agree with the Slate review calling it “the most immersive novel I read in 2011.” Lori

2020 Among the Ten Thousand Things Julia Pierpont (352 pages) 

Jack Shanley is a well-known New York artist, charming and vain. But then an anonymously sent package arrives in the mail: a cardboard box containing sheaves of printed emails chronicling Jack’s secret life. The package is addressed to his wife, but it’s delivered into the wrong hands: her children’s. With this vertiginous opening begins a debut that is by turns funny, wise, and indescribably moving. One of 2015’s “Best of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post. LT


2020 Circe Madeline Miller (400 pages) 

Winner of a number of prizes. The life of the sorceress/ demigoddess Circe from her point of view. Harriet thought it was an enchanting read. From the NYT: "Circe,' [is] a bold and subversive retelling of the goddess's story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right." Gail

2020 The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley (320 pages) 

Modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, told through the eyes of Grendel's mother. “The most surprising novel I've read this year. It's a bloody parody of suburban sanctimony and a feminist revision of macho heroism. In this brash appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon epic, Headley swoops from comedy to tragedy, from the drama of brunch to the horrors of war." óRon Charles, The Washington Post Al

2020 Flights Olga Tokarczuk (403 pages)
Winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize. I could say that I want to read this philosophical novel about a character who is continually traveling because it won the Man Booker International Prize, but really this combines a style I like – novels largely comprised of overlapping shorter stories, and a preoccupation of mine – fiction by or about clinical psychologists. Tokarczuk once worked as a clinical psychologist. She quit when she realized that she was “much more neurotic than my clients.” LO


2020 An Orchestra of Minorities Chigozie Obiama (448 pages) 

The book is narrated by the "chi" or the "spirit guardian" of the main character. Chinoso, a young poultry farmer in Nigeria happens upon a woman about to jump off a bridge. He is horrified and hurls two of his chickens off the bridge to demonstrate how horrifying the whole scene is. She doesn't jump, and it goes from there.... Billed as a "contemporary twist on the Odyssey, it was long-listed for the Booker Prize. "In the mythic style of the Igbo literary tradition, Chigozie Obioma weaves a heart-wrenching epic about the tension between destiny and determination." Patty

2020 An Odyssey: A Man, a Son, and an Epic. Daniel A. Mendelsohn (306 pages) 

[from the CPL website] When esteemed critic Mendelsohn was preparing an undergraduate course on The Odyssey, his aging, retired father Jay asked if he could sit in. After all, it might be his last chance to study the great classic. Despite their somewhat strained relationship, Mendelsohn agreed, and after the course concluded, having heard about an Odyssey-themed Mediterranean cruise, father and son embarked on the journey together. What results is a layered, intelligent book that is a moving father/son memoir, a penetrating work of literary appreciation, and a unique travel memoir all rolled into one. Mendelsohn weaves Odyssean themes and techniques into his writing so gracefully that you might not even notice it. A great companion to the classic epic and a thoughtful introduction for those who’ve yet to read it. Jan

2020 Great Believers Rebecca Makkai (448 pages)

 I LOVED Music For Wartime and really want to read this. It’s about AIDs and evidently spans 1980s Chicago and modern day Paris. The NYT calls it “a page turner about illness and mortality” (what’s not to like about that!) I have heard nothing but good things about this book. It won a bunch of awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Gail


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth Sarah Smarsh (304 pages) 

This book got lots of award nominations, and I'm interested in how it will differ from Hillbilly Elegy and Educated as a memoir. I'm also interested in how her experiences in rural Kansas compares to those of my cousins' in downstate Illinois. Jan

Olive, Again. Elizabeth Strout (304 pages) 

Like its predecessor, Olive, Again is made up of interconnected stories all set in a small town in Maine. The 13 tales, told from a range of perspectives, explore Strout’s preoccupations with grief, loneliness and familial torments. Olive, Again is a tour de force. With extraordinary economy of prose – few writers can pack so much emotion, so much detail into a single paragraph – Strout immerses us in the lives of her characters, each so authentically drawn as to be deserving of an entire novel themselves. Compassionate, masterly and profound, this is a writer at the height of her powers.--The Guardian Patty 

Shelter Jung Yun (336 pages)

Son who is estranged from his parents comes home to take care of them after they have been attacked. “Yun has written the rare novel that starts with a strong premise and gets better and richer with every page...a marvel of skill and execution, tautly constructed and played without mercy.” -- Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times Al

Warlight Michael Ondaatje (289 pages) 

Two siblings whose parents leave them in the care of two dodgy characters under murky circumstances in post-WWII London are at the center of this magnificent novel of secrets, loss, more secrets, and intrigue. Jan

On Swift Horses Shannon Pufahl (320 pages) 

From the LA Times, "It’s 1957, and a young couple, Lee and Muriel, are planting stakes in San Diego, making a fresh start well away from their roots in Kansas. They are, as Pufahl writes, “learning slowly how to be modern.” Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Lee’s drifter brother, Julius, watches the mushroom clouds of nearby A-bomb tests as he tries to shed his old skin as a thief and begin legit work in a casino. Sputnik orbits above everybody, at once a wonder of new technology and a portent of a deepening Cold War. It’s practically axiomatic that every story set in 1950s America must be a critique of its squeaky-clean surfaces. “On Swift Horses” is no different. But it does it so skillfully — Pufahl’s prose is consistently lyrical and deeply observant. And her keenest observations are about the secrets we keep." Patty




June 22, 2020