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Books I Love

Welcome to my page of book recommendations for the quirky at heart. While my own taste is eclectic, the fine spun thread that connects each of the books on this page is not only the luminous, startling prose, but that ephemeral quality of heart or soul, the kernel of necessity that brings the pages of a book to life.

IF I HAD YOUR FACE by Frances Cha

IF I HAD YOUR FACE is a fascinating exploration of contemporary South Korea told from the alternating points-of-view of four friends, Kyuri, Miho, Ara and Sujin. As they make their way in the hyper-competitive world of Seoul, they face daunting obstacles, including socioeconomic inequality, impossible beauty standards, and a culture in which it’s expected that women will be mistreated by men. Ultimately it’s their friendship that offers hope in a punishing world.

Kyuri, Miho, Ara and Sujin have known each other since childhood, three of them from the orphanage in which they were raised. With little socioeconomic advantage, they rely on their resourcefulness and each other to make ends meet, sharing a small apartment in a Seoul office-tel, a multi-use building with both residential and commercial units. 

When the novel opens, Kyuri is working in a room salon, where businessmen come to drink and be entertained by women. Because she works in a “ten percent” salon, which claims to hire the most attractive women in the industry, Kyuri is not required to have sex with her clients. But she’s still under enormous pressure to conform to strict standards of beauty and has already undergone an eyelid and double jaw surgery. She quickly finds herself caught in a cycle of debt in order to pay for the cosmetic procedures that allow her to keep her job.

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THE BASS ROCK by Evie Wyld

THE BASS ROCK by Evie Wyld is a bewitching, textured novel that lingers after the last haunting page has turned.

Told in alternating points-of-view, Viviane recounts the present-day arc of the story as she travels from London to clear out the family home on the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Forty-something and suffering from depression, Viviane struggles to thrive even as her name, which means alive, reflects a resilience and courage to bear witness to the stories that shape her life and world.

Ruth’s narrative takes place in the aftermath of World War II, when she moves with Peter, a widower and Viviane’s grandfather, to help raise his two young sons. Her new husband, pleading work, leaves Ruth alone for days at a time. She takes long walks along the Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock looming out to sea, and she develops a tenuous friendship with Betty, the housekeeper, who has her own complicated story. When Ruth invites Bernadette, Betty’s niece, to live in the house, events are set in motion that resonate into the present, creating a fragile, resilient web of connections that reverberate across generations.

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ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, by Ocean Vuong, is an incandescent, devastating novel/prose poem. Written as a letter from Little Dog to his mother, a letter she cannot read because she’s illiterate, the story explores language, family, identity, and what it means to be seen.

Little Dog’s mother, Rose (Hồng in Vietnamese), left school at five when a napalm bomb destroyed her school. At nineteen, having worked as a prostitute to feed herself, and pregnant with another man’s child, she married a US serviceman. She named her son Little Dog, hoping to trick evil spirits into overlooking something insignificant and of little value. His name, like language, like the novel itself, became a screen to both protect and reveal.

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SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones

SILVER SPARROW, by Tayari Jones, is a complex, superbly written novel with no easy answers. Jones has created flawed, believable characters who struggle with difficult moral issues of family and loyalty even as the consequences of their choices unravel with painful inevitability. The voice is mesmerizing—deceptively simple, richly nuanced, and true to itself.

Dana Yarbor and Chaurisse Witherspoon have different mothers and the same father. Their father is married to both of their mothers. Dana knows this, but Chaurisse does not. Her father, James Witherspoon, is terrified that Chaurisse and her mother, Laverne, will find out about Dana and her mother, Gwendolyn. Only someone with Jones’ mastery and sensitivity could tell this story in ways that enlarge rather than narrow our understanding of what it is to be human.

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HOW TO SET YOURSELF ON FIRE by Julia Dixon Evans, is a quirky story in the vein of Ottessa Moshfegh’s MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION, only sweeter.

Sheila, 35, is a mess. She can’t hold down a job, she barely sleeps, and when she does it’s often on the stoop of her run-down rental in LA. Vinnie, her slovenly but fleetingly charming neighbor, lives across the cement courtyard, their apartments so close Sheila can hear Vinnie’s Skype conversations with his ex-wife and 12-year old daughter, Torrey, as if Sheila is in the room with them. Their physical surroundings reflect Vinnie and Sheila’s relationship—distant, wary, weirdly intimate.

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H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald

The goshawk is staring at me in mortal terror, and I can feel the silences between both our heartbeats coincide…She breathes hot hawk breath in my face. It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone.

H IS FOR HAWK, a memoir about grief and loss, through the training a goshawk, is brilliant, unexpected, and deeply satisfying. It is a testament not only to Macdonald’s talent, but to her profound connection to life, and to us, earning it an unqualified spot on my Books I Love bookshelf.

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LILA by Marilynne Robinson

LILA is the third in Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of novels that takes place in the small Midwestern town of Gilead, and both GILEAD (2004) and HOME (2008) explore the lives and friendship of two Iowa preachers. In this latest novel, Lila, the wife of the preacher, John Ames, tells her own story, earning an unqualified spot on my Books I Love bookshelf.

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THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence

THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence, published in 1915 and banned in England for eleven years,is a family drama that follows three generations of the Brangwen family as England moves from a rural to an industrial society. The narrative arc of the novel provides the scaffolding upon which Lawrence explores a wide range of philosophical and psychological questions, such as the relationship between spirituality and sexuality, industrialization and nature, and personal freedom and society. Ultimately, however, THE RAINBOW is about yearning for truth and beauty in a messy world.

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Jesus: Two Contrasting Studies

In the following post I discuss two recent books on Jesus. The first is the much hyped ZEALOT, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH by Reza Aslan. The second is THE WIFE OF JESUS, ANCIENT TEXTS AND MODERN SCANDALS by Anthony Le Donne. Both offer valuable and interesting information about the historical times in which Jesus lived, and, in Le Donne’s book, about the shifting cultural mores influencing how Jesus has been viewed in the centuries since his death.

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