Recommended Reading: 5 Literary Fictions

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1. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

This is a truly lyrical, beautiful book. It tells the story of a family -- of love and loss and battle -- through the eyes of the loyal family dog.

Denny is the protagonist, but his story is related through Enzo, his terrier/ lab. Through Enzo's eyes, we see Denny fall in love, become a father, lose his wife, and fight a protracted custody battle with his wealthy in-laws. We watch Denny deal with the grief of loss and the terror of false accusation while fighting for his daughter. Through Enzo, we stand witness to Denny's exhaustion, depression, and determination.

Enzo's voice is clearly doggish -- adoring of his master and accepting that Denny is the arbiter of human knowledge -- but it also has a distinctly human quality to it, reflecting the person Enzo so wants to be, and believes he will become in his next life. There's a pretty hilarious moment where Enzo opines that the government is behind the oppression and de-thumbing (removal of dew claws, which is, apparently, a thing people do to dogs), citing Denny's description of the anti-progressive White House as justification for his belief.

While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I particularly enjoyed the details of Enzo's internal dog life -- the way Enzo feels about being left home alone, how he thinks in smells, his pleasure in his master's company. There's one scene where Enzo is punished, and he describes asking for forgiveness -- and I could see it, so clearly, all at once -- both the human side and the way the dog must feel. I was so impressed at how the author presented Enzo in such a perfect blend of doggish patience and human awareness -- how Enzo described trying to communicate his support and love through his eyes and gestures, and how frustrated Enzo felt at his inability to speak.

I highly recommend this book to all readers. It is one of the best I have read in recent years. I'm still reeling from the impact of it -- I started and finished it this morning in about 3 hours. It's a really good book. I couldn't put it down.

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2. The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht

This book blew my mind, especially when I learned that Obreht had not actually lived through or experienced life in the war-torn Balkans. It really reminds me of these quotes about truth in fiction:

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
― Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

“And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”
― Tim O'Brien

Her voice is achingly lyrical, and weaves a dreamlike sort of reality that feels more authentic than an actual history or biography would. She pulls together the narrative beautifully, drawing all the different allegorical threads together to paint a delicate portrait of grief and strength and love and family.

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3. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

This is a brilliant, heartbreaking book. The writing and tone is not quite as melancholy as Snow Falling on Cedars, but it's still really well done. I'm enjoying it so far, and I love the POV the author chose. There's one moment, where the protagonist is watching the Japanese being herded out of Seattle, and he wonders if the portrait brides are being separated from their white, American husbands. I had a sudden visceral desire to read that history, and I felt the echoing loss of not only the Japanese culture, but all that America lost when this stupid, horrific, unjustifiable act was committed. The depth of history, the bonds of trust -- the basic American integrity, all stripped and damaged, perhaps irreparably.

I was a teenager when I first learned about the Japanese internment. Although I grew up in Washington, and knew many Japanese families at my church, I did not know about this sad part of our history. I learned about it at the public library, doing research on the Jewish concentration camps. I remember the disbelief, the horror and disappointment in my country when I realized what we as a people had done, how lines had been drawn and divided and families and histories sundered because of blind, mindless fear. How horribly this echoed the atrocities half a world away. I remember feeling ashamed for weeks afterward when I encountered the older Japanese people at my church, and I knew they had lived through that -- yet they seemed at peace and content, more patriotic than I.

My mom lived in Germany for a while, and she always used to pore over stories of Jewish concentration camp survivors; of Germans who risked their lives and welfare to help some small number survive or escape. It was a constant source of grief and confusion to her that the people she had lived with and loved -- good, honest people -- had turned a blind eye to the atrocities in their country. She never could figure it out. I feel a measure of that when I consider this dark section in our own history.

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4. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

I don't normally enjoy literary fiction, so I'm doubly pleased by these many recent treasures I've uncovered. Water for Elephants is just . . . beautiful. It has a gentle, undulating pace and a dark expressiveness that was both incredibly poetic and very intense.

The protagonist is introduced to us as an old man, living out his last years in a nursing home. Through memories and dream sequences, he takes us through his youthful adventures as part of a train circus during the Great Depression. Gruen deftly mixes historical research and interesting facts with the lives of her fictional characters, and the result is a journey behind the funhouse mirrors, and it's more twisted and delightful than any reflection. I highly, highly recommend this book to any reader.

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5. Last Night in Montreal, by Emily St. John-Mandel

A friend lent this to me through the Nook Lending system, and I was pleasantly surprised. I had not expected to enjoy it, because I tend toward these genres:

  1. Dystopian YA
  2. Historical Fiction
  3. Suburban Fantasy
  4. Classic Literature
  5. Historical non-fiction
  6. Biographies

To my surprise and delight, however, I really enjoyed this book. St. John-Mandel has a really dreamlike, atmospheric voice that just caught at me. The pacing, the character development, the depth -- everything about Last Night in Montreal was a pleasant and stunning surprise. When I finished it, it was with great regret -- my mind was swirling with philosophical conundrums and questions of morality, and I just wanted to read more; to go back and exist in that strange darkling world for a little longer.

Where to buy:

  • Barnes and Noble (Nook-ready) edition
  • Amazon.com (Kindle-ready)
  • Google Play (Android books)

Note on the links

The books are all available at the stores listed, but I could not always link through to the Amazon page, because it was overly promotional. Since the hub is cannot be tagged as overly promotional for B&N I just left those ones up, but took down a few of the Amazon links. I did have Google Play linked through, but I just learned that is also a hub violation.

That said, these books are all available at all these websites. I have no doubt these books are also each available through the Apple i-tunes store, as well, but I run a Linux OS and just don't want to deal with the incompatibility of Apple on my computer, so I can't 100% verify that one.

I just genuinely enjoyed these books. I don't know the authors and I haven't been asked to promote them -- they're just really great books, in my opinion.

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