Today, we welcome back our favorite book guru, Jennifer Puryear of BaconOnTheBookshelf.
These are the days of pot roasts and warm, hearty stews. Root vegetables threaten to take over the kitchen if not the world. The days may be cold, grey, and rainy — but the nights are lit by candles and fire. You’ll want a book in hand that suits the season: rich, savory, satisfying. I’ve got five in mind you might like.
First up is the biggest novel of the season, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Why is it so hot? It helps to be nominated for the National Book Award and make The New York Times’ Top 10 of 2014. It really helps to be featured by Amazon’s editors as one of the top two books of 2014. If you aren’t already reading it, your best friend is — and I can see why. Set during World War II, it is the story of a blind girl in France and an orphan boy in Germany whose lives — finally — intersect after an entire war’s series of events bring them to the same small room. The girl and her father just escape Paris before its capitulation to the Germans, and they are caught up in the vast and frightening exodus from the city. The orphan boy is caught up in the Fuhrer’s vast fighting machine, first by choice and then against his will. Just as Gone With the Wind leads inexorably to one heart wrenching moment — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — All The Light We Cannot See has a dramatic momentum and conclusion that leave you reeling. It is historical fiction at its very best.
Another book that takes you back in time is the brand new — yet very old — Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography, Pioneer Girl, edited and annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. Wilder wrote her autobiography in 1929 and 1930 at the age of 63, her career as a local columnist and editor at the Missouri Ruralist behind her. After Wilder completed the original manuscript of Pioneer Girl, daughter Rose Wilder Lane worked all her contacts to find a publisher — but there were no takers. Under financial stress, Lane eventually decided that she and her mother should rework and revise the original material with young readers in mind. We all know how that turned out! Maybe you grew up on the “Little House” books, as I did, treasuring every one. Maybe you grew up on the TV series and had a crush on Pa (a widespread phenomenon, based on my unscientific polling). Either way, the new autobiography gives you Laura Ingalls Wilder like you’ve never known her, in a voice that is “intimate … and unguarded,” says editor Hill. I’ve just begun this large, beautiful book and am captivated.
Pioneer Girl weighs in at about 10 pounds and nearly 400 pages; it’s only available in oversized hardback for now. If that’s just too much meat on the bone, let me recommend two other women writers who could be called pioneers: Anne Lamott and Amanda Palmer. Anne Lamott’s new book of meditations, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, made me cry in the waiting room at the dentist’s office – embarrassing! Anne Lamott really gets to me. It’s certainly not her politics. I don’t thrive on politics at either end of the spectrum, and Lamott is a take-no-prisoners liberal. At the same time, she appreciates more than any other writer I know the moments of mysterious, divine-inspired grace that can exist between people. She’s always in search of an inner peace that I also find elusive. She’s also really funny. I feel in her a pioneer spirit that I love and admire.
I also feel a pioneer spirit in Amanda Palmer, indie rocker and wife of author Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book, Coraline). She’s just written The Art of Asking, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. For a number of years, Palmer primarily earned her living as “The Eight-Foot Bride,” a mime bedecked in tattered bridal elegance dispensing flowers in Harvard Square. (She also danced in a strip club to make ends meet.) She’s had all kinds of success in the years following, first as a member of the Dresden Dolls and now as a solo artist. Her TED talk “The Art of Asking” has garnered over eight million views (you read that right) so far. Palmer’s book is in part about Kickstarter and other crowd-funding, as she was one of the earliest and most successful pioneers in that field, but it’s even more about community and connectedness. “American culture in particular has installed in us the bizarre notion that to ask for help amounts to an admission of failure,” she writes. She has found instead that asking is, “at its core, a collaboration.” Palmer ranges widely in this conversational book. She is particularly provocative and wonderful on what connection and love can look like between husband and wife, friends, and even strangers.
The love story of a husband and wife is told with incredible tenderness in a place I didn’t expect it: Hampton Sides’ latest blockbuster history, In the Kingdom of Snow and Ice: The Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. The voyage of the USS Jeannette is the most harrowing journey you’ve never heard of. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 32 set off on a celebrated voyage to reach the North Pole. All of America cheered their grand expedition as they pulled out of port. The leading cartographers and scientists of the day believed they would find a warm polar sea there, formed by the convergence of the Gulf Stream and another powerful current flowing through the Pacific. The scientists and cartographers were wrong, and the men found themselves in a terrifying (and very cold) struggle for their lives. Copies of the many letters Emma DeLong wrote to her husband remained safely in an attic for over a century, and Hampton Sides is the first author to have access to them. He has written In the Kingdom of Ice as a love story as well as a tale of grand exploration, and the result is as poignant, brilliant, and chilling as anything I’ve read. You’ll be glad you’re sitting by the fire.
Jennifer Puryear writes for StyleBlueprint a couple of times each year, and we are thrilled to have her each time. For more regular insights on what to read, be sure to check out her fabulous site, BaconOnTheBookshelf.com. Of note, for a review of All the Light We Cannot See, be sure to read the review on Bacon, by Elizabeth Lamar. And, be sure to check on February 24th for a review of Pioneer Girl by Barbara Keith Payne.