To us, The New York Times list of the 100 most notable books of 2011 was striking for two reasons: one, neither of us had read any of the books; and two, we’d hardly even heard of any of them. Many of our friends were similarly confounded.
Obviously, what the critics think we should be reading is a far cry from what smart, busy women are actually reading. And, we thought, which book are we more likely to enjoy: One recommended by a busy woman, who had to sneak in a few pages after putting the kids to bed and finishing up the work email, or one that is recommended by a critic who gets paid to read — even when the book stinks?
So we put out the call. Here’s what we got: The few books that insanely busy women are actually making time to read — and that you might find worth some of your precious time, too.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice
By Laurie R. King. The first in an addictive series of books about Mary Russell, Sherlock Holmes' young apprentice, companion and (later) wife. Written in the first person, The Beekeeper's Apprentice is an immediate grabber that showcases a 15-year-old girl with the intelligence and thirst for adventure that's the equal of Holmes'. After reading King's Mary Russell novels, you wonder if Holmes really did exist.
Cutting for Stone
By Abraham Verghese. A great (but long, at 560-pages) story that follows the fortunes of twins who were born to a British surgeon and an Indian nun who is his nurse. The nun dies in childbirth, the British surgeon abandons the twins, and they are raised by two doctors who are co-workers to the surgeon and nun. The story explores the lives of the twins, their star-crossed parents, and their adoptive parents. Remarkable for its multi-generational and interwoven storylines of love, friendship, parenthood. A big juicy read!
The End of the Wasp Season
By Denise Mina. Murder-mystery author Mina works on a large canvas that includes the city of Glasgow, its politics, its class and ethnic divisions. Says one reviewer: "Women take center stage, and not just as victims. Alex Morrow, the Detective Inspector in this novel, is a triple-threat feminist heroine: married, heavily pregnant with twins, and in charge of a whole squad of cops."
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Notable or not? We had differing takes on this book. Told entirely through letters, it tells the World War II stories of the British inhabitants of the small island of Guersney in the English Channel and how London newspaper columnist Juliet Ashton gets pulled into their lives. One fan called it a quirky, charming, sweet, sad and happy story, and said it made her want to book a ticket to Guersney. Another said it was "light, borderline forgettable and twee." Kenneth Branagh is set to direct the movie version, and Kate Winslet may star.
The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins. This young adult series isn't just for kids, judging by the number of people who tell us they've been captivated by this trilogy. This SciFi tale is the story of a young girl, living in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world, who gets selected to participate in an annual event called The Hunger Games. In the games, one boy and one girl, aged 12 to 18, are chosen to represent 12 districts, and battle each other in a televised fight to the death. The movie is set for release in March.
The Sense of an Ending
By Julian Barnes. Okay, this one is actually on the New York Times list, but a few of our friends liked it too. It tells the story of two men, who meet as schoolboys and vow to be friends forever, and how one looks back on his life, their friendship and the paths each has taken. The NYT describes it as a story of "memory and missed opportunity."
Wolf Hall: A Novel
By Hilary Mantel. Full of sardonic humor, Wolf Hall covers the first part of Thomas Cromwell's career, from the point of view of Cromwell, himself. That perspective makes all the difference: Wolf Hall shows Cromwell's humanity, his life as a family man and his political acumen as he makes his way through Henry VIII's dangerous court. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize in 2009.
By Tina Fey. Hysterical! Fey tells the story of how a smart, unyielding woman forced her way to the top of the comedy food chain. About interviewing for a writing job on Saturday Night Live in 1997, she writes, “Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual
By Michael Pollan. A short and a fast read (not even sure it should count as a book) that has 60 great guidelines for healthy eating in a simple, easy-to -read and easy-to-remember format. Worth re-reading every few months or when you feel you’re getting off track. No gimmicks, just common sense. My favorite rule: "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot. A true story about the beginnings of cell research used in medicine — and the story of how Lacks' cells were used without her permission and lived on even after she died of cancer 1951. A totally fascinating look at medicine and ethics set against a portrait of the Lacks' family.
By Patti Smith. Singer/songwriter Smith (aka the Godmother of Punk) tells about her lifelong relationship with the "artist of her life," Robert Mapplethorpe. It is a touching story of their rise to success and stardom. But mostly, it’s about their unaltering commitment to one another (they were lovers before Robert discovered he was gay, then forever best friends until Robert's death from AIDS). Touching, inspiring, heart wrenching.
Outliers: The Story of Success
By Malcom Gladwell. At this point, Outliers almost qualifies as an oldie but goodie. Gladwell examines who have achieved stunning success and looks at the factors that may have contributed to this success beyond natural-born talent. For example, why are all successful pro-hockey players in Canada born in the same month? Why were Steve Jobs and Bill Gates born at exactly the right time, and why did they live in exactly the right places, to revolutionize the tech world?
Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses
By Claire Dederer. This is the memoir of a working mom, who finds some sort of inner peace through yoga. Somehow the book is very honest — not cliché or cheesy — and a refreshing look at work-life balance and about paying attention to what our bodies are saying. New moms will find added relevance in Dederer's search to find what works amidst all the new-age parenting hype (Will her kids be permanently ruined if they don't eat locally made cheese, etc., etc.)
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand. From the author of Seabiscuit, this book tells the story of one man and his experience as a prisoner of war in the Pacific during WWII. Unbroken is heroic and inspiring, while also being a story of survival despite intense physical and emotional torture. It is both a portrayal of exactly how evil humanity can be and a meditation on the possibility of forgiveness.
We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals
By Gillian Gill. This biography of Queen Victoria and King Albert is part love story, part history lesson and, really, part journey of the ultimate working mom who tries to balance her career (she rose to the throne as a teenager!), her husband (who was at times jealous of her success), and her family (she had nine kids).
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
By Timothy Egan. A tale of the Dust Bowl, with a clear explanation of the domino chain of events that pushed so many into poverty. Did you know you can pickle tumbleweed? Did you know that the dust created such powerful static electricity that you could get knocked down if you shook another man's hand? Or that many farmers lived in dug-out caves on their barren land? If only American History had been this interesting in school. — CG and KW
Image courtesy of flickr user rennes.i