Top Books of 2018: Volunteer Edition

This week we’re kicking off a series about some of NHR’s favorite books from 2018. We can’t do that without mentioning our volunteer book club, which read titles like Fahrenheit 451, The Other Wes Moore, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; but unsurprisingly, our volunteers are voracious readers, so one book club could never fill their reading lives. Below, volunteers from each of our tutoring locations tell us about their three (or four, or…six) favorite books from last year’s reading.

Name: Helen
Volunteer Locations: Book Bank & Dixwell
Favorite Books: The Big Short (Michael Lewis), Never Can Say Goodbye and Goodbye to All That (ed. Sari Botton), Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner)

On The Big Short: “I had seen the movie and loved it so this year I read the book. Michael Lewis is probably one of the best writers of nonfiction ever. He can turn a subject like the 2008 financial crisis into a thriller. I couldn’t put it down! He is able to capture the eccentricities and the brilliance of the main characters in such an entertaining and humorous way and I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of trying to understand the evil packages of sub-prime mortgages devised by the banks that ultimately led to their downfall.”

On Never Can Say Goodbye and Goodbye to All That: “I read these as a pair so I will write about them as a pair! I bought them at the Strand bookstore in NYC which is appropriate since they are both about love affairs with the city. Each is a collection of essays, mostly by writers, who either have resisted the pressure to give up on NYC or who have had it and left. As someone who is now retired but lived in Brooklyn back in the 70’s and early 80’s (right after college and again as a newlywed), I found the reminiscences of the authors very nostalgic. Most of the writing is good and there’s a lot of reflection on, and regret about, the ways in which the city has changed.”

On Crossing to Safety: “This is probably one of my all-time favorite books! I reread it in 2018. Stegner is an incredible writer. The novel, set in Wisconsin and Vermont, focuses on two couples who are academics.  At first I found them a bit pretentious but that impression changed as I read the book. Stegner captures so beautifully the complicated relationships among them, their marriages and their friendships, as they grow and change. It will make you think about the relationships in your own life. There is a beautiful passage in it about death that I have quoted to friends and family because it’s so comforting. I love this book! Another book by Stegner, Angle of Repose, is also wonderful.”

Name: Jonathan
Volunteer Location: Willow St
Favorite Books: Anything is Possible (Elizabeth Strout), The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Arundhati Roy), Ship Fever (Andrea Barrett)

On Anything is Possible: “Strout is one of my favorite authors, and the depth of characters is just amazing to me, weaving incredible themes of life within personal narratives.  I love this interwoven collection of short stories.”

On The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: “Roy is an incredible writer portraying marginalized people and conditions in India.  This is a complex novel but very gripping in showing us how these individuals traversing such difficult life journeys somehow make it work.”

On Ship Fever: “This book is a collection of fictional stories about scientists.  It makes scientists come alive as real people, showing us how science itself is a fascinating activity somehow interwoven with our lives.”

Name: Patricia
Volunteer Location: Science Park
Favorite Books: The Broken Earth trilogy (Nora K. Jemisin), Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (S.C. Gwynne), Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann), Lilac Girls: A Novel (Martha Hall Kelly)

On The Broken Earth trilogy: “That’s technically three books, but it’s still one story. Jemisin is a psychologist as well as a science fiction writer, and she is the first African-American writer to win the Hugo award for Science Fiction. Her main characters are strong women living in a world called ‘The Stillness’ that is undergoing tremendous environmental and societal changes. The story addresses different kinds of power and how they are intertwined with racial oppression. It also explores the double-edged sword of technological development, and the impact of technology on people’s lives over time. All technology is magic until it is understood. Once you get immersed in Jemisin’s world, you won’t want to leave.”

On Empire of the Summer Moon: “I grew up in Oklahoma, where I first learned about Quanah Parker and his mother Cynthia Ann Parker. This riveting book includes an enormous amount of carefully-researched detail. The Comanches were highly-skilled horsemen and warriors who stopped other indigenous peoples, the Spanish, the French, and the Texans from expanding into the Comanche Empire. The final war between the United States and the Comanches lasted nearly 40 years, and the drama surrounding the lives of the last Comanche Chief and his mother is provocative and heart-breaking.”

On Killers of the Flower Moon: “I remember learning about the oil industry in Oklahoma and Texas, but I do not remember hearing about the murders of wealthy Osage people with oil ties. The history is especially horrifying because of the way some white men, and a few women, collaborated with the mastermind behind the murders so they could legally inherit Osage mineral rights.”

On Lilac Girls: “This book is historical fiction based on the true story of a socialite, Caroline Ferriday, who lived in New York City. She was working at the French Consulate when Hitler invaded Poland and then France. Three young women from Lublin, Poland were sent to a women-only concentration camp, Ravensbrück, where Nazi doctors used inmates for experimental surgeries and drugs. The women were called ‘The Rabbits’ after medical experiments left them lame. After the war, Caroline works to bring these women healing and justice. It’s a story about how individuals across country and continental boundaries can make a positive difference. You can visit Caroline Ferriday’s family home in Bethlehem, CT.” 

Name: Shirley
Volunteer Location: Bristol St
Favorite Books: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Beneath a Scarlet Sky (Michael Sullivan), Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)

On To Kill a Mockingbird: “I read it years ago and, of course, it made a deep impression on me. Last year I decided to read it again because I was in a book group and that’s what we chose. So much of the story was relevant to today, and I just like the characters and the story’s themes about justice and doing the right thing and not jumping to conclusions about people.”

On Beneath a Scarlet Sky: “It’s based on the real-life story of a 90-year-old man and it takes place during WWII in Northern Italy. He lived in Milan, and initially he was helping the Resistance to bring Jews across Northern Italy into the Pyrenees. But he ended up driving for a German General and passing information to his aunt and uncle in the Resistance. It’s historical fiction, and the author says it’s about 85% true. It’s an amazing, fascinating story.”

On Anne of Green Gables: “I had seen the series on PBS and I’ve always liked it, and maybe because I’m at New Haven Reads sometimes you read books that you hadn’t read before, and I’d never read the whole series. So this summer my husband and I went on a cruise from Montreal to Boston, and one of the stops was in Prince Edward Island. My husband said to me, I bet you have to go see the Anne of Green Gables house! I said of course, and then I said I have to read at least one book. So I read the first one.”