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Bookmarks Archive


Books by and about Refugees

Many great books have been written about the refugee experience – Nguyen estimates that today the worldwide refugee population has swelled to 60 million people.

Literary Frenemies

Literature and storytelling are full of what today we would call “frenemies.” In many great stories there are two characters who oppose each other bitterly, but in some ways are very much alike.  Ian Rankin’s Detective John Rebus and Edinburgh gangster “Big Ger” Cafferty are such a pair.

Reading list on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia

To me, that makes the people who write about this loss of memory are heroes – those, like Gerda Saunders, who suffer from a form of dementia themselves, friends or family searching for a better way to care for a loved one, or scientists seeking a cure for a terrible disease.

Your Cheatin' Heart

Infidelity has been a staple of good storytelling since the Greeks lapped up stories of their gods’ bad behavior.  Here are some novels that focus on infidelity. They’re from all kinds of writers, which says something about our enduring fascination with the topic.

Path of the Pope - Reading List

I’m not a Catholic, but I am fascinated by the Roman Catholic Church. So much history. Such an enigmatic power structure. My task this week is easy, because there are many books that will feed the curiosity of students of Roman Catholicism

Books About Scientific Outliers (Dava Sobel)

Dava Sobel makes natural history readable and moving. It is a rare gift. Her breakout book, Longitude, was an international bestseller, so I’m going to start my list of books about scientific outliers with that amazing story.

Odd Couples in Crime Solving

Often, in odd couple pairings we find in books, two heads are better than one – the partners complement each other. Here are some well-known couples in crime fiction.

Deep Blues - A Reading List

I grew up in the blues country of the Mississippi Delta, so I have a number of blues books on my list. But I want to briefly mention Kunzru’s first published novel, The Impressionist, about  a cultural mashup of a different sort and another look at how race divides people.

Mysteries with a sence of place, UK Edition

Ann Cleeves has a beautifully developed sense of place – in the  Vera series, it’s northern England, and in the Shetland series, it’s the Shetland Islands, so far north they are almost as close to Norway as they are to Scotland. Here's al ist of other books with this sense of place.

The Humanitarian Impulse and Its Costs

I am fascinated by what makes humanitarians like Dr. Larry Brilliant tick and their will to help the world’s oppressed, whether oppression takes the form of poor health care, lack of economic opportunity or religious discrimination.

Emma Donoghue Reading List

Emma Donoghue likes to get beneath the surfaces of women’s lives to see what lies beneath. Sometimes they are women in the here-and-now; more often, as with The Wonder, they are women from the past.  Her writing is vivid, suspenseful and at times disturbing, but you will never be bored reading an Emma Donoghue books.

Books about People, Horses & Obsession

When I was a little girl, I was horse crazy. I read every book about horses I could get my hands on, and longed to have a horse of my own, which would have been a fairy tale come true.  Alas - the fairy tale did not pan out, but I did live the horsing life through the books.

Great Comic Novels with the Gift of Gab

One thing I love about Maria Semple’s storytelling is her fabulous comic timing, which she uses to great effect in her dialogue. Here are my suggestions if you are looking for comic relief without sacrificing great writing.

On The Trail – Great Books About Long Walks

Anyone who loves to walk knows how it clears the head. As Robert Moor points out in his lovely book On Trails, there’s an almost meditative quality to it.  Anyone who loves to walk knows how it clears the head. As Robert Moor points out in his lovely book On Trails, there’s an almost meditative quality to it.

A Proper & Practical Reading List from Scottish Writers

I once heard Alexander McCall Smith’s hometown of Edinburgh  called a “hotbed of genius,” and I’m a believer. The capital of Scotland is the home of all kinds of geniuses, but I’m most interested in the writing kind.

Tracy Kidder Reading List

Tracy Kidder is one of the best nonfiction writers working today. When I read a book by Kidder I almost forget he’s there, as if I’m experiencing the story firsthand. 

Nathaniel Philbrick Must Reads + Frenemy Finds

Philbrick has written many fine books of American history. I’m going to mention those books but first, I’m going to give the nod to three books that look at our history from a different perspective – that of the British.

A Passion For India

India is such a complicated place, with its rich, if often tragic history,  its confounding extremes of wealth and poverty and its enormous 21st century vitality – well, every time I finish a book about India I say to myself, I REALLY have to go there.  Here are some books to take you there.

Abdul-Jabbar Reading and Books About Visionaries

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a voice for social injustice but he is also a lover of history and a good story.  Here are a couple of other works by Abdul-Jabbar worth a look.  Plus three books about champions of change.

Gripping Books About World War II

If not for many brave people battling enormous odds, things could have gone much differently in World War II.  World War II remains one of my favorite subjects for that reason– so much hung in the balance, and things looked so very dark for so very long. I’m recommending another book by Neal Bascomb, a thriller by a Norwegian writer, then three books by one of my favorite writers.

Books about Absent, Troubled or Scoundrel Fathers

Most of us have fathers we can admire and respect, but fathers are fallible, just like everyone else. A few fathers are flat-out scoundrels. That creates its own kind of dynamic – not of loss, but of a lack of trust. Here are some of the best books I’ve read by authors writing about either absent or troubled fathers.

The Richness of Russo

Someone once said that in a novel, a small town is a perfect stage for a group of players. Here are some of Russo’s books where a small town, usually in New York or New England, has served as a place where people know each other all too well.

WWII Reading List Inspired by Guest Chris Cleave

For Cleave’s latest novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. That’s in Britain in the time leading up to and during World War II.  How many great novels have been set by this era? Novelists will never run out of material – here are three I love that focus on people who are serving the war effort at home, not on the front.

Novels by and about Native Americans

A writer with Louise Erdrich’s gifts does something few authors can pull off – she transports the reader into the lives of people whose existence might be far different from our own, but who after all, have the same hopes and fears as the rest of us.

Librarians as Main Characters

Librarians pop up in books - a lot. No surprise there – they are, after all, the guardians of books and reading.  Sometimes the character is the conventional spinster-with-a-bun stereotype, shushing the patrons and frowning at any sort of disturbance. But more often, librarians get some very interesting roles. 

Books by Sons & Daughters of African Emigrants

(Link to expanded Bookmarks content:  Oyeyemi Extended) Helen Oyeyemi belongs to a group of contemporary writers who have roots in Africa, but their reach is international. They are the sons and daughters of parents who fled African countries during the turbulent era of political revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.  These writers have a point of view that spans divisions of country, race and class.

Ode to Egan:  Irish Authors Writing About Irish Themes

Timothy Egan brings a lot of energy as a guest and as a writer. His books are always full of great characters. The timing of his book about an Irishman can’t be a coincidence.  And to recognize the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland,  I have a reading list from Ireland-born authors… writing Irish-themed stories.

Journalist to Novelist - Jim Lynch Reading List

When I first read that Jim Lynch was going to publish a novel, I thought, hmmmm, we’ll see. Jim is a former newspaper reporter – he worked for a time at my own newspaper, the Seattle Times. Journalists, even the finest ones, often have a hard time making the transition from reporting the facts to, well, making things up.  He made the leap.  (Read the full story here:  Bookmarks Expanded)

Geraldine Brooks Reading List

I am a big admirer of Geraldine Brooks.  She stretches herself with every book – they all have different settings, different historical periods, and different stories to tell. Her background as a reporter makes her a meticulous historical researcher. Finally, her experience as a war correspondent has forced her to confront some of the more tragic aspects of the human experience.

Social Justice Reading List - Inspired by Adam Hochschild

(Link to expanded Bookmarks content:  Hochschild Extended) Adam Hochschild has made social justice his lifelong subject. An urgency pervades all his books – in Spain in Our Hearts, the reader can’t help but be affected by the commitment of the Americans who went to Spain to fight on the side of the Spanish Republic. Here's my list for your consideration of books on the subject of social justice.

History of Japanese Amerian Relations

Pamela Sakamoto's book, "Midnight in Broad Daylight," is about a family who endured unbelievable circurcumstances.  My further readling list suggestions this week focus on the history of Japanese American relations.

Books of Inspirational Geniuses

Geniuses have hatched many of the ideas that have taken mankind out of the cave and into the 21st century. Here are some books about troubled geniuses who battled many demons, but still left their mark on science, economics, literature, technology and music.

Exploration of Canin Characters

Ethan Canin – what an extraordinary writer. When you’re done with his books you feel like you have looked deep into his characters’ essence, but his stories also expand the reader’s mind outward.

Elizabeth Strout Reading List

Reading an Elizabeth Strout book is like unlocking a different psychological puzzle.  The relationships she developes between her characters - mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers - is the hallmark of a Stout book.

Fascinating Political Famliies

But to me, political families are fascinating. They reinforce the idea that certain traits and preferences actually run in families.

The Wonder of Witches:  Stacy Schiff Reading List

The rational part of the human mind wants to believe that people are well intentioned and logical. Well…..sometimes they are. Sometimes they definitely are not.  This book got me thinking about witches, and how they are believed to be either forces of evil (more the historical view) or good (the modern view).

Books based on America's Second City - Chicago

I love books that have a strong sense of place. The plot whizzes by so fast in Grant Park, the reader’s glimpses of Chicago are tantalizingly brief. So here are some books that delve more deeply into America’s Second City.

History With A Twist

There are other wonderful popular history writers out there, authors who love history but who know how to grab your attention. Here are some of their books, all by history geeks of the first order.

Native American Spirituality

Ruiz’ body of work made me think of Carlos Castaneda, another highly educated man who went back to the ancient knowledge of the Toltecs to gain insight into how humans think, feel and perceive.

Short Story Collections

When  I started to read Jesse Eisenberg’s book of short fiction, “Bream Gives Me Hiccups,” it  got me thinking of what a powerful punch a good short story can pack. Here’s a list of short story collections worth checking out. A couple are must-reads.

Great Mining Stories from Great Authors

Hector Tobar's book Deep Down Dark is one of the best and most impressive books I have read in the last year.  This week, I'm recommending books Hector read to prepare himself to write his book.  Also, adding a few more great reads set int he world of mining.

Creative Inspiration

I had the unique opportunity to share the stage with Elizabeth Gilbert to recommend books to further the creative agenda.  This is the list we came up with.

Women Braving It Alone

Becoming a widow or widower is a huge life passage.  Many book have used this life to drive their plots.  Here are a few worth a look.

Investigative Reading Into America's Military Secrets

I’ve seldom encountered a more masterful mix of investigative reporting and writing. The Pentagon’s Brain was the first Annie Jacobsen book i have read. It won’t be the last. Here is more reading of Annie Jacobsen's work plus a few others that go deep into our nation's military secrets.

Looking at Death in the Face

We have to confront the fact that we are not going to live forever.  This is a list of books that go boldly into that territory.

War Between Supenatural Powers

Like Salman Rushdie's newest book, there are a number of book that chronicle some kind of war between supernatual powers, one faction struggling to save humanity, teh other faction working to obliterate it.

A Don Winslow Reading List

Don Winslow is my kind of writer – he has a passion for research, combined with a vivid imagination and the kind of humor that can embrace the good, the bad and the incomprehensible. New York Times book critic Janet Maslin praised one of his books for fusing “the grave and the playful, the body blow and the joke, the nightmare and the pipe dream.”

Healing Through Animal Bonds

People develop relationships with animals for a variety of reasons.  Often one of those reasons is that it can be very hard, at times, to be a human.

Words on War:  Native American Tragedies

I believe The Dying Grass hooked me because it is about one of our great national tragedies – the wars waged against Native Americans that drove them from their homelands, all over the country.

David McCullough Reading List

McCullough’s secret - he puts his readers under that spell. I can’t mention every book he has written, but here are some of the more noteworthy.

The Human Animal - Life Through The Eyes of Others

I really think David Brooks hit the nail on the head with his book The Road to Character. Like a lot of baby boomers, I was raised by parents who believed that human beings were fallible, and that constant vigilance was required to ensure that their children were shaped into something worthwhile. (Read my full commentary in 'The Word').

Spiritual Memoirs

The spiritual memoir is an engaging, thought-provoking genre. Here are some favorites.

The Kennedy Fascination

I asked our recent guest Jim Neff, who was on Well Read to talk about his book Vendetta, for his suggestions of best books about the Kennedys. What a star-crossed family they were; so gifted, and so dogged by tragedy. I think those of us of a certain age will never lose their fascination with this amazing family of men and women.

Poetry for the Occasional Poetry Reader

Poetry requires powers of concentration that I just don’t have at the moment, though I aspire to read more of it in the future.  I have read enough poetry to compile a short list of poets I can recommend.

Where Past and Future Merge

Author Neal Stephenson is a master crafter of combining science fiction and historical portrayals into fantastical tales laced with a touch of mindbending wit.

The Novelist as Shape-Shifter

British author Kazuo Ishiguro is a talented, versatile writer with a powerful ability to get the reader to empathize with his characters. He’s also a writer who loves to try out different forms.

War and Wilderness

Some of David Treuer’s most notable works of nonfiction, as well as a list of the author’s favorite books.

Darkness Falls On France

The occupation of France by the Germans during World War II, and the French resistance that sprang up to fight them, was an epic period of great drama and tragedy.

Dennis Lehane's Best

Dennis Lehane is a take-no-prisoners writer.  He just grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

A Jane Smiley Reading List

Jane Smiley's work spans decades and locations around the country, but one thing remains the same: Her phenomenal sense of place. Here are some of my favorite of her works.

Restless Ghosts

Maybe everyone wants to believe, at some level, in an afterlife. Maybe everyone just wants the bejesus scared out of them.  For whatever reason, people love a good ghost story.

The Future Around the Corner

William Gibson is so aware of the interface between technology and humanity, it’s as if he can see what’s coming in our hyper-connected world well before anyone else.

Rough Patches

Anne Lamott is one-of-a-kind. Her ability to capture moments we all have -- though we often feel alone in the experience. These authors share that sensibility.

Money, Money, Money

The British author John Lanchester is one of my great reading pleasures. I was introduced to his work through his 2012 novel, “Capital,” which I still recommend to anyone who can get their hands on it. He's back with "How to Speak Money."

Post-colonial Blues in the Caribbean

Jamaica and the Caribbean are known for their beauty -- but the area has a rich history with many intriguing tales. "A Brief History of Seven Kilings" is the latest, and here are more.

Cold Cases

Cold cases are timelessly fascinating because they represent justice denied. For a novelist, they provide a structure for going back to a long-ago event and revisiting it from a contemporary perspective. And with scientific advances in evaluating evidence, including advanced DNA testing, there is a resurgence of interest in and hope for solving cold cases.

Making a Difference

Many writers have a passion for causes and their books give readers all kinds of practical avenues for helping to make the world a better place.

Men and Women of Conscience

It's striking how many historic leaders look like saints in retrospect, but in their day had a very difficult time choosing to do what’s “right” because the prevailing ethos in society was so overwhelmingly wrong.

Love Triangles

Novelists love to write stories about love triangles because they feature heightened emotion and impulsive behavior, as the participants struggle to escape the trap they’ve created for themselves by trying to love and possess someone who is loved and possessed by someone else. 

Dead Men Walking

Bryan Stevenson's book, "just Mercy" called to mind other famous books about justice and the death penalty. Here are some of the most noteworthy.

Mysteries with a French Twist

Inspired by Louise Penny's "The Long Way Home," I've compiled a list of some fascinating mysteries set in France.

Contemporary Irish Writers

Why does Ireland produce such wonderful writers? There are many possible answers to that question. One version: the Irish have a particular gift for the gab that translates well into print. I don’t know if that’s true, but these are some of my favorite Irish writers who are still alive and writing -- good news!

The Division Between Us

Paul Roberts covers a lot of ground in “The Impulse Society" -- as well as his earlier books, "The End of Oil" and "The End of Food." Here are other thought provoking books on changes that are transforming society at lightning speed.

A State of Disunion

So many American authors have made literary hay from this tempestuous time, one of our country’s great tragedies and one that still haunts us today.


Sibling relationships are fascinating, rewarding and, often, complicated. Our siblings both inspire and perplex us, but it’s one of the richest of human relationships.

Authors of the African Diaspora

There’s a real flowering of literature recently by American immigrants with African heritage. Several contemporary writers of African heritage are doing some of the best work in fiction today.

Paris and Those Who Love It

Paris has always had a magnetic attraction for Americans, and Mary Cassatt was by far from the only one who made her way there.

Stories Told Through Diaries

Novelists use this form as a very effective device to convince you that you are hearing the voice of a real person, even though it’s entirely made up. It’s so personal; it’s like the character’s voice is traveling directly from his or her mouth to your ear.

Women of Science

Like Alma, Elizabeth Gilbert’s heroine in “The Signature of All Things,” women have pursued knowledge throughout history, but also like Alma, they have not always had an easy time of it.

The Dark Years Before World War II

Before World War II, the world was in upheaval and the different sides in the war were coalescing. If only the world could have been more prescient about what was in store – as a reader you know the outcome, and that makes these books doubly mesmerizing.


You do have to have a flexible imagination to go along with some of these premises, but what’s reading for?

Great Canadian Authors

Our neighbor to the North has a lot of great authors.  But because Canada has separate publishers and book distribution networks, it seems to take a very long time for awareness of them to build south of the border.

Tough Love

Just about everyone has either been through this or is going through this – the struggle with parents to accept both help and mortality. Nobody likes to accept that they’re getting older, and that the end point of getting older is, well, dying.


These are books about people who, well, love books.

Brainy Brain Books

Several books use brain disease, brain injury or brain malfunction to illustrate how the brain works. Others take a broader scope – nothing less than how the brain works in general.

Books Written by Doctors

How do these doctors have the time to write such good books? And I must say, writing seems much more a right brain occupation – creative and divergent – and medicine seems more left brain, logical and deductive.

Earth's Threats

A few books that will help understand the interlocking wheels that power life on earth, and the forces that threaten to gum up the works.

Published Diaries You Shouldn't Miss

Diaries – the day-by-day recording of events, thoughts, ruminations and moods that help the reader relive the existence of another person in all its glory and tedium. I love reading them.

Early England

Recreating the world of, say, seventh-century Britain in ways that make me want to jump into the way-back machine and leave immediately.

Serialized Novels in Literary History

The novelist writing a serialized story has to capture the reader and keep them coming back for more, which is one reason they incorporate a lot of action and drama.

Stories of Shanghai

Dubbed “The Paris of the Orient,” Shanghai was an incredibly wealthy place where money was made and people, mostly foreigners, enjoyed a life of luxury as everyday people, including many Chinese, lived in poverty.  All this came crashing down when the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937, a very pivotal year for the city, and for China.

The Long and Winding Road Through Lake Wobegon

The success of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” is based on his return, again and again, to the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are all above average.  

Queens: The NYC Melting Pot

It’s very interesting how many great books set in this New York City borough are by immigrants or their descendants.

Newspaper Reporters

The job of newspaper journalist provides one element almost irresistible to any novelist – access to just about anybody, regardless of class and position. Like cops, journalists are among the few with a profession that can cut across the many layers that make up contemporary society. And newspaper offices can be such a collection of eccentrics, they provide a ready-made cast of characters.

Start-Crossed Lovers

Star-crossed lovers is a plot line that has been around since the age of telling stories around the campfire. But here are some great books that have stood the test of time.

Crime-Solving Odd Couples

Detective couples that are both great and odd are an interesting concept, but one that must be successful because there are so many popular odd couples in crime fiction.

Grief and Loss

How often do we go to novels to experience what otherwise would be unimaginable – like the loss of a child, a love or a way of life?

A Brief History of Mysteries

Starting with the English Holmes, we also jump over the channel for a few mysteries set in France that mystery readers are duty-bound to check out.

Great Books that Made Great TV

Literally dozens of books have been adapted for “Masterpiece” programs. Here are a couple folks may not have heard of, and a few favorites.

Swept Up in the Currents of History

You can read about historical tragedies until your eyes grow dim, but they don’t really hit home until you hear the stories of individuals swept up in them.

Montana Stories

So many wonderful books have been published by people who are in thrall to the spell that the state of Montana casts.

Strange Times, Terrible Crimes

The fact that a criminal like Charles Manson could intersect with the worlds of music and entertainment in California is something that could only have happened in that wild and wide-open time, when people seemed to be willing to try anything.

Literary Lone Wolves

The lone wolf is popular in storytelling, fiction, films, you name it – he’s virtually an archetype, and he’s usually a man.  This kind of individualism can be lonely, but something in our makeup longs for it.  

In the Wake of the Great Depression

The Great Depression affected every aspect of life, virtually worldwide, in the 1930s, and was one key reason the Nazis were able to rise to power.

All About Twins

Twins – their relationship, their identities, their eerie connections – have been a staple of many readable books, especially novels. 

Historical Fantasy

A number of my favorite books and authors take an historical period, or the history of an individual and a group, and use elements of that history in the creation of a fantasy. The imagination is liberated when a story isn’t anchored in a “real” place.

Family Memoirs

Most family memoirs invoke some kind of loss, either of an actual person or of the person the author thought they knew. 

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

Often, these stories feature some kind of science or technology run amok on earth and in space. After humans create amazing technology – as we so often say – what could possibly go wrong?

Brotherly Ties That Bind

There are so many strains of connection in a brother relationship; besides love, there can be envy and anger, competition and hurt. Not surprisingly, a number of great books have picked up on the brother theme.

Portraits in History

When I read these kinds of books, I feel like: a. I lead, comparatively, a very dull life; and b. I’m glad that I lead a very dull life.

Canine Stories

Many of these books I read as a child. Which is not to say that they are children’s books – it’s just that children have such a powerful connection with dogs, any book about them will really go to the heart of that relationship.

Mysteries of the Mind

One of the things that makes Grandin’s writing so fascinating is that, though most of her readers may be “normal,” they can relate to the feelings she has. Somehow her condition has helped her be very precise in describing mental states that many of us have, though not to the degree she does.


Afghanistan is such an absorbing topic, some of the world's finest writers have turned their attention to this troubled country.
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