Serious but Not Pedantic

  1. Americanah
    by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    A big knockout of a novel about immigration, American dreams, the power of first love, and the shifting meanings of skin color. So many different genres: coming-of-age novel, romance, comic novel of social manners, up-to-the-minute meditation on race, as well as the immigrant saga. Opening paragraph: Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of

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  2. In the Time of Butterflies
    by Julia Alvarez

    A compelling story of four sisters during the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, written in the first and third person, by and about the sisters. Opening paragraphs:  She is plucking her bird of paradise of its dead branches, leaning around the plant every time she hears a car.  The woman will never find the old house behind the hedge of towering hibiscus at the bend of the dirt road.  Not a gringa dominicana in a rented car

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  3. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes
    by Tamim Ansary

    An excellent history, easy to read, that made me rethink and understand from a completely different perspective. Opening paragraphs:  Long before Islam was born, two worlds took shape between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.  Each coalesced around a different network and travel routes; one of them, mainly seas; the other, land routes.  If you look at ancient sea traffic, the Mediterranean emerges as the obvious center of world history. . . and out of this came “Western

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  4. Girl with the Pearl Earring
    by Tracy Chevalier

    The beautifully-told tale of Vermeer’s maid and model. First paragraphs:  My mother did not tell me they were coming.  Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous.  I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well.  Strangers would think I was calm.  I did not cry like a baby.  Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes. I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard

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  5. The Hare with Amber Eyes
    by Edmund de Waal

    Family saga of a Rothchild-rich family who lost it all to the Nazis.  Told by following the family’s collection of carved ivory netsuke and by following the author himself on the search.   Opening paragraph:  One sunny April day I set out to find Charles.  Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street . . . It is a hill of golden stone houses, a series of hotels playing discreetly on neoclassical themes, each a minor Florentine palace with heavily rusticated ground

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  6. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
    by Louis DeBernieres

    Love story set on a Greek island during WWII.  Get past the first chapter. Opening paragraph:  Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.  He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced on abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation. Quotes from critics:  “Astonishing . .

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  7. A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
    by William Deresiewicz

    Lessons learned from Jane Austen books in the form of a memoir. Opening paragraph: I was twenty-six and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has the right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life. That she’d been dead for a couple of hundred years made not the slightest difference whatsoever. Her name was Jane Austen, and she would teach me everything I know about everything that matters.

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  8. Bleak House
    by Charles Dickens

    Two fascinating narrators tell the tale of the long-buried secrets of Esther Sommerson’s life and a generations-long family lawsuit.  A host of unforgettable characters.  Romance, mystery, comedy, and satire. Opening paragraph:  London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet

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  9. The Round House
    by Louise Erdrich

    The story of a young man whose mother is raped on disputed (reservation or non-reservation) land. Opening paragraph:  Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation.  They were just seedlings with one of two rigid, healthy leaves.  Nevertheless, the stalky shoots had managed to squeeze through knife cracks in the decorative brown shingles covering the cement blocks.  They had grown into the unseen wall and it was difficult to pry they loose.  My father wiped his palm across

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  10. Middlesex
    by Jeffrey Eugenides

    The kaleidoscopic story of a hermaphrodite—spanning three generations and two continents, from the small Greek village of Smyrna to the smoggy, crime-riddled streets of Detroit, past historical events, and through family secrets. Opening paragraph: I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

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  11. The Crimson Petal and the White
    by Michel Faber

    Long, Victorian-style novel that includes the seamier side of Victorian life; depicts what it was like to be a woman during that time, in both the lowest and the higher classes. Opening paragraph:  Watch your step.  Keep your wits about you; you will need them.  This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before.  You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered

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  12. The Great Gatsby
    by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    A Great American Novel about money and love through an alcoholic mist. First paragraphs:  In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.” Quotes from critics: The Great Gatsby is widely considered to be a literary classic and a contender for

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  13. The Corrections
    by Jonathan Franzen

    Complex and fascinating story about a highly dysfunctional family trying to get together for Christmas. First paragraph: The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Quotes from critics: “Large-hearted and merciless, The Corrections is a testament to the range an depth of pleasures great fiction affords” (author David Foster Wallace); “A

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  14. The Newlyweds
    by Nell Freudenberger

    Marriage between Bangladeshi woman and American man who meet online.  Romance, families, and cultures.  Opening paragraph:  She hadn’t heard the mailman, but Amina decided to go out and check.  Just in case.  If anyone saw her, they would know that there was someone in the house now during the day while George was at work.   Quotes from critics: “The Newlyweds crosses continents, cultures and generations…It’s funny, gracefully written and full of loneliness and yearning. It’s also a candid, recognizable story about

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  15. Hunting and Gathering
    by Anna Gavalda

    Four screwed-up characters coming together. Opening paragraph:  Paulette Lestafier wasn’t as crazy as they said.  Sure, she knew what day it was, since that was all she had left to do now.  Count the days, wait for them, and forget.  She knew or certain that today was Wednesday.  And what’s more, she was ready.  She had put her coat on, found her basket, and gathered all of her discount coupons together.  She could even hear Yvonne’s car in the distance

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  16. Three Junes
    by Julia Glass

    The lives of a Scottish family over three separate Junes spanning ten years—as they confront the joys and longings, fulfillments and betrayals of love. Opening paragraphs:  Paul chose Greece for its predictable whiteness: the blanching heat by day, the rush of stars at night, the glint of the lime-washed houses crowding its coast. Blinding, searing, somnolent, fossilized Greece. Joining a tour—that was the gamble, because Paul is not a gregarious sort. He dreads fund-raisers and drinks parties, all occasions at

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  17. While They Slept
    by Kathryn Harrison

    A chilling and enthralling true life account of a woman who survived her brother’s murder of their parents. Opening paragraph: On the morning of Thursday, April 26, 1984, Jody Gilley went to her neighbor Kathy Ackerson’s before school. As was her habit, she went out the kitchen door and cut across the field that separated their two homes. Jody and Kathy had gotten to know each other the previous year, on the bus to and from Medford High, where they

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  18. The Kiss
    by Kathryn Harrison

    The exquisitely-written true story of the author’s incestuous relationship with her father. Opening paragraph:  We meet at airports.  We meet in cities where we’ve never been before.  We meet where no one will recognize us. Quotes from critics: “A darkly beautiful book, fearless and frightening, ironic and compassionate.” (author Mary Gordon); “Beautifully written . . . jumping back and forth in time yet drawing you irresistibly toward the heart of a great evil.” (The New York Times; “Like all good

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  19. Sixteen Pleasures
    by Robert Hellenga

    Young woman’s adventures during the 1960’s flood in Florence; mystery, feminism, and sex. Opening paragraph:  I was twenty-nine years old when the Arno flooded its banks on Friday 4 November 1966.  According to the Sunday New York Times the damage wasn’t extensive, but by Monday it was clear that Florence was a disaster.  Twenty feet of water in the cloisters of Santa Croce, the Cimabue crucifix ruined beyond hope of restoration, panels ripped from the Baptisry doors, the basement of

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  20. Infidel
    by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

    Memoir of an African Muslim turned anti-Muslim.  Gripping and depressing. Opening paragraphs: “Who are you?” “I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”  Behind us is our house, and the branches of the talal tree are all that shields us from the sun blazing down on the white sand.  “Go on,” my grandmother says, glaring at me . . . . My grandmother nods, grudgingly.  I have done well, for a five-year-old.  I have managed to count

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  21. To End All Wars
    by Adam Hochschild

    Excellent history of WWI.  As in all of his books, covers both the good guys and bad guys.   Opening paragraphs:  The city had never seen such a parade.  Nearly 50,000 brilliantly uniformed troops converged on St. Paul’s Cathedral in two great columns. . . . It was June 22, 1897, and London has spent £250,000—the equivalent of more than $30 million today—on street decorations alone.  Above the marching troops, Union Jacks flew from every building; blue, red, and white

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  22. A Prayer for Owen Meany
    by John Irving

    A portrayal of an enduring friendship at the time when the Vietnam War had its most divisive effect on the United States. Opening paragraph:  I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make

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  23. The Poisonwood Bible
    by Barbara Kingsolver

    An intricate family chronicle of a missionary family in the Congo—where their faith in Jesus, democracy, and civilization is severely challenged.  Alternating chapters are narrated through different daughters’ points of view. Opening paragraphs:  Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest.  I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees.  The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason.  Every space is filled with life: 

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  24. How It All Began
    by Penelope Lively

    An old woman is accosted and all kinds of consequences ensue to her friends and to people she doesn’t even know.  Opening paragraph:  The pavement rises up and hits her.  Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek.  She is laid out there, prone.  What is this?  Voices are chattering above her; people are concerned.  Of course. Quotes from critics: “An elegant, witty work of fiction, deceptively simple, emotionally and intellectually penetrating, the kind

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  25. Various biographies
    by Robert Massie

    All of Massie’s biographies are wonderful and readable—including Nicholas and Alexandra, Catherine the Great, and Peter the Great. Opening paragraphs (from Nicholas and Alexandra):  From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia.  So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast.  Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the

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  26. Atonement
    by Ian McEwan

    In three beautifully crafted parts, the story starts with a domestic crisis that becomes a crime story; the second part describes the British evacuation at Dunkirk; the third is set in London as the nation mobilizes for war. Opening paragraph:  The play, for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper, was written by her in a

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  27. God: The Biography
    by Jack Miles

    A close reading of the Old Testament, tracking God’s personality changes. Second paragraph:  If biography is seen narrowly as a branch of history, then there can be no biography of a nonhistorical character. But God does have a first and a last appearance in the Hebrew Bible. We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured, We see him last as the “Ancient

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  28. Suite Française
    by Irène Némirovsky

    Moving stories of a cast of regular people in Vichy France.  “Storm in June” about flight from Paris.  “Dolce” about an occupied village. Opening paragraph:  Hot, thought the Parisians.  The warm air of spring.  It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid.  But dawn was near and the war far away.  The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep—the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women

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  29. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake
    by Anna Quindlen

    Wise words about women in their sixties. Opening paragraphs:  It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult.  First I was who I was.  Then I invented something and became her.  Then I began to like what I’d invented.  And finally I was what I was again. . . . First we were so young and then we were so busy and then one day we awoke to discover that

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  30. Methland
    by Nick Reding

    A chilling exposé of methamphetamine manufacture and use in the Midwest. Opening paragraphs:  As you look down after takeoff from O’Hare International Airport, headed west for San Francisco, California, it’s only a few minutes before the intricate complexity of Chicago’s suburban streets is overcome by the rolling swell of the prairie. . . . Such is the reality of thousands of small communities dotting the twenty-eight landlocked states of the American flyover zone.  Lying beneath some of the most traveled

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  31. Midnight’s Children
    by Salman Rushdie

    Captures the confusions and colors of India at the time of the Partition.  Wonderfully written. Opening paragraph:  I was born in the city of Bombay …once upon a time.  No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date:  I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.  And the time?  The time matters, too.  Well then: at night.  No, it’s important to be more … On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. 

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  32. Empire Falls
    by Richard Russo

    In a small blue-collar Maine town that has seen better days, the manager of the Empire Grill tries to make a go of it. Opening paragraph:  The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its

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  33. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
    by Lisa See

    Women’s lives in pre-Communist China, including foot binding and secret messages to one another hidden in the folds of a fan. Opening paragraph:  I am what they call in our village “one who has not yet died,” eighty years old.  Without my husband, the days are long.  I no longer care for the special foods that Peony and the others prepare for me.  I no longer look forward to the happy events that settle under our roof so easily.  Only

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  34. A Suitable Boy
    by Vikram Seth

    Centers around four families in post-Partition India, about both family matters and the surrounding social environment. Very well written.  About 1450 pages, the longest novel ever published in one volume, but so easy to read! Opening paragraphs:  “You too will marry a boy I choose,” said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her youngest daughter. Lata avoided the maternal imperative by looking around the great lamp-lit garden of Prem Nivas.  The wedding-guests were gathered on the lawn.  “Hmm,” she said.  This

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  35. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
    by Russell Shorto

    How both capitalism and liberal social justice originated in Amsterdam. Opening paragraph: A day in Amsterdam begins with me leaving my apartment with my toddler son in my arms, strapping him into his seat between the handlebars of my bicycle, working his blocky little sneakered feet into the footpads, then setting off through the quiet generally breezy streets of our neighborhood . . .You could look at the work of any Dutch master for an idea of the morning light

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  36. A Thousand Acres
    by Jane Smiley

    Modern version of King Lear when a father decides to divide his farm among three daughters.  Opening paragraph:  At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road. Cabot Street Road was really just another country blacktop, except that five miles west it ran into and out of the town of Cabot. On the western edge of Cabot, it became Zebulon

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  37. Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away
    by Christie Watson

    Heart-wrenching and heart-warming coming-of-age story of a plucky Nigerian girl. Opening paragraph:  Father was a loud man.  His voice entered the room before he did.  From my bedroom window I could hear him, sitting in the wide gardens, or walking to the car parking area filled with Mercedes, or standing by the security guard’s office or gate in front. Quotes from critics: “Christie Watson’s debut novel, set in the troubled Niger Delta, does what fiction does best, it captures place

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  38. The Age of Innocence
    by Edith Wharton

    Nineteenth-century story of love and society in upper-class America. Opening paragraphs:  On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in “Faust” at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the

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  39. When We Were the Kennedys
    by Monica Wood

    Beautifully written memoir about a family in Mexico, Maine during the Kennedy era.  Opening paragraphs:  In high summer, when tourists in paneled station wagons caravanned through town on their way to someplace else, hankies pressed comically to their noses against the stench of paper being made, I sat with my friends on the stoop of Nery’s Market to play License Plate. . . .  Like most Irish Catholic families in 1963, mine had boiled dinner on Sundays after Mass and

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  40. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
    by Colin Woodard

    A convincing account of how the U.S. divides into eleven regions, each with a culture of its own. Opening paragraph: Americans have been taught to think of the European settlement of the continent as having progressed from east to west, expanding from the English beachheads of Massachusetts and Virginia to the shores of the Pacific.  Six generations of hearty frontiersmen pushed their Anglo-Saxon bloodlines into the wilderness, wrestling nature and her savage children into submission to achieve their destiny as

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