Best ‘New to Us” Books in 2014: Ruth F’s Picks

I am a children’s librarian in Holly Springs. Next year, I will celebrate my 40th birthday and will most likely be fitted for my first pair of bifocals. Here are five books, some written by my contemporaries and others about middle age, that I recommend for those of you still able to read small print in dim lighting.

Life After DeathLife After Death by Damien Echols
Author Damien Echols was born just a few months before me and he would have graduated high school the same year I did — had he been born into the same world of middle class privilege that I was. Instead, he spent the first 18 years of his life in and economically depressed Arkansas hamlet. As teenagers, when I was fretting over my SAT scores, he was fretting over the verdict of his capital murder trial.  When I went off to college, he went off to Death Row. Then, after spending his first 18 years of adulthood in prison, Echols and two others incarcerated in connection with the same crime were released when DNA evidence was tested and deemed exculpatory. Shortly after, he landed a deal to publish a memoir based on the journals he kept in prison. I challenge any member of Generation X to read Echols’ story without noticing similar parallels between his life and ours.

Good in a CrisisGood in a Crisis by Margaret Overton
Sometimes, the best books are the ones you most love to hate. When life handed baby boomer Margaret Overton lemons in mid-life, she tried to make lemonade by writing a memoir. But it came out a little tart. I cringed at every supposedly funny story in this memoir about the author’s Internet dating escapades. And yet, I compulsively turned page after page because it is so easy to identify with Overton. For every good choice I have made that she did not, I feel relief that her train wreck of a life can’t possibly be what’s in store for me. And for every stroke of bad luck she endured, I feel a humbling sense that it probably is.

Lean InLean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Women like me, on the precipice of converting their households from DINK (double income, no kids) to what New York Times Columnist Pamela Druckerman famously called DITT (double income, toddler twins), will find this book fascinating. The rest of you might not be too interested in how author Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, wishes she had done more to secure reserved parking for expectant mothers at her company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. But you should read this book anyway. If you can overlook the usual gripes about late meetings and early carpools, there is a universal message about setting the terms of personal success and a refreshing new definition of what it means to be a feminist.

SisterlandSisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is a fiction story of twin sisters on the brink of 40. They share a psychic connection, but occupy separate sides of the Mommy divide. I’m not sure anybody will see themselves in either sister, but author Curtis Sittenfeld nailed the subtext and sanctimony between the childfree and the parents. The stay-at-home mother in the story, Kate, is affluent and secure. Mothering has given her lots of responsibility and purpose, but very little satisfaction. She is the very definition of a desperate housewife. Her childless sister, Violet, lives on the edge. By that I mean she is reckless, frivolous and completely unmoored. As the sisters decide whether to embrace the DNA that makes them the same or the choices that set them apart, their psychic prediction comes true in a way neither could have expected. Read another review.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Who among us has not aspired to write the Great American Novel or regretted reaching middle age without having done so? Mark Zusak, that’s who. His 40th birthday is six months from now and his literary masterpiece is 10 years old. The Book Thief has earned a slew of awards, dominated best-seller lists, been canonized on high school required reading lists and been adapted for a movie. But a technicality prevents it from being called my generation’s Great American Novel: the author is Australian and the setting is Nazi Germany. It seems counter intuitive for a book about genocide in World War II Europe to also be about a post-racial American ideal. But Zusak makes it work. In this war story, humanity trumps race or creed. Young or old, Jew or Gentile, German or not, everybody faces a common enemy in the villainous narrator: Death.  Read another review.

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