9 Books to Check Out in December

Take advantage of a few days off this month to curl up with one of these novels.
by Mamie Potter

Mamie Potter, a book lover extraordinaire, does special projects for Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books. Here, she shares some of her recent favorite reads that she recommends. So take a break from your holiday happenings and curl up with one of these books.

The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

Robert Jones saw something missing in the novels of slavery that pepper the shelves: There were no accounts of homosexuality on the plantation. He started hearing voices, and after convincing himself he wasn’t crazy, began listening. Then he put pen to paper and came up with The Prophets (G. P. Putnam’s Sons $27), the magnificent story of two gay men on a plantation in the South. As he wrote, Jones added a story line about an African village where a woman is king and her wives are men, where two people in love, regardless of their sex, are celebrated, and another about people on a slave ship to America. This complex and beautifully written novel is like no other about this dark and desperate period of American history.

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

Writers & Lovers by Lily King (Grove Press $27) involves two things I love to read about: the writing life and interesting love affairs! Steeped in grief from the loss of her mother and reeling from the end of a relationship, Casey is floundering. She’s writing a novel, but having the crisis all of us writers have: Why are we even writing? Suddenly, she finds herself in a good relationship—with two different and very appealing men. Even I couldn’t decide which man she should choose –I didn’t want either of these amazing guys to get hurt!

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I didn’t realize how much I’d missed Olive Kitteridge until I started reading Elizabeth Strout’s new episodic novel, Olive, Again (Random House $18). In moments, I had settled into the pages of this book and the town of Crosby where I encountered well-known characters like Jack Kennison (Olive forms a relationship with Jack!) and Olive’s son, Christopher. In this sequel, Olive seems to have a tiny bent toward self-improvement and making amends with Christopher. Strout has a way of drawing the readers into an intimate relationship with every person she writes about. And it’s obvious that Strout knows Olive Kitteridge as well as she knows anyone and loves her in spite of herself.

Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting by Anna Quindlen

The similarities between Anna Quindlen’s life and mine are many. We are the oldest of five children and our mothers died at an early age. We were both thumb-suckers long after we should have given it up. Our first grandchildren are boys, the second girls. Most importantly, she and I share the title that is common yet so personal: Grandmother. I read Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting (Random House $16), in one sitting in a library where my out-loud laughter and noisy sniffles broke the quiet. “Yes, that’s exactly it,” I thought over and over as Quindlen got to the heart of a grandparent’s love. She says she felt “very experienced and totally green.” Yes, that’s exactly it!

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer 

Sexy, sexy, sexy. Oh, and literary too. The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (Back Bay Books, $16.99) is the story of the tumultuous affair between photographer and artist Man Ray and Lee Miller, his muse, model, and an artist in her own right. Set in—where else? —Paris in the 30s, the backdrop of the developing situation in Europe brings another layer of tension to the relationship. The love-crazed to crumbling relationship and the dramatic conclusion to the novel made for a book I couldn’t put down.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

I love everything Amy Bloom writes, and White Houses (Random House $17) is no exception. This fictional account of the love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock is fascinating. From Hickock’s point of view we learn about her childhood, growing up in near-poverty, to her rise as a journalist during the Roosevelt presidency. After FDR’s death, the two women reunite, and Bloom illuminates their unique relationship. This is an intimate look at this controversial relationship between the two vastly different women and the period of history in which they experienced it. It is set in the past, but very much a story for the present.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones’s book, An American Marriage (Algonquin $16.95), is an exposition on the criminal justice system in our country in general, and in Louisiana, where the incarceration rates are exceptionally high and disproportionately biased toward minorities. The marriage of Celestial and Roy is put to the test when he is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. Through letters, the couple tries to salvage their marriage and prove Roy’s innocence, facing obstacles both within their families and without. This book is full of the unexpected and the expected, but an “expected” that we cannot continue to find acceptable.

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat (Picador $17) is the story of an unnamed 15-year-old narrator who is enamored with an older man, Ayale. In the larger setting of Boston and the smaller setting of a local parking lot, the young girl navigates both as a precocious young woman, full of courage and confidence, and as a typical teenager, dealing with her father’s protectiveness and her mother’s absence. As the novel becomes more complex, so does the narrator’s relationship with Ayale and her father. Reminiscent of the wonderful coming-of-age stories by Jacqueline Woodson and Sandra Cisneros, The Parking Lot Attendant brings home the universality of problems teens face, no matter the details.

Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

Mark Helprin’s books take up an inordinate amount of space on my bookshelf. A Soldier of the Great War and In Sunlight and In Shadow (a wonderful love story in its own right) are on my top ten list of favorite books. His new novel, Paris in the Present Tense (Overlook Press $17.95), has earned a prominent place on the shelf too. The main character is a cellist named Jules Lacour. At seventy-four years old, he finds that he’s not living the life of ease he thought old age would bring.  His beloved wife has died, his grandson is battling cancer, he runs afoul of the law and an insurance agency. I am always taken by Helprin’s gorgeous, dense writing and the way he weaves a compelling story. But this time around, I realized that one of the things I love most about him is the way he talks about the attraction that men have for women in ways that are fresh and alluring. I raced almost to the end of this 400-page book, captivated by the story, and then crept through the final pages, reluctant to be finished.