First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

first they killed my fatherIn this heartbreaking and compelling memoir, Loung Ung shares the story of her childhood in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime.  At the age of five, she and her family were forced to leave their home in Phnom Penh and seek safety in the countryside.  There, her family faced the constant threat of starvation and violence.  Eventually, the children were scattered to different camps, and Loung Ung was trained as a child soldier and subjected to endless propaganda.

First They Killed My Father is the tense, inspiring tale of a daughter who, undeterred by horrific circumstances, never stopped trying to reunite with her surviving family members.

Quote:
“In the dark, the world is quiet and unhurried as streetlights flicker on and off.  Restaurants close their doors and food carts disappear into side streets.  Some cyclo drivers climb into their cyclo to sleep while others continue to peddle around, looking for fares.  Sometimes when I feel brave, I walk over to the edge of the railing and look down at the lights below.  When I’m very brave, I climb onto the railing, holding on to the banister very tightly.  With my whole body supported by the railing I dare myself to look at my toes as they hang at the edge of the world.”

Author:
Loung Ung is an author, activist, and public speaker.  Born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, she emigrated to the United States after surviving the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime.  She has published two memoirs: First They Killed My Father and Lucky Girl.

Published:  2000
Length:  238 pages
Set in:  Cambodia

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The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil

the woman who fell from the skyWhen Jennifer Steil arrives in Yemen to teach a course on journalism to the staff at English-language newspaper The Yemen Observer, she plans to stay for only a few short weeks.  But both the city of Sana’a and its people leave a strong impression, and soon she is returning to become the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

Steil’s year in Yemen is filled with long working hours, cultural misunderstandings, and the blasphemy trial of another editor at the newspaper.  She forms close friendships with some co-workers and and bitter rivalries with others, and constantly struggles to impart western ideals of fair and unbiased reporting to her staff.  Written in a candid voice, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky balances Steil’s personal narrative with compelling insights into the state of journalism in Yemen.

Quote:
“I stood next to Sabri on the flat, dusty rooftop and gazed around me.  Sand-colored mountains rose from the plain in every direction.  Having spent my formative years in Vermont, I have always found the sight of mountains enormously reassuring, and this morning was no exception.  Below us stood the fantasia in gingerbread that is Sana’a’s Old City, a cluster of tall, square, cookie-colored homes trimmed with what looked like white frosting, surrounded by thick, high walls.  Sabri pointed out some of the more prominent of the city’s hundreds of mosques, liberally sprinkled across the city in every direction, their slender minarets thrust perpetually toward God.”

Author:
Jennifer Steil is an American journalist and the author of the novel The Ambassador’s Wife and the memoir The Woman Who Fell from the Sky.  She currently lives in La Paz, Bolivia.

Published:  2010
Length:  352 pages
Set in:  Sana’a, Yemen

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The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

stranger in the woodsWhen Christopher Knight was 20 years old, he abandoned his car by the side of the road and walked into the woods.  For the next 27 years, he didn’t speak to another human being.

The Stranger in the Woods is the fascinating portrait of a man determined to live in complete solitude.  Knight’s survival tactics were by turns ingenious and criminal; he devised incredible means of camouflage for his forest home and scrounged supplies by breaking into vacant summer homes.  Compiled through research and interviews, Michael Finkel’s narration is a heartbreaking, engrossing examination of the desire to live outside the boundaries of modern society.

Quote:
“It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left.  He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed.  Observing the trees was indolent; cutting them down was enterprising.  What did Knight do for a living?  He lived for a living.”

Author:
Michael Finkel is an American author and journalist.  His books include The Stranger in the Woods and True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa.

Published:  2017
Length:  203 pages
Set in:  Maine, United States

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The Windfall by Diksha Basu

the windfallWhen Mr. Jha sells his company for an exorbitant amount of money, he and his wife begin immediately planning their escape from the cramped housing complex they’ve called home for decades.  As they settle into a spacious mansion in an affluent neighborhood of New Delhi, their lives become an exercise in keeping up appearances. Suddenly, Mr. Jha needs a diamond-encrusted couch, a round-the-clock guard, and a chauffeured car — and doesn’t understand why Mrs. Jha seems unimpressed with these new necessities.  Meanwhile, their son’s promising future at an American business school is slipping away, and his desperation to hide his failing grades leads to greater issues for the family.

Hilarious and fast-paced, The Windfall explores themes of class, marriage, and whether happiness can truly be bought.

Quote:
“The summer heat was getting on his nerves.  The heat in Delhi summers did not just come from the air; it radiated up from the ground and came off the walls of the buildings and pushed you from every direction, making it difficult to move.  What was the point of all this money if he couldn’t escape the blistering midday temperatures?  It should be possible, Mr. Jha thought, to have a small portable air-conditioned Plexiglas cubicle built to walk around in.  After all, he had had a shower installed in the Gurgaon bathrooms so he would no longer have to use a bucket filled with water and a mug to pour over his body.  So maybe he could have a similar contraption — completely sealed and cooled — to take everywhere with him.  It would make life a lot more pleasant.  Maybe something with wheels.  But then that would just be a car.”

Author:
Diksha Basu is a writer and actor. She splits her time between New York and Mumbai, India.

Published:  2017
Length:  295 pages
Set in:  New Delhi, India

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The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

spider and the flyIn 1998, police in Poughkeepsie, New York discovered the decomposing bodies of eight women in the home of Kendall Francois, a mild-mannered young man who lived with his father, mother, and sister.  At the time of Francois’s arrest, journalist Claudia Rowe was living in the area and writing for The New York Times.

Determined to understand Francois’s crimes and state of mind, Rowe began exchanging letters with him.  As she convinced him to share more about his life with her, their correspondence grew into a strange and often disturbing friendship.  The Spider and the Fly is a fascinating memoir about the journalistic drive to uncover the truth — and the human desire to confront evil.

Note: trigger warning for descriptions of sexual assault.

Quote:
“Residents here were professionals, doctors and academics living above well-trimmed lawns crowned with generous porches.  The Francois home, however, looked nothing like its neighbors.  A sickly mint green, it sat back from the sidewalk atop a few cracked steps, its windows opaque with dirt.  An enormous oak had grown into one of the side walls, and even crawling with investigators the house exuded a sense of isolation, as if trying to recede from view.”

Author:
Claudia Rowe has written for The New York Times, The Stranger, The Seattle Times, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post.  Her work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and The Spider and the Fly is her first book.

Published:  2017
Length:  320 pages
Set in:  Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S.

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The Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

killers of the flower moonWhen vast oil depositories were discovered under the rocky Oklahoma land belonging to the Osage Indian Nation, tribe members quickly became some of the richest people in the country.  As their wealth skyrocketed, they built extravagant homes, purchased fancy cars, and became the topic of incredulous news stories.

And then, in the 1920s, someone began killing Osage members who had a stake in the oil rights.  From bullet wounds to poison to sudden explosions, the murders came one after another.  One woman saw her sister, brother-in-law, and mother all killed under suspicious circumstances.  When the death toll reached two dozen, the newly formed FBI stepped in — helmed by a young J. Edgar Hoover — and the Osage murders became one of its first highly publicized cases.

In The Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann illuminates the brutality of the murders, the complexities of the investigation, and the systemic racial injustice entwined in the case.

Quote:
“Gray Horse was one of the reservation’s older settlements. These outposts—­including Fairfax, a larger, neighboring town of nearly fifteen hundred people, and Pawhuska, the Osage capital, with a population of more than six thousand—­seemed like fevered visions. The streets clamored with cowboys, fortune seekers, bootleggers, soothsayers, medicine men, outlaws, U.S. marshals, New York financiers, and oil magnates. Automobiles sped along paved horse trails, the smell of fuel overwhelming the scent of the prairies. Juries of crows peered down from telephone wires. There were restaurants, advertised as cafés, and opera houses and polo grounds.

Author:
David Grann is the author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, The Lost City of Z, and The Killers of the Flower Moon.  He has also written for He has previously written for the  Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic.

Published:  2017
Length:  352 pages
Set in:  Osage County, Oklahoma, U.S.

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The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka

piano makerWhen Helene Giroux arrives in the small coastal village of Saint Homais in Nova Scotia, her presence is instantly the talk of the town.  As she settles in and begins working as the church pianist, the local people begin to accept her — until the police begin asking questions about her mysterious past.

By turns charming and suspenseful, The Piano Maker is a deftly written historical novel that spans two continents — from World War I France to post-war Canada — and grapples with questions of violence, mercy, and sacrifice.

Quote:
“In the thin white light from the sky and the yellow from the streetlamps she crossed the square to the church and at the side entrance used the key the priest had given her.  She stepped inside.  So quiet and dark at this hour.  Only the eternal flame by the altar and the street-side windows gave some light.  She found her way to a front pew and sat there with her hands in her coat pockets.  She looked at the piano, at the fine shape of it, the classic footed legs and the delicate prop stick, and in her mind she could see each part of it, the cabinet pieces still raw from the milling floor, the key-board and its nerve endings, the fine soundboard with the bridge applied.  The harp so heavy it took two men to raise it and four to set it in its lockpoints.”

Author:
Kurt Palka is a novelist whose books include The Piano Maker and Clara.  He currently lives in Ontario.

Published:  2015
Length:  288 pages
Primary Setting:  Nova Scotia, Canada
Secondary Setting:  Montmagny, France

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Euphoria by Lily King

euphoriaWhen married anthropologists Nell Stone and Fen Schuyler arrive in the Sepik River region of New Guinea in 1933, Andrew Bankson’s entire life is inverted.  Irresistibly drawn to Nell’s intelligence and charm, Bankson finds new purpose in his own ethnographic study of the area’s people.  But as rivalry and jealousy mount, a series of unexpected events unfold — leaving the trio to grapple with their own complicity in the lives of the tribes they live among and study.  Written in compelling and clear prose, Euphoria is a heart-wrenching study of friendship, marriage, violence, and gender roles.

Quote:
“The rain hit the lake water loudly and it took my ears several minutes to get used to the roar. You don’t realize in the dry season how much is held in, but now all the sounds and smells came back, stirred up by the wind and humidity, flowers and roots and leaves exhaling their full flavor. Even the lake itself released a pungent peat odor as the rain dug into it. Nell seemed smaller and younger and I could see her easily at thirteen, at nine, a little girl on a Pennsylvania farm, and all I could do was keep looking.”

Author:
Lily King is an American novelist.  Her books include Euphoria, The Pleasing Hour, and Father of the Rain.  Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and several anthologies.

Published:  2014
Length:  261 pages 
Set in:  Papua New Guinea

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Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

evening is the whole daySet in Ipoh, Malaysia, Evening is the Whole Day revolves around the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, where the wealthy Rajasekharan family have lived for several generations.  Skipping back and forth through time, the novel creates a vivid portrait of the house’s inhabitants, including Aasha, a curious six-year-old who sees ghosts as clearly as the living; her older sister Uma, desperate to escape to college in America; and Chellam, a young servant dismissed on the basis of unexplained crimes.  Filled with lush prose and a striking sense of place, each chapter of Evening is the Whole Day reveals to its readers the family’s heartbreaking and seemingly endless secrets.

Quote:
“On Kingfisher Lane the sun lies straight ahead, liquid as an egg yolk in the valley between two distant limestone hills, quivering, ready, turning the surrounding foliage to gold.  Closer and closer they draw to its beating light, and then, without warning — in the split second when Appa takes his foot off the accelerator for no clear reason — the sun looses itself, slides down into the foothills, and surges out into the street.  It brings the water in the monsoon drains to a boil and singes the whiskers of stray cats.  It crisps the ants on the asphalt and scorches the grass on the verges.  It rolls all the way down the street and finally, against the windshield of the Volvo, comes to a reluctant rest.”

Author:
Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States while in high school.  Her writing has appeared in The Asian Literary Review, Hyphen, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and EGO Magazine, among others.  Evening is the Whole Day is her debut novel.

Published:  2008
Length:  340 pages
Set in:  Ipoh, Malaysia

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The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo

statues that walkedWhen archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt began field work on Rapa Nui — called Easter Island by its first European visitors — they knew the prevailing theory about its history:  that the labor-intensive construction and transportation of the island’s famous stone statues led to clear-cutting forests, and that the resulting environmental destruction caused the population to dwindle.  Yet as they carried out their research, Lipo and Hunt continued to find clues that subverted this long-held theory, and their discoveries led to a completely new understanding of the island’s technology, culture, and history.

Drawing on well-explained scientific research and historical documents, The Statues that Walked is a fascinating look at the island of Rapa Nui and the ingenuity of the people who created the hundreds of statues that line its shores.

Quote:
“Mention Easter Island to just about anyone and ‘mystery’ immediately comes to mind.  The Mystery of Easter Island is the title of untold books and modern film documentaries.  The mystery surrounds how so few people on a remote, treeless, and impoverished island could have made and transported hundreds of eerie, gargantuan statues — called moai — for which the island is so famous.  The awe-inspiring, multi-ton stone statues, some standing nearly forty feet high and weighing more than seventy-five tons, were carved out of the island’s quarry of compacted volcanic ash and then somehow transported several miles over the island’s rugged terrain.  Not all of them survived the journey.  Many lie scattered across the island, some broken, never to take their intended places on platforms along the shoreline or elsewhere throughout the island.  To see these statues, many of them situated on equally impressive platforms called ahu, is to sense a hidden drama of compelling human proportions calling out for explanation.  Facing inward, rather than out to sea, they seem to be gazing back in a vain search for the noble society that created them.”

Authors:
Terry Hunt has spent 35 years conducting archeological research in the Pacific Islands.  He lives in Hawaii, where he works as a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  Carl Lipo teaches archaeology at California State University Long Beach; he also lives in Long Beach, California.

Published:  2011
Length:  237 pages
Set in:  Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile

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