Books with sociological meaning, alphabetized by title (2011-present)
- Appassionata, by Eva Hoffman (2009): The story of what happens when two people from very different worlds (a Western-trained concert pianist and Chechen rebel) make a connection. Reviewed in the NY Times 6/24/2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/books/review/Brownrigg-t.html?_r=1
- Blasphemy (2012), and War Dances (2009) by Sherman Alexie: His style is direct, bold, irreverent, and his themes are often painful and raw, but his stories make me think of the Pacific NW.
- Blue Nights, by Joan Didion (2011): An homage to her deceased
daughter whom we learn about in The Year of Magical Thinking. She
writes poignantly about parenting (and exquisitely about blue nights in
her opening pages), but I wanted more details of what happened to
- Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh and Family Album, by Penelope
Lively: Along with the tv series Downton Abbey which has also been part
of my spring repertoire, we see, through the stories of upper-crust
British families, how family names, family roles, and family pressures
influence our personal choices and outcomes.
- Bringing up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, 2012: Entertaining
observations about parenting à la française, which I mention in my
blogpost Encadrement on Feb. 16, 2012
- The Circle by
Dave Eggers, 2013, and 2013: A story that highlighted for me the external influences of technological tools, for
better or for worse? See also Where'd you go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.
- City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy, 1996: How the
French Revolution may have been experienced by the common French; I
especially like Piercy's sociologically-attuned author's note where she
describes a personal experience that gave her an idea of what life must
have been like for her novel's characters. I'm simultaneously reading
The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb, 2007, a social history of how
the French became French.
- City of Women, by David R. Gillham, 2013: Like Falling to Earth (see below), what is it like if you are the only one not affected by the Allied bombings or you don't get caught by the Gestapo?
- Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, by Alexandra Fuller
(2011): I loved Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight, for its recounting
of the mundane challenges of living in Africa (watch out for that snake
in your bed!). Those continue to amaze, as do the practical adjustments
made by Fuller's parents to war and then life in post-colonial Africa.
- Falling to Earth, by
Kate Southwood (2013): An interesting twist on homelessness; what if your home
was the only one that survived a tornado? A similar kind of question in
- Fruit of the Lemon, by Andrea Levy, 1999: I'm a big fan of this
novelist; her Small Island won the Orange Prize. Both books depict the
immigrant experience within Empire, racism, and the ways in which family
connections are forged and maintained.
Going Clear, by
Lawrence Wright (2013): Reminiscent of Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon
Krakauer (2004), both presenting the emergence of new religious movements in
the modern era.
- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Wells (2005): This was sitting on the
shelf in our French flat. Wells' childhood was materially impoverished
but her parents were big, creative thinkers. Coincidentally, Allen's
aunt recommended Wells' book Half Broke Horses.
- The Hare with Amber Eyes: a hidden inheritance, by Edmund de Waal : More on 'mitteleuropa' and another Viennese Jewish family but much more than that. De Waal's meticulous research, his exquisite personal admissions and beautiful writing, and the deep sense of duty to his family and to art make this book among the best I've ever read.
- The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, 2003 (translated in 2009): With spare prose, Ogawa creates an original story about a mathematician with a very short short-term memory, and his housekeeper and her son, Root.
- How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran, 2011: I love this strident feminist's story and the way she tells it. Feminism today is as much about basic courtesy as it is about equal rights for all.
Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, 2010: Click here
to read my post Les âmes... from Oct. 30, 2012, where I explain what I find so
sociologically interesting about this book.
- Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester: A friend recommended this a few years ago, and now I've been on a Winchester kick. I experienced the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, and could imagine in a small way what the falling ash was like during the monumental eruption of Krakatoa. A well-told story.
- The Lacuna, by Barbara
Kingsolver (2009): An entertaining story in which sociological forces clearly
shape a life: bicultural and immigrant identities, brushes with historical
figures and events (Rivera! Kahlo! Trotsky!)
- Last Waltz in Vienna: The destruction of a family 1842-1942, by George Clare, 1981: Over lunch, two friends, one English and one Dutch both knowingly spoke of this haunting, beautifully written, personal account of the end of Viennese society as it was known in the first half of the last century. What a revelation!
- Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela (1994): Mandela was a man of uncommon diligence and integrity, who never seemed to waver in his singular goal of equal human rights, even while in prison
- Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson (2010): An
entertaining story, some sociological themes: ethnic/race relations and
generational clashes. What really earns it a spot here is that it is
the September 2011 book-of-the-month for the local English language
bookstore's book club. See what English-language readers are reading in
- A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary,
1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: I read this sociological
exploration of women's lives in post-colonial America, based on unusual
data from a midwife's diary, several years ago. I am inspired to offer
it here after reading a novel about midwifery in Nova Scotia this week
(The Birth House, by Ami McKay, 2006).
- My Son, My Son, by Douglas Galbraith, 2012: This Scotsman's personal
story about losing his sons is riveting and well-written as are his
controversial and highly sociological arguments about parental
privilege, national sovereignty, and the social and cultural biases
- Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005): An incredibly imaginative
story of a subculture of young people whose destinies are set before
they are born.
- NW, by Zadie Smith: A thoroughly modern novel that kept me guessing about the characters' racial, class, and immigrant statuses.
- Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940-44, by Ian Ousby 1998: I'm still trying to understand how the French survived the divisive and demeaning experience of the Occupation. Ousby's account of Petain's humiliations and de Gaulle's brazenness suggests that things could ultimately have ended in defeat for the French nation.
- Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2003, in English): I've read several
memoirs by Iranian women, but not one like this; Satrapi engages us by
telling her stories, of life in post-revolutionary Iran and as a young
expatriate in Europe, in comic strips.
- The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester (1998): The strange but true story of an American contributor to the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (with a small Seattle connection to boot!).
- Provence, 1970, by
Luke Barr (2013): Perhaps the argument is a little over-reaching, of what came
of the 1970 get-togethers of Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard et al.,
but I appreciate the way Barr uses archival data (the letters of these and
other foodies as well as news articles) to frame and support the story he is
- The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard: This account of Teddy
Roosevelt's exploration of a largely undiscovered river in the Amazon
shows how the discoveries of our world have been made by the privileged,
with the often unrecognized labor of others much less privileged.
- Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton, 2008 : A cultural sociologist presents the scoop on the art world using participant and non-participant research methods.
- A Short History of the England, by Simon Jenkins, 2012: Much of what I know of English history is through the lens of U.S. history. Here one realizes more clearly how democracy emerged in England, amid myriad struggles for power between the Catholic church, then the Anglican church, and the monarchy, and the nobility, and the representatives in the Commons, and then the real commoners.
- Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland, by Glenda Dawn Goss, (2009): The social context (in this case the changing political and social conditions in pre- and post-independence Finland) helps us understand how a young Swedish-speaking violinist became Finland's best known composer.
- A Singular Woman, by Janny Scott (2011): Obama's mother was truly a
singular woman, and a single mother for much of his childhood.State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (2011): Patchett is a wonderful storyteller, as in her earlier Run, and Bel canto
- Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong (why we love France, but not
the French), by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, 2003: Finally, some
of my questions answered: why so many police but seemingly so
disengaged, why first names aren't that important, why teachers live at
school.... I however like many of the French that I have met.
- Solar, by Ian McEwan, 2010: Another writer from the UK (lots of
Brits where I live currently, so British fiction is popular). McEwan
offers a detestable main character who despite his slovenly appearance
and work ethic still manages to attract women because of past
intellectual successes and fame. Power, gender, male privilege? Not
the most sociological book, but it made this sociologist laugh OUT LOUD
several times, so I include it here.
- Stoner, by John Williams, 1965: In spare prose, Williams describes the spare Midwestern life of an English professor in this vintage classic American novel.
- A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, 2013: All 3 of her novels are wonderfully imaginative.
Here she considers the social mores of life in wartime and contemporary Japan
and makes me homesick with her portrayal of the wilds of Vancouver Island. Some
Zen Budhhism and quantum physics bring her story full circle.
- The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney 2006: A story of early
Canada, with its natives, immigrants, entrepreneurs (Hudson's Bay
Company) all struggling to survive and prevail in harsh environmental
- The Tenth Gift, by Jane Johnson, 2008: Social class distinctions,
cultural clashes, gender role differences--many sociological themes in
this engaging story of two women affected by an instance of piracy off
the Cornish coast.
TransAtlantic, by Column McCann 2013: A beautifully-composed book, tying together three stories with Ireland and the Irish as their common thread. Lovely!
- Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy: My book club opted for a
classic this month. Tess is a peasant (albeit with apparently
aristocratic heritage), her nemesis is a nouveau-riche man whose family
bought its name, and her lover is an educated man looking beyond his
social class to save his soul.
- Wave, by Sonali
Deraniyagala 2013: What happens when one's social roles, of mother, wife, and
daughter are taken away in an instant? A spare, often raw, and poignant account
of coping and remembering by a tsunami survivor.
- Where'd you go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2013): see comments on The Circle, above.
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