Jeff Garrett’s Best Reads of 2014

jeff bookendsMy name is Jeff Garrett.  I am a born Evanstonian, the son of Northwestern parents and the father of two Northwestern graduates. After graduating from the University of Munich with a degree in linguistics and history, I worked at the International Youth Library in Munich as a language specialist for five years before returning to the US in 1988 and getting my library degree from Berkeley.  I worked as a librarian at Purdue University for five years and at Northwestern for 19, retiring this past February from Northwestern as Associate University Librarian for Special Libraries.  With my wife Nina, I opened Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore catering to the reading needs of the Evanston community, in June 2014.

1) The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine by Andrea Stuart (2005)

My wife and I vacationed on Martinique in the French Antilles this year, and this book seemed like a great way to satisfy my curiosity about its (completely unknown!) history and combine it with my general interest in 18th century Europe. And I was not disappointed! The book looks at what it was like growing up Creole in the French colonies 250 years ago, gives a credible, detailed look into slave culture on the sugarcane plantations, then whisks the reader off to Paris where a young girl from the provinces goes through the Revolution, meets and then marries the most dazzling figure of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte.

2) The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster that Claimed 30,000 Lives by Ernest Zebrowski, Jr. (2002)

The eruption of Mont Pelée on Martinique in 1902, which killed over 30,000 people within several minutes. It is a morbidly fascinating story told in this book both compellingly and readably, without any pseudo-scholarly hauteur, but as a human disaster which could have been avoided—if the warning signs had been taken seriously by the authorities. In the end it is perhaps a parable for the visible signs of imminent disaster and how easy it is to bury our heads in the sand rather than take decisive action. Reading these two books prepared me to experience the island of Martinique far more richly than if I had taken John Grisham along for the ride!

51i+j7yBfIL3) Seven Years by Peter Stamm (2011)

Quite at the other extreme of the excitement spectrum, this novel by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm deals with the subtleties and contradictions of the human heart. Alex is married to a brilliant and beautiful woman, yet he finds himself drawn, over the space of many years, to someone else who is neither bright nor attractive. It is the kind of real-life drama that plays out mainly in the interior of our souls and minds, but then can erupt and cause heartbreak and pain but also, maybe, lead to a different kind of happiness than one might expect.

4) Koala by Lukas Bärfuss (2014)

I guess after Seven Years I am now binging Swiss literature! This novel is in German but will surely be translated into English sometime soon—perhaps by the Other Press, which specializes in bringing contemporary world literature to American readers. Koala tells the story of the destruction caused by even the most carefully and considerately planned—and executed—suicide, in this case that of the narrator’s estranged brother. Like Seven Years, it is a very reflective, interiorized book, but makes clear that exiting this life voluntarily is much less an option than some might think. It mainly leaves behind a huge mess, emotional and often physical, for others to clean up.

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