I have long been a fan of Richard Russo and greatly enjoyed Empire Falls. His latest book is Bridge of Sighs and it was a delight. The rich character development, engaging storylines and nuanced and beautiful writing made this book a standout. It deals with a myriad of subjects including the affect of the past on our lives, matters of the heart, upbringing and human imperfection. Russo has the ability to show a character’s strengths and weaknesses in such a way that still allows you to feel fondness for them.
The other book I put off reading because I misjudged its premise. It is The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. The setting obviously, is a bar in Long Island. I thought a book about growing up around and in a bar would be a bit dark and sordid, but in this case it isn’t. It is a true coming-of-age story and the best look at interpersonal relationships I’ve read since Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (the latter being a work of fiction but loosely based on the relationship between the Stegners and another couple close to them). Moehringer, who lives in the greater Denver area now, writes with uncanny insight and, like Russo, reports on exceedingly interesting and eclectic characters. The only difference is that Moehringer’s characters are the real people–friends and relatives–who influenced his life.
These days I read more non-fiction than fiction, but I have always believed that great fiction can be just as educational as non-fiction. Neither of these books will provide you three steps to take for a better life, but they will do something much better: they’ll make you think about your life and your relationships. They’ll remind you of things that will delight you and of some things that will disappoint and maybe disgust you. And they’ll most likely provoke questions you’ve not considered before. A good book with do some of those things; a great book will do all those things.
One test I use for an extraordinary book is that I hate to see it end. Both of these books passed the test.