October's 5 must-read books

"Lives Other Than My Own" is a wise study of the roots and rewards of altruism.

Story highlights

  • Oprah.com's picks for October reads
  • "Lives Other Than My Own" shows how even the most self-obsessed can find grace and joy
  • "The Forgotten Waltz" reminds that love can be miraculous and still destroy everything in its path
Lives Other Than My Own
By Emmanuel Carrère
You'd have to call 2005 a very tough year for Emmanuel Carrère and his family: After barely escaping a tsunami while vacationing in Sri Lanka, they returned home to Paris to witness the death of Carrère's partner's sister. While Lives Other Than My Own (Metropolitan) might have been just another "why me?" memoir, it is, in the French novelist and biographer's hands, a wise study of the roots and rewards of altruism. With clear-eyed reporting, never-treacly compassion, and, yes, a healthy dose of French philosophizing, Carrère shows us how even the most self-obsessed can find grace and joy in the simplest acts of kindness.
Birds of Paradise
By Diana Abu-Jaber
The Southern Florida of Birds of Paradise (Norton) is a "temporary enchantment...people behave here in ways they never would back in Naperville and Houston and Scranton." Maybe, but the problems that beset Miami's Muir family in Diana Abu-Jaber's affecting novel are all too common: Teenage daughter Felice has run away from home; 20-something son Stanley has just shown up with a pregnant girlfriend, demanding money; parents Avis, a pastry chef, and Brian, a real estate attorney, are facing their own marital and financial problems. While the beautiful, haunted Felice is the heart of this novel -- and her scenes in tattoo parlors, bars, and beaches the most compelling -- Abu-Jaber makes us wonder about more than what will happen to one girl with a guilty secret. What, after all, does it mean to be a family? Is love really "exchangeable, malleable"? We can't help turning pages full of stunning prose to find out.
Mr. Fox
By Helen Oyeyemi
In a make-believe world of talking animals and courtly love, you might expect a dastardly plot or two. But as Helen Oyeyemi's vibrant novel Mr. Fox (Riverhead) makes clear, even pretend danger can be dangerous. "You're a villain," Mary, the literary muse of our antihero, the novelist St. John Fox, tells him. "You kill women. You're a serial killer." Mr. Fox doesn't share Mary's outrage, however. "It's ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction," he protests. But Mary knows better, and she constructs an elaborate series of adventures to teach Mr. Fox some lessons about his attitudes toward life and love. Based in part on a classic French folk tale, these labyrinthine tales-within-a-tale show him -- and us -- a powerful truth: that even ideas born of our imagination matter in the real world.
The Arrogant Years
By Lucette Lagnado
With precision and searing honesty, Lucette Lagnado writes in The Arrogant Years (Ecco) about her torn allegiances as both an Egyptian Jew growing up in America in the 1960s and '70s and the youngest daughter of unhappily married parents. Her haunting 2007 memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, explored the exile of her dashing father, Leon, who fled Cairo as Nasser came to power. Here, Lagnado focuses on her mother, Edith, whose story is at least as tragic, whose relationship with the daughter she called Loulou is even more complex. Having abandoned a prestigious career (as the private librarian to a wealthy Egyptian family) to marry Leon, Edith becomes a passive, resentfully submissive wife. But after the couple and their four children are forced to resettle in America, Edith shows a strong will, finding a job at a Brooklyn library and micromanaging Loulou's education. Yet Edith has no desire to assimilate. She desperately tries to hold her family together "in this post-Cairo exile of ours where there were few standards and we all felt unmoored." Loulou basks in the cosseting of her parents' immigrant community as a child, then pulls away in adolescence. But once successfully integrated into the secular society her parents resisted, Lagnado, a writer at the Wall Street Journal, finds herself nostalgic for her insular childhood -- "forever yearning for that sense of absolute protection, that feeling of being watched over and loved."
The Forgotten Waltz
By Anne Enright
In America we like our adultery straight up: a bubble of illicit passion that ends in regret. That's not what Irish novelist Anne Enright is serving in The Forgotten Waltz (Norton), which forgoes the simple morality tale for something more complex and satisfying. The novel begins as the otherwise involved Gina first sees the love of her life, the also-spoken-for Seán. Detailing the standard stuff of clandestine affairs -- tawdry hotels, wife-stalking -- Enright does not hide the ugliness of betrayal. But her real story is about the once illicit lovers' fraught attempt to live as a family -- one that includes Seán's alarmingly strange preadolescent daughter, Evie. Casting aside cultural bromides about the immorality of affairs, Enright puts us squarely in the center of a terrible truth: Love can be miraculous -- and still destroy everything in its path.