ESTHER CEPEDA: Heard any good books lately?

11/25/2011 6:53 PM

11/25/2011 6:54 PM

I read voraciously. Two local and two national newspapers cover-to-cover and dozens of websites daily, most of what my Twitter timeline feeds me, and stacks of weekly and monthly news magazines.

How do I unwind from the all-consuming work of reading — and writing — news for a living? I listen to audio books.

I've gotten 39 under my belt so far this year, not including Walter Isaacson's ``Steve Jobs,'' which I'm just getting into. Plus, I still have December left, so I might break a personal record.

Since this is book-buying/gift-giving season — I thought I'd share some of my favorites from 2011.

Loving many genres, I could suggest an eccentric Western (``The Sisters Brothers'' by Patrick deWitt); an infuriating look at the housing market collapse (Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner's ``Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon"); or gory mysteries (Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series is not to be missed).

I could also steer you toward a very human tale of apocalypse (``The Leftovers'' by Tom Perrotta); a manual for professional excellence (``Great By Choice'' by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen); or the most fascinating biography of an astronomer you'll ever read (``A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos'' by Dava Sobel).

But I'm curating a category I call ``stories with diverse characters that aren't about diversity.'' That sounds weird, I know. There are people making big bucks by writing for and about niche groups, but I'm allergic to books that are specifically marketed as being about ``the (insert-your-own-gender/race/ethnicity/sexual orientation-here) experience.'' Who cares? If an author weaves a magnificently engaging story that moves you, it doesn't matter what demographic the protagonists or antagonists represent.

This said, here are five really engrossing books I read in 2011 where race, ethnicity or legal status were present — but only as interesting side details.

I'll start with the Mindy Kaling's ``Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?'' This giggle-out-loud autobiography written by a writer/producer/co-star of the hit TV show ``The Office,'' and read by her in the audio book version, made me love it because of its multiple references to the comedic genius of Will Ferrell.

Hilarious stories about growing up chubby (as I did) touched me as much as hearing how Kaling, an all-American daughter of immigrants from India, dealt with growing up bicultural. You'll love this book if you hate Frisbee and adored the comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall.

Next up is ``The Barbarian Nurseries'' by Hector Tobar, a former national and foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. This one is controversial because it includes a main character that represents a true-to-life stereotype that so many Latinos hate portrayed in entertainment: the illegal-immigrant Mexican maid.

Never mind that, this is a brilliantly written book about the Torres-Thompson family, an over-privileged clan comprised of a young white mom, her half-white, half-Hispanic husband, their three spoiled children and the bristly, aforementioned maid, Araceli. When the two sons are unexpectedly left with Araceli for several days a modern day, L.A.-style Homerian Odyssey unfolds. This book is fist-clenchingly good.

What could I possibly say about Jennifer Egan's ``A Visit From the Goon Squad'' that wasn't raved about by everyone who'd read it, even before it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last spring? It weaves the, let's say, ``unique'' life stories of the people orbiting Bennie Salazar, a high-powered music executive whose life we see unfold from the young teen punk era to record producer to social-media marketing genius in a future eerily like our present.

Next comes a novel that a reader suggested to me after seeing a column I wrote featuring ``Dogfight, A Love Story,'' about the adventures of young father-to-be Alfredo Batista's life in Jackson Heights, N.Y., written by the non-Latino author Matt Burgess.

Finally, ``Last Night at the Lobster'' by Stewart O'Nan, published in 2007, is a beautifully detailed slice-of-life drama that narrates Manny DeLeon's managerial and personal duties during his final day at a Red Lobster slated by the corporate office to close permanently. There are no ethnic tensions or immigration woes here, just a fascinating account of a regular Joe trying to get through a last day at work that comes only a few days before Christmas.

Enjoy all of these books and please let me know what you think of them. And while you're at it, send me your picks for next year's ``Best of the 'Diverse-But-Not-About-Diversity' Books'' column.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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