The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial, 1988).
I am a fan of Kingsolver but missed this early novel, which I found at a book swap. If you enjoy reading about people and places different from yourself, you will appreciate this book. While fairly short (unlike The Poisonwood Bible), it evokes the natural and cultural environments of several parts of the U.S. that I have never visited, while telling an interesting story with good humor. The main character, a young woman from a poor family, leaves rural Kentucky and after a few months stay near an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, ends up in Tucson, Arizona. Along the way she acquires a toddler girl, a set of friends, and a job, and adapts to her new home. Woven into the story are frank discussions of poverty and minimum wage employment, the fate of illegal immigrants from Guatemala, and the reasons children end up in foster care. Although a fair amount of gardening happens in the book, the bean trees do not contain actual beans.
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).
The other short (180 page) novel I found at the book swap was this gem by an unknown (to me) author, Jonathan Miles. It is written as one long letter to American Airlines by a passenger stranded in an airport, demanding a refund because he missed his only child’s wedding. His tale of woe is essentially his entire life story. It is soon clear that all the mistakes he made in his life have combined to make the wedding even more important than it might otherwise be. The Library of Congress subject heading is “introspection – fiction” which, while accurate, completely fails to convey the humor Miles brings to ordinary situations that makes the novel worth reading.