How To Choose Great Book Club Books

coverI originally posted my tips for choosing book club books in February –probably not the month when most book clubs are deciding what to read for the upcoming year. I’m reposting in September because so many book clubs meet for an academic year, starting in the fall. I’ve also included a list of some great new books full of material for discussion, with an eye toward books that may have been overlooked.

“What’s our next book?” — the dreaded question facing every book club. Here are some suggestions to help increase your chances of choosing a book that will inspire a fun and enlightening discussion:

  • Decide if you’re a democracy or a dictatorship. Will your group vote on the books, or will each member be given the chance to make an executive decision on your monthly selection?
  • Don’t worry about whether everyone will like the book. Some of the best book club discussions happen when not everyone likes the book. And sometimes a member who came into the meeting with a negative opinion of the book goes home with a new appreciation for it.
  • And don’t worry about liking fictional characters. You’re not befriending them, you’re discussing why they behave as they do.
  • Don’t be afraid of nonfiction. I think nonfiction books often provide the best material for discussion. Just stay away from books that are overtly political.
  • Unless you’re a very literary group, choose books that focus on interesting issues. Your book club meeting most likely isn’t going to resemble a college English seminar. You’ll probably have more cover-2fun talking about the ethical problems presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks than the imagery in The Age of Innocence.
  • Pick a book that is the right length for the amount of time your group has to read it. Don’t choose The Goldfinch if your group is meeting in three weeks.
  • Don’t choose The Luminaries (or anything of similar density) if your group is the type that discusses the book for 15 minutes and then moves on to more important things — like where you should meet the next month.
  • Beware of books that one of your members describes as “uplifting” or “feel-good”. There won’t be much to talk about.
  • There will always be people in your book group who label everything you suggest “depressing”. Don’t fret about it. Almost every book that is worthy of discussion will seem depressing to these people.
  • Take advantage of all the resources that are available online and in your community. There are countless websites devoted to book clubs, including lists of suggested books. Your local library and bookstore will be happy to make recommendations for you, and to let you know what other groups are reading.
  • Ask your friends (especially out-of-town friends) what their book clubs have read and how successful their choices were. Post “Any great book club books you can recommend?” as your Facebook status.
  • Consider organizing a book exchange. Have everyone bring a book he or she has recently read and trade books. At the next meeting, briefly review all the books and if one stands out, choose it for an in-depth discussion.
  • TheBoysintheBoatLeave some flexibility in your schedule; don’t choose books for the whole year — or if you do, be prepared to make changes.
  • If your group is having a hard time finishing books — or agreeing on book choices — read a short story or an essay. You could even spend the year reading The Best American Short Stories 2014 or The Best American Essays 2014. Think about choosing books that have won major prizes (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker) or have received good reviews in publications you trust.
  • Think about choosing a book that has a film adaptation; read the book, watch the movie, and compare. This past summer, my group read and watched The Fault in Our Stars and The Hundred-Foot Journey. We are planning on reading Wild this fall in preparation for the movie release.
  • Couples’ book groups can be a lot of fun, but make sure you decide on a book that appeals to both men and women.  Our group had a great discussion of John Boyne’s The Absolutist. (You can’t go wrong with The Boys in the Boat or Unbroken.)

Here are 10 books that I think book groups would enjoy reading and discussing. Some of them have been popular, but others have been overlooked. I’d love to know what your group has been reading!

The Enchanted (Rene Denfeld) — Magical realism on death row . . . a mesmerizing reading experience.

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) — The best World War II novel — actually, the best novel — I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s the story of a blind girl in France and a conscripted German soldier, and how their lives intersect.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Sheri Fink) — The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina.

The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison) — Collection of essays about a wide variety of topics — poverty tourism, phantom diseases, incarceration, street violence, reality TV — but with a common thread: how empathy makes us fully human.

we-are-called-to-rise-9781476738963_lgOrange Is the New Black (Piper Kerman) — I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but I hear it’s very different from the book. Kerman’s memoir of her year in a women’s prison raises many questions about our criminal justice system.

You Should Have Known (Jean Hanff Korelitz) — Grace Sachs is a therapist and the author of a popular book cautioning women to take a good hard look at potential husbands. But it turns out Grace hasn’t taken her own advice, when her own husband disappears.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra) — A powerful novel about the human cost of warfare in the recent wars in Chechnya.

We Are Called to Rise (Laura McBride) — The lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story.

The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe) — When Schwalbe’s mother was undergoing chemotherapy, she and her son found that talking about books helped them connect.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (Wes Moore) — The true story of two boys names Wes Moore who grew up within a few blocks of each other in Baltimore — one became a convicted murderer and one became a Rhodes Scholar.

The Story Hour — Book Review

9780062259301This is how you build me, Maggie. Hour by hour. Story by story. Day by day. This is how you give me my whole lifes.

I discovered Thrity Umrigar in 2006 when I fell in love with her second novel, The Space Between Us — the story of the relationship between a middle-class woman in Bombay and her maid. I recall suggesting the book to nearly everyone who walked in the bookstore asking for a recommendation.

In The Story Hour, Umrigar returns to familiar territory — friendship between two “unequals”. Maggie, a psychologist, abandons professional propriety when she agrees to treat Lakshmi, a poor Indian immigrant, at no charge in her home office. Lakshmi, who is cut off from her family in India and trapped in a miserable marriage, has made an amateurish attempt at suicide. Maggie convinces Lakshmi’s husband, Adit (always referred to as “the husband” by Lakshmi) that Lakshmi can only be released from the hospital if she visits Maggie for weekly therapy appointments.

Lakshmi thinks of her weekly appointments with Maggie, her psychologist, as “story hours” — times for her to share her life experiences with the only person who is interested in listening to her. When Lakshmi arrives for her first appointment bearing home-cooked food for Maggie and her husband, Sudhir, Maggie tries, with little success, to explain the concept of the doctor-patient relationship. Maggie understands Indian culture fairly well, having been married to an Indian man for many years:

What did Lakshmi think this was? Happy hour? That they were going to spend the time chitchatting? Maggie knew that the very concept of therapy was alien to Lakshmi. Even among Sudhir’s educated family members in India, her profession was the butt of many jokes and eye-rolling . . . She was pretty sure that someone from Lakshmi’s peasant rural background couldn’t fathom the concept of paying a doctor to listen to her problems.

Eventually, Lakshmi grows to trust Maggie, developing a deep affection that enables her to share her guilty secrets. Lakshmi and Maggie both share the common bond of having lost their mothers at an early age. Maggie and Sudhir help Lakshmi gain independence, teaching her to drive and finding catering and cleaning jobs for her.  Maggie — and the reader — first see Adit as a controlling and possibly abusive husband, but his behavior becomes more understandable as the story behind his marriage to Lakshmi emerges.

What Lakshmi doesn’t understand is that the friendship is not a relationship of equals. Maggie is older and more educated than her patient/friend — and she has been keeping a very big secret from Lakshmi. When Lakshmi stumbles upon that secret, she is shattered.

The Story Hour is every bit as insightful and thought-provoking as The Space Between Us. Maggie and Lakshmi are two of the most well-developed and believable characters I’ve encountered in recent literary fiction. Their husbands play supporting roles, but they too are characters of substance and depth. There are no heroes or villains in this novel — just ordinary people struggling with important questions in life. To what extent do our stories determine the paths our lives will take?  What is the meaning and value of  “storytelling” (both in the sense of sharing life stories and in the sense of “tattling”)? Can we forgive someone whose betrayal strikes at the very heart of our relationship?

The novel is told in the alternating perspectives of Maggie and Lakshmi. Lakshmi, an immigrant with limited education, speaks in broken English: “I reminder everything that Maggie say and do, how she make me feel comfortable and safe. How she take me for that walk out of the lockup and show me I human being and not the animal. My heart break like glass bangle when I thinks of Maggie.” I’m sure this is authentic — Thrity Umrigar certainly knows how a recent Indian immigrant might speak — but at first I found Lakshmi’s speech patterns distracting. Her incorrect English also has the effect of infantilizing her. It also seems somewhat derogatory. Also, there is one section (when she confesses a long-held secret to Maggie) in which she speaks with correct grammar. I’d be interested in learning more about why the author (and editor) made these decisions about her use of English.

The ending of The Story Hour (which, of course, I won’t reveal) is ambiguous –and I thought it was perfect. However, readers who like their loose ends tied up at the conclusion of a novel will not be satisfied. Book groups will undoubtedly argue about the ending. There’s plenty more to think about and discuss in The Story Hour, which has a well-paced and unpredictable plot for a character-driven novel.

Earlier this month, NPR interviewed Thrity Umrigar about “the unlikely — and medically unethical — friendship between a psychologist and a patient” in The Story Hour. To listen to the podcast and/or read the interview highlights, click here.

To read more reviews, click on TLC Book Tours.

 

 

 

Further Out Than You Thought — Book Review

9780062292377Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Stevie Smith

Gwendolyn Griffin is a 25-year-old graduate student in creative writing, paying her tuition and her rent with the income she makes as a stripper at a seedy nightclub near the airport. At the club, she calls herself “Stevie”, after the British poet Stevie Smith.

Gwen was quiet. She spent her time reading, filling notebooks with her inky scrawl . . . Stevie was an invention, sprung from Gwen’s imagination. She was shameless, free as the sky, or death — those curtains that enclose us and that we cannot touch. Stevie did things that would make Gwen blush to watch, things that would mortify her, were she to dwell on them.

Like the speaker in Smith’s poem, “Not Waving But Drowning”, Gwen is isolated and unable to communicate her desperation. She lives with her boyfriend, Leo, an unemployed musician who spends his days dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier, standing on a street corner trying to sell his tapes. Her mother died when Gwen was a child, and she’s never recovered from the trauma — nor has she repaired her relationship with her father.

The events in Further Out Than You Thought take place in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. The chaos of the city reflects the chaos of Gwen’s life. When she started working at the strip club, she thought she would work there for “a year, no more” and “enter this world which had intrigued her, this other side of life, the underbelly . . . She’d hoped this world would fuel her creativity, wake her up with its strange terrain, give her something compelling to write poems about . . .”

But now that this world has become familiar to her, Gwen wonders “how much further would she need to go to draw that exacting line and keep well enough behind it?” Having just discovered she is pregnant, Gwen is at a crossroads.  Having been abandoned by her own mother, is she capable of being a mother herself? Can she leave Stevie behind and “learn to love herself — bruises, blemishes, worries, and all”? Is it possible for “quixotic”  Leo to live in the real world and be a partner and father? Gwen sees herself as “the anchor to his boat, the anchor he managed still to pull up here and there to sail the pirate-ridden seas”.

In an attempt to escape the violence surrounding them, Gwen, Leo, and their friend, Count Valiant, impulsively decide to drive across the border to Tijuana.  Leo and Valiant are reminiscent of the “lost boys” in Neverland; Leo even calls Gwen “Tinkerbell”. In Tijuana, Gwen visits a psychic, who reminds her of her grandmother — and of the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Gwen “felt like Dorothy” after her visit to the psychic; the next morning, she awakens to Valiant singing “Over the Rainbow”.  (Dorothy, of course, returns to Kansas after her sojourn in Oz.) Gwen recognizes that Leo and Valiant will never become part of the adult world.

Michaela CarterMichaela Carter has written a powerful coming-of-age novel that captures the loneliness and confusion of a young woman who believes herself to be truly alone. Carter’s writing is lovely — it’s easy to tell she is a poet. She uses recurring motifs–  especially water and the color red — effectively. However, a word of warning: the book IS about a stripper, so it’s quite sexually explicit, and the language is occasionally crude. It’s an edgier novel than I normally read, but I’m glad TLC Book Tours gave me the opportunity to review this book, because I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own.

Not only is Michaela Carter a novelist, a painter, a creative writing teacher, and an award-winning poet, she is a bookseller. Recently she cofounded the Peregrine Book Company, an independent bookstore in Prescott, Arizona.  According to the bookstore’s website, two of Carter’s recent favorite novels are All the Light We Cannot See and The Enchanted — two of my favorites as well. Further Out Than You Thought was selected as an IndieNext Pick by the American Booksellers Association for August — quite an honor for any book, but especially for a debut novel.

 tlc logo

Back to School — 10 Favorite Campus Novels

I’ve always been drawn to novels set in the academy. I like the parochial closed world in which incompatible people are forced to come to terms with one another. I like the relatively high tolerance for oddity and the relatively low threat of physical violence. I like characters who speak in complete sentences, use lofty vocabulary and sprinkle their repartee with literary references.
Cynthia Crossen, “Back to School” in the Wall Street Journal

September used to be the traditional “back to school” month, but August has become the new September. (I would love it if someone could provide me with a good explanation of this phenomenon — but if it has anything to do with football schedules, I don’t want to hear it.) College students are moving into dorm rooms, children are buying new backpacks and sneakers, and teachers are preparing classrooms and lesson plans.

9780525426684MLast week, when I visited Lake Forest Academy’s campus for Lake Forest Book Store’s author event with Rebecca Makkai, the school was feverishly getting the campus ready for the upcoming year. But in the beautiful Little Theater in the historic Armour House, where tea with Rebecca took place, no sounds of construction could be heard. The audience was enraptured with Rebecca’s reading from her new novel, The Hundred-Year House.

Just back from a book tour on the East Coast, Rebecca was on her home turf. A native of Chicago’s North Shore, she has taught at Lake Forest Academy, as well as at Forest Bluff Montessori School and Lake Forest College.

The Hundred-Year House has received rave reviews from the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, NPR Books, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, People, and many more publications — and was selected as one of Oprah’s top “summer reads”. I loved Rebecca’s debut novel, The Borrower, and was thrilled when our Penguin sales rep gave me a bound galley of The Hundred-Year House. I sent him the following mini-review:

Once an artists’ colony, now a luxurious private home, the “hundred-year house” has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure — the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 — Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. Rebecca’s gorgeous writing enthralled me from the first page. She lives and works in the Chicago suburb where our store is located and where the story takes place, but I would have been just as mesmerized even if I hadn’t been curious about her portrayal of our town.

What I didn’t mention is that academia and campus life (specifically, inter-departmental politics at a small liberal arts college) are integral to The Hundred-Year House. I’ve always enjoyed novels set on campuses — it must be nostalgia for my school days. I think the first adult book I ever read that took place at a school was The Catcher in the Rye, when I was 12 or 13, and I remember wondering if there really was a Pencey Prep. (No, but the McBurney School did exist.)

So, in the spirit of “back to school” (which really should be next month, but nobody asked me), here are 10 of my favorite campus novels, old and new:

The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch
A coming-of-age story about a young man who leaves his political career and devoted girlfriend behind to spend a year studying at Oxford. This is Finch’s first contemporary novel–he’s best known for his Charles Lenox Victorian mysteries.

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical debut novel is set at Princeton (which he attended, but did not graduate from): “From the first he loved Princeton—its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds, and under it all the air of struggle that pervaded his class.”

2e5fadd2709fcd35faa8523e11a328bdThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I have zero interest in college baseball, but I savored this story of students, faculty, and administrators at fictional Westish College in Wisconsin. It’s one of my all-time favorites. The Melville references are a bonus.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Portia Nathan is an admissions officer at Princeton, involved in a stale relationship with an English professor. The novel was made into a movie starring Tina Fey — of course, the book is better.

Straight Man by Richard Russo
Russo is one of my favorite authors, and Straight Man is Russo at his best. It’s a smart and touching satire about an English professor at a little-known university.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher9780385538138
I just read this one — it came out yesterday!  It’s a hilarious (and short) novel made up of letters of recommendation that English professor Jason Fitzger is constantly called upon to write.

Moo by Jane Smiley
Even more satirical than Straight Man, Moo pokes fun at every aspect of university life.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Since the publication of The Goldfinch, there’s renewed interest in Tartt’s first book — a very smart literary mystery that moves backwards in time.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
This surprisingly insightful novel follows four young women through their college years at Smith and afterwards. It’s a familiar formula (remember Mary McCarthy’s The Group?) but Sullivan makes it fresh.

9780375701498Old School by Tobias Wolff
Prep school novels are tough. Most of them don’t ring true to me. This one, about a scholarship student at an elite boarding school in the 1960s, is beautifully written and authentic.

Last December, Rebecca Makkai was kind enough to spend a few hours at Lake Forest Book Store as our guest bookseller for a day. (Author Sherman Alexie spearheaded this program, which brought authors into independent bookstores to sell books.) Rebecca highly recommended Virgins, a prep school novel by Pamela Erens, which I promptly bought . . . and haven’t read yet.  It will be my back to school book!

 

STL150

10 Dog Books — That Won’t Make You Cry

photo

Stanley

Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.
John Grogan, Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog

My daughter and son-in-law are the proud new “parents” of Stanley, the world’s most adorable yellow Labrador puppy. Stanley’s breeder has the following warning to prospective dog owners on her website:

If you have read the book (Marley and Me), you will know that although Marley was a sweet boy, he was NOT a good one . . . he was a NIGHTMARE! Although his owners loved him, they did not enjoy him to the fullest because he was so out-of-control . . . Many, many dogs with this type of personality (not just labs) end up in shelters.

Of course, she is right. I think the same phenomenon happened in the 1960s when the movie 101 Dalmatians (also based on a book) was released. People adopted Dalmatians because of their cute spotted coats, not realizing how much energy those dogs have.

Marley and Me, like so many dog books, ends with the dog’s death. Even children’s books about dogs — Where the Red Fern Grows,  Old Yeller,  Sounder — need to be read with a box of tissues nearby. And anyone who doesn’t get choked up at the end of The Art of Racing in the Rain must have a cold heart.

So here are some terrific books about dogs that probably won’t make you cry:

T9780061374234he Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Wroblewski’s debut novel (and to date, only novel) is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Edgar Sawtelle, who is mute, helps his family raise and train a fictional breed of very intelligent and intuitive dogs on their farm on Wisconsin. When a family tragedy occurs, Edgar embarks on an odyssey with three loyal dogs. Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy the many parallels to Hamlet.

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
I’ve never forgotten this quirky novel, which came out about 10 years ago. After his wife dies in a fall from a tree — witnessed only by the family dog, Lorelei — a linguistics professor attempts to teach his dog to talk so he can find out if her death was a suicide.

James Herriot’s Dog Stories: Warm and Wonderful Stories About the Animals Herriot Loves Best by James Herriot
There was no “YA” when I was a teenager. So I read all James Herriot’s books, starting with All Creatures Great and Small. (That’s when I wasn’t reading Flowers in the Attic , The Thorn Birds, or The Flame and the Flower — remember those?)  His very best dog stories are all now compiled in one book.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver9781594204784M
This lovely little book, according to the New York Times, “transcends its dogginess. It’s also about love, impermanence, and the tears in things . . . Her poems, with their charity and lyric clarity, can provide the kind of solace that dogs give”.

Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp
Knapp’s memoir explores both her relationship with her own rescue dog, who helped her through grief and recovery from addiction, and animal-human relationships in general.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
One evening, Thomas’s husband, Richard, took their dog, Harry, out for a walk — and Harry returned alone. Richard had been hit by a car and was permanently brain-damaged. Thomas reinvents her life and her marriage — with the help of Harry and two more dogs.

9781250001795The Good Boy by Theresa Schwegel
The “good boy” of the title refers not only to 11-year-old Joel Murphy (son of Chicago K9 police officer Pete Murphy), but to Butchie, Pete’s police dog. The New York Times says, “For all the dog books currently in vogue, it’s hard to beat this one for canine verisimilitude or talent. Butchie is a fully credible character . . . The dog elevates a fairly conventional detective story into something much more lovable”.

Sweetwater Creek by Anne River Siddons
What a great combination — a “beach book” about dogs!  It’s the coming-of-age story about a young girl whose family breeds Boykin spaniels on their plantation in South Carolina. After reading this novel, I thought (briefly) about adopting a Boykin, the state dog of South Carolina. (Does Illinois have a state dog?)

Mountaintop-CoverThe Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney

Full disclosure: I don’t know if this book will make you cry because I haven’t read it yet. Just published this month, it’s about a young woman, fresh out of a rehab program, who rebuilds her life at a sanctuary for abused dogs. Publishers Weekly says, “Cooney has crafted a feel-good, canine-filled tale of cross-generational friendship, healing, and solidarity.

Good Dog: Stories of Man’s Best Friend and the Writers Who Love Them by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun 

Before I read this book, I had never heard of Garden & Gun magazine — not surprising, since I’m not much of a gardener and I don’t own a gun. The magazine runs a monthly column called “Good Dog” — beautifully written essays by well-known authors about the kinship between humans and their canine companions. It’s coming out in November, and it’s a real treat — I started out planning to read a story or two, and ended up reading the whole book.

Daphne

Daphne

And finally, I don’t want to brag . . . but I can’t help mentioning that my sister’s Brittany Spaniel puppy, Daphne, was just chosen “dog of the week” at the Wellesley Booksmith (in suburban Boston) where she is a “frequent visitor”!STL300_border

WWW Wednesday — Husband/Wife Version

IMG_0759A few weeks ago, my mother and I answered three questions:

What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?

Today, I’ll answer those questions for my husband, Jeff, and me. We are busy planning a trip to Europe, with visits to Amsterdam, Ghent, Paris, Normandy, and Brittany. So we have stacks of books that take place in those locations . . . many more than we can ever read, I’m afraid!

I’m currently reading Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, a novel about tulipomania, art, and a 9780385334921love triangle in 17th century Amsterdam. In 2000, when the novel was published, the New York Times said “Moggach’s sumptuous prose creates an impression of serenity that belies the passions just beneath the surface of Amsterdam in the 1630s, where the tulip market is reaching record highs . . . it’s a novel that ponders what it means to push things too far, and keenly examines what the consequences might be.” As the Publishers Weekly review pointed out, it is “popular fiction created at a high pitch of craft and rapid readability”. I’m enjoying the short chapters, each providing different points of view and each opening with an appropriate philosophical quotation.

9781610390965Jeff is in the middle of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, by Noah Charney. If you  read Monuments Men (or saw the movie based on the book), you’ll recall the scene where the Allies discover Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, colloquially known as the “Ghent Altarpiece”, hidden in a German salt mine. Charney says, “For all its adventures, the biography of the Ghent Altarpiece, an inanimate object, reads as far more dramatic than the life of any human being”.Alexander_FlirtingFrench_jkt_FinalComp.indd

I just finished Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart, by William Alexander. (I read an advance copy — it will be published in mid-September.) The author is a Francophile who very badly wants to become fluent in French, and tries every available educational method — but finds it’s impossible for him. The book is filled with humor — as well as all sorts of interesting information about linguistics, neuroscience, and French history and culture. If you like Bill Bryson, you’ll love William Alexander.

9780544290488This month marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Jeff recently read — and highly recommends — two books about the First World War. The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War is based on interviews with the last surviving American veterans of World War I. Author Richard Rubin tracked down dozens of surviving veterans (all over 100 years old at the time of the interviews, and all now deceased) and recorded their experiences fighting 9780300191592in the trenches. Jeff also read Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. It’s a new translation of the actual wartime diaries of a French soldier. Barthas spent four years in almost constant combat, fighting in every major French battle. Somehow he managed to chronicle his experiences in a series of notebooks. When he arrived home, he added information (letters, official reports, clippings, etc.), eventually filling 19 volumes. (By the way, “poilu” means “hairy one” in French and is the French version of the American “doughboy” — an infantryman.)

9780062306814What’s up next? I’ll be reading The Hundred-Foot Journey for my book/movie club. Part of the book takes place in France, and Anthony Bourdain says it’s “easily the best novel ever set in the world of cooking” — sounds wonderful! I’m also looking forward to reading The Miniaturist (due August 26), by Jessie Burton — more historical fiction about 17th century Amsterdam. It was inspired by a miniatures cabinet now housed in the Rijksmuseum.cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lg

Jeff has a treat in store – All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, my favorite book of 2014 — so far. (Coincidentally, miniatures also play an important role in this novel.) We’ll be visiting the walled city of Saint-Malo, which was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1944 and which is where the paths of the book’s main characters converge. I found through Google Maps that 4 rue Vauborel really does exist, so we will have to find out what’s there today . . . perhaps a “tall, narrow house”?

 

STL300_border

The New Men — Book Review

New-Men-ECov-199x300“For us, the new man, he is one of two things,” Torassian said eagerly. “First, he is the new worker, a man we instruct and investigate until his probation is complete. But also he is an idea. In the foundry, they make parts. On the line, they make autos. But in Sociological, we make men.”

Anthony Grams (born Antonio Gramazio) comes to America with his family at the start of the 20th century in search of a better life. Bright and ambitious, Tony lands a job at Ford Motor Company in the Sociological Department, responsible for investigating the personal lives of Ford workers and determining if they are worthy of Ford profit-sharing.

It’s a familiar story, of course; many novels and nonfiction accounts have been written about the immigrant experience. Jon Enfield’s novel, The New Men, takes that experience and blends it with the story of the burgeoning auto industry.

The New Men is an ambitious novel — perhaps too ambitious. There are an overwhelming number  of characters, some based on actual historical figures (Henry Ford, Samuel Marquis, James Couzens, and many more), some inspired by and loosely based by historical figures, and some completely fictional. Along with its large cast of characters, The New Men attempts to cover the major issues of the early 20th century — race relations, anti-Semitism, industrialization, labor unions, World War I, socialism, immigration . . .

In his author’s note, Enfield (who has a Ph.D. in American literature), describes how he came to write the novel, which he first conceived as an academic article:

How does becoming the right kind of worker for an assembly line both require and demand that someone become a new kind of person altogether? What was Ford Motor Company teaching its workers?  . . . What did they learn from streets transformed first by trolley cars, then by automobiles? What did all of that mean while European streets and meadows alike were becoming assembly lines of death, dismemberment, and madness?

I pored over blueprints of the various Ford plans, descriptions of its increasingly international business empire, over schematics of the line, Model T drivers’ manuals and advertising, over the surviving records of Sociological/Educational . . . And I eventually realized it was too big for an article. That, in fact, it was too big and powerful and complex for me to do justice to as anything but a novel.

The story of the “New Men” of the 20th century is indeed “big and powerful and complex”. By telling the story through the eyes of Tony Grams, Enfield attempts to take many threads and tie them together in a single narrative. I’m not entirely sure how successful he is. His subject is fascinating, and obviously very thoroughly researched. Much of his material comes from original documents in the Ford archives. Enfield’s passion for his topic comes through in his writing. The reader can tell that he is bursting with information and ideas he wants to include in the story.

I really appreciate all the period details in the novel, especially the speech patterns and slang. Enfield mentions in his author’s note that he “wanted to get the historical facts and cultural perspectives right but also to capture how different people in Detroit spoke and wrote in the 1910s”. (I’ve frequently been annoyed when characters in historical fiction speak in what I consider 21st century speech patterns.) Enfield says, ” The editors and I promise you that if a particular character writes or says something a certain way, we went to great lengths to verify that a similar, actual person in that time and place might well have written or spelled it that way”.

That being said, I think I would have enjoyed reading about Henry Ford’s “New Men” more if the focus of the novel had been narrower. There was simply too much going on for me to become emotionally invested in any of the characters, even Tony. The book certainly piqued my curiosity about the early days of the Ford Motor Company; I ended up reading the book with my laptop by my side, so I could google things as I read.

I wonder what would have happened if Enfield had decided to write narrative nonfiction about a very specific aspect of immigrant life in Detroit –The Ford Sociological Department, the Girls’ Protective League, even the kosher meat riots. But, as he says, historical fiction has an advantage, since “sometimes history simply refuses to provide a decent love interest or a wryly amusing supporting character”.

If you’re interested in reading The New Men, please know that it’s published by a small publisher, Wayzgoose Press, and is available as an e-book (through Kobo, etc.) and that independent bookstores will order it as a print on demand title.

To read more reviews of The New Men, please visit TLC Book Tours.