Happy Valentine’s Day from Books on the Table

5420858438_dcd0f290db_bAll you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.
Charles M. Schulz

I think . . . if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there as many kinds of love as there are hearts.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I’ve never had strong feelings about Valentine’s Day. I always thought it was a nice little holiday, reminding people to take a little time to celebrate the loving relationships in their lives. Who doesn’t enjoy candy, heart-shaped cookies, flowers, special dinners, and cards (sweet, mushy, or funny . . .  carefully chosen, or homemade)?

Apparently many people find Valentine’s Day offensive, and possibly even painful. Cara Paiuk wrote a long letter (reprinted in the Washington Post) detailing her many objections to school-mandated Valentine’s Day activities:

To my husband and I, Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday: a fabricated, hyper-commercialized event designed for retailers to peddle their wares and restaurants to fill seats. I also feel that it pressures couples to conform to a saccharine social norm while deprecating singledom, and I’ve seen people both in and out of relationships struggle with living up to the romantic expectations conjured by this collective cultural fantasy . . .Valentine’s Day is a cute and fun celebration of love to some, but it is a searing reminder of rejection, loneliness, and unrequited affection for many others.

23582852964_78de01cf44_bIf Paiuk had done a little research, she’d have learned that Valentine’s Day is far from a “Hallmark holiday”. The modern holiday is rooted in both ancient Roman traditions and early Christian history, and has been celebrated as St. Valentine’s Day since the 5th century A.D.  Americans have been exchanging handmade valentines since the 18th century, and the first commercial valentines became available in the mid-19th century when Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts founded the New England Valentine Company.

Paiuk has come up with an alternative to making valentines out of construction paper, glitter, and lace doilies — she and her family will be making “gratitude bookmarks”. Bookmarks can’t possibly offend anyone, although I have to admit I’m one of those terrible people who usually ends up dog-earing the pages of my books.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to stop criticizing Cara Paiuk’s campaign for “change, one heart at a time”, and start talking about books. My original intention was to update the list of great love stories I posted two years ago, but I realized I didn’t have many love stories to add.

9780805097320I’m currently reading Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks. Faulks is the author of one of my all-time favorite love stories, Birdsong. His latest novel, which I am devouring, returns to the trenches of World War I, and includes a doomed love affair as well. Bestselling author Faulks has received plenty of literary prizes and critical acclaim, but he’s also won the “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” — “the one literary award no writer really wants”.

An amazing number of books have the word “heart” in the title. According to Edelweiss (a website  for booksellers and librarians that aggregates publishers’ catalogs), 3,400 books with the word “heart” in the title were published in 2015. These included such gems as Cold-Hearted Rake and Montana Hearts: Her Weekend Wrangler, as well as dozens of books about heart-healthy diets and lifestyles and countless books about journeys into the “heart” of nearly any locale you could imagine. Edelweiss doesn’t include the gazillion self-published books now available, such as A Thug Stole My Heart and Cupid Has a Heart-On.

Looking at my own bookshelves, I saw many favorites, old and new, that you might not think of as Valentine’s Day books, but that have earned a special place in my heart:

y6481Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
A precocious 10-year-old orphan is evacuated from London during the Blitz — and is placed with a couple of marginally successful con artists. Darkly humorous yet touching, this book is Roald Dahl for grownups.

Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott
I love everything Anne Lamott has ever written. Most people are more familiar with her nonfiction, but she’s written several terrific novels. Crooked Little Heart is a coming-of-age story about a young girl playing on the junior tennis circuit.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I recently reread Heartburn, and it’s as funny and poignant today as it was when I first read it back in 1983. Nora Ephron exacted sweet revenge on her ex-husband, journalist Carl Bernstein, with this roman a clef about a pregnant cookbook writer and her philandering husband.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Another book I’ve read multiple times, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a Southern Gothic masterpiece. Published in 1940 when Carson McCullers was only 23, the novel hasn’t exactly been forgotten (it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2004), it’s been eclipsed by a similar book — To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000, Philbrick’s account of the survivors of the Essex shipwreck in 1820 is absolutely enthralling. I guess I like books about maritime disasters (and cannibalism) more than I like love stories.

9780544301986_hresHeart and Soul in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin
I like to cook, but I love reading cookbooks. This one is particularly fun to read, packed with anecdotes, essays, and cooking tips. The recipes are geared towards home cooks, not professional chefs, and there are great illustrations. Another favorite cookbook is John Besh’s Cooking From the Heart and Susan Branch’s The Heart of the Home (which is unfortunately out of print but available used.)

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth D. Samet
Elizabeth Samet has been an English professor at West Point since 1997, responsible for directing the introductory literature class for 1,100 freshmen (or “plebes”).  Part memoir, part meditation on literature and its place in both civilian and military society, the book is a fascinating glimpse at West Point life and a powerful argument for literature as a way to understand the world.

OldHeart_lrgOld Heart by Peter Ferry
When Peter Ferry taught high school English in Lake Forest, Illinois, one of his students was Dave Eggers. Eggers has high praise for his former teacher’s second novel:

Old Heart manages to weave together an astonishing array of themes and layers – the perils and freedoms of old age, the complexity of family ties, the liberation of travel, and finally, Ferry presents and proves the bold and needed idea that it’s never too late to re-open the past to recast the present.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the bottom of my heart!

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What to Read Next — February 2016

I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.
Beatrix Potter

Every reader knows the feeling. As you turn the final pages of a book, you start to think, But what will I read next? You look at the stack of unread books on your nightstand, or you search your computer for that list of must-read books you saved. You hunt for that little scrap of paper with the title of a book that a friend said you absolutely have to read. You plan a trip to the library or bookstore to pick up more books to add to your pile.

Of course, you can always hedge your bets by reading several books at a time. When you finish one, you just move on to the middle of the next one. Sooner or later, though, you have to choose a new book. Sometimes the choice is made for you — you need to read your next book club book, whether it’s something you’re in the mood for or not. Many of my favorite books have been books I’ve read out of obligation.

January was a terrific reading month for me, leaving me with several books I highly recommend and only a couple of disappointments. If you’re looking for your next great book, here are my most recent favorites:

9780399160301Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Four teenage narrators, each with a unique and memorable voice, tell the story of the events leading to the worst maritime disaster you’ve never heard of: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea during the final days of World War II. Nearly 10,000 people died, most of them refugees fleeing from the Soviets. Author Ruta Sepetys brilliantly constructs an addictive historical narrative that will appeal to readers who enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See or The Nightingale. (And isn’t that almost everyone?) Don’t be put off by the YA categorization — Salt to the Sea, like The Book Thief, is perfect for both teenagers and adults.

The Wall Street Journal calls Salt to the Sea “masterfully crafted”, noting that “Ruta Sepetys seizes on this tragic and forgotten episode to create a superlative novel.”

Sepetys is now on a national publicity tour — I’m looking forward to meeting her on Monday, February 8 at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. For her event schedule, check out her website.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
9780812988406When Breath Comes Air is one of those books you want to give to everyone you love. If you  start reading the book with a pen in hand, ready to underline your favorite passages, you’ll find yourself underlining almost the whole book. Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 37-year-old neurosurgeon, wrote the book after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He didn’t quite finish, but the memoir he left behind — with a beautiful foreword from Abraham Verghese and an equally lovely epilogue written by his widow, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi — is a masterpiece.

Ann Patchett says: “It’s a brilliant piece of writing and a singular and profound piece of thinking, but it’s also more than that: When Breath Becomes Air makes us stop and think about how gorgeous life is, how heart-wrenching and brief and amazing.”

y648Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Our YA book group at Lake Forest Book Store chose Challenger Deep because it was the 2015 National Book Award winner in the YA category. After I read the first 30 or 40 pages, I had no idea what was going on. I considered calling my co-leader and suggesting we apologize for our selection and pick another book. However, I decided to trust the National Book Award judges, and I persevered. I ended up loving this novel, which vividly recreates a teenage boy’s struggle with mental illness. The narrative switches between straightforward accounts and hallucinations, dreams, and distorted versions of reality. I don’t know if it’s ever really possible to comprehend mental illness, but Challenger Deep, more than anything I’ve ever read, helped me gain a bit of understanding.

51rc2b8fvkbl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s debut novel is a literary page-turner, perfectly blending evocative writing and deft characterization with a tension-filled — and creepy — plot. The novel is worth reading just for its setting, the isolated and dangerous Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. Miranda, a nature photographer, accepts a one-year assignment there, with only a few odd and unfriendly scientists for company. Not long after her arrival, one of them is found dead. Accidents happen all the time on the “islands of the dead”, but was this an accident?

The Chicago Tribune says:

Part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, part ode to one of the western world’s wildest landscapes, this dark, compelling tale is an astonishingly ambitious debut . . . In this, her first work of long-form fiction, Geni shuns predictable protocols of plot, character and setting. Taking a leap off the literary cliff is not for wimps. It’s a testament to Geni’s skills that she takes her readers with her.

My next two books will be While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness by Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Sanders,to scratch my true crime itch, and The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, because a page-turner about parental love and reincarnation sounds irresistible.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

The Golden Son — Book Review

It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you’ve made, and there’s this panic because you don’t know yet the scale of disaster you’ve left yourself open to.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Not only was it impossible to truly belong in America, but he didn’t fit in here anymore either. He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda, The Golden Son

y6481Anil Patel, the “golden son” in Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s insightful new novel, is torn between his desire to pursue an independent life and career in the United States and his obligations to his family and community in India. The story of an immigrant feeling untethered both in his adopted country and his native land is a familiar one, but The Golden Son offers a fresh perspective.

Anil, the eldest son of a prosperous landowner, is the first in his family to pursue higher education. As a child, he witnesses a baby girl, initially rejected by her parents because of a cleft palate, given “a smile as beautiful and perfect” as that of her siblings through the miracle of modern medicine — and through the efforts of Anil’s father, the wise village arbiter. Anil’s destiny is to become a doctor himself, as well as to follow in his father’s footsteps and negotiate all the disputes, minor and major, in his community.

As the successful eldest son in the family, Anil is unprepared for how inadequate he feels both in his roles as medical intern and village peacemaker. In an interview on “The Morning Show” on Canadian TV, Gowdi, the daughter of Indian immigrants, says her inspiration for the novel was her experience observing the tradition of the elder male as the family arbiter: “I thought it would be interesting to build a character who gets pulled into that type of role, perhaps when he’s not ready for it and doesn’t really want it.” In an interview with BookPage, she said:

I have long been intrigued by the Indian tradition of settling disputes within a community. I grew up hearing stories about lives that were changed: women granted divorces from abusive marriages, for example, before there were laws in place to protect them. Of course, not all disputes were settled happily, and afterward they had to go back to living together in the same community. It’s so different from the nearly anonymous, transactional way we administer justice.

The host of “The Morning Show” (who I doubt read the book) described The Golden Son as “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ meets ‘Slumdog Millionaire'”, which is a silly comparison because the only thing The Golden Son and “Slumdog Millionaire” have in common is that they both take place in India. However . . . fans of medical dramas (on screen or on the page) will love The Golden Son. The medical scenes, which take place in settings as varied as a busy inner-city emergency room, a high-tech cardiac catheterization lab and intensive care unit, the bedside of a cancer patient, and a makeshift clinic in a rural Indian village, are vivid and authentic. Gowda, who says she is “humbled by the nobility of the medical profession”, interviewed many patients and medical professionals as part of her research process. Her own father-in-law and brother-in-law are physicians.

When Anil begins a new life as a physician in the United States, he leaves behind not only his family, but his childhood friend, Leena. Her family, less prosperous than the Patels, arranges a marriage for her that turns out to be a colossal mistake. Gowda presents the story of Leena’s misfortunes as a parallel narrative to Anil’s story, building tension as the reader anticipates the moment when they come together.

The novel really develops momentum in the second half, as subplots involving Leena’s family and in-laws and Anil’s roommates, girlfriends, colleagues and supervisors all intertwine, with a surprising and satisfying ending. The novel both begins and ends with a chess game, with the game of chess as a metaphor for life recurring throughout the book. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but this isn’t an esoteric book. It’s a sincere, well-structured novel about, as the author notes, “the universal truths across cultures”.

y6482I also enjoyed Gowda’s bestselling debut novel, The Secret Daughter, about an Indian girl, adopted by an American couple, who decides to return to her birth country. A fascinating in-depth interview with Shilpi Somaya Gowda, in which she discusses both her novels, as well as her background growing up in two countries (Canada and India), her writing process, the status of women in India is available as a webcast on the Amnesty International Book Club website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Books on the Table in New Orleans

New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture – even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.
Ruta Sepetys

2957291075_51fce98859Most American cities name their airports for politicians (Reagan, JFK) or military heroes (Logan, O’Hare). Not New Orleans. The New Orleans airport is named after one of the 20th century’s most beloved musicians, Louis Armstrong — which signals to visitors that the city has a unique character. Tennessee Williams reportedly said, “America only has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

tennessee_williams_nywtsWe left the subzero weather behind in “Cleveland” (which in our case was Chicago) last weekend and spent three days in Tennessee Williams’s adopted city. During our food tour, which included six stops at New Orleans restaurants, we saw the house in the French Quarter where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. (I don’t think the eight miles we walked that day came even close to burning the calories we consumed!) Kenneth Holditch, Ph.D., longtime friend of Williams, co-editor of the Library of America’s editions of Williams’s works, and the author of Tennessee Williams and the South, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that  “New Orleans was created by writers and visual artists . . . Sherwood Anderson once said this is a ‘city of imagination.’”

IMG_1838For me, no vacation is complete without at least one bookstore visit. On our first day, we stumbled upon Beckham’s Bookshop in the French Quarter , which was everything a used bookstore should be — quirky, dusty, and packed with treasures. There was even a resident cat. My favorite section in the store was “True Crime and Rascality”. Because I’m unable to walk out of a bookstore without buying something, I picked up a copy of The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, by Julia Reed. Reed, a journalist, got married and moved to the Garden District of New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina struck. The New York Times critic, literary biographer Blake Bailey, gave the book a rave review despite his initial misgivings:

I really wanted to pan this book. First of all, with the exception of Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, I tend to dislike literature about New Orleans (oh the decadence! the quaintness!) . . . It’s also a Hurricane Katrina memoir. I’d considered writing my own Katrina memoir, and now I realize I probably never will.

Reed includes her “Favorite New Orleans Reads” at the back of the book.  She recommends, among others,  The Moviegoer (“it remains, even now, an accurate rendering of a certain subset of upper-class New Orleanians”); Bandits, by Elmore Leonard (“You can almost smell the inside of the Bourbon Street bars”); and The Feast of All Saints, by Anne Rice (“No vampires, just free people of color in pre-Civil War New Orleans”).

y648We rode the famous St. Charles streetcar to uptown New Orleans and visited a lovely independent bookstore, Octavia Books. I bought two more books: My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal, by Peter M. Wolf,and a signed copy of Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza. Piazza wrote his book in 2005, during “five agonizing weeks” following Hurricane Katrina. The updated edition, published in 2015, includes information about the city’s recovery. In the preface, Piazza says:

As long as New Orleans exists, it will attract the imaginative, the creative, the adventurous, and the soulful people of the world. Walking down almost any street and drinking in the cocktail of historical resonance, architectural whimsy, olfactory magic, savoring the peculiar mix of seriousness and play, of new possibilities, good and bad, around any corner, will remind you of why it is good to be alive.

IMG_1840Thousands of adventurous people were in evidence on Saturday afternoon during the memorial parade for David Bowie. The parade, led by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Arcade Fire, was announced on social media just two days ahead of time but attracted Bowie fans and curiosity seekers from all over. Even though we didn’t have appropriate attire (space suits, tutus, gold lame), we jumped into the fray and followed the parade. At one point, we were just a few feet away from Win Butler of Arcade Fire, who was dressed in a hot pink suit and singing Bowie’s “Heroes”.

david-bowie

Poster for the American Library Association marketing campaign, 1987

Apparently David Bowie was a world-class reader. Geoffrey Marsh, who curated the Victoria & Albert Museum retrospective exhibit of Bowie’s life,  describes Bowie as “a voracious reader” who often read as much as “a book a day”. Bowie told Vanity Fair that reading was his idea of perfect happiness — and that the quality he most admires in a man is “the ability to return books”.  According to the London Telegraph, Bowie (“a remarkably well-read man”) brought hundreds of books with him when he went on tour: “I had these cabinets– it was a travelling library — and they were rather like the boxes that amplifiers get packed up in . . . I have an extraordinarily good collection of books.” Readers who are interested in Bowie’s  100 favorite books can check out the list here. The books, both fiction and nonfiction, cover an enormous range of territory; art, music, history, religion, psychology, and poetry. I haven’t read (or even heard of) many of them, but we do share one favorite: Fran Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life.

0802130208John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, set in New Orleans, appears on Bowie’s list. I’ve never read this book, which is often referred to as a “cult classic” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Walker Percy said, “It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragi-comedy is at least made available to a world of readers.” If it weren’t for Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces would most likely never have been published. He was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans when Toole’s mother brought him her late son’s novel. Percy championed the book, and Louisiana State University Press published it. The book was the first novel from an academic press to win a Pulitzer — beating  out Percy’s novel, The Second Coming.

Rhoda Faust, owner of Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans, also helped Toole’s mother find a publisher. She told the Times-Picayune that the novel “captures New Orleans better than anything else on the face of the earth ever has”, but that it’s popular with readers everywhere: “Humor translates . . . the people within A Confederacy of Dunces are going through the same things other people and their families are going through.”

Susan Larson, author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans and host of the local NPR affiliate’s show on books, “This Reading Life”, says: “Few American cities have such a visible and inviting literary culture, played out on its streets every day.” Larson often reads two books a day — when she was a judge for the Pulitzer, she had to read 300 books in six months. That New Orleans reader could put the rest of us — including David Bowie — to shame!

 

 

 

 

 

Book Club Spotlight — Celebrity Book Clubs

 

41cpynrrvxl-_ac_ul320_sr210320_

The first selection of Oprah’s book club

It all started with Oprah Winfrey. In 1996, she launched a book club that made an enormous impact on readers, authors, and publishers. For 15 years, Oprah’s choices became worldwide bestsellers. During the heyday of her club,  Oprah’s power as a recommender, often called the “Oprah Effect” in the publishing world, was unparalleled. Michael Pietsch, currently CEO of Hachette Book Group and past publisher of Little, Brown & Co., said in a USA Today article that Oprah “didn’t originate the idea of book clubs, but more than anyone, she has spread the idea of reading a book as a shared community.” Nora Rawlinson, who’s been the editor of Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and now EarlyWord, citing surveys showing that “friends’ recommendations are the top reasons people buy a book” says that “Oprah is the ultimate friend to her audience.”

A lot of readers must think they’re friends with actress Emma Watson, because as of today, 84,000 people had signed up for her new feminist book club, “Our Shared Shelf”. Watson, who became famous through her portrayal of brave and brilliant  Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, is a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador with a special interest in gender equality and its benefits for both men and women. UN Goodwill Ambassadors are celebrity advocates, drawn from the “worlds of art, music, film, sport and literature to highlight key issues.”

Watson has ambitious plans for her book club. In her announcement on Goodreads, she says:

The plan is to select and read a book every month, then discuss the work during the month’s last week (to give everyone time to read it!). I will post some questions/quotes to get things started, but I would love for this to grow into an open discussion with and between you all. Whenever possible I hope to have the author, or another prominent voice on the subject, join the conversation.

9780679456209Watson has selected Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, for the first online discussion, scheduled to begin in  a couple of weeks. (The exact date isn’t clear.) I’m not sure how the logistics of an online discussion with thousands of people will work, but kudos to Emma Watson for launching the club on January 6, choosing the first book on January 8, and attracting 84,000 enthusiastic participants less than a week later. I’m just glad I don’t have to supply the wine and cheese.

Mark Zuckerberg made a reading resolution last year, announcing on January 2, 2015 that he planned to read a book every other week and post discussions on Facebook. His Facebook page for “A Year of Books” says: “We will read a new book every two weeks and discuss it here. Our books will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” As of December 28, the “community” (Zuckerberg never refers to it as a “book club”) had read 23 books, just short of the stated goal of 26 books. Many recent commenters wondered if “A Year of Books” would continue in 2016; one commenter replied, “I believe that Mark has a new challenge for 2016”. He does — and it doesn’t involve books. Zuckerberg posted this update on Facebook:

Every year, I take on a personal challenge to learn new things and grow outside my work at Facebook. My challenges in recent years have been to read two books every month, learn Mandarin and meet a new person every day. My personal challenge for 2016 is to build a simple AI to run my home and help me with my work.

On Immunity.JPGI guess that building a robot would take away from my reading time, so I’ll stick with books. Zuckerberg’s reading list, with a few exceptions, looks pretty dreary to me — I’m not reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (a history of science published in 1970) anytime soon. Maybe Zuckerberg got burned out on reading because he didn’t include any fiction in the mix, except a work of science translated from the Chinese (The Three-Body Problem) whose title refers to the “three-body problem in orbital mechanics.” I did enjoy, and highly recommend, one of Zuckerberg’s picks — On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss. This fascinating book, which defies categorization (science? sociology? memoir?) would be a great choice for real-life book clubs.

16071736Vogue magazine calls actress and producer Reese Witherspoon the “new patron saint of literature”.  Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, produced film adaptations of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; current projects include movie versions of The Engagements (J. Courtney Sullivan) and Luckiest Girl Alive (Jessica Knoll) and a TV miniseries based on Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty). According to Vogue:

As if bringing these stories to the big screen weren’t enough, Witherspoon constantly promotes the many books on her nightstand on her Instagram account. Her posts, which have included snaps of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, and many others, have become the equivalent of an Oprah’s Book Club stamp for the social media generation.

I’ve come across many references to Reese Witherspoon’s “book club”, but all I could find was her Instagram feed with photos of book she’s reading followed by thousands of brief comments from her adoring fans — “She always reads awesome books!”; “Follow Reese for book recommendations!”; “Have to get this one!” This seems like a far cry from Oprah’s hour-long, in-depth televised interviews with authors. But more power to Witherspoon for getting on her celebrity soapbox to support books she loves. The cynic in me needs to add that some of these are books she’s bought the film rights to — so not only does she love them, she has a financial stake in their success.

rosie-project-9781476729091_lgBill Gates doesn’t have a book club, but he frequently posts reviews on his blog, Gates Notes. He told the New York Times he reads about 50 books a year, mostly nonfiction with a few novels interspersed. He’s a book blogger after my own heart, telling the Times that “he rarely posts negative reviews of books, explaining that he sees no need to waste anyone’s time telling them why they shouldn’t bother reading something.” He recommends one of his fellow billionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s choices, On Immunity:  “When I stumbled across the book on the Internet, I thought it might be a worthwhile read. I had no idea what a pleasure reading it would be. ” Gates also enjoyed Graeme Stimson’s The Rosie Project, a charming novel about a professor on the autism spectrum trying to find love: “It’s an extraordinarily clever, funny, and moving book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends . . . This is one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time.”

Do celebrities influence your book choices? And what do you think of online book clubs in general?

The Most (and Least) Popular Books on the Table Posts of 2015

Happy New Year! I’m writing this blog to keep track of my reading and to encourage me to think more critically about what I read — but also to help bring readers and books together. I love sharing my enthusiasm for books that have found a place in my heart. I thought that looking at my 2015 year-end blog statistics would help me plan informative and engaging posts for 2016.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgWhen I checked to see which posts received the most views, I was surprised. The #1 post for 2015 is my review of All the Light We Cannot See  (originally posted in March 2014, six weeks before the book came out)– also the #1 post for 2014. Book reviews don’t usually get as much readership as other posts, but I guess that when the book being reviewed is a much-loved Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s a different story.

Just a few page views behind the All the Light We Cannot See review was 10 Spring Paperback Picks, which had double the page views of the #3 post (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories.) I wondered why that post was so popular, with triple the readership of similar posts — 10 Summer Paperback Picks, 10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking — and five times the readership of 10 Summer Paperback Picks –Nonfiction? I thought there had to be some reason that the 10 Spring Paperback Picks post has been so popular throughout the summer, fall, and winter.

I discovered the reason inadvertently when I googled “Girl on the Train paperback” a few days ago. I didn’t find the paperback release date — but I did learn that Books on the Table’s 10 Spring Paperback Picks shows up as one of the first Google hits when those search terms are used. Which should be a good thing, except that readers who click on that link will not find out when The Girl on the Train will come out in paperback. What they will learn is a little bit about how the book industry decides when to release books in paperback and what my favorite summer 2015 paperback recommendations were.

Here are the top 10 posts from 2015, along with my theories about why they were the most popular.

#1: All the Light We Cannot See — Book Review (2014)
Searches for “discussion questions for All the Light We Cannot See”  led hundreds of readers to my book review — I hope they weren’t too unhappy when they found my post didn’t include any questions. I’ve considered including discussion questions in book reviews, but I never have because good discussion guides are usually available on publishers’ websites. Maybe I should include links to those, along with a few extra questions?

Those who wanted to know “what happened to the diamond in All the Light We Cannot See” were definitely disappointed, as was the reader interested in “the best food to serve at All the Light We Cannot See book club meeting”. (I suggest either French or German.)

By the way – if your book club is one of those that only discusses paperbacks, keep in mind that the paperback edition of All the Light We Cannot See is due in October 2016.

9781594633669M#2: 10 Spring Paperback Picks
Everyone is dying to know when The Girl on the Train is coming out in paperback. Keep in mind that the paperback edition of Gone Girl didn’t come out until nearly two years after the hardcover publication — but several months before the movie release. The movie version of The Girl on the Train is scheduled to hit theaters in October 2016.

#3: 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories (2014)
In what may be an age of limited attention spans, are short stories making a comeback? Over the past few years, many top-notch short story collections have been published, and the last two National Book Award winners for fiction have been collections of stories (Redeployment and Fortune Smiles). Or maybe people are bewildered by short stories; Books on the Table statistics show lots of readers wondering “why are short stories worth reading?” and “why do people read short stories?”.

#4: 10 Summer Paperback Picks
People like reading paperbacks in the summer!

9780062359940#5: An Uncomplicated Life — Book Review
One reason this post was so popular is that Paul Daugherty,  the author of An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter, is a columnist at the Cincinnati Inquirer and he mentioned the review in his blog.  Another reason is that An Uncomplicated Life is a wonderful, inspiring book — don’t miss it! (It’s now out in paperback.) Daugherty’s daughter, Jillian, was married last June; in a letter he wrote to her, published on the website The Mighty, Daugherty said: ” I don’t know what the odds are of a woman born with Down syndrome marrying the love of her life. I only know you’ve beaten them.”

#6: Where They Found Her — Book Review
I’m not sure why this review got the attention it did, except that Where They Found Her is a popular book club selection. Many readers were searching for “Where They Found Her spoilers” — does this mean they hadn’t read the book and their book club meeting was starting in an hour?

Orphan #8#7: Orphan #8 — Author Interview
Kim van Alkemade’s  terrific debut novel, a paperback original, was an Indie Next pick. She provided detailed and thoughtful answers to my questions — but so did Elizabeth Berg, a much better-known author, in a discussion of The Dream Lover a few months earlier, and that interview had very low readership.  Could it be that people were looking for information about Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train (another paperback original), which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years?

#8: 10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking
Clearly, people are always looking for “discussable” books. A glance at search terms shows that they are also trying to find “book club books that are fun not depressing”, “great book club books for couples”, and, surprisingly often, “book club cocktail napkins”.

9780062259301#9: The Story Hour — Book Review (2014)
I loved this book, but I’m surprised the review made it into the top 10 because The Story Hour seems like one of those quiet and lovely books that hasn’t received the acclaim it deserves. All of Thrity Umrigar’s books are well worth reading, but my favorite is The Space Between Us.

#10: Nonfiction November : 10 Favorite Survival Books (2014)
When I’m warm and comfortable on my couch at home, usually with a blanket and a cup of hot tea, I like nothing better than to read about people trapped in the polar ice cap or shivering in a lifeboat. I must not be alone in my reading tastes because I see many searches for ” best nonfiction adventure books”  and “true survival stories”.

And here are three of my favorite posts from 2015 — which, according to the statistics, almost no one read:

Nonrequired Reading
I feel strongly about not forcing children to read books they don’t like. Maybe people disagree and don’t want to tell me? Did the Garfield photo turn people off? Or maybe the title is bad?

Books on the Table Goes to the Movies
Maybe I should stick to writing about books. I recently went to see the Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of Bel Canto (based on Ann Patchett’s book) and considered writing a post called Books on the Table Goes to the 24de28664bdf1f004be5425016536035Opera. It’s probably best I didn’t.

Jazz Age January: West of Sunset & So We Read On
Something has to be in last place — this post ranks #71 out of 71 posts published in 2015 — but this was one of my favorites! Am I the only one who cares about F. Scott Fitzgerald?

I’m interested in what you’d like to see more (or less) of in Books on the Table in 2016. Suggestions, please!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Books to Pick Up in the New Year

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Movie studios save the best for last, releasing potential award winners at the end of the year. An article in Psychology Today on behavioral decision-making explores this phenomenon:

Either movie executives know to release their “Oscar bait” films at the end of the year, or that those in charge of nominating films for awards tend to pick films that were released in the last few months of the year. Either way, movies that opened later in the year are overrepresented.

Book publishers, on the other hand, release very few books in December. Magazines and newspapers focus on year-end lists of top books, not reviews of new books. Holiday shoppers are looking for gift books they’ve heard about, not brand-new books by unknown authors. Booksellers can’t learn about new books during the Christmas rush. And no one has any time to read — they’re at the movies.

After New Year’s Day, bookstore shelves and tables will be stocked with shiny new hardcovers and paperbacks. Spend that gift card you just received on yourself — and even though all the diet books come out in January, don’t buy The Paleovedic Diet or The 17-Day Green Tea Diet. Buy yourself a book that will entertain, absorb, and enlighten you, and curl up with a cup of tea, green or not.

New in hardcover:

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian (1/5)
I’m adding this to my list of books that made me cringe, but that I couldn’t put down. Does that make sense? As always, Chris Bohjalian knows how to tell a story. In his latest novel, he sheds light on white slavery and prostitution. Think of the movie Taken — but imagine those horrific events taking place in the United States, with the involvement of upper-middle class suburbanites.

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner (1/5)
Wow! I read this memoir about growing up in a polygamist Mormon doomsday cult in one day. The author is her mother’s fourth child and her father’s 39th.  If you liked The Glass Castle, The Sound of Gravel is for you.

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee (1/12)
I dislike the term “women’s fiction” — but when you have a novel about three women, all expatriates in Hong Kong, who are grappling with their roles as mothers/caretakers and daughters, that’s what it is. But it’s women’s fiction at its very best — tautly written, with well-developed characters and a surprising storyline.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (1/12)
Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge) is one of my favorite authors. Her new book tells the story of Lucy Barton, a young woman from an abusive and impoverished background who (perhaps, she suggests, because she is “ruthless”) becomes a functioning adult and successful writer. The book, like Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, is very short, with no wasted words; it’s a novel that raises many questions and that I won’t soon forget.

25279165The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (1/26)
The surprise in this delightful book is not that Melanie Benjamin paints a complete portrait of Truman Capote, which I expected, but that she brings Babe Paley to life as a lonely and wounded woman. I’ve read and enjoyed all of Benjamin’s biographical novels — The Swans of Fifth Avenue is my favorite.

The Road to Little Dribbling : More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (1/19)
Some of Bryson’s books are funnier than others, but they’re all amusing, informative, and worth reading. His latest is a follow-up to Notes from a Small Island, a view of Britain from an American expatriate’s perspective, which came out 20 years ago.

New in paperback:

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova (1/5)
This could be Lisa Genova’s best novel yet. The story of a loving family in crisis, Inside the O’Briens focuses on Joe O’Brien, a tough Boston cop who is devastated when he learns that he is suffering from Huntington’s disease — and that his four children may have inherited the lethal gene from him.

The Daylight Marriage by Heidi Pitlor (1/5)
I couldn’t stop reading The Daylight Marriage — spent a Sunday reading it, with the New York Times remaining in its plastic wrapper until I finished. This novel about a broken marriage, one which was perhaps ill-fated from the beginning, is devastating. Think Gone Girl with real people you might know instead of psychopaths.

f6720869102a7a8921af812ebe9bd8ccThe Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton (1/5)
Readers of this blog are probably tired of hearing me rhapsodize about Scotton’s debut novel, one of my 2015 favorites. I’m thrilled that it’s out in paperback and will reach more readers.

Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (1/12)
Fuller’s eventful life continues to provide her with interesting and thought-provoking subject matter. In her latest memoir, the dissolution of her marriage causes her to face her past from a new vantage point.

Books on the Table wishes you a happy, healthy, and book-filled 2016!