Beyond Macbeth — Books Set in Scotland

9780451526779HYesterday’s leading news story was Scotland’s vote against independence from Great Britain. As I watched the morning news, my thoughts turned away from politics and economics and went straight to literature. I thought of Macbeth, and wondered what the current-day residents of Cawdor Castle think of Scotland’s decision. (As I’ve mentioned, Macbeth  — always referred to as “the Scottish play” by superstitious theater people  —  is my favorite Shakespeare play. Perhaps because it’s the first one I ever read?)

Several years ago, I read a fascinating memoir by Liza Campbell called A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. Campbell, the daughter of the real-life Thane of Cawdor, was the last child born in the actual castle associated with Shakespeare’s play. The memoir itself is garden-variety family dysfunction: drugs, domestic abuse, extramarital affairs, money problems. What interested me was the history of the Cawdor estate. Today, Liza Campbell is a vocal member of the Hares, a group of aristocratic British women supporting the Equality (Titles) bill, also known as the “Downton Abbey” law, 9780312384968which would allow first-born daughters to inherit titles.

As I thought more about books set in Scotland, I realized I haven’t read many.  I’ve read countless books set in England and Ireland, but I’ve neglected Scotland.  I’ve never read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series . . . or Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. I haven’t read anything by Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin, or Irvine Welsh.  Also, I have never been to Scotland. A friend and her daughter went to the Edinburgh Book Festival last month and had a marvelous time. Jeff has always wanted to play golf in Scotland; maybe next summer we could combine a trip to Edinburgh with a visit to St. Andrews?

If we do visit Scotland, the first book on my reading list will be How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created the Modern World and Everything In It by Arthur Herman. Everything? Sounds like a bold claim, and certainly warrants further investigation.

I did a quick Google search on “Scottish literature” and found that most of the recommended books are bodice-rippers featuring handsome and lusty Scotsmen. Apparently the Scottish highlands are the place to go if you’re looking for romance. A few of the suggested titles are: To Tame a Highland Warrior, In Bed With a Highlander, Taming the Scotsman, How to Abduct a Highland Lord, Thirty Nights With a Highland Husband. Need I go on?

9780345542625I did recently read an absolutely charming novel that takes place in Scotland — specifically, on the remote Isle of Skye. Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is written entirely in letters, starting just before World War I and ending after World War II. Publishers Weekly says that it’s a “remarkable story” in which “the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn, leaving just enough blanks to be filled by the reader’s imagination.”

After I read Letters from Skye, I remembered that Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, To the Lighthouse, is set on the Isle of Skye. It’s one of my most beloved books; my old paperback copy is falling apart. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

Three Junes, the debut novel of Julia Glass (one of my favorite authors), won the National Book Award for fiction in 2002. The book is actually three linked novellas about a Scottish family, the McLeods. The story develops over the course of three Junes in the late 20th century, and in Scotland, the United States, and Greece. Many of the characters reappear in Glass’s later novels.

9780380727506Bill Bryson is always entertaining and informative. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson recounts his trip exploring  — using only public transportation — the nooks and crannies of England, Scotland, and Wales. Here’s his description of arriving in Edinburgh:

And so I went to Edinburgh. Can there anywhere be a more beautiful and beguiling city to arrive at by train early on a crisp, dark Novembery evening? To emerge from the bustling, subterranean bowels of Waverley Station and find yourself in the very heart of such a glorious city is a happy experience indeed. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh for years and had forgotten just how captivating it can be  . . .  Every bookshop window was full of books about Scotland or by Scottish authors. And of course the voices were different. I walked along, feeling as if I had left England far behind . . .

I’d like to see those bookshop windows myself. I just hope they’re not packed with piles of Ravished by a Highlander and Seduction of a Highland Lass.

I Shall Be Near to You — Book Review

9780804137744But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Letter from Major Sullivan Ballou (2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment) to his wife, Sarah. Ballou died in July 1861 of wounds sustained in the first Battle of Bull Run.

I first heard Ballou’s letter on the Ken Burns PBS documentary series The Civil War, and it brought me to tears. Erin Lindsay McCabe’s beautiful novel of undying love during the Civil War, I Shall Be Near to You, made my eyes water as well. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the story. But keep in mind that war stories rarely have fairy-tale endings.)

Sarah Ballou, like almost every wife of a soldier, waited at home for her husband. Rosetta Wakefield, the determined and courageous heroine of I Shall Be Near to You, follows her new husband, Jeremiah, into battle. Rosetta is partially motivated by her love for Jeremiah — who only joined the 97th New York State Volunteers to earn money so he and Rosetta could buy a farm in Nebraska — and partially by her desire to escape life in Flat Creek, New York, where she is tormented by her mother-in-law and a hostile neighbor.

Jeremiah slips away to enlist, leaving Rosetta a letter that explains his leave-taking:

I am writing this letter as your Husband, and that is something Good. It don’t mean a thing is different about my Feelings that I am setting off without you knowing, or seeing you one more time and telling you all my Thoughts. You will cry to Hear them said so that is why I am Going this way, so I can Make myself Leave without causing you any more Pain.

He also leaves a map of the United States and its territories: “Jeremiah has made a heart at Flat Creek and a star at Herkimer. But in the Nebraska Territory he has written, I shall always be near to you.”

Rosetta decides to take Jeremiah’s promise literally. She will enlist with him in the Union Army and “earn a soldier’s pay instead of just a nurse’s or a laundress’s and stay with Jeremiah for as long as this war drags on.” Her impulsive and brave (or foolhardy?) decision shows us that she is no ordinary 19th century woman:

Laying there on our bed is Jeremiah’s work shirt where I left it, the map unfolded beside it. And then like a hornets’ nest in the hot dust that you almost don’t see until it’s too late, but once you have, you can’t not see it for the buzzing in and out of the crack in the dirt crust, the idea of it just comes to me.

Rosetta’s character is based on a real woman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who fought in the Civil War disguised as a man. Her family later shared her letters, which were published in a book called An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. According to McCabe, “the fictional Rosetta is greatly informed by the feisty and strong-willed voice that shines through Wakeman’s letters home”. (Apparently Wakeman was not as “uncommon” as you might think; historians believe there were hundreds of women who saw combat in the Civil War.)

That “feisty and “strong-willed voice” shines brilliantly through I Shall Be Near to You, bringing Rosetta Wakefield (a.k.a. “Ross Stone”) to life on the page. McCabe perfectly captures her youthful enthusiasm, stubbornness, and bravery — and her deep and abiding love for Jeremiah. She doesn’t make the mistake so many writers of historical fiction seem to make, which is placing characters with modern-day sensibilities in a decidedly “un-modern” context. Rosetta may be more independent-minded than other young women of her time, but she is still a product of the mid-19th century. Growing up with no brothers, Rosetta has been treated more like a son than a daughter.

McCabe pays careful attention to detail throughout the novel, describing not only how novice soldiers were trained in the art of war and how they fought on the battlefield, but also how they cooked, ate, slept, bathed, and amused themselves. She also does a masterful job portraying their emotional reactions to the horror and carnage of war. Historical fiction, by allowing the author to let her imagination go beyond recorded facts, can be a very powerful way of making history come alive. No one knows what the real Rosetta’s reaction to seeing a deserter being branded would have been, or how she would have felt visiting dying men in a hospital. McCabe’s storytelling removes the distance between the reader and the historical events, helping the reader empathize with the characters.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, my husband is a Civil War buff. (Yes, it’s called the Civil War. I was recently seated at a dinner next to a gentleman from Mississippi who referred to that conflict in our nation’s history as the “War of Northern Aggression”. Sorry, no.) Jeff has an unending appetite for Civil War books — detailed accounts of military campaigns, biographies of generals, nonfiction covering various aspects of the war (prison camps, spies, battlefield medicine, etc.). Occasionally, he will read historical fiction about the war — for example, he and I both loved E.L. Doctorow’s The March — but he’s more of a nonfiction reader. He loved I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, which should tell you it’s a really good Civil War novel. (Just in case you don’t believe me.)

I highly recommend Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott, a brand-new  nonfiction account of four women who served as spies during the Civil War (two for the Union, two for the Confederacy). One of the women, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, makes a cameo appearance in I Shall Be Near to You. Also recently published (and in my TBR stack) is Neverhome, by Laird Hunter, a novel about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Union, leaving her husband at home on the farm.

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Wonder Woman and Me

WonderWomanV5When I started Books on the Table last September, it didn’t really occur to me that people I didn’t know would read it. I thought the blog would be a fun creative outlet and a way for me to share my love of books with friends and acquaintances. Obviously, I had a lot to learn. Most of my readers, as far as I can tell, are people I’ve never met. They’ve found the blog through friends of friends, with the help of Google and other search engines, via links on other blogs and social media . . . and because they are fans of Lynda Carter, a.k.a. Wonder Woman.

A little background for those of you who didn’t grow up in the 1970s: Wonder Woman, Amazon warrior princess of comic book fame, was played by Lynda Carter on TV from 1975 through 1979. Lynda also was Miss World USA in 1972 and has had a successful acting and singing career. And it turns out that Lynda is the aunt of Michaela Carter, independent bookstore owner and author of the recently published novel, Further Out Than You Thought.

I thought Further Out Than You Thought was a terrific novel, albeit a little edgier than the fiction I usually read, and posted a positive review on the blog. I received some comments, including a nice message from the author, and moved on to the next review. Then, a few days later, I got a notification from WordPress that there was unusually high activity on my blog. I assumed that the blog was hacked . . . but I soon learned that Wonder Woman was at work. She had shared my review with the hundreds of thousands of people who follow her on Facebook and Twitter: “So proud of my niece, Michaela Carter’s first novel”.  It seems that a lot of Lynda’s fans — including someone from the Lynda Carter Fan Club of Latin America — reposted the review as well. For a couple of days, my blog traffic was 10 times what it usually is.

If anyone had asked me a couple of weeks ago what the most popular posts over the past year have been, I would have said 10 Books to Read This Summer (At the Beach or Not), 10 Books for “Carnivorous” Readers, 10 Gateway Books for Teenagers — you get the idea. People seem to love lists of book recommendations. I never would have imagined that a review of a debut novel would have been my most popular post.

My first year of blogging has been a learning experience, full of surprises. As parents tell their kids, be careful what you post on the Internet. You never know who’s going to see it — maybe even a woman with superpowers. I’m grateful to all the book lovers I’ve had the chance to connect with through Books on the Table. Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing!




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.

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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!