Monday Match-Up: And the Dark Sacred Night & Three Junes

www.randomhouseI see skies of blue,
And clouds of white.
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.
“What a Wonderful World”, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss; originally recorded by Louis Armstrong

Julia Glass has been a heroine of mine ever since she arrived on the literary scene in 2002, with the publication of her debut novel, Three Junes. I hate to use the term “late in life”, but recognition of her talent has come later in life than it does for most published writers. Glass was 46 years old when she won the National Book Award for Three Junes — seven years older than Flannery O’Connor (one of my favorite literary heroines) was when she died. An article in New York magazine (“Cinderella Story”, January 2003) explores Glass’s unexpected success:

So it was a stunning upset in the literary world in late November when Glass won the writer’s equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar — the National Book Award for fiction — which she jubilantly dedicated in her acceptance speech to “late bloomers.”  . . . As novelist and awards judge Bob Shacochis puts it, “Three Junes is an anti-hip book, an anti-cool book. It was like choosing a 25-year-old single-malt whiskey.”

“Julia is incredibly brave,” says Deb Garrison, the Pantheon editor who bought the book and shepherded it through publication. “To be a first novelist in your forties, writing without a book contract and no steady income, to just say, ‘This is what I have to be doing.’ “

“Julia Glass is an update on those wonderful writers from the nineteenth century that we admire so much, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters,” says Shacochis, who pored through almost 300 submissions for the book awards. “I couldn’t put it down because it had such emotional power.”

Glass’s new novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, is certainly a work of emotional power. The story centers on Kit Noonan, a middle-aged man my grandmother would have described as a “sad sack”. He’s an unemployed art historian with a specialty in Inuit art. Kit suffers from a lack of energy and purpose; he lost his academic job for failing to turn his manuscript in on time. His wife, Sandra, is convinced that his inertia is caused by an identity crisis. Kit was raised by a single mother, Daphne, who has steadfastly refused to give him any information about his birth father. Sandra sends Kit from his suburban New Jersey home to Vermont, where Kit’s ex-stepfather, Jasper, lives. Sandra believes that Jasper, who was married to Daphne during most of Kit’s childhood, knows the truth about Kit’s father.

coverIt doesn’t take the reader long to figure out who Kit’s father is, so I’m not giving anything away by revealing the fact that Kit’s father was Malachy Burns, who died of AIDS in Three Junes. Readers of Three Junes will recognize Malachy in the very first chapter, which takes place at the Vermont arts camp where Daphne and Malachy met as teenagers. Readers will also recall Malachy’s mother, Lucinda Burns. In an interview, Julia Glass says the character of Lucinda was the inspiration for And the Dark Sacred Night:

It grew initially out of my sudden yearning to revisit a character from Three Junes: Lucinda Burns, the mother of the music critic Malachy Burns. She’s a character I had a tough time getting right, but once I did (well, I hope I did!), I fell in love with her and was sad to leave her behind. Lucinda led me back to a teeny-tiny subplot of Three Junes involving a baby born to a 17-year-old single mother in the late 1960s. And the Dark Sacred Night is, in the smallest of nutshells, the story of that grown-up-baby’s search for his father. In a roundabout way, this new character gave me the way to delve deeper into Lucinda’s life. Inevitably, she led me back to Fenno McLeod, the character who seems to come back to me again and again, always just when I think I’ve sent him packing for good.

It’s easy to see why Glass is attached to her characters and revisits their lives. More than any other contemporary novelist I’ve read, she creates complex characters that seem real: imperfect, sometimes likable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and fully textured. Even the minor characters in the novel — Jasper’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and employee, Loraina, and Lucinda’s overscheduled daughter, Christina, for example — are well-developed and have important roles to play. Glass also excels at capturing poignant moments in ordinary life. The scene in which Lucinda brings her husband, Zeke, home from the hospital after he’s suffered a stroke, is heartbreakingly and vividly rendered:

Christina helps her father out of the car while Lucinda wrestles with the walker, unfolding and locking its cheap metal wings. Each of the women holds onto one side while Zeke fumbles for a grip.

Even though she knows he’s stooping to keep his balance, to meet the demands of this crablike contraption, Zeke seems disturbingly smaller to Lucinda. He dozed on the half-hour drive from the rehab center, and now, still, he says nothing.

Once inside the front door he glances around. He spots the hospital bed. “Christ, it’s come to this,” he says. Though it sounds like, “Frise, come to fuss.”

Music is a thread that runs through the novel. Kit says he “cannot imagine a childhood without music”. Daphne is a classically trained cellist who once dreamed of a  career as a performer, now supporting herself as a music teacher, and Malachy was a flutist who came to be a well-known music critic. Both the opening and closing chapters of the book take place at the music camp where they met.  Music is a bridge to the past; at the concert at the end of the book, Daphne recalls, “‘There was a concert like this one when I was here.’” The novel takes its title from the Louis Armstrong song, “What a Wonderful World”. Fenno McLeod, an old friend of Malachy’s, recalls a discussion about the meaning of the song:

Do you know that song, “What a Wonderful World”? We hear it so often that it’s become about as moving as a beer jingle. But it’s beautiful . . . What I mean is that the past is like the night: dark yet sacred. It’s the time when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are. But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past.

The characters in And the Dark Sacred Night are trying to make sense of the mysterious past and how it connects to the sometimes confusing present. Glass suggests that Kit’s lack of knowledge about his origins has almost paralyzed him. I wonder, though, if Kit’s inability to take charge of his life is really rooted in his fatherlessness, or if it’s simply his genetic makeup. The plot depends, to a certain extent, on the reader believing — as Sandra does — that Kit’s life will be transformed once he learns about his father. As much as I love the characters and the writing in the novel, I have trouble with this premise. I think Kit is a just a passive person by nature. Recalling his attempts to do first-hand research with Inuit artists, he says:

He did like driving though the wilderness, through the brief, bright flowering of the tundra . . . but when it came to striking up a conversation with the artists he met, asking them to talk about their work, he turned shy and formal. He learned little beyond what he needed to know. Kit had no clue how to ask the startling question that would yield the unexpected revelation.

And the Dark and Sacred Night isn’t really a sequel to Three Junes, but once you’ve read one, you will want to read the other, because the characters are so compelling. Fenno McLeod’s family — particularly his mother, a collie breeder in Scotland — will win your heart. (It’s interesting that Jasper Noonan is a dog breeder as well.)  I wonder if Julia Glass has sent her characters “packing for good”, or if we will see more of them in future novels?


The Point of No Return

Recently I returned an ill-conceived purchase to a large chain store. (OK, it was Target.) The cashier was polite to me, but I still felt uncomfortable about the whole transaction. She wanted to know the reason for the return; I’m sure the store keeps records and she had to ask that. I wasn’t sure what to say: “I thought I would look OK in this, but it was horribly unflattering?” “I didn’t want to try it on in your dressing room because last time I went in there the walls collapsed and I was lucky to escape without a fractured skull?” (Yes, that actually happened. The Target fitting rooms shouldn’t actually be called rooms. The whole setup is like a house of cards. I’m not sure how the walls stay up.)

c28cd382f5579f8fbc5790606933c652At Lake Forest Book Store, we don’t ask people why they’re returning something — although they sometimes feel duty-bound to tell us. Actually, we don’t get many returns. I don’t have the data, but I’d guess that other kinds of stores get many more returns than bookstores do. People probably think they’re going to read (or regift) that copy of The Luminaries someday. We are quite generous with our return policy. We don’t even require that the book was originally purchased at our store, as long as the customer just wants to exchange it for another book. Most people are pleasantly surprised at how accommodating we are. The most common reason people bring books back is that they’re duplicates. I often encourage customers to buy actual books as  gifts, rather than gift cards. “Think of the book as a more personal version of a gift card,” I say. “They can always bring it back.”

cvr9780743227445_9780743227445_lgMaybe I shouldn’t say “always”, because over the years some people have taken me quite literally:

  • An elderly woman returned a dog-eared copy of one of Philippa Gregory’s books, saying she found it “filthy”. Apparently she needed to read it very thoroughly to determine just how offensive it was. I wondered if she also asks for refunds on restaurant meals after she has eaten them.
  • A man brought back a copy of a travel guide to London, claiming he didn’t need it because his trip was canceled. I guess this cancellation happened after he circled restaurants, hotels, and sightseeing spots he planned to visit.
  • A woman returned the hardcover copy of Team of Rivals (publication date: 2005) in 2013, wanting to exchange it for the paperback edition.cvr9780684824901_9780684824901_lg
  • A customer lugged in two large shopping bags full of old, yellowed mass market paperbacks from the previous century, claiming they were all purchased from our store. When I pointed out that the public library down the street would accept them as donations, she asked if I would drop them off there on my way home from work.
  • People often return books they received as gifts, look around the store for a while, and then ask for a credit because there’s nothing they want to buy. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld would say, but really? In the whole store, there isn’t ONE irresistible book? I will never understand that.
  • A mother returned a children’s paperback book ($3.99), announcing that it was much cheaper at Amazon ($3.59).
  • A very well-dressed woman brought in a pile of coffee table books (some recently published, some not so recently published), because she was “trying to reduce clutter” in her newly redecorated home.

These incidents, thank goodness, are few and far between. Now I have to head out to the local grocery store to return the strawberries I bought yesterday that are already moldy. Do you think they’ll replace them?


Monday Match-Up: Astonish Me & Frances and Bernard


The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
William Butler Yeats

On one level, Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Astonish Me, is about professional ballet. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an unfamiliar world. Beginning in 1973, the story follows Joan Joyce, a member of the corps de ballet in a New York dance company, and her relationship with the company’s star, Arslan Rusakov, whom she has helped defect from the Soviet Union. Joan, unlike her roommate Elaine, never succeeds as a soloist and ends up marrying her childhood sweetheart and teaching ballet. She does, however, raise a son who becomes a tremendously talented dancer.

The story is interesting in its own right, with plenty of surprises, but what intrigued me most was the examination of the artistic life. Artists — whether they are dancers, or writers, or painters — are always striving for perfection. In a BookPage interview, Maggie Shipstead said:

But I think there’s a common experience among writers and dancers (and probably most artists) of what it’s like to spend all your time trying to do something that’s extremely difficult, something that requires a massive amount of practice and dedication and might give you a rush of satisfaction one day and then leave you feeling utterly defeated the next. It’s a precarious way to live.

Often, artists are forced to come to terms with their limitations — particularly in ballet, because of the extreme physical requirements. When Joan, who knows she will never achieve real success, becomes pregnant and retires from ballet, she feels she has escaped:  “For the first time she can remember, she is not afraid of failing, and the relief feels like joy”. She always has the lingering feeling, however, that the artist’s path is somehow superior to hers — a feeling that is shared by those close to her.


Maggie Shipstead visits Lake Forest — August 2013

Her husband, Jacob, boasts to strangers about being married to a former  ballet dancer. Her art is an essential part of her, and he is saddened that she has given up on it: “For as long as he has known Joan, since they were almost children, she has lived a double life, as a dancer and as a civilian, and her retirement means that she has been reduced in some essential way.”  He thinks that Joan and their son, Harry, see him as  “uncool” and his job as an educator is “mundane”:

Sometimes he has an urge to remind them that he is the only one with a college degree, let alone a doctorate, that he knows things they don’t, but he resists. He doesn’t want to talk himself into thinking less of his family.

The novel explores the connection between artistic success and self-absorption. Arslan, probably the most fascinating character, is a narcissist. Harry is disdainful of dancers he views as less talented than he. Jacob wonders if egotism and art are inextricably linked: “Ballet, like other pursuits that require immense determination and reward showmanship, seems to foster hubris. But maybe all art fosters hubris.”

Joan lives vicariously through Harry and his friend, Chloe, who becomes Joan’s protegé: “She had not expected to find much in teaching besides a little extra income, something to do, and a way to keep fit. She had not anticipated that she might be able to recreate, even improve, her young self through the body of another.”

Astonish Me is an impressive novel — but even more so in light of the fact that it is very different from Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements. Seating Arrangements (which I enjoyed immensely) is a rather dark comedy of manners that takes place over a single wedding weekend on a Massachusetts island. It’s completely different in subject matter, scope, and tone from Astonish Me. Maggie explains that her work is not autobiographical: “The WASPy world of Seating Arrangements interested me but wasn’t any more my world than ballet is. I hope I always try to push myself. I think I would be bored if I didn’t. Because my two novels are so different, though, it’s difficult to compare them. “

9780547858241_hres 2Frances and Bernard is Carlene Bauer’s debut novel but not her first book. Not That Kind of Girl is a memoir of growing up as an evangelical Christian. (I haven’t read it — although having read Frances and Bernard, my curiosity is piqued.) The novel is loosely based on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. In an interview with Intelligent Life (the online culture magazine of The Economist), Bauer describes Frances and Bernard as a follow-up to her memoir: “God makes another appearance. As do two writers, one male, the other female, who have a lifelong friendship that might be love.” Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel — some of the letters are between the two protagonists, and some of them are written by these two characters to others.

Like Astonish Me, Frances and Bernard is concerned with the relationship of the artist to the larger world.  Frances is determined never to marry, believing that she cannot be both a wife and a writer. After a visit to Frances’s family, Bernard writes to his best friend, Ted:

I saw also that Frances is perfectly suited to family life, that she swims about her people like a fish in their waters . . . she knows this about herself, that she could easily spend her days cooking, cleaning, and corralling children, that she could quite easily be charmed into a life in which she gave order to other lives, not words, and I think this is why she is so strict with herself on the point of marriage. She does not know anyone who has written and mothered, so she thinks it is impossible . . . But she needs to be in control, and she has chosen to be in control of the people in her stories.

Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony in the late 1950s, and soon begin writing to each other. Their correspondence is both intellectual and spiritual; Frances is a lifelong Catholic and Bernard has recently converted to Catholicism. Bernard writes, “Let’s not ever talk of work in these letters. When I see you again I want to talk to you about work, but I am envisioning our correspondence as a spiritual dialogue”. The spiritual dialogue continues throughout the novel, even after Bernard suffers the first of many manic episodes and loses his faith.

A review in the New York Times comments that Bauer doesn’t accurately capture the voices of Lowell and O’Connor: “What Bauer doesn’t always get right is the sound of these writers . . . O’Connor and Lowell happen to be among the most unmistakable stylists of the past century”. I think this is a slightly unfair criticism, since the novel never claims to be a biographical novel about those two authors. It is simply inspired by their lives.  I thought the writing was lovely, and the voices of the letter writers were distinctive and authentic. The review does note that:

What Bauer gets right is the shifting balance of literary ambition and emotional need, Yeats’s old choice between perfection of the life or of the work. “This is why I won’t marry,” Frances reflects. “I am not built for self-abnegation.” She clings to her ancestral faith like a life preserver, all the while wondering whether, as she puts it, “I cheated myself out of what might have made me happy.”

How should we live? That is the question that all the best fiction asks, and that’s the question that both Astonish Me and Frances and Bernard ask. What do we owe to the people we love? How do we know what we are meant to do with our lives? How important is it that we make the most of our talents?








10 Gateway Books for Teenagers

coverI have to admit that I’m not a YA reader. I would like to be, but there are only so many reading hours in the day, and my list of Old Adult fiction and nonfiction just keeps growing. I know that YA is a huge phenomenon in the publishing world, and I need to learn more about it.

What exactly is YA? That’s the question that I saw on Twitter a few days ago. Someone else asked, “Is Tell the Wolves I’m Home YA”? Multiple people responded, all with variations on the same answer: “No, it’s coming-of-age”.  What is the difference? My guess is that YA fiction is written with a teenage audience in mind, whereas literary fiction isn’t targeted toward a particular demographic group. The recent phenomenon of adults reading YA is fascinating to me. Does it reflect our youth-oriented culture in general? When I was a teenager, I was more interested in reading “up” than my mother was in reading “down”. She didn’t cvr9781416914631_9781416914631_lgread my copies of Forever and Go Ask Alice, but I did read her copies of The Godfather and Ordinary People. (Then again, I was more interested in borrowing her clothes than she was in wearing mine. I think mothers today aspire to dress like their daughters.)

Now parents are borrowing their children’s copies of Divergent and Twilight, or even buying those series for themselves. Certain books are “crossover” novels, published as YA in one country and adult in another. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time  (Mark Haddon) and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne) were marketed as YA in Great Britain and adult in the United States, while The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak), sold as YA here, was originally published as an adult book in Australia.

9780062225443When customers ask me for books that will appeal to their teenagers but are not “YA” books, I have some tried-and-true favorites I suggest. You could think of these as “gateway” books to grown-up literature. (Back when I was reading Go Ask Alice, marijuana was considered the “gateway” drug to heroin. Now you can legally buy marijuana in Colorado!) Often, the customer will say, “Oh! I have a copy of The Secret Life of Bees (or The Help, or Into Thin Air) at home . . . maybe he/she would like that.” Here are 10+ other books that appeal to young people:

Durable Goods, Joy School, and True to Form by Elizabeth Berg: A trio of books about army brat Katie Nash, growing up with an abusive father.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: Still in hardcover more than 3 years after publication! Teenagers are amazed and inspired by Louie Zamperini’s story. Have them read it before the movie comes out.

cover-1The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver: Two books about spirited adventurer Taylor Greer and her adopted Cherokee daughter, Turtle.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight: Page-turner about a mother investigating her teenage daughter’s apparent suicide.

The Pact (or anything, really) by Jodi Picoult: No need to elaborate. Teenagers love Jodi.

Who’s Your Caddy: Looping for the Great, Near Great, and Reprobates of Golf by Rick Reilly (his new book, out in May – Tiger, Meet My Sister . . . And Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Said sounds like it will be perfect for older teenagers too): Sports Illustrated writer Reilly has written many very insightful and funny golf books.

37333cb0909ab45f2302dcbb83df4127The Yonalohssee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani: Who doesn’t love a boarding school book? This one is set in the 1930s, at a school for equestriennes in the mountains of North Carolina.

Me Talk Pretty One Day (or anything except Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk) by David Sedaris: Hilarious, and even better on audio.

Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman: Graphic novels of the Holocaust.

Old School by Tobias Wolff: Another boarding school novel; this one has a cameo appearance by Robert Frost.

What are your favorite gateway books for teenagers?

For lots more lists of “gateway” books, visit The Broke and the Bookish.



Monday Match-Up: The Headmaster’s Wife & You Should Have Known

I like the term “match-up” because it has different meanings. It can refer to a head-to-head competition, a pairing or linkage of two similar things, or an investigation of the connections between two things. Often, when I’m reading a book I’m reminded of another book; sometimes the connection is obvious and sometimes it isn’t.

The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene,  and You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, are both what I call “literary page-turners”. By that I mean books that are well-written and thought-provoking, with fully developed characters and layers of complexity, but are fairly fast-paced. Both of these books keep the reader guessing, and are somewhat disturbing.

Some readers have found The Headmaster’s Wife more than “somewhat” disturbing. It’s a hard book to review, because revealing the crucial plot element would be a huge spoiler. I got involved in a brief exchange on Twitter with another book blogger, who said she was finding the book extremely “creepy”. My response was “How far into it are you?” Because I knew exactly what she meant, and I wanted to suggest that she might feel differently once she was farther along.

9781250038944The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park.  As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe.  As the author said in an interview with the Burlington Free Press, “I like to think of it as a bifurcated narrative, and it’s the same story told from two points of view.” There’s a certain similarity to Gone Girl, without the psychopathy. Arthur is a sad and broken man, but not an evil one.

The book is, as I said, a page-turner, with very surprising plot twists (one of my Twitter buddies said it made her “gasp”), but it’s much more than that. It’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?” I think book clubs would run out of time before they ran out of discussion material from The Headmaster’s Wife.

25906d314df6192f270fbbc6058c8bceYou Should Have Known is the title of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel — and also the title of the self-help book written by the protagonist of the novel, Grace Sachs. Grace is a therapist turned pop psychology author; the thesis of her bestselling book, “You Should Have Known”, is that women ignore early clues that men they are dating are not good husband material. They engage in wishful thinking, and then are surprised when their husbands turn out to be liars, philanderers . . . or worse.

It turns out that Grace is just as clueless as her patients and readers. Her husband, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist, disappears under very suspicious circumstances. According to a Publishers Weekly interview with the author, just because someone is bright and well-educated doesn’t mean she can see what should be obvious:

I started thinking about what I’ve always been interested in: how people can’t see things that are right in front of them. All you have to do is read the papers to see endless examples of smart people who can’t see the nose on their faces. How could the partner of Bernie Madoff not have known what he was up to?

Well, how could she? Is denial of  what seems evident to others criminal, or immoral? Should Grace have known that her husband was a psychopath? Is it fair to blame people for blinding themselves to the truth? Again, great book club discussion questions. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, when Korelitz was asked if she thinks her novel, “like Gone Girl, is part of a fiction trend of not seeing the truth about those we’re closest to?”, she said:

I think that many of us have this fascination with knowing who someone really is. It’s the idea that informs Pride and Prejudice. You make snap judgments about who people are and then bring your own creative energy and personal needs to fill in the gaps and make the person that you want that person to be. In fiction, it’s been a trend for as long as there’s been the novel.

I think Korelitz is absolutely right. People are, and have always been, fascinated by the idea of “the stranger beside me”. (Remember the book by that name by Ann Rule, about Ted Bundy?) In The Headmaster’s Wife, Arthur suffers what might be a psychotic break and becomes a stranger to his wife; in You Should Have Known, Grace discovers that her beloved husband was most likely always a stranger to her.

A Cautionary Tale

IMG_0318When I was a brand new bookseller, a customer asked me how many books she should bring on her upcoming five-day vacation. I told her I would bring five books. She looked aghast, so I quickly told her that I knew I wouldn’t actually read that many books. Several of my books are insurance — what if the flight is delayed, finally boards, then sits on the runway for an hour waiting to take off, and then, when it arrives at its destination, sits on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate? What if the flight circles the airport forever and finally is diverted to another airport, from which I have to take a bus to my home airport? What if one of the books is a huge disappointment? My mother was once waiting for a connection in an airport and started reading a book that turned out to be so awful she left it at the gate. It was a hardcover book, and she couldn’t bear to throw it out, even though it was unreadable.

After the customer left the store (with a bag of four books), Sue, who was trying to train me in the art of bookselling, told me that most people probably wouldn’t bring one book for every day of a trip. I explained to her my ideas about insurance, and also mentioned that I thought the customer’s question was rather odd. She was a complete stranger to me; how could I possibly know how voracious a reader she was? This was just the first of many unusual questions from customers I’ve tried to answer. The trick, as I now know, is to answer the question with a question: “How many books did you bring on your last trip? How did that work for you?”

Flash forward almost 16 years. Sue sold Lake Forest Book Store and moved to Glen Arbor, Michigan, where she’s now the owner of the Cottage Book Shop. After surviving her first winter in the Snow Belt, she went with her daughter to visit friends in sunny Arizona. I was on vacation at the same time and Sue and I exchanged a few texts about what we were reading. (She highly recommends Herman Koch’s upcoming book, Summer House with Swimming Pool.) Then I received this text: “I’ve read all my physical books. Should have brought more.” She didn’t bring any insurance. Sue had anticipated more activity and less reading time on this trip.

cvr9781451621389_9781451621389_lgSue downloaded some books from Edelweiss on her IPad. (Edelweiss is a service that allows booksellers, reviewers, librarians, etc. to download free advance readers’ copies.) But, she told me, she doesn’t read on her IPad out of the house. She wants to present a good example to the reading public. So Sue ended up buying a book at full retail price at the airport bookstore. The book was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, and Sue says it was well worth the price. Still, maybe next time she will bring an extra book (or two) . . . just in case.

You would think that, with the advent of e-books, I wouldn’t feel the need to pack extra books. I am perfectly willing to read my IPad in public, although I confess to walking down the aisle of the airplane and taking a quick poll of how many people are reading real books. (According to a recent Pew research study, last year 70% of American adults read at least one physical book and 28% read an e-book, compared with 66% and 23% in 2012.) I will always prefer turning the pages of a book. And I can’t rely on my IPad . .  what if it malfunctions, or the battery dies and there’s nowhere to recharge it? So I keep stuffing one more book in my carry-on, because you never know what could happen.

ImageThank goodness for airport bookstores! I always like to pick up a magazine or two before a flight. Recently, however, I visited the most inhospitable airport convenience store ever. This one couldn’t possibly be called a bookstore, because it had only a few dusty paperbacks and a very limited selection of magazines. Posted over the sad little magazine and book display was a sign that said, ” PLEASE NO READING”. I found this amusing, and snapped a photo — only to be escorted out of the store by the very unamused manager. What if I had run out of reading material and really needed to buy some? What would I have done then?

9781250037756In case you’re wondering what else Sue read (besides Summer House with Swimming Pool and Brain on Fire), she finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (“quirky”) and Essentialism by Greg McKeown (“read it straight through”), and started The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go. I read Essentialism as well, and can’t wait to tell you more about it in a couple of weeks — the publication date is April 15.

For more of my thoughts on bringing extra books on trips, check out an earlier post: Leaving on a Jet Plane. Maybe I’ve exhausted this topic, but I just hate to think of a reader stranded without a good book.


Monday Match-Up: The Enchanted & All The Light We Cannot See

One day earlier this month, I was frantically getting ready for an author brunch (with the amazing Carol Cassella — more on that in another post!), trying to fit all my warm weather clothes in a carry-on suitcase, and negotiating slushy sidewalks in boots and a down coat as I ran last-minute errands. The next day, I was lounging by the Caribbean with a book in hand,  deciding whether to order a cocktail or Diet Coke with lunch. (The choice was easy: cocktail.) What could be better than a few days of sun and relaxation after a brutal Chicago winter? During the winter of 2013-14, Chicago had 26 days when the low temperature was zero or below, setting a record. On March 3, the low was -2 degrees.

The resort offered yoga and spinning classes, tennis, and a workout facility. I intended to take advantage of all of these and brought the required clothing and equipment, but the lounge chairs were just too comfortable . . . and the books I brought were too tempting. Here are reviews of two books I read at the pool (and on the beach, in the airport, and on the plane):

9780062285508The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
The best word I can use to describe this book is “mesmerizing”. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read — part fairy tale, part realistic prison story. I was captivated from the opening sentences: “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.” One of the reviews compared it to Stephen King’s The Green Mile (also set on Death Row, with elements of fantasy), which I’ve never read, although I’ve seen the movie. The mute narrator of The Enchanted, whose name we don’t learn until the very end, is sentenced to death for “something too terrible to name”. He has spent his entire adult life incarcerated, surrounded by magical visions: golden horses running beneath the floor, soft-tufted night birds circling outside the prison walls, little men with hammers working within the walls, and creatures (“flibber-gibbets”) dancing after an execution.

My soul left me when I was six. It flew away past a flapping curtain over a window . . . It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind. When you don’t have a soul, the ideas inside you become terrible things. They grow unchecked, like malignant monsters. You cry in the night because you know the ideas are wrong — you know because people have told you that — and yet none of it does any good. The ideas are free to grow. There is no soul inside you to stop them.

The narrator learns to read in prison, and before he is sent to solitary confinement in Death Row, the prison library is a sanctuary. Books are the only connection he has with the outside world and with other people:

I know that when I read books about love, they are telling the truth. The truth of it winds around my heart and it tightens in pain. I try and see it through my eyes, raised to my stone ceiling, and I wonder, what is it like to feel love? What is it like to be known?

The book raises many questions: How can a person who has suffered abuse and deprivation become a whole person? What happens to a person who is never truly “seen” by others?  Is the death penalty ever justified? Does each life truly have worth, or are some people so evil that they are unsalvageable? Rene Denfeld, a journalist and author of three works of nonfiction, is a death penalty investigator for the state of Oregon. In an interview with the Oregonian, she said:

I was leaving death row one day where I was visiting a client. I turned back to look at the huge, stone walls of the prison, and I heard a quiet, distinctive voice tell me, “this is an enchanted place.” I began following that voice into this novel. The narrator felt very real to me. I felt he was telling me things that I otherwise might not have been brave or wise enough to know myself. My job is much like the character of the Lady in the novel. I am hired by attorneys who represent men and women facing the death penalty, or already on death row. I conduct an investigation into the client . . . I spend a lot of time in prisons, trailer parks, tenements and shacks in the woods. Sometimes I uncover terrible secrets. In a nutshell, I learn why. What made this person? Why did they do the things they did? it can be a very sad, difficult job . . . But it can also bring moments of profound insight.

I don’t usually like to recommend books that aren’t published yet, but All the Light We Cannot See is an exception — it’s extraordinary! If you’re in a book club, this would be a wonderful choice for a discussion this summer or fall.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (releases 5/6/14)
I know it’s trite to say “I didn’t want the book to end”, but it’s true — I really didn’t want this book to end. I read the last 50 pages very slowly. Anthony Doerr spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, the story of two young people struggling to survive during World War II.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind since early childhood, flees Paris with her father and takes refuge with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo. With Marie-Laure and her father is what may or may not be an enormously valuable diamond from the Museum of Natural History, where Monsieur LeBlanc is the locksmith. The Germans are searching throughout France for the diamond, becoming increasingly desperate after the Allies invade Normandy.

While Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, learning Braille and how to navigate the city with her cane, Werner Pfennig is growing up in a German orphanage. A precocious child with a gift for electronics, Werner is saved from a life in the coal mines when a Nazi official identifies his talent and sends him to a paramilitary academy for Hitler Youth. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure converge in August 1944, when the city of Saint-Malo was almost completely destroyed by fire.

In a Youtube video, Doerr says that he was inspired to write the book to illustrate the power of radio — for good and for evil. In the book’s epigraph, he quotes Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio”. The sound waves of radio are “the light we cannot see”:

Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.

But radio is also the voice of the French resistance:

He waits until dark. Marie-Laure sits in the mouth of the wardrobe, the false back open, and listens to her uncle switch on the microphone and the transmitter in the attic. His mild voice speaks numbers into the garret. Then music plays, soft and low, full of cellos tonight . . .

“The light we cannot see” refers to many other things besides sound waves. “Light we cannot see” is different from darkness, or absence of light; it’s there, we just can’t see it. Having gone blind as a child, Marie-Laure vaguely remembers being able to see light. Werner is trapped in darkness after the bombing of Saint-Malo, but he knows there is light above him.

Sometimes, in the darkness, Werner thinks the cellar may have its own faint light, perhaps emanating from the rubble, the space going a bit redder as the August day above them progresses toward dusk. After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.

The English major in me wants to go on and on about the metaphors of light and darkness in the novel, but I’ll spare you. The writing in All the Light We Cannot See is magnificent. Each beautifully crafted chapter is short — no more than a few pages, and some chapters are only one page — and perfectly titled: “Time of the Ostriches”; “The Arrest of the Locksmith”; “The Blade and the Whelk”. The parallel strands within the book — Marie-Laure’s story and Werner’s story — appear in alternating chapters, coming together towards the end. The surprise isn’t that they meet, but what happens during the next 60 years. Are people, as Anne Frank famously said, “really good at heart”? All the Light We Cannot See makes us consider that question again.