Nonrequired Reading

children-studying-670663_640Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.
Maya Angelou

Yesterday I saw a sight that warmed my heart. A little boy, on his way home from our local library, just couldn’t wait to read one of the books he’d just checked out. He meandered along the sidewalk, once nearly bumping into a tree, while reading one of his books. I don’t know what book captured his attention, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t one of the books on a required summer reading list.

I remember riding my Schwinn Hollywood home from the library, the basket piled with books. Some were books I’d read before, some were below my reading level, some were what is now called “inappropriate”; very few were the kinds of books teachers would be likely to assign. If I didn’t like a book, I didn’t finish it. If I liked it a lot, I’d read it again. No one paid any attention, as far as I could tell, to what I read. The school didn’t send home a list of books that were required summer reading.

Here is the information on required summer reading my old elementary school publishes on its website:

Summer provides a wonderful opportunity for nurturing self-directed learning experiences, but it is equally important to give students more structured activities that keep them from losing ground over the long break from school. This summer’s reading requirements closely align to the English Language Arts Curriculum so that students are prepared to jump right into their first unit of study. Below you will find an overview of the summer reading program with directions explaining how to access the reading list and assignments.

The assigned fiction title will prepare students for their first unit of study in English Language Arts. Each grade has one specific novel and an accompanying assignment. No substitutions will be accepted. Grade six has an additional link to a teacher model of the assignment. Remember that the fiction title and assignment are on the same document, and is accessed the same way, as nonfiction.

61iWdIYvLcLPretty grim . . . doesn’t exactly make you want to pick up a book, or even “nurture a self-directed learning experience”, does it? (And by the way, what is “English Language Arts”? Maybe the school couldn’t decide whether to call the subject “English” or “Language Arts”, so they came up with this weird compromise?) When I reviewed the “assigned fiction titles”, I was very glad I wasn’t entering fifth grade, because I would have been forced to read Avi’s Something Upstairs (published in 1988), a horror story about a boy who discovers a ghost. I hated those types of books when I was 10, and guess what — I still do. I did enjoy S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (published in 1967) when I read it in the early 1970s, but it seems like an odd, dated choice for today’s seventh graders.

The school district in the town where our bookstore is located has a slightly more upbeat attitude toward summer reading. I say “slightly” because the school refers to summer reading as a “task”. What was the last “task” you enjoyed? Warning parents that “while the summer months are a wonderful opportunity for fun and relaxation, the break from the rigors of school can cause a lag in learning”, the school does acknowledge that an additional goal is “to foster and encourage a lifelong habit of reading — for pleasure as well as knowledge — in our students.” I wonder how many eighth graders will find reading And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, to be a pleasure. A few will, I’m sure, but the school has required students to read this book for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever had a child come back to the store and ask for more Agatha Christie books.

At least, from a bookseller’s perspective, it’s easy to hand over the requested copy of And Then There Were None. What we dread are the requests for sixth grade reading, which is supposed to center on themes of hope and gratitude:

For your summer reading, we’d like you to read 2 – 3 books of various genres that focus on the themes of hope or gratitude. Look for books where the characters may have overcome struggles or where, despite the conflict within the book, it has a “happy ending”; you believe the characters will be OK.

I suppose almost any book could fit this description, especially since the school mentions Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl as an example of a book that focuses on optimism. (News flash: the “characters” were not OK.) If an important goal is to develop a love of reading, wouldn’t it be better to ask children to read a few books — on any subject and on any reading level — and tell why they liked these books? Anything, from graphic novels/comics to series books to sports biographies, would be fair game. The only requirement would be that kids find something to read that they enjoy.

Is that an unrealistic idea? Schools are understandably concerned about students losing ground over the long summer vacation. Our school website says: “Research demonstrates that students must read at least three challenging books during the summer break simply to maintain fluency and comprehension skills; a minimum of five such books is necessary to improve on any reading weaknesses.” But what is the cost of forcing children to read books they don’t enjoy? What good is “fluency and comprehension” if children don’t want to read? I’m curious to hear what teachers and parents of school-aged children think.

WWW Wednesday — Summer Reading Version 1.0

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My favorite reading spot, rain or shine.

It’s WWW Wednesday, when I answer three questions: What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?

Although it’s officially summer, I have yet to enjoy that quintessential summer pleasure: reading at the beach or the pool. It’s been cool and wet, so I’ve logged quite a few blissful reading hours on my screened porch, listening to the rain on the roof. Who needs those damaging UV rays, anyway, along with screaming children and biting flies?

16087465710_cf0a2d0c1e_o-500x500I’m reading, as usual, several books at once. Yes, I understand it’s not really physically possible to read more than one book at a time. I like to have a novel, a nonfiction book, and an e-book (either fiction of nonfiction) going. A recent topic on one of my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, was how to squeeze more reading into the day. A suggestion, which I think is terrific, was to read nonfiction in the morning and fiction in the evening. Another idea — even better —  is to change the screen saver on your phone to say “Read a book instead”. (Click here for a great screen saver you can download.)

9781400063369I just started reading Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, the follow-up to Kurson’s terrific Shadow Divers (2004) — and I’m already hooked. Shadow Divers is one of my all-time favorite narrative nonfiction books; Kurson’s second book, Crashing Through, about a man who regains his sight after nearly a lifetime of blindness is a must-read as well.  My friend and colleague Diane recommended Pirate Hunters to me, noting that one of the daring wreck divers in search of famous pirate Joseph Bannister’s ship. Golden Fleece, is John Chatterton — hero of Shadow Divers. The book is not as much about the actual diving as it is about the history of piracy and how Chatterton and his partner, John Mattera, needed to understand Bannister’s psychology in order to find his ship.

9780062367556My current novel is Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry, historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century New York City —  mostly Coney Island and the Lower East Side. The stories of an abandoned infant,  sideshow performers, a beautiful mute, and a young woman trapped in a mental hospital all converge (I’m not sure how, yet!) in this vivid and imaginative debut novel. A Chicago resident, debut novelist Parry recently appeared at the Printers Row Lit Fest with Matthew Thomas (We Are Not Ourselves). I wish I had been able to go — but I’ll be interviewing Parry later this summer.

I just finished two wonderful novels — Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos, and Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. They are two very different books — Language Arts is over 400 pages, with a complicated plot, and Our Souls at Night (described by several reviewers as “spare”), is a short novel, focusing on just two characters.

9781101875896Our Souls at Night is a beautiful and sad story, made sadder by the fact that Kent Haruf died shortly after completing his final edits on the novel. Haruf’s books are all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado and focus on everyday people and their need for connection with each other.  The New York Times says: “His great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Addie says:

I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length. I read the book in one afternoon and had to slow myself down so I could appreciate the plain yet poetic language. My book group will be discussing Our Souls at Night next month, and I’m disappointed to miss the meeting.

9780547939742Language Arts explores many of the same themes as Our Souls at Night, especially the themes of loss and human connection. How do you connect with someone you love who doesn’t have language? Charles Marlow, an English teacher and a lover of the written word, is the divorced father of an adult autistic son. His daughter has just left for college, and Charles is desperately lonely. He reflects on his unhappy childhood, particularly his traumatic fourth-grade year; his broken marriage, and his relationship with his son, Cody:

Language left him gradually, a bit at a time. One would expect words to depart predictably, in reverse order — the way a row of knitting disappears, stitch by stitch, when the strand of working yarn is tugged off the needle — but that was not to be . . . God was the last holdout . . .

I absolutely loved this book, but I don’t want to say too much about it because the plot is full of surprising twists. As a review in Paste magazine says, “Kallos can spin a reveal like nobody’s business. At her best, she compels you to recalibrate everything you thought you knew about the book.” The review goes on to point out that while Kallos is a talented storyteller, her real gift is her deep understanding of her characters:

One thing that separates a good novel from a great one is when empathy accompanies insight. The novels of Stephanie Kallos are filled with the sort of empathy that elevates not just the books but their readers. They convey the overarching sense that repairing the world is a real possibility, however remote—more than one absorbing read away, to be sure, but certainly closer at the last line than the first.

What’s next? I’m looking forward to reading The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet — it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, several people whose opinions I trust have raved about it, and I’ve loved Ishiguro’s other books. After that . . . I can’t decide. Too many choices!

 

 

 

 

The Cherry Harvest — Book Review

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When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t read much YA literature — because there wasn’t much available, not because I was a particularly discerning reader.  I read everything from Jane Eyre to The Thorn Birds, without much awareness that there was a difference in literary quality. I did read some books that were specifically written for teens (The Outsiders, Forever, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones), and my favorite was Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene.

Summer of My German Soldier, originally published in 1973, has been in print ever since. It tells the story of a young Jewish girl growing up in a small Arkansas town in World War II, with an abusive father and a cold mother who prefer her sister. She befriends a German POW from a nearby camp, and shelters him when he escapes.

The Cherry Harvest, Lucy Sanna’s debut novel, appealed to me because of its setting in Wisconsin and because it focused on a fascinating topic I hadn’t read about i in years — German POWs on American soil. When I started reading the novel I was reminded of Summer of My German Soldier and unearthed my old copy. Before I knew it, I was immersed in my 40-year-old book, which was as wonderful as I’d remembered. So when I returned to The Cherry Harvest, I’m sorry to say that the new book  — while enjoyable — suffered in comparison.

The Cherry Harvest is set on a family farm in Door County, Wisconsin, during World War II. Because of labor shortages, no workers are available to help with the harvest and the Christiansen family is living hand-to-mouth. When Charlotte Christiansen proposes that German prisoners move into her family’s migrant worker camp and provide much-needed labor to the surrounding area, she initially meets with resistance from the community. But eventually the local officials relent, and the POWs (called PWs in this book, as they were at the time) move in, resulting in repercussions no one could have predicted.

Charlotte is a difficult character to like. I have no problem with unlikable characters; some of the best characters in literature are unlikable, but they have qualities that make them compelling. I found Charlotte unpleasant and uninteresting, and couldn’t figure out what the men in the novel found so appealing about her. The very first scene of the book, which is written in vivid, gruesome detail, describes Charlotte butchering her daughter Kate’s rabbit so the family will have food on the table that evening. This scene successfully shows Charlotte to be a tough, pragmatic person who will do what she needs to do, without much emotion.

Charlotte’s husband, Thomas, is a reluctant farmer who had hoped to finish college and pursue a literary career. Now his son is fighting in Europe and Thomas has pinned his hopes on his daughter and fellow book lover. Kate plans to attend the University of Wisconsin as an English major and aspiring writer in the fall, even though Charlotte repeatedly comments that reading is a waste of time. (Just another reason not to like Charlotte!)

Kate is an endearing character, sheltered and naive, but ready to take on the world. She meets her first love early in the novel, a privileged senator’s son who is, in Kate’s view, shirking his patriotic duty. Lucy Sanna mentions in her author’s note that Kate’s part in the novel came alive when Sanna and her daughter were walking along the lakeshore in Door County and noticed a summer home that belonged to a politician.

Sanna, a Wisconsin native, says she was intrigued to learn that German POWs were housed in camps throughout the state during World War II. She says:

I saw great potential for conflict. I imagined a small town that feared the prisoners and a farming family that needed them. There would be a strong woman at the center of the controversy, an attractive teenage daughter who would surely come into contact with the prisoners, and a son fighting against the Germans in Europe.

Perhaps there is too much conflict — or too many subplots — in this novel. Each thread of the novel receives relatively superficial treatment, because there are so many threads. I would have preferred to have the novel concentrate on one or two issues, rather than try to include everything from post-traumatic stress syndrome to war profiteeringl. I’d also have liked Sanna to delve more deeply into one or two relationships — particularly Ben’s relationship with his fiancée, Josie — rather than skim over multiple relationships. Sometimes less is more, and I think with this book I’d have liked more character development and less plot.

Whenever I finish a book, I ask myself, “Who’s the audience for this book? Will I recommend it, and to whom?” I think The Cherry Harvest would be a good choice for YA readers making the transition to adult books. They will appreciate the straightforward writing, the fast-paced plot with plenty of action, and they will identify with the teenage characters, particularly Kate. And they’ll get a bit of a history lesson besides. (I also recommend that they pick up Summer of My German Soldier!)

For more information about Lucy Sanna, visit her www.lucysanna.com. Although she lives in California, you can tell she’s a native Midwesterner from this quote on her website:

I love weather. I gain energy from thunderstorms, and peace from snow. I like walking in summer rain as much as walking on a foggy ocean beach. I like sunsets on the lake. I like weather.

Fall in the Midwest, that’s my favorite season. Colored leaves crunchy dry beneath my feet. The clear air, the last sharp smells of life.

For more reviews of The Cherry Harvest, visit TLC Book Tours.

10 Summer Paperback Picks — Nonfiction

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to
possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Mark Twain

Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, wrote a book on narrative nonfiction called You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Many of the best stories I’ve ever read are true — yet they are improbable, unlikely, and downright unbelievable. In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, brilliant narrative historian Erik Larson discusses the joy of researching and telling a true story that readers would find implausible if it were presented in a novel:

If you find the story and you get enough details, you can tell a good story. There’s a great paradox with fiction. If I tried to write a novel in which I proposed that the daughter of the American ambassador was sleeping with the first chief of the Gestapo, no one would believe it. But because it happened—wow!—this is interesting.

The difference between narrative nonfiction and other nonfiction (history, biography, politics, etc.) is that in narrative nonfiction the story is more important than the subject. I have zero interest in horse racing, for example, but I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. The best nonfiction writers transcend their subject matter to shape stories that read like novels. That said, there are some topics I find irresistible; here are some paperbacks, new and old, that kept me up late at night and that I think are perfect summer reading. The publication dates are the dates when the paperbacks were released; in many cases, the paperback editions include updated information as well as author interviews and discussion questions.

If you’re interested in polar exploration and the indomitable human spirit:

9780307946911In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides (2015)

Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of historical events. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.

Like the crew of the Jeannette, the sailors in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (reissue, 2015) were locked in the polar ice pack. You won’t complain about summer heat and humidity when you read about their hellish experiences. The book was originally published in 1959, and the survivors of the expedition to Antarctica all provided first-hand accounts to Lansing. The new edition includes more illustrations and maps, as well as a terrific introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, who explains how “a young Midwesterner . . .  came to write this classic tale of survival and the sea and how, after languishing in relative obscurity, Lansing’s Endurance came to be so enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of readers.”

If you’re fascinated by cannibals and headhunters:

9780062116161Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest by Carl Hoffman (2015)

In 1961, the 23-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller disappeared while traveling through New Guinea on an expedition to find art for his family’s Museum of Primitive Art. While his death was officially ruled a drowning, questions remain — and Carl Hoffman attempts to solve the 50-year-old mystery, delving into an investigation of the violent culture of the Asmat tribe. The New York Times calls the book a “taut thriller”, and it’s an apt description.

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Daring Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2012)

Lost in Shangri-La, one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read, is unusual in that one of the heroic survivors is a woman. A plane is shot down over the cannibal-infested jungles of New Guinea, with only three survivors, all of whom are injured.

If you are a fan of antiquarian maps and books, not to mention true crime:

9781592409402The  Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding (2015)

You rarely encounter a baffling title in narrative nonfiction. The subtitles almost always do a great job summarizing the book, although sometimes — as in this case — they sound a little unwieldy. (I think the reader should decide if the story is gripping, thank you.) The story is gripping, as promised in the subtitle, and interesting from a psychological point of view. What drove E. Forbes Smiley to destroy his career by becoming a thief?

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (2005)

I’ll never get tired of recommending this book. Once again, the subtitle provides almost all the information you need to know before starting the book, but I’ll fill in the blanks by telling you that the “professor” is Dr. James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the “madman” is Dr. William Minor, a Civil War veteran incarcerated in a mental hospital who is the dictionary’s most prolific contributor of definitions. The shocking ending of this book gives new meaning to the phrase “you can’t make this stuff up”.

If you are struggling to understand class and race, especially in relation to higher education:

the-short-and-tragic-life-of-robert-peace-9781476731919_lgThe Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs (due in paperback 7/15)

Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.

A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind (1999)

Pulitzer Prize winner Suskind follows teenager Cedric Jennings as he, with the help of his dedicated and hardworking mother, strives to succeed at a high school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and later at Brown University.

If you love Shirley Jackson as much as I do:

9780143128045Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (reissue, 2015)

These gems from the 1950s have recently been reissued in paperback — I suspect because a collection of Jackson’s previously unpublished writings (Let Me Tell You)  is being published in August. The  humorous essays about family life in Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are very different from the dark, sinister fiction for which Jackson is known.

What are your favorite nonfiction books?

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10 Summer Paperback Picks

In the spring, I posted a list of 10 of my favorite recent books just published (or about to be published) in paperback. It’s now official summer reading season, and dozens of new paperbacks are piled high on bookstore tables. Some of these (Station Eleven) were critically and commercially successful in hardcover; some (The Blessings) didn’t get as much attention as they deserved in hardcover; and some (The Red Notebook) are brand new books, never published in hardcover.

More and more books are being published as paperback originals. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (“The Stigma of Paperback Originals”), American publishers view the “straight to paperback” format as “an increasingly attractive option—perhaps the only option—for young authors with no track record, midcareer authors with a challenging track record and international authors being published for the first time in the U.S.” The Journal points out the paperback original is “the industry standard ‘ In Europe, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.”

Frances Coady, formerly publisher of Picador, the paperback imprint of Macmillan, is quoted in the article as saying: “You have to ask yourself questions like, ‘Is it better to sell 5,000 or 8,000 copies in hardcover and try to reinvent the book in paperback?’—which, unless there’s some extraordinary piece of luck, is really hard to do—or ‘Is it better to sell 50,000 in a paperback original?'”

As a reader, I vote for the paperback option — especially now that paperbacks are so high-quality. Some even have fancy French flaps. Gone are the days when you cracked open a paperback only to have loose pages flutter out. And booksellers have a much easier time convincing customers to take a chance on a new author with a paperback than with a hardcover. Here are 10 books to take a chance on this summer:

9780804172448Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (hardcover 9/14; paperback 6/15)
WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.

I’m surprised this book was released in paperback only nine months after it came out in hardcover. One of five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel has been a bestseller for months. Despite the acclaim, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been a selection for my book group. I couldn’t imagine getting through, much less enjoying, a dystopian novel. But I truly loved every page and recommend it without reservations to anyone who reads literary fiction. I was captivated by the first chapter, which takes place during a performance of King Lear. In a New York Times interview, the author said,

I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence. People would want what was best about the world, and it’s subjective, but to me, that would include the plays of Shakespeare.

women-kings-260x388-1Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson (paperback original 4/15)
They said that the wizard was something Mama had dreamed, and because she was sick in the head. But how could Mama’s dream get inside Elijah’s head? And now they told him that Mama hurt him badly. Every time he closed his eyes, he remembered and he wanted to scratch out the memory but he couldn’t. It waited there for him like a wolf under a tree.

Seven-year-old Elijah, the son of an abusive and mentally unstable Nigerian immigrant, finds refuge with Nikki and Obi in a stable home. But Elijah comes to believe he is possessed by a wizard. This heartbreaking, beautifully written story explores  foster care, childhood trauma, interracial adoption, mental illness, religious ideology, and the complex nature of parental love.

9780345807335Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/23/15)
. . . Remembering Ms. Newcombe now  — though my file drawer contains thousands of lives for which I often find myself feeling accountable — I realize I am well disposed in her favor; in fact, I thoroughly urge you to offer her a job. Why? Because as a student of literature and creative writing, Ms. Newcombe honed crucial traits that will be of use to you: imagination, patience, resourcefulness, and empathy. The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy– the insertion of oneself into the life of another.

Professor Jason Fitger’s personal life and writing career are falling apart, and he tells the story through a series of very funny letters of recommendation. “Clever” doesn’t begin to describe this novel, which is much more than a satire of academia. If you enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, you’ll love Dear Committee Members.

9781594633881The Vacationers by Emma Straub (hardcover 5/14; paperback 6/15)
A good swimming pool could do that—make the rest of the world seem impossibly insignificant, as far away as the surface of the moon.

When a New York family spends a summer vacation in a rented house in Mallorca, things are a little too close for comfort. From the New York Times: “For those unable to jet off to a Spanish island this summer, reading The Vacationers may be the next-best thing. Straub’s gorgeously written novel follows the Post family — a food writer named Franny; her patrician husband, Jim; and their children, 28-year old Bobby and 18-year-old Sylvia — to Mallorca . . . When I turned the last page, I felt as I often do when a vacation is over: grateful for the trip and mourning its end.” I felt the same way! I’ve heard that The Rocks by Peter Nichols, just published a couple of weeks ago, is another wonderful book set in Mallorca — I can’t wait to read it.

44e1505bebb7632d9a662b978df7fc9aThe Blessings by Elise Juska (hardcover 5/14; paperback 5/15)
She thought about how it was something they would all remember forever. How this was family: to own such moments together. To experience them in all their raw shock and sadness, then get the food from the refrigerator, unwrap the crackers and fill the glasses, keep the gears turning, the grand existing beside the routine, the ordinary.

This lovely novel follows several generations of a close Irish-American family from Philadelphia, in a “deceptively simple tale that examines the foibles, disappointments and passions that tie family members together” (Publishers Weekly). The book reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteridge, since it’s a collection of linked stories. Like the PW reviewer, I felt lucky to have spent some time in the Blessings’ presence.

UnknownWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/15)
You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved.

Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)” Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company put it more succinctly; he notes that McDermott’s novels are “on the slim side” and calls Matthew Thomas “Alice McDermott on steroids”.

9781908313867The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (paperback original 3/15)
He drank some more wine, feeling he was about to commit a forbidden act. A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag — even the most remote tribe would adhere to that ancestral rule. Husbands in loincloths definitely did not have the right to go and look for a poisoned arrow or a root to eat in their wives’ rawhide bags.

I hate to use the word “charming”, but this little jewel of a novel really is charming — and it’s not sappy. Parisian bookseller Laurent Letellier finds a woman’s handbag on the street, containing plenty of personal items — including a red notebook — but no clues to the owner’s identity. This has been one of our store’s staff and customer favorites for months — it’s the kind of book people buy in multiples to give as gifts.

9780062365590Us by David Nicholls (hardcover 10/14; paperback due 6/30/15)
. . .  And, like many men of my generation, I enjoy military history, my “Fascism-on-the-march books”, as Connie calls them. I’m not sure why we should be drawn to this material. Perhaps it’s because we like to imagine ourselves in the cataclysmic situations that our fathers and grandfathers faced, to imagine how we’d behave when tested, whether we would show our true colours and what they would be. Follow or lead, resist or collaborate?

Has Douglas and Connie’s long marriage, as she claims, run its course? A summer “grand tour” of Europe with their sullen teenage son, Albie, brings matters to a head. If a book could be described as a romantic comedy, that would be the appropriate term for this smart and delightful novel. The characters, especially Albie, will drive you crazy — just like real people.

A1Ugvdz5AnL._SL1500_The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, with introduction by David Nicholls (paperback original published in the U.S. 6/15)
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

I’m thrilled that this brilliant novel is being introduced to a new generation of American readers.  It’s about a widow who decides to open a bookshop in an isolated English village, encountering resistance from her neighbors. David Nicholls, who worked as a bookseller at Waterstones in London for several years, writes in introduction to the new edition of The Bookshop:

With typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop a “short novel with a sad ending”, which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald’s wit and playfulness . . . Fitzgerald’s great gift, often remarked upon, was the precision and economy of her prose . . .

It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald was a late bloomer. The New Yorker points out that The Bookshop, “published when Fitzgerald was sixty-one, announced her arrival on the literary scene.”

9780143127444The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (hardcover 7/14; paperback 5/15)
But here at Laurelfield, there was something more in the mornings, a buzzing sensation about the whole house, as if it weren’t the servants keeping it running but some other energy. As if the house had roots and leaves and was busy photosynthesizing and sending sap up and down, and the people running through were as insignificant as burrowing beetles.

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. I was enthralled from the first page. Makkai has a new book coming out this summer — a short story collection called Music for Wartime.

It just occurred to me that all the books on this list are fiction. There are plenty of great nonfiction books coming out this summer as well, and I’ll be highlighting those soon. Which paperbacks are you planning on picking up this summer?

A Deadly Wandering — Book Review

9780062284075

We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technologies.
E.O. Wilson (epigraph to A Deadly Wandering)

The tragedy was the product of a powerful dynamic, one that elite scientists have been scrambling to understand, even as it is intensifying. It is a clash between technology and the human brain.
Matt Richtel, A Deadly Wandering

Every so often I read a book that inspires a certain evangelical fervor. I want everyone to read the book, because what the author has to say is original, compelling, and life-altering. When I read a book like this, I recommend it to everyone, without regard to reading tastes. I will even recommend it to people who don’t read much, reasoning that if they read ONE book this year, this should be the one.

A Deadly Wandering is one of those books I tell people they absolutely have to read. Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Richtel combines a groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain in a compulsively readable, multi-layered story about a devastating accident and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world.

Just released in paperback, A Deadly Wandering has a new cover and a new subtitle. Despite my enthusiasm, I had a hard time selling the book in hardcover. Maybe I made it sound too much like a preachy public service announcement, rather than the engrossing and moving story it actually is. Or maybe the subtiitle was the problem: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. The new subtitle, A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age, isn’t perfect either, but I guess the publisher couldn’t just call it A Deadly Wandering: Why You Shouldn’t Text and Drive. Whatever market research publishers use must have suggested to them that “mystery” and “investigation” appeal to more readers than “tragedy” and “redemption”.

15865-a-teen-girl-texting-while-driving-pvThere’s actually not much of a mystery in A Deadly Wandering. The reader knows “whodunit”: 19-year-old Reggie Shaw crossed the center line on a Utah highway on a rainy morning in 2006, killing two people. As the investigation of the tragic accident progresses, it becomes clear to the investigative team that Reggie’s distracted driving caused the crash. Scott Singleton, a Utah State Trooper, and Terryl Warner, a victim’s advocate, are determined to bring Reggie to justice, and are frustrated by Reggie’s initial denial of responsibility, as well as the lack of community support for their crusade:

Some members of the community, while sympathetic to the victims, couldn’t understand the fuss. So what if he’d looked at his phone, or texted — haven’t we all been distracted behind the wheel? Who knew that was so wrong? The law was no help: Nobody in Utah had ever been charged with such a crime.

The real mystery isn’t how the crash happened, or why Reggie lied about it. Richtel delves into Reggie’s background, painting a sympathetic portrait of a young man who transforms himself from what the New York Times calls “a thoughtless, inadvertent killer” and “denier of his own culpability” to “one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting behind the wheel”. The mystery is why we continue to jeopardize our lives, and the lives of others, by using technology while driving.

Dr. David Strayer, a human factors expert, is a pioneer in the application of attention science to driving. His research centers on an important question:

Why, given it was becoming clear that the brain faced limitations, were people continuing to multitask, particularly in challenging, even dangerous situations? When he first started his work on distracted driving, he just assumed people would stop the behavior when they realized how dangerous it could be. But when phone use by drivers continued, even grew, he was forced to reach another conclusion, one that vexed him. People didn’t stop using the technology, because they couldn’t.

Matt-RichtelIn an interesting follow-up to A Deadly Wandering, Matt Richtel published an article in the New York Times two days ago (5/31/15) called “Eyes on the Road. Head in the Cloud”, covering new devices that are designed to “provide safer ways for people to multitask while driving”. Is that possible? Psychologists and neuroscientists say it’s not.

If A Deadly Wandering focused exclusively on cognitive science and the legal issues surrounding distracted driving, it would still be an interesting book. What elevates the book to page-turner status is Richtel’s treatment of the human beings involved. The reader becomes intimately acquainted with not only Reggie and his family, but other key players: the victims and their families, scientists, police investigators, attorneys, and legislators. The New York Times review points out that the story of Terryl Warner, a survivor of child abuse and a passionate advocate for crime victims, is “every bit as fascinating and redemptive as Shaw’s.” Everyone is trying to do his or her best under difficult and confusing circumstances.

Judge Thomas Willmore, the presiding judge on Reggie’s case, keeps cherished books in his chambers. One is “a beat-up paperback edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserablés, in which he’d underlined passages in red and blue pen. It touched on so much of what he faced: crime, rehabilitation, the role of the system for good and sometimes ill.” When Judge Willmore gives Reggie his sentence, he adds a final condition: requiring Reggie to read Hugo’s masterpiece, “which talks about a man who has done a terrible thing and makes it right again”.

Judge Willmore believes that redemption is possible. Reggie Shaw has pledged to devote the rest of his life to preventing others from making the same mistake he did. But, Richtel asks us, how can we come to terms with the addictive power of technology? I urge you to read this provocative book — and to share it with the new drivers in your family.

For more reviews, please visit TLC Book Tours, as well as From Reid’s Dad, a blog written by a father who lost his teenage son to a car crash. I also recommend The Deadly Wandering website, which includes a video of Richtel discussing the book and a quiz that measures your knowledge of current information about texting and driving. I’m embarrassed to admit that even after reading the book twice, I still didn’t do well on the quiz. If I were in school, I’d complain to the teacher that the material wasn’t covered in the book!

The Dismantling — Book Review

9780142181744If you’re in the mood for a smart, unusual thriller, The Dismantling is a terrific choice. On the surface, it’s about the illegal organ trade in the United States. I have no idea how much of this sort of criminal activity actually takes place here. As we all know, once you start researching something on the Internet, you can easily descend into a rabbit hole and emerge with no greater understanding of the original subject you were trying to investigate. That’s what happened when I typed in “black market organs” in the Google search box on my computer.

In Brian DeLeeuw’s thought-provoking novel, cash-strapped Maria Campos has little difficulty finding an organ broker online who is willing to buy a section of her liver. Medical school dropout Simon Worth has joined a shady organization called Health Solutions that matches poor and desperate people willing to sell their organs with rich and desperate people whose time on the legal transplant list is running out. Posing as the second cousin of Lenny Pellegrini, an NFL player suffering from alcoholism and severe depression, Maria travels to New York to “donate” a portion of her liver, collect a large chunk of cash, and start a new life. When things go badly awry, Simon is forced to face his painful past and decide what kind of person he wants to be in the future.

The “dismantling” of the title refers not just to the dismantling of Maria’s body when she sells her liver, but to the breakdown of her life when she suffered trauma as an adolescent. Simon’s life fell apart when he experienced tragedy as a young adult, and Lenny’s physical and mental health were destroyed when he was repeatedly injured during his football career. DeLeeuw asks the reader to consider whether lives can be reassembled after they have been stripped bare. Can there be redemption after “dismantling”?

DeLeeuw explains in an interview with fellow author Christopher Beha how he came up with the idea of using illegal transplants as a vehicle to explore themes of morality in contemporary society:

I came up with the character of Simon Worth first—a young man who is carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame, someone who feels that he is not capable of living a regular life with a regular job, friends, girlfriend. He feels defective in some way—psychically isolated—and yet he also has these large student loans to pay off from a failed attempt at medical school, so he needs to get his hands on money quickly. He can’t just retreat entirely from life. I knew I wanted take this character with very little to lose, somebody who feels as though a vital part of himself has already died, and place him in the center of a criminal underworld, turn him into an unlikely criminal.

This dovetailed with my more general desire to write an internally-focused, slow-burn crime novel. In 2008 and 2009, I started noticing articles about the organ trade popping up more frequently in mainstream newspapers and magazines; the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The idea that everything is up for sale now, that you can put a price on absolutely anything—that was of course part of the fascination. I also thought the question of individual autonomy and agency was raised here in an interesting way: should people have the right to sell parts of their bodies? Or is there something inherently unethical about the market exchange of organs?

brian-abuotThe author’s description of his novel as “slow-burn” is vivid and accurate. The novel’s action moves between the past and the present, gradually illuminating the inner lives of the characters. Asked in an interview with author Matthew Rubinstein to describe the value of “slow reveals”, DeLeeuw says:

Some novels take place only in the present, and draw their suspense from forward motion. But the novels I like most have that element, but also have a counterpoint of revealing more and more about the characters’ pasts–their back stories. There’s the interplay of the current plot with the revelation of past information. As the reader learns more about the character’s past, the present-day action takes on more resonance. For me, this push-pull between past and present helps with the book’s rhythm. I like setting up propulsive present action scenes alternating with sections going back to the past. In this novel, describing Simon’s background enriches the protagonist’s character and makes the present-day tension more understandable.

In this interview, DeLeeuw lists several authors whose books influenced him while he was writing The Dismantling: Colin Harrison (Manhattan Nocturne), Jennifer Egan (Look at Me), Donna Tartt (The Secret History), and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train). He doesn’t mention David Benioff’s  World War II thriller City of Thieves, but I wonder if Benioff (co-creator of Game of Thrones and an accomplished screenwriter) was an influence also. DeLeeuw, who recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, is a screenwriter as well as a novelist.

A fascinating subplot in The Dismantling, and one that is very topical, has to do the permanent health damage suffered by ex-NFL players. At first, Lenny seems to be an unsympathetic character, but Simon’s — and the reader’s — heart eventually goes out to this broken man. Simon reflects on the legacy of Lenny’s short career as an offensive lineman:

The rest, though, he’d had to pay for himself, with no insurance company willing to assume the future costs of such a battered consumer . . . And this was only the toll on his body. The damage to his mind had surely been subtler, more insidious. Most likely there hadn’t been one or two big hits Lenny could point to and say that’s where it all started; most likely it was the accumulation, over a decade and a half, of the routine catastrophes of each snap, stretching back to whenever teenaged Lenny had discovered the power and joy of being both the unstoppable force and the immovable object.

Lenny’s friend and benefactor, Howard Crewes, is filled with remorse for an incident that took place during his own football career. He views helping Lenny as a way to atone for his past sins, just as Simon is trying to atone for his own moral failures. Maria, on the other hand, is seeking revenge. Maria’s actions lead the reader to think about retribution and whether it is ever justified.

A thriller, by definition, is plot-driven, usually with a crime at the center of the story, but what exactly is a literary thriller? Is it just a marketing term, or does it mean something more? I think it is a thriller for people who don’t typically read thrillers — people who are more interested in character development, social issues, intellectual ideas, and good writing than a fast-paced story. If that describes you, I recommend The Dismantling.

For more reviews, please visit TLC Book Tours.