10 Favorite Books of 2014 — I Couldn’t Resist Making a List

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgThis is the time of year when every publication, print or online, feels obligated to publish a “Best Books” of the year list. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States, so it seems like an impossible task for anyone to pick 10 of the “best” books. The New York Times publishes a list of 100 notable books, and then a couple of weeks later, announces the 10 best. (I thought it was amusing that the Times initially gave All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel this year, a mediocre review back in May when it came out, but now has the book listed as one of its 10 Best).

These year-end lists seem to make more sense with movies. I don’t know how many movies are released each year, but I would guess that a critic could manage to see most of them. Even if a critic read a book a day, he or she would still have read a tiny fraction of the books published by major publishers each year. It’s disheartening to think about how many brilliant books are published each year that fail to receive critical acclaim or even much readership.

Authors seem to get grumpy about these lists. Ayelet Waldman, an author who is famous for airing her opinions on social media (her thoughts on the Kardashians: they are “vile scumbag pigs”), was disappointed that the New York Times didn’t include her well-reviewed novel, Love and Treasure, in its list of notable books. So she tweeted: “It’s just so f***ing demoralizing. You pour your heart into your work, you get awesome reviews, and then someone decides it’s not “notable.” I mean. Why do I bother? I could write a f***ing journal.” Charming . . .

Booksellers aren’t always crazy about ranking their favorite books. In a blog post titled Trying to Come Up With My Year’s Favorites, Daniel Goldin (Boswell and Company in Milwaukee) flatly states, “I hate making these sorts of lists.” Every year, the store publishes a year-end “Boswell Best” list, and Daniel says, “Every year, I am one of the last people to come up with my books, which sort of drives people crazy, but what can they do, as I always look very, very busy, and heck, I own the place.” Parnassus Books in Nashville (owned by author Ann Patchett) sidestepped the problem by asking 18 well-known authors what books they will be giving for the holidays this year (Writers to the Rescue: Your Favorite Authors Share Their Gift Lists.) I love that Héctor Tobar and Hampton Sides each recommend one another’s books, without knowing the other was being asked for a book recommendation.

Still, the urge to create a list of favorite books can be irresistible. For what it’s worth, here’s a list of the books I loved the most this year. What do they all have in common? To quote Maureen Corrigan of NPR, “All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories.”  I kept it to 10 (five nonfiction, five fiction) — unlike Corrigan, who included a dozen books on her list (Sometimes You Can’t Pick Just 10). Candidates for my list were books originally published in 2014, which eliminated some great books from 2013 (or earlier) that I read this year.


9780385535373In the KIngdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of a historical event. 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.

Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar
Ann Patchett’s favorite book of the year was just selected as the first book for NPR’s Morning Editions Book Club. In an NPR interview, Patchett says, “It’s a riveting story. It was riveting when we were watching it on the news, it’s riveting in the book . . .  Even though we already know they’re safe, there’s an enormous amount of suspense and tension.” The book also stands out, Patchett says, because of Tobar’s beautiful and thoughtful writing. “He’s taking on all of the big issues of life,” she says. “What is life worth? What is the value of one human life? What is faith? Who do we become in our darkest hour?”

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable, multi-layered story about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving account of a young man’s journey from what the New York Times describes as a “thoughtless, inadvertent killer to denier of his own culpability to one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting while behind the wheel.” The book isn’t preachy by any means, but the message it delivers about distracted driving is lifesaving.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
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.cover

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I’m not sure if this is a self-help or a business book — at Lake Forest Book Store, we shelve it in the business section. Either way, these are categories I rarely explore.  Essentialism really resonated with me; in fact, as soon as I finished it I ordered multiple copies for gifts. McKeown’s book shows us how to shape a life that is filled with meaningful activity. The book doesn’t advocate that we abandon our electronic devices, and it doesn’t provide tips for time management or organization.  It’s a philosophical guide to setting priorities in life.


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
It didn’t win the National Book Award, but can we hope for the Pulitzer? This is the only book I’ve ever jumped the gun on and reviewed on the blog before it was published, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do. It’s such an extraordinary book, I just couldn’t wait.

9781410468895The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A widowed bookseller has lost his zest for life — but his life changes when two things happen: he finds a baby on his doorstep and he falls in love with his sales rep. This wonderful book is a love letter to the book business, and to reading. I loved this book so much that as soon as I finished it I reread it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before! It lives in a stack on my nightstand along with a few other very special books.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
The Headmaster’s Wife is a page-turner with very surprising plot twists, but 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?”

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. 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.)”9780804137744

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best. My husband (a Civil War buff) enjoyed I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, and his usual taste in Civil War books runs to long, detailed biographies of Civil War generals.

What books are in your top 10?




10 Favorite Debut Novels of 2014

imgresA couple of days ago, I was chatting with a friend about authors who wrote “one-hit wonders”.  As we all know, Harper Lee has never published anything after To Kill a Mockingbird. Emily Bronte died young after writing her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Margaret Mitchell never wrote a sequel to Gone With the Wind. Whatever happened to Arthur Golden, who published Memoirs of a Geisha in 1997 and hasn’t been heard from since? And David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, 2008), I’m hoping you have another novel in you.

Here are 10 debut novels published in 2014 that I’m thrilled to have discovered. Some of them have received a lot of critical acclaim, and some have been overlooked — but they are all worth reading. I hope each one marks the beginning of an author’s long and successful career.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
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. It’s hard to pick a favorite of my 10 favorite debut novels . . . but if I had to, this would be it.

What I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
There is nowhere to go but on. Still, part of her longs to go back for one instant—not to change anything, not even to speak to Lydia, not to tell her anything at all. Just to open the door and see her daughter there, asleep, one more time, and know all was well.
An assured, beautifully written novel that begins with the disappearance of a mixed-race family’s “perfect” daughter and goes on to explore the family’s pathology. It’s heart-wrenching, but you’ll want to read it in one sitting. It inspired a great discussion in my book club.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson9780062286451
How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn’t really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta-colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once. That color existed in the water here.
Another favorite of my book club, Fourth of July Creek is the story of two fathers in 1980s Montana: a flawed social worker and a backwoods survivalist. According to the Washington Post, “this richly plotted novel is another sign, if any were needed, that new fiction writers are still telling vibrant, essential stories about the American experience.”

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
Preacher is still talking but not one bit of it stays in my mind. There is just Jeremiah taking a deep breath. His hands shaking. His eyes meeting mine: my something blue.
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
When you have truly come to know a person, Nella — when you see beneath the sweeter gestures, the smiles — when you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide — then forgiveness is everything. We are all in desperate need of it.
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see in the Rijksmuseum.

we-are-called-to-rise-9781476738963_lgWe Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry . . . is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.
The lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story.

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman
Here was a foreign city, if you were coming from Manhattan. The buildings were smaller and the people larger. They drove cars, and for most, Manhattan was a glimmering headache. As the train neared Midwood, the produce improved and the prices shook loose.
An aspiring journalist finds creative satisfaction in filing fake Holocaust restitution claim for fellow Russian immigrants. It’s a thought-provoking examination of the relationship between fact and fiction, with plenty of wit and humor.

The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe
In a way, Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was, just as, I am sure, her personality formed as a result of mine. People do that kind of thing.  They divvy up qualities, as though reality, in order to be manageable at all, should be sorted, labeled, pinned down.
In this insightful novel about female friendship, the “perfect” friend turns out to have a life that’s far from perfect. The Guardian says it’s “a brilliantly written, probing, uneasy look at a damaged friendship between two women – and how such intense relationships are as much about how we define ourselves as they are about our love for, and struggle to understand, another human being.”

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld9780062285508
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 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. The author, a journalist and author of three nonfiction books, is a death penalty investigator for the state of Oregon.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
When he talked politics, it was with me, or my sister, pointing a steady and patient finger at us, saying, “I don’t care about left or right. It’s all nonsense. All I ask of you is this: Be kind. Be decent. And don’t be greedy.
A group of friends grows up together in a small Wisconsin farming town; one goes on to become a famous musician. The New York Times describes Shotgun Lovesongs as  “a good old-­fashioned novel, a sure-footed and unabashedly sentimental first effort that deserves to be among the standouts in this year’s field of fiction debuts.”

The Center for Fiction presents the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize each year. The awards were announced last night (December 9), and the winner was Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. I’m adding that one to my TBR list! Several of my favorites were contenders for the prize — The Enchanted, Fourth of July Creek, and We Are Not Ourselves were shortlisted, and The Girls from Corona del Mar and Shotgun Lovesongs were longlisted.

Did you discover a wonderful new author in 2014?



Giving the Gift of Reading

The greatest gift is a passion for reading.
Elizabeth Hardwick

There’s nothing as cozy as a piece of candy and a book.
Betty MacDonald, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic

www.randomhouseThe buzzword in college applications today is “passion”. Every applicant is supposed to have one, and woe to the poor teenager who’s just trying to get through adolescence, not to mention chemistry and the Common App. Fortunately, when I was in high school, no one asked me if I had a “passion”. But if I’d had to answer that awful question, I would have said I was passionate about reading. I always have been, ever since I deciphered the words to Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. (My parents, convinced I had memorized the book, kept trying to trick me by skipping pages, but I was on to them.)

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

9780060736262I am very grateful that my parents and grandparents read to me, bought me books, took me to the library, and were avid readers themselves. I can still hear Nana’s musical voice reading A.A. Milne and e.e. cummings to me. And I remember the cozy feeling of Granny’s lap as she read The Funny Thing to my cousins and me. (“And very good they are, jum-jills” — does anyone remember that?) Her house was crammed with books — I discovered everything from The Catcher in the Rye to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to Georgette Heyer’s romances on her shelves.  Dad read us The Yearling and The Wind in the Willows, and often gave in when I begged for one more chapter. I recall my mother’s delight when she found the Betsy-Tacy books (favorites from her childhood) on a library shelf.

Scan 76

Storytime with Gramps

There are countless organizations devoted to literacy and the joy of reading. Please consider giving your time, your money, and/or your books to one of them. Two of my local favorites are Open Books and  Bernie’s Book Bank. Open Books, a nonprofit that promotes literacy through school and community programs, helps fund its operations through two absolutely beautiful used bookstores in Chicago. Bernie’s Book Bank facilitates the collection, processing and redistribution of new and gently used children’s books to increase book ownership among at-risk children throughout the Chicago area. Both of these organizations would love your “pre-read” books. Wherever you live, there’s a literacy group that would appreciate your gift.

9780064401517During this holiday season, give yourself a present — treat yourself to some time with a good book.  Do as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle suggests and eat some candy, too. You can worry about calories in January.

When Molly O’Toole was looking at the colored pictures in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s big dictionary and just happened to be eating a candy cane at the same time and drooled candy cane juice on the colored pictures of gems and then forgot and shut the book so the pages all stuck together, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle didn’t say, “You must never look at books when you are eating.” She said, “Let’s see, I think we can steam those pages apart, and then we can wipe the stickiness off with a little soap and water, like this-now see, it’s just as good as new. There’s nothing as cozy as a piece of candy and a book.”


5 Books NOT To Give This Holiday Season

Books for the holiday book drive in Glen Arbor, Michigan

Books for the holiday book drive in Glen Arbor, Michigan

A book is a gift you can open again and again.  Garrison Keillor

Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them.  Neil Gaiman

Garrison Keillor and Neil Gaiman both state what we booksellers believe with all our hearts: books make the best gifts. But books, like all gifts, can be tricky to choose. There’s no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to books. We all have books sitting on our shelves that were given with the best of intentions — and that we will never open, much less again and again. I feel a little twinge of guilt every time I see the bright yellow cover of Heaven is for Real in my stack. I know I’m never going to read it . . . but it was a gift, and I can’t bring myself to donate it to the library book sale. That book isn’t my cup of tea, but at least it’s not insulting. I have a friend who actually received a book on weight loss as a birthday present. (She’s not overweight, but which is worse? Giving a diet book to someone who’s overweight or someone who’s not?)

Besides diet books, what else should you think hard about giving?

  1. Books you think a person SHOULD read. Example: grandparents who buy beautiful hardcover editions of beloved classics for teenagers. Pride and Prejudice makes a lovely gift IF you have an Austen-loving granddaughter. But if you have a granddaughter who loves YA dystopian novels, best to stick with those.
  2. Cookbooks; they should only be given to people who actually like to cook. (Exceptions: newlyweds or recent graduates. Everyone needs some basic cookbooks. They may not be thrilled to receive them, but they need them.) I used to interrogate men who bought cookbooks for their wives: “Are you sure she wants this? Wouldn’t she rather have a nice juicy novel?” I have softened over the years and now I just mind my own business and wrap the cookbook, knowing it can always be exchanged.
  3. Goodnight Moon. Every new baby receives multiple copies of Goodnight Moon. Pick a lesser-known favorite, and if the baby has siblings, choose a brand-new picture book. Chances are the family already has the classics.
  4. The big blockbuster of the season that everyone is reading (or says they’re reading) and that is popular with both genders and all age groups. Three years ago, that book was Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Many of those books came right back to the store in January. I admit I was one of those who jumped on the Steve Jobs bandwagon; I don’t think my friends returned the books, but you never know . . .
  5. Books that carry a lot of emotional weight. Gift books should come with no strings attached. Maybe it’s just me, but my heart sinks when I receive a book with an inscription. Although apparently not everyone feels that way. A couple of years ago, a young man came into our store and returned a book on Bob Dylan he’d received for Christmas. It wasn’t until after he’d left the store that I noticed the inscription: “Dear _____ , Since we are both Dylan fans, I know you will love this book as much as I did. Enjoy! XXOO _____”.
1. Books work straight away. No batteries required. 2. Books are easy to wrap. We wrap for you! 3. You don't have to fret about size or color. 4. There's a book for every kind of person. :) 5. You can do all your shopping in one place . . . here!!!

1. Books work straight away. No batteries required.
2. Books are easy to wrap. We wrap for you!
3. You don’t have to fret about size or color.
4. There’s a book for every kind of person. :)
5. You can do all your shopping in one place . . . here!!!

Working in a bookstore over the holidays is a lot of fun; it’s rewarding helping people choose books for people they care about. It can also be challenging, especially when we are asked to find books for a nephew who doesn’t like to read;  a father-in-law who is extremely conservative and likes large print; and a mother who likes mysteries that aren’t too violent. But, as our chalkboard says, there’s a book for every kind of person.

My favorite gift book this season is By the Book: Writers on 9781627791458Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review. It’s a collection of columns from the “By the Book” column that appears in the Book Review every Sunday. Authors  are asked a series of questions, such as “What book is on your nightstand right now?”, “What was the last book that made you cry?”, and “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” About 70 authors are included — everyone from  David Sedaris to Carl Hiaasen to J.K. Rowling. As the editor, Pamela Paul, says:

We all want to know what other people are reading. We peer at strangers’ book covers on an airplane and lean over their e-books on the subway . . . When I launched By the Book in The New York Times Book Review, it was an effort to satisfy my own genuine, insatiable desire to know what others — smart people, well-read people, people who are good writers themselves — were reading in their spare time. The idea was to stimulate a conversation about books, but one that took place at a more exalted level than the average water cooler chat. That meant starting big, and for me that meant David Sedaris. Who wouldn’t want to know which books he thinks are funny? Or touching or sad or just plain good?

In coming up with the questions for David Sedaris, and then for those who followed, I decided to keep some consistent — What book would you recommend to the president to read? — while others would come and go. If you’re going to find out what books John Grisham likes, you’ve got to ask about legal thrillers. When talking to P.J. O’Rourke, you want to know about satire.

Ann Patchett, who is one of the interview subjects in By the Book, is also the owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. Her store has a wonderful blog, and today’s post (“What Book People Give When They Give Books: The Ultimate Holiday Guide”) lists some spot-on gift-giving suggestions for the readers on your list.  The clever categories include “for the party host, a better gift than a bottle of wine”, “for anyone who’s looking for a book as good as Unbroken“, “for the picky, discriminating book addict who has already read everything on earth”, and “for anyone whose soul is not made of ice and rocks”.

Happy Black Friday — stay home with a good book! If you’re lucky enough to have an independent bookstore nearby, tomorrow (Small Business Saturday) is a great day to stop by for some recommendations.




Why I’m Grateful to Fiction Writers

9781410468895Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
Marcel Proust

An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.
Anne Lamott

I recently finished a 4-week creative writing course called “A Story a Day”. Do you know how hard it is to write a story a day? Every day, for four weeks, the instructor emailed a prompt. On Wednesday evenings, we met and discussed the stories we’d written during the week, as well as a story by a published author that illustrated the theme of the week — plot, characterization, dialogue, etc.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I finished this course. I still have quite a few outstanding assignments. Some of the prompts left me absolutely bewildered. I especially had a hard time with the ones that required me to move outside my “comfort zone” and write speculative fiction. I learned that my comfort zone  — would that be my imagination? — is very limited and that I am not interested in writing (or reading) speculative fiction.

What else did I learn? I learned that it is really, really difficult to write fiction. You know the little disclaimer in novels that says something to the effect of “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental”? My characters almost all have some resemblance to real people. I am amazed by writers who imagine and create unique, fully formed characters. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care if the characters are likable; I just want to believe in them. As Claire Messud said, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?'”  (That being said, it is a wonderful reading experience when a character not only comes alive on the page but makes his or her way into your heart.)

This year, I read some spectacular novels. I want to thank 10 writers (some of whom are debut novelists) for creating memorable characters and stories.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgAnthony Doerr, who spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel of 2014.

Gabrielle Zevin, who created my favorite character this year, the cantankerous A.J. Fikry, in her love letter to the book business — and to reading — The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Erin Lindsay McCabe, who brought both my husband and me to tears in her debut novel, I Shall Be Near to You, a tender love story about a headstrong young woman who disguises herself as a man and follows her husband into battle in the Civil War.

Matthew Thomas, whose first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, is a masterpiece. Like Anthony Doerr, it took him 10 years to write his book.  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.

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

E. Lockhart, who made me a convert to well-written young adult literature with her poetic and tragic novel, We Were Liars. I knew from the first page I was reading something extraordinary, because the voice of Cadence, the teenage narrator, struck me as completely authentic.9780062285508

Julia Glass, who brought some of my favorite characters from Three Junes back to the page in And the Dark Sacred Night. Glass’s characters are imperfect, sometimes likable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and fully textured.

Rene Denfeld, who is such a skilled writer that she made me feel compassion for a prisoner on death row, who has committed a crime “too terrible to name” in her debut novel, The Enchanted.

Thrity Umrigar, who created two unforgettable characters (an uneducated Indian immigrant and her therapist) in The Story Hour. Umrigar was also kind enough to send me a long, thoughtful email answering some questions I raised in my review of her novel.

9780062365583Sebastian Barry, who always awes me with his beautiful writing, and broke new ground in The Temporary Gentleman, the story of an Irishman who makes some wrong turns in life and ends up as an expatriate in Africa after World War II.

David Nicholls, who wrote Us, a delightful romantic comedy about a marriage that may or may not have run its course. In the words of my coworker, Max, it includes “just enough humor to counteract the bittersweet”.  The characters, especially Albie, the sullen teenage son, drove me crazy — just like real people.

Which novelists are you most grateful for this year?

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I hope you have some time to read over the long weekend!





WWW Wednesday — Mother-Daughter Version 2.0


Too cold to sit outside . . .

It’s WWW Wednesday, where I answer three questions:

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

I’m visiting my mother in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so I’ll answer those questions for both of us. And no, we are not reading outside on lounge chairs. The temperature is 44 degrees — not outdoor reading weather, although it’s balmy compared to Chicago’s current 19 degrees.

Here’s what we are currently reading:

9781594205712MI’m in the middle of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. My book group is discussing it tomorrow night, so you might say I’m cutting it a little close, but I like to read my book group books as close to the meetings as possible so they’re fresh in my mind.  I’m impressed with Ng’s assured, precise writing style and her careful, well-paced narrative structure. It’s the kind of book you want to read in one sitting. All the reviews I’ve read, including this one from the New York Times, have been excellent:

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is a literary thriller that begins with some stock elements: a missing girl, a lake, a local bad boy who was one of the last to see her and won’t say what he knows. The year is 1977, the setting, a quiet all-American town in Ohio, where everyone knows one another and nothing like this has ever happened before.

This is familiar territory, but Ng returns to it to spin an unfamiliar tale, with a very different kind of girl from the ones we’ve been asked to follow before. If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now.

One of our members emailed today to say she wouldn’t be able to make it to the meeting (it’s her daughter’s birthday — I guess that’s a decent excuse): “I loved the book even though I thought it was heart-wrenching. Can’t wait to hear about the discussion. Two great books in a row. We are on a roll.” (Last month we discussed All the Light We Cannot See.)

My mother is reading What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, for her next book club meeting. It’s about a 39-year-old woman who loses her memory and thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child. She thinks it might be a little lightweight for a book club discussion. I am embarrassed to admit that I keep confusing this book with Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which is a moving novel about a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who has written several novels about families dealing with brain disorders. (Still Alice, by the way, has just been made into a movie starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, with a wide release scheduled for 9780062325143January 2015.)

Here’s what we just finished reading:

The last book I finished was The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless. McCandless is the sister of Chris McCandless, the young man whose journey of self-discovery and eventual starvation in the Alaskan wilderness was told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. I don’t really know what to think about this book. Into the Wild raised more questions than it answered, and The Wild Truth answers some of those questions. But it was disconcerting to learn that Krakauer (and also Sean Penn, who directed the movie version) were in possession of key missing information and agreed with the McCandless family not to reveal it. The conclusion I reached as a reader about McCandless’s reasons for severing ties with his family and disappearing “into the wild” turned out to be faulty. I feel a bit cheated knowing that Krakauer didn’t present the whole story in his book, although I understand why he couldn’t reveal family secrets.

coverMy mother recently read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, about a London family court judge who must make a decision about whether to order a lifesaving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. My mother highly recommends The Children Act, although her favorite McEwan novel remains Atonement. The London Independent echoes her thoughts, saying, “In short: this novel is not as good as Atonement, but what modern novel is?”

What’s next?

I’m going to return to Us by David Nicholls, which I was finding absolutely delightful, but had to set aside to read my book club book. I got a text from a friend last week who asked me if I’d read Us yet, saying, “Loved Us, read it next if you can . . . it’s a perfect book.” So of course I had to pick it up right away! It was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I also just picked up a copy of Maureen Corrigan’s And So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, which I can’t wait to read. (See Ann Patchett’s thoughts on the book here.)

I see that my mother has a big stack of books to be read. Right on top is A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith, the story of a group of Gold Star mothers (women whose sons were killed in World War I) who make a government-sponsored pilgrimage to Europe to visit their sons’ graves.

I’d love to know what you’re reading and what you’re thinking of reading next. I’m especially interested in book club selections, since I’m planning a book club roundup of great discussion books.



Nonfiction November — Remembering World War I



Published at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11

Armistice Day — first celebrated on November 11, 1919 to commemorate the end of World War I — officially became Veterans Day in 1954, when President Eisenhower signed legislation that ensured that American veterans of all wars would be honored every November 11. In France and Belgium, Armistice Day (Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale) is observed on November 11 as well. (British Commonwealth countries refer to Armistice Day as Remembrance Day, or Poppy Day.) This year, special events are planned in Europe because 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Today, French President François Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will inaugurate the International Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette, a “Ring of Remembrance” at Ablan Saint Nazaire in northern France, near the Belgian border. The stunning new memorial is located on a plateau overlooking France’s largest military cemetery.

In September, Jeff and I visited Verdun, site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in World War I. To this day, many areas where the ten-month battle took place are off-limits because of unexploded munitions. Trenches and huge bomb craters define the landscape, and ruined villages have been left as memorials. Our knowledgeable tour guide provided an interesting French perspective on World War I and arranged for lunch at the informal museum of Jean-Paul de Vries, a charismatic local resident who has found more than 30,000 World War I artifacts in the countryside near his home.

Richard Rubin, author of The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War, explored the battlefields with M. de Vries and visited his two-story garage:

I call it a garage because it had a vehicle door in front and sat in the midst of a village, but inside it was much more like a barn with a large loft. Whatever it once was, it is now full of locally found bayonets, rifles, grenade launchers; trench knives, “persuaders”, entrenching tools; helmets, gas masks, wristwatches; mess kits, eating utensils, pots, pans, jugs; horseshoes, saddles, harnesses, ammunition crates, wicker shell carriers; Bibles and religious statuettes; enough bottles to supply several bars and pharmacies; and many, many photographs . . .

It’s a museum . . . haphazard and compelling, wondrous and sad. M. de Vries accepts donations but does not charge admission. Everything he has here was offered up to him, for free, by the earth. Experts say France’s World War I battlefields will continue to regurgitate artifacts of that war for another two or three centuries.

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about World War I, but my husband is the expert when it comes to actual history. In addition to The Last of the Doughboys, his collection of World War I nonfiction includes the following (and many more):

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918 –  A new translation of the actual wartime diaries of a French soldier. Barthas spent four years in almost constant combat, fightingIMG_0180 in every major French battle. Somehow he managed to chronicle his experiences in a series of notebooks. When he arrived home, he added information (letters, official reports, clippings, etc.), eventually filling 19 volumes. (By the way, “poilu” means “hairy one” in French and is the French version of the American “doughboy” — an infantryman.)

The Missing of the Somme (Geoff Dyer) — Dyer, the grandson of a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, has written what the Wall Street Journal calls “a lyrical meditation on memory and the meaning of World War I”.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Adam Hochschild) — The New York Times describes Hochschild as “a historian ‘from below’, as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one” and adds that “this is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.”

The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (Niall Ferguson) — Controversial British historian argues that World War I was not inevitable, as other historians have claimed, but can be almost entirely blamed on the actions of Great Britain.

I enjoyed Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. In 1914, 100,000 soldiers on the Western Front took part in a temporary cease-fire on Christmas Eve. The last survivor of the truce, Sgt. Alfred Anderson of Scotland’s Fifth Battalion Black Watch, died in 2005 at the age of 109.

There are no living World War I veterans today . . . but there are plenty of other veterans to thank for their service.