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

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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.

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Nonfiction November — Remembering World War I

Verdun

Verdun

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.

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Village of Secrets — Book Review

Village of SecretsRecently, a customer asked me to help her choose her book group’s next selection. She mentioned that they had recently read Unbroken, and said emphatically, “No more World War II books! We’ve read enough about that.” This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that comment. I honestly can’t understand how anyone could ever read enough about World War II.

I think the first book I read about the Second World War and the Holocaust was Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, when I was 9 or 10. One of the questions that book raised to me, as a child, is the same question that historian Caroline Moorehead examines in Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France: What enables some people to risk their lives, and those of their families, to do what is courageous and morally right? Especially when those around them are either ignoring or participating in the evil?

Moorehead set out to chronicle the heroic acts of villagers in the mountains of the Ardèche, a remote area of eastern France. The residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and surrounding villages were able to save the lives of thousands who were hunted by the Gestapo: resisters, Freemasons, communists, OSS and SOE agents, and Jews. Many of those who were protected and hidden were children whose parents had been sent to concentration camps.

France, as Moorehead describes in painful detail, was a country “not merely resigned to defeat, but ready to blame itself for what had happened, and eager to accommodate and anticipate lest the worst befall”. “Accommodating” and “anticipating” involved taking an active role in arresting and deporting French Jews:

It would be many years before it was acknowledged that, from the very beginning, with their censuses, their revisions of nationality, their Statuts des Juifs, their seizure of property and businesses and their expulsions from professions and jobs, Vichy had effectively paved the way for Hitler’s Final Solution in France . . . As the SS officer Helmut Knochen declared at his trial in 1947: “We found no difficulty with the Vichy government in implementing Jewish policy.”

Village of Secrets is an engrossing, painstakingly researched account of what Moorehead calls a “remarkable adventure in imagination and cooperation”. The story first came to light in the early 1950s when an American magazine published a story about André Trocmé, the Protestant pastor in Le Chambon who led his parish’s effort to rescue the targets of German persecution. This story helped France define its wartime experience, “by minimizing collaborators and celebrating resisters”. The story also contributed to the myth that the saintlike Trocmé, through Gandhian non-violence, the help of a “good German officer”,  and the cooperation of a regional prefect, saved 5,000 lives.

The truth, Moorehead found in her research — which involved interviews with many villagers — is much more complicated than the original news story about a pacifist minister who spearheaded a brave effort to save lives in Vichy France.

What actually took place on the plateau of the Vivarais-Lignon during the grey and terrifying years of German occupation and Vichy rule is indeed about courage, faith and morality. But it is also about the fallibility of memory.

Moorehead portrays Trocmé not as a saint, but as a complicated and mercurial person — and only one of many brave individuals who were instrumental in the resistance efforts. In 1990, a young minister, Alain Arnoux, organized a colloquium to discuss the “various renderings of the past” that had become so divisive in Le Chambon:

He was sick to death of the bickering, the animosities, the films, books, speeches, each one more inaccurate than the last, the ever inflated numbers of those rescued — 5,000! 8,000! . . . For three days in October 1990, the war on the plateau was rehashed. All those neglected by Trocmé . . .  the many other Protestant pastors, the Catholics, the farmers who hid the children, the children themselves, now grown into adults — were heard.

In her efforts to uncover the true story of the “Village of Secrets”, Moorehead asked herself — and others — what differentiated Le Chambon and the surrounding villages from other areas in Vichy France. Why were more people in, proportionately, saved from the Nazis in that little region than anywhere else in France? She acknowledges that “all over France, other villages, other towns, convents, families, Protestants, Catholics, Gaullists and communists, at great risk to themselves, sheltered those pursued by the Nazis . . . Parallel to the map of Vichy is a map of decency.” But somehow, she says, the story of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon is different — a “felicitous combination of timing, place, and people”.

If you haven’t read enough World War II history — and I hope you haven’t — I highly recommend Village of Secrets. I will warn you that your head will spin from all the different names you will encounter — pastors, rescuers, children, German officials, and more. (There are two characters named Madeleine, for example.) Moorehead helpfully includes a list of all the major characters in the beginning of the book, as well as a timeline that includes major events in the war as well as in the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.  I flipped back to these pages many times.

Moorehead’s narrative flows smoothly, despite all the dates, names, and details. She’s an accomplished author of history and 9780061650710biography, with 15 books to her credit. I also recommend A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. Village of Secrets is a natural companion to A Train in Winter, also focusing on the nature of heroism. In the epigraph to Village of Secrets, Moorehead quotes Mordechai Paldiel, a leading scholar on rescue during the Holocaust:

In searching for an explanation of the motivations of the Righteous Among the Nations, are we not really saying: what was wrong with them? Are we not, in a deeper sense, implying that their behavior was something other than normal? . . . . Is acting benevolently and altruistically such an outlandish and unusual type of behavior, supposedly at odds with man’s inherent character, as to justify a meticulous search for explanations? Or is it conceivable that such behavior is as natural to our psychological constitution as the egoistic one we accept so matter-of-factly?

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A Sudden Light — Book Review

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Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation, and interpretation is informed by time. And so I tell my story to you, as the Mariner told his: he, standing outside the wedding party, snatching at a passing wrist, paralyzing his victim with his gaze; I, standing with my family at the edge of this immortal forest. I tell this story because telling this story is what I must do.
Garth Stein, A Sudden Light

Yesterday, while he was fitting me for new sneakers, the salesman asked me what my favorite book was. (How did the subject come up, you wonder? Never one to waste a moment of potential reading time, I was reading a book while waiting my turn in the shoe store.) I told him that was an impossible question to answer — I could only give him a list of my favorite books. “No,” he said. “You have to pick one. I’ll start. Mine is Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz.”

OK, I thought. Fair enough. I wanted to get my sneakers and move on with my day. So I said the first book that popped into my mind: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  When I described the book, he was fascinated — it turns out he is an auto racing fan AND a dog owner. Not that those characteristics are necessary for a person to enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, but that lucky coincidence made it a sure bet. When the salesman told me he “still likes paper books” and that he didn’t think there were any bookstores left in the northern suburbs of Chicago, I gave him directions to Lake Forest Book Store, 10 minutes away from the shoe store. I hope he went.

Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t my favorite book (as I said, there’s no such thing) 9780061537967but it is a book that I hold close to my heart. I’ve read it, reread it, underlined favorite passages, and listened to it on audio. No critic would call it a literary masterpiece — it’s not multi-layered, it’s sentimental, and the writing, while lovely, is not distinctive. It’s more what I would call a little jewel of a book — not ambitious in its scope, but perfect at what it sets out to do. Enzo, the dog who narrates the book, has a voice that no reader will ever forget. I hate to use the word “uplifting”, but that’s what this book is, even with the inevitable sadness at the end.

Stein published The Art of Racing in the Rain in 2008, so it’s been a six-year wait for his fourth novel, A Sudden Light. (Stein is also the author of two previous novels, which I haven’t yet read.) A Sudden Light has some elements in common with The Art of Racing in the Rain: the Seattle setting, a compelling narrator — in this case, a precocious 14-year-old boy — and an air of mysticism.

Trevor Riddell’s  bankrupt, recently separated father, Jones, brings him to his grandfather’s mansion (Riddell House) in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father and his Aunt Serena from carrying out their plan. Trevor badly wants the plan to succeed, because he thinks that if his father has money in the bank he and his mother will be more likely to reconcile.

A Sudden Light is told from the perspective of Trevor as an adult, telling the story of the fateful summer when he lived at Riddell House with his grandfather (who may or may not have dementia), his Aunt Serena (who may be mentally ill, evil, or perhaps both), and his  father (who is a lost soul, trying to find his way back to his wife and his son, and to come to terms with his dysfunctional family). Trevor’s voice captivated me right away, and I read eagerly for the first third of the book.

Then things became problematic for me. Trevor discovers (too easily) old family diaries and letters that reveal many ugly secrets. He encounters a ghost, who helpfully fills in the missing parts of the sordid Riddell family history. Aunt Serena, Trevor’s father’s sister, who has never married and lives with her father as his caretaker, displays increasingly erratic and sinister behavior. I found it especially creepy that she always addresses Trevor’s father as “Brother Jones”.  She — like some of her Riddell ancestors — was too much of a stock villain to be a believable character.

I should admit I have a problem with ghosts. I think they are usually a silly plot device. Usually, when a ghost appears in a novel, that is the moment when I lose interest. That didn’t happen right away in this book, because I held out hope that the ghost was a figment of Trevor’s imagination. I don’t want to give anything away, but the ghosts do turn out to be other than what they originally seem. Still, not long after the ghost showed up. I began finding the story contrived and unbelievable. I’m not sure why I can easily accept a dog as a narrator, but not a ghost as a character. Maybe it’s because it is a fact, accepted by every sane human being, that dogs do not narrate books, while apparently there are reasonable people who believe in ghosts.

Trevor Riddell is one of those people. He has a difficult time convincing his mother, a brilliant scholar of comparative literature, that the Riddell House ghosts exist: “‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I thought you were making up stories — going a little crazy in this house with your imagination and nothing to keep you occupied. I didn’t know how to believe you. I’m so sorry'”. Trevor’s mother has spent her life as an agnostic, accepting the inexplicable. The connection Trevor feels with the ghosts of his ancestors helps him develop a faith that sustains him:

Perhaps that’s what life is about–the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God.

I’d love to hear what other readers think of A Sudden Light. I have a hardcover copy (untouched by me; I read the ARC) to give away. Here’s how it works:

  • To enter, leave a comment or email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com.
  • The giveaway is eligible to followers of Books on the Table in the United States.
  • Winners will be chosen randomly on November 5 and notified by email.
  • There are over 30 other blogs participating in the literary blog hop and they are offering some great giveaways, so check them out!

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Nonfiction November — 10 Favorite Survival Books

9780141001821MI just saw a preview for the movie version of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. (And by the way, when did the word “trailer” creep into common usage, replacing the unpretentious and much more accurate “preview”?) Seeing a clip from the movie –which included a glimpse of the deadly white whale — reminded me how much I enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick’s enthralling account of the survivors of the sinking of the Essex. (It won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000.) I’ve had a strange fascination with survival stories, especially those that take place at sea, ever since childhood.

I grew up near the ocean, and spent most of my summers on boats. I remember lying in my cozy bunk at night, reading Survive the Savage Sea (originally published in 1973, and still in print) by the light of a little battery-powered lamp. Dougal Robertson’s book describes how his boat was sunk by a pod of killer whales, and how his family managed to survive for 38 days in a little dinghy with few provisions. As I recall, they had little more than a bag of onions and some fruit. I felt a little guilty when I complained about the stale cereal and canned vegetables we ate on our boat.

When I ran out of tales of shipwrecked sailors, I turned to adventure on land. Alive, by Piers Paul Read, was shocking and gruesome– so it was right up my 14-year-old alley. I don’t think my tastes have evolved much, because I continue to be intrigued by true stories of bravery in the face of danger. The best one I’ve read recently is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides. Sides, a journalist and historian, has written several other excellent works of nonfiction; I especially liked Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, about a daring raid on a POW camp in the Philippines.

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

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, takes place at the other end of the world. The book (originally published in 1959) was just re-issued in honor of the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s amazing expedition. It’s deservedly a classic. And it’s more uplifting than many survival stories; Shackleton’s entire crew survived their ordeal.

Several members of Teddy Roosevelt’s party in The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard, were not so lucky. After he lost the presidential election in 1912, Roosevelt planned an expedition to explore the River of Doubt, a previously unmapped tributary of the Amazon. I recommend this book over and over — it’s on its way to becoming a classic in adventure literature.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, has to be one of the most moving stories of survival ever written. All I can say is that if you haven’t read it, you should. I also think it should be required reading for all high school students. Especially the ones who think they’re deprived if they don’t have the latest iPhone.

9780061988349Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, by Mitchell Zuckerman, 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. This book didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was published, but it’s one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read.

Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Heretic Who Led History’s Greatest Mutiny, by Mike Dash, has it all: shipwreck . . . mutiny . . . murder . . . and survival. When a Dutch ship sinks off the coast of Australia, the survivors take refuge on a desert island — where they are at the mercy of a fanatical band of mutineers. It’s another “truth is stranger than fiction” story that reads like a thriller.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That9780374280604 Set Them Free, by Héctor Tobar, probably shouldn’t be listed as one of my favorites — because I haven’t read it yet. But I have heard so many glowing reviews from trusted sources that I am pretty sure I am going to love it. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times reviewer has to say:

The miners’ journey into the underworld and their miraculous return is an epic tale for all time. In his new book, Deep Down Dark, journalist and former Times staffer Héctor Tobar proves equal to the occasion. Weaving together the drama of the miners’ harrowing ordeal below ground with the anguish of families and rescuers on the surface, Tobar delivers a masterful account of exile and human longing, of triumph in the face of all odds. Taut with suspense and moments of tenderness and replete with a cast of unforgettable characters, Deep Down Dark ranks with the best of adventure literature.

What determines whether a person survives an ordeal? Obviously, luck is the most important factor — but, as all these books show us, some people possess an indomitable spirit. Louis Zamperini, hero of Unbroken, says:

Yet a part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It’s not so strange. Where there’s still life, there’s still hope. What happens is up to God.

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