News of the World –Book Review

news-of-the-world-coverJoy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again, and he smiled as he read the amusing things, the Hindi women who would not say their husbands’ names, odd telegraph messages caught by a reporter, and recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls. He saw her bright, fierce little face break into laughter when the crowd laughed. It was good. Laughter is good for the soul and all your interior works.
Paulette Jiles, News of the World

News of the World, recently shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, is a gem of a novel. Only 224 pages long, it proves that length and a complex plot are not requirements for memorable and insightful historical fiction. It’s a simple story, on the surface. Shortly after the Civil War, retired Army Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is offered a fifty-dollar gold piece to return ten-year-old Johanna, a redeemed captive of the Kiowa tribe, to her German relatives in San Antonio, Texas — a journey of 400 miles through dangerous and lawless territory. The little girl, who doesn’t know English and longs to return to her Indian “family”, becomes Captain Kidd’s reluctant companion. At first, she is “not willing to concede they might be on the same side against anyone or anything.”

Captain Kidd, a seventy-year-old widower, earns his living traveling throughout northern Texas, giving live readings from faraway newspapers. He once ran a successful printing business, but “the war had taken his press and everything else, the economy of the Confederacy had fallen apart even before the surrender”, so Captain Kidd reads aloud from the London Times, the New York Evening Post, the Boston Morning Journal, the Milwaukee Daily News (which he calls the “Cheese and Norwegian Tatler”) in rented halls and churches, collecting dimes in a paint can.

The novel opens at a reading in Wichita Falls, Texas, a town near the border of what was then called Indian Territory. The Captain feels that “his life had lately seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled, and it was something that had only come upon him lately. A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas . . .”. Although he is initially reluctant to become responsible for Johanna, a sense of purpose enters his life once he agrees. Captain Kidd — who is the father of two grown daughters — recognizes that Johanna’s hostility masks her terror, and he becomes fiercely protective of her. The two learn to communicate, and eventually to love one another. Jiles tells the story of their deepening relationship in a way that seems completely natural and believable, and with plenty of dry humor.

Johanna, as the Captain’s Irish friend Doris Dillon comments, “is like an elf. She is like a fairy person from the glamorie. They are not one thing or another.” In the author’s note, Paulette Jiles mentions some of the research she did on the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes on the frontier. She says that, like Johanna, “they apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families . . .”.

Captain Kidd, who is based on a real person, Caesar Adolphus Kydd, instinctively understands Johanna’s predicament. After she throws a fork in frustration,

He was suddenly almost overwhelmed with  pity for her. Torn from her parents, adopted by a strange culture, given new parents, then sold for a few blankets and some old silverware, now sent to stranger after stranger, crushed into peculiar clothing . .. and now she could not even eat her food without having to use outlandish instruments.

The Captain is not just a likable character; he is an admirable character, and what a joy it is to read a book whose protagonist is a kind and honorable person with unwavering morals. No goody two-shoes, he can be short-tempered and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so he is certainly not perfect. Captain Kidd makes an appearance in one of Jiles’s earlier books, The Color of Lightning, which is reason enough for me to read it.

If you had asked me last month what my favorite “western” novel was, I would have said Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Now, I think I would say it’s News of the World. Dazzling writing, characters I fell in love with, a satisfying story — and less than one-third the length of Lonesome Dove! (By the way, Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. It was not a finalist for the National Book Award, but back then there were only three finalists selected.) Max, my colleague at Lake Forest Book Store, says if you liked One Thousand White Women, by Jim Fergus (another top-notch historical novel set in the West in the 1870s), you’ll love News of the World.

I haven’t read all the nominees for the National Book Award, so I can’t weigh in on which one I’d vote for, but I’ll be thrilled if News of the World wins. Which it probably won’t, based on what I’ve been reading — it looks like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is the favorite. I’m trying to read as many of the finalists as possible before the winners are announced next month. Next up: Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson.

Readers, who do you think will win this year’s National Book Award for fiction?






Marrow: A Love Story — Book Review

y648It’s one thing to write about the marrow of the bones — there’s a lot of research out there to back me up when I’m describing bones and blood and stem cells. It’s another thing to write about the marrow of the self. The marrow of the bones is home to your stem cells. The marrow of yourself is home to your soul.
Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow

When her sister, Maggie, is diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma, Elizabeth Lesser learns that Maggie’s only chance for survival depends on a bone marrow transplant — and that Elizabeth is a perfect match. Marrow chronicles the sisters’ childhood and adult relationship, as well as the bone marrow transplant process.

Straddling the line between memoir and self-help and filled with both medical information and psychological insights, Marrow will appeal both to readers of Eat Pray Love and When Breath Becomes Air. I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her solo travels boring and self-obsessed (although I loved her 2013 novel, The Signature of All Things), but I know Eat Pray Love struck a chord with many readers.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved — and will never forget — Paul Kalanathi’s gripping and beautiful memoir of his final days. Sad as it is, When Breath Becomes Air inspires the reader to live better, to be the best person he or she can be. Marrow may lack the stark and immediate power of When Breath Becomes Air — for one thing, the dominant voice is Elizabeth’s rather than Maggie’s; for another, the narrative frequently strays into territory that detracts from the central story of Maggie’s illness and the love between the two sisters — but in the end, it offers readers hope and inspiration.

When her second book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth didn’t expect her pragmatic sister “to even crack the book’s cover.” Maggie was “an avid reader, but her taste did not include anything that smacked of self-help. She liked novels or nonfiction books about beekeeping and bread baking.” (Maggie sounds like me, although my nonfiction tastes run to medical and historical topics, along with true crime.) However, Elizabeth notes that “there’s nothing like trauma to change one’s reading habits”, and she learned that Maggie had copied a passage from Broken Open and kept it on an index card in her car. In that passage, Elizabeth recounts that a psychic told her: “It is time for you to answer the call of your soul. It’s calling, but you’re too scared to listen. You think you know what’s important, but you don’t . . . What’s important in this life is to learn the soul lessons.”

I admit that when I start reading about psychics and soul lessons, I get a little skeptical. So it was a relief when I reached the chapter titled “Mother Cells”, in which Elizabeth describes reading a textbook called Essential Cell Biology and, in the simplest and clearest language, explains how a bone marrow transplant works: “The patient must endure a near-death experience in order to live.” The chapter ends with an entry from Maggie’s journal, in which she says, “I will try to proceed with good cheer.”

And, amazingly, she does just that, with the support of Elizabeth, their other sisters, her boyfriend, and their families. She gets fed up, as anyone would, with well-meaning friends who offer unsolicited advice about juice fasts, overseas clinics, and her “face twists into a look of wrathful disbelief when someone suggests that negative thinking, or grilled meat, or early exposure to pesticides might have caused the cancer.” An old friend suggests that if Maggie “refrains from using refined sugar and ingests large quantities of Japanese green tea she can totally heal from her disease.” Elizabeth offers readers some guidance on helping people who are sick:

Do not offer unsolicited advice  . . . If you must, go ahead and ask them if they want to hear about promising new treatments or stories of those who beat the odds. Ask in such a way that the very vulnerable, very tired patient, or the equally weary caretaker, can easily say, “No, thank you” to articles, books, and links to treatment plans and meditative YouTube videos.

Many patients and caregivers roll their eyes at “inspirational” books filled with platitudes about positive thinking, but Marrow is not one of those.  As I read, I grew to appreciate Elizabeth’s brave and honest approach to spirituality and self-discovery. Self-help books, she says, are not “superficial books that give pat answers to life’s unsolvable mysteries. They are “an ancient genre — the literature of wisdom, the philosophy of living.” (I even read one of the self-help books she recommends, The Four Agreements, which she says is “about the power of simple, honest, and bold communication.”)

Familiar books offer us consolation during difficult times. Elizabeth notes that the self-help books on her shelves give her strength and comfort, while her mother found that Walt Whitman provided solace and her father read Tolstoy repeatedly. I think that Marrow, a story about the strength of love, will be a book that many readers turn to again and again.

For an interesting interview with Elizabeth Lesser, check out this article in Psychology Today. 



10 Hurricane Books

I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds . . .
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Along with millions of others in the southeastern United States, my mother was told to evacuate her home as Hurricane Matthew approached. Once I found she was safely in a motel 150 miles inland, I had one important question for her: did she have enough reading material? She assured me she did, and then told me she couldn’t wait to get back to The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware. I guess that when faced with a hurricane, some people escape with psychological thrillers. Others might want to read about catastrophic storms. Here are ten books featuring hurricanes — both fiction and nonfiction — to pick up when you’ve watched enough swaying palm trees and crashing waves on the Weather Channel. None of these is a new book, but they’re all worth your time if you haven’t read them.

Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
I didn’t apprecitime_of_wonderate this lovely, poetic book as a child — like my own children, I much preferred Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal — but now it’s my favorite McCloskey book. (And Robert McCloskey, along with E.B. White, is my favorite children’s author.)

Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder – for wondering, for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger
Actually, The Perfect Storm isn’t about a hurricane — it’s about a real-life tempest caused by the confluence of three storm systems. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is well worth reading. It’s great narrative nonfiction, combining science with human drama.

220px-isaacsstormcoverIsaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
Isaac Cline, chief of the United States Weather Bureau’s station in Galveston, Texas, failed to anticipate the deadly strength of a hurricane that barreled through the Gulf of Mexico, killing an estimated 8,000 people — the largest loss of life in a weather-related disaster in U.S. history. According to the New York Times, Larson “weaves together the terror and stoicism of ships’ captains, housewives, children and forecasters, infusing their tales with palpable tension. Few historical reconstructions sustain such drama.”

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
On a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, a murderer has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Federal marshals search for the dangerous patient as a hurricane  bears down on the island. The story is complicated, filled with twists and turns that I defy you to predict.

220px-zeitounZeitoun by Dave Eggers
When I read Eggers’s account of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina, I thought it was his best book so far. The New York Times reviewer said: “My guess is, 50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina

13618100Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, set in Mississippi just before and during Hurricane Katrina and loosely based on the author’s own experiences, has “the aura of a classic”, according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post.

Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Rise and Fall of the Spectacular Railroad That Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford
Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil and the visionary who developed Florida as a vacation destination, built an engineering marvel: the Key West Railroad, crossing 150 miles of open sea. It was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Standiford, who’s also a novelist, has written a fascinating chronicle of a man, his accomplishments, and his era.

jamaica_200-4607c185a1e675e24bc7b743396f781e879f40f3-s300-c85A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
This is one of those neglected classics that deserves to be rediscovered. Written in 1929, and still in print, it’s the story of a group of children whose homes are destroyed in a Caribbean hurricane. When the children are sent to England, pirates seize their ship. It sounds like an adventure story, but it’s more of a psychological drama. In an NPR segment, Andrew Sean Greer said, “To say A High Wind in Jamaica is a novel about children who are abducted by pirates is to make it seem like a children’s book. But that’s completely wrong; its theme is actually how heartless children are.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Another classic (published in 1937), perhaps more widely read than A  High Wind in Jamaica, Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Florida in the early 20th century. The Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 figures prominently in this beautifully written coming-of-age novel.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

Commonwealth — Book Review

The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.
The opening line of Commonwealth

commonwealth-coverBert Cousins can’t bear to stay home with his pregnant wife and three children, so he crashes Franny Keating’s christening party, where he kisses Franny’s beautiful mother, Beverly — and causes the breakup of two families. Ann Patchett’s novel covers fifty years in the lives of the Keating and Cousins families, beginning and ending with a party scene. Commonwealth is structured as a series of nine linked stories, each supplying bits and pieces of the Keating and Cousins families’ complicated history, but ultimately centering on Franny — who as a young woman “had no skills and no idea what she wanted to do with her life other than read”. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that Franny shares a name with J.D. Salinger’s Franny, a college dropout and spiritual seeker?

Franny’s father, a police officer, and her stepfather, a district attorney, agree on almost nothing, but they do agree on one thing: that Franny and her sister Caroline should go to law school. When Franny is ten, her father sends her an LSAT study guide:

Franny . . . was just now opening the hardback copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from her grandmother. Even from the first sentence, from the look of the words on the page, she could tell that that was what she would be reading over Christmas vacation, not an LSAT prep book.

Is it any surprise that Franny drops out of law school, works as a cocktail waitress, and becomes romantically involved with a self-important novelist, Leo Posen?  Posen writes a bestselling novel titled Commonwealth (which is made into a movie) about the trials and tribulations of the Keating-Cousins blended family. When Albie, Franny’s stepbrother, is working as a bike messenger for a publishing house in New York, the receptionist gives him a copy of Commonwealth. He sees a version of his family’s truth in print and although “he loved the book before he knew what it was about”, he is horrified by what he sees as the theft of his family’s story.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not going to say much more about Commonwealth‘s plot, except that you will be a little confused at the beginning. For example, the first chapter ends with the infant Franny asleep in her father’s arms, and the second chapter opens with the adult Franny taking her father to chemotherapy. Have faith that eventually you will remember which children belong to which family and that all the little snippets come together to form a satisfying, if messy, whole.

I found it frustrating to learn so little about some of the characters in this book. Quite a few of them make cameo appearances and then reappear several chapters later, leaving the reader wanting to know more about what happened to them in the meantime. In an interview with the Guardian, Patchett said that each character represents one of her own family members. She says that she, her sister, and their stepsiblings “weren’t the products of our parents’ happy marriages: we were the flotsam of their divorces”.

Patchett told the Guardian that all of her novels (starting with her first, The Patron Saint of Liars, about a home for unwed mothers) basically tell the same story: “a group of people are thrown together and must forge connections to survive. ‘I’ve been writing the same book my whole life – that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out.'” She said that nothing has scared her more than writing a novel based on her own family: “I would happily ride down the Amazon in a canoe and deal with snakes [as she did to research State of Wonder] rather than face my family.” But, as she told Lithub, she received her mother’s blessing, who commented, “None of it happened and all of it’s true.”

What happens to the six Keating and Cousins children in Commonwealth is shocking, sad, and sometimes, very funny. Patchett’s humor and wit really shine in this novel, more so than in any of her others. The scenes in Amagansett, where Franny is helping Leo entertain his literary colleagues, made me laugh out loud. And the scenes that take place during the children’s summers in Virginia are suffused with dark humor. Today’s so-called “helicopter parents” would be aghast at the lack of supervision, as the children “wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist“. The children, who squabble incessantly, “held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.” Left to their own devices, the children “did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

Well, actually, they do get caught, or perhaps it’s their neglectful parents who are caught. During one of those chaotic summers, something happens that will affect everyone in the family for the rest of their lives. “‘Your guilt’s got nothing on my guilt,'” Franny tells Caroline. “‘Your guilt isn’t even in the ballpark.'”

Guilt and shared secrets may bind the Keating and Cousins children together, but so does love. Thrown together against their will as children, as adults they choose to love each other and forgive their parents. “If her mother wasn’t so pretty none of it would have happened, but being pretty was nothing to blame her for,” Franny thinks.

ann-patchett-photo-by-melissa-ann-pinneyAnn Patchett is one of my most loved authors, as well as a personal heroine for her involvement in independent bookselling. I enjoyed Commonwealth very much, and particularly admire its structure and multiple viewpoints. That said, it’s not my favorite of her novels — I think Bel Canto and State of Wonder would tie for first place. They are both unlike anything else I’ve read, while Commonwealth reminds me of the work of other very accomplished contemporary authors who write about family relationships– Jane Hamilton, Ann Packer, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley. I do highly recommend Commonwealth, and I think it would be a great book club choice. (If you have one of those book clubs that serves “theme” food and drinks, this one’s easy — all you need is a bottle of gin.)




Be Frank With Me — Book Review

Be Frank With Me PB coverIf I’m planning on reviewing a book, I try not to read any reviews until after I’ve posted my own thoughts. Not only do I find that many reviewers include too much information about the plot, I don’t want their opinions or language to influence mine. You would think that it’s possible to ignore what others have said about a book, but I find that words and phrases from other reviews burrow into my mind.

And that’s what happened with Be Frank With Me, Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel — out in paperback today. When the book was published last winter, reviews popped up everywhere, and I gave in and read quite a few of them. Almost every one used the same adjectives to describe Be Frank With Me: charming, witty, original, and poignant . . . which are exactly the same ones I’d use to describe this book, which also possesses a rare quality : it’s not depressing. Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows that while I relish “depressing” books, I’ve found that many readers are constantly, and often in vain, searching for books that are uplifting, but still have some substance. This is the book for them, and for anyone who enjoys a smart, funny novel with quirky characters.

Frank Banning is a nine-year-old boy who’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, brilliant, and obsessed with classic movies: “Pinocchio, the eponymous Academy Award-winning film released in 1940 by the Walt Disney Studios, s one of my favorite animated movies.” His mother, M.M. (Mimi) Banning, wrote Pitched, a Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning masterpiece, when she was a teenager but hasn’t published another novel since. Having lost her fortune and facing losing the copyright to her book, Mimi is under the gun to write a new novel, since “good, bad, or indifferent, it would be a best-seller.”

Along with a large advance, Mimi demands that her publisher send an assistant to her Los Angeles home (which is, significantly, made of glass) to help manage all aspects of her life while she finishes the book. Mimi, who is cantankerous, to say the least, requires that her assistant possess these qualifications:

  • No Ivy Leaguers or English majors.
  • Drives. Cooks. Tidies.
  • Computer whiz.
  • Good with kids.
  • Quiet. Discreet. Sane.

Enter the narrator, twenty-four-year-old Alice Whitley, private school math teacher and computer store employee, who thinks she’s been hired to keep Mimi on track and email drafts of her novel to her publisher in New York, but soon learns that she’s not an editorial assistant, but a companion to a brilliant and lonely little boy with special needs. In a way, the novel turns out to be a coming-of-age story about Alice, who is wiser and more perceptive than she knows.

Much of what happens in Be Frank With Me is implausible; to begin with, would a publisher really send an assistant (with no editorial experience) to live with a reclusive, has-been author? To enjoy this book, readers must suspend disbelief and go along for the ride — and it’s a very entertaining ride, full of surprises. The book is worth reading just for Frank — he’s a one-of-a-kind, and a completely believable. Learning that Alice is twenty-four, Frank comments:

Dr. Abrams says that’s when the prefrontal cortex usually finishes developing. That’s the part of your brain that controls impulsivity. According to her forecast, by the time I’m twenty-five I’ll be old enough to know better. If we’re lucky. It might happen later, when I’m thirty. Or never. Some people’s prefrontal cortexes mature earlier than others. Women’s, mostly. Debbie Reynolds was a teenager when she made Singin’ in the Rain, for example.

Johnson says that Frank’s character was inspired in part by To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Boo Radley. After rereading To Kill a Mockingbird when her daughter was assigned to read it at school, Johnson, who’d been a writer most of her life but had never written a novel, came up with the idea of a novel “about a writer, one, who’d written about an oddball kid and then ended up having one of her own.” It’s a peculiar coincidence that Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, when Johnson had already finished her book about a famous author writing her second novel.

Fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and The Rosie Project will enjoy Be Frank With Me . . . as will film buffs. The paperback version, sent to me by HarperCollins, includes a seven-page Be Frank With Me “Guide to Film Viewing.”

What Would Emerson Read This Fall?

9780804172707Several days ago, a reader left a comment on the “In My Stack” page of this blog, urging me to read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. I was a little confused, since I read that unforgettable book more than a year ago. Shouldn’t I have removed it from “In My Stack” and included it in “Read in 2015”? Then I looked at the books I’d listed on “In My Stack” and realized that I hadn’t updated the list in years. Oops! (And by the way, I still think A Little Life should have won the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.)

So I wiped the list clean and started a new list of books that are In My Stack, with the intention of updating it every season. It’s hard to face the fact that it’s just not possible to read every book that catches my eye.

The three “practical rules” for reading, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, are:

1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
2. Never read any but famed books.
3. Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakspeare’s phrase,“No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

Emerson’s third rule is easy for me to follow, but the first two pose problems. Whenever I read an “old” book, I feel like I’m missing out on all the exciting new books of the season. And although I read plenty of books that have received publicity, awards, and critical acclaim, I also like to find hidden gems that haven’t received the love they deserve. I do have to acknowledge that Emerson has a point. Books that stand the test of time are worth reading. So I’ve added Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to my fall list, because so many people whose opinions I trust have recommended it.

Two books that I didn’t add to my list, because I read advance copies earlier this summer, but that I highly recommend adding to yours are Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (on sale September 13; full review to come) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (on sale September 6). Commonwealth is very good, although my favorite of Patchett’s novels remains State of Wonder.

9780670026197A Gentleman in Moscow is absolutely wonderful — one of the rare books I read slowly towards the end, because I just didn’t want to finish. It’s a hard act to follow, and every book I’ve read since has seemed vaguely second-rate in comparison. The “gentleman’ of the title is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat born in 1889, who is sentenced  by a Bolshevik tribunal to lifelong house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. The Count’s life is spared, unlike so many others of his class, because a poem he wrote struck the revolutionaries as sympathetic to their cause.

In a Publishers Weekly interview, Amor Towles says: “As awful as the crimes of Stalinism were, the vast majority of the Russian population was trying to survive, to love, to have a sense of purpose.” The Count — whose life before the Revolution was spent, in his words,”dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”, and who is accused by the tribunal of being “a man so obviously without purpose” — is able to live a purposeful, and even sometimes joyful, life as a prisoner at the Metropol.

A Gentleman in Moscow contains all the elements that make me fall in love with a book: a beautifully constructed story connected to historical events, an appealing and multidimensional protagonist, and a sharp and engaging writing style that inspired me to underline dozens of passages. Frequently, Towles addresses the reader directly:

Popular wisdom tells us that when the reel of our concerns interferes with our ability to fall asleep, the best remedy is the counting of sheep in a meadow. But preferring to have his lamb encrusted with herbs and served with a red wine reduction, the Count chose a different methodology altogether.

I’ll leave it to you to find out what his methodology was. If you’ve read Rules of Civility, you already know what a smart and entertaining writer Towles is — perfect for page-turners and page-huggers alike. A Gentleman in Moscow will certainly be on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

What will I read next? The following books are “on deck”, but that could change any time.

9781101947135Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (available now)
Homegoing, which has drawn raves from my coworkers, covers 300 years of African and American history, beginning with two sisters from Ghana, one who is sold into slavery and one who marries a British slave trader.

Shelter by Jung Yun (available now)
I need a good page-turner in the mix, and several bloggers who often share my tastes loved this book, which is rooted in the 2008 housing crisis.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyugen (available now)
A must-read — it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

cover-mischlingMischling  by Affinity Konar (September 6)
This debut novel, about identical twins at Auschwitz, has been receiving a lot of buzz (including a blurb by Anthony Doerr), and I can never read enough about World War II.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan (September 13)
McEwan is one of my favorite authors, and his new book sounds weird but interesting: it’s a murder mystery, inspired by Hamlet, told by an unborn child.

9780385535731Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard (September 20)
Millard is one of my favorite nonfiction authors, and I’m fascinated by Winston Churchill, so I’m excited to read Hero of the Empire.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (September 20)
I can never resist a book about a bibliophile, and this one packs a double punch: the main character is a librarian who becomes a bookseller.

d28652364b8b57aceef0d93cf2791343Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (October 4)
I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette and can’t wait to read Semple’s new book.

Let me know what you think I should add to (or subtract from!) my fall list.





What’s a Page-Turner, Anyway?

I just came across an article by novelist Edan Lepucki, published in the Guardian a couple of years ago, with a catchy title: “Are you a page-turner or a page-hugger?”. Lepucki, recounting her days as a “very persuasive bookseller”, notes that some readers want a fast-paced, exciting story, some “long for a book’s language to give them pause, to slow them down with its rhythms and surprises”, and others (like me!) are “somewhere in the middle”.

I don’t need an action-packed plot, although I always enjoy well-timed, believable twists and turns. I need to feel that I’m learning something, whether it’s factual knowedge or an understanding of human nature. The books I abandon are poorly written (and that includes those that are pretentious, trying too hard to be “literary”), or their characters and situations don’t ring true. It doesn’t matter to me whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, as long as there is a sense of authenticity. And of course, some books just turn out to be boring, even though they push all the right buttons. (Sorry, Wolf Hall.)

Here are a half-dozen books published this summer that kept me turning pages, including a history book, a memoir, murder mysteries, and psychological thrillers.

9780345544803The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
If you’re a fan of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.

AllIsNotForgotten-WendyWalker-CoverAll is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
Walker, an attorney who specializes in family law, has written a disturbing and thought-provoking psychological thriller about the possible moral and legal implications of PTSD treatments, currently under development, that can erase memories of traumatic events. After fifteen-year-old Jenny Kramer is attacked at a party in her Connecticut suburb, she’s given a drug that obliterates her memory of the crime. I can’t say more without revealing key plot points, but if you like your fiction really dark (think Herman Koch), this is the book for you. Jenny’s psychiatrist, who narrates the book, reminded me of Koch’s vaguely sinister narrators.

0eb9d787dee2a96bd84e58dd82b1e459You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
When I read an article on crime fiction in the Wall Street Journal that said Abbott’s “books are driven as much by intricate character development and rhythmic sentences as they are by plot”, I immediately brought home a copy of You Will Know Me. Set in the world of competitive gymnastics, Abbott’s eighth novel is a page-turner by anyone’s definition. Sixteen-year-old Devon Knox — and her parents — have their hearts set on the Olympics when a crime in their tight-knit community of gymnasts, parents, and coaches threatens to destroy their dream. I’d never read anything by Megan Abbott before, but now I’m hooked.

9780385540599We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley
When Catherine West, the veteran of two broken engagements, meets William Stockton, the handsome son of old family friends, she thinks he’s the answer to her prayers. But is he? He seemed pretty creepy to me right off the bat, but Catherine ignores the warning signs — some subtle, some not so subtle. This debut novel — a very entertaining “beach read” —  is fun to read not so much because of its plot (which veers between predictability and ludicrousness), but because of Catherine’s voice, which is singularly funny.

9781101947012Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home by Pauls Toutonghi
The title makes this book sound awful, I know — sort of like a hokey Reader’s Digest article. But trust me — it’s a lovely book, about much more than a lost dog. Virginia Marshall, brought up in an abusive home, wants to be the kind of mother she never had. After her adult son, Fielding, loses his dog Gonker on the Appalachian Trail, Ginny and her husband, John, devote every waking minute to helping Fielding find his beloved dog. I couldn’t stop reading this book, even though I knew from the title that Gonker would be found.  The author, who’s also written two novels, is the brother-in-law of Fielding Marshall.

y6481The Lost Girls by Heather Young
In 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans disappears from her family’s lake house in northern Minnesota, and the mystery is never solved. Two generations later, Justine inherits the decrepit house from her great-aunt Lucy, Emily’s older sister, and brings her two daughters there to escape her controlling boyfriend. Young does a masterful job connecting the present-day story and the story of the summer of 1935, building suspense that kept me reading late into the night. The New York Times says: “For all the beauty of Young’s writing, her novel is a dark one, full of pain and loss. And the murder mystery that drives it is as shocking as anything you’re likely to read for a good long while.”

What page-turners have you read this summer?