Giving the Gift of Reading

Books on the Table

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…

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Cookbook Season

9780307474414The table is a meeting place, a gathering ground, the source of sustenance and nourishment, festivity, safety, and satisfaction. A person cooking is a person giving; even the simplest food is a gift.
Laurie Colwin

Last Sunday, a group of sailors from the naval training base just a few miles from our store stopped by to pick up some books for their precious free time. Young and earnest, they asked us for suggestions, wanting to know what our “desert island” books would be.  I mentioned a few of mine that they might like  (Pillars of the Earth, Crossing to Safety, The Prince of Tides) as well as some recent favorites that might appeal to young men (The Boys in the Boat, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, The Art of Fielding), but I didn’t mention two books that I would want on my desert island:the late Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen.

Colwin, who wrote five novels and three collections of short stories, was a passionate cook and a columnist for Gourmet magazine. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking contain essays about food (mostly comfort food) and Colwin’s favorite family recipes. Here’s what Colwin has to say about roast chicken: “There is nothing like roast chicken. It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.”

I hope my desert island has a fully equipped kitchen to accompany Colwin’s “musings, anecdotes, and quirkily imprecise, not-altogether-reliable recipes”. It would be nice to have a few other cookbooks, as well as some other castaways to share meals and conversation. Colwin says:

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food.

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Tarragon shrimp salad

Our bookstore staff likes all of the above, and of course we like reading about food as well. Fall is cookbook season in the publishing world, and it’s exciting to page through all the beautiful new cookbooks that release every week in September, October, and November. Ina Garten’s tenth cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey, was the most highly anticipated cookbook this season. Our staff had a “Cook Like Ina” party several weeks ago, with everyone bringing a recipe from the Barefoot Contessa. Every one of them was delicious and worth making again; we filled our plates with kale salad with pancetta and pecorino, tomato tart, tarragon shrimp salad, crusty baked shells and cauliflower . . . and then when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, out came the limoncello ricotta cheesecake and vanilla cream cheese pound cake.

9780307464897-2You know a cookbook is more than a cookbook when it merits a full-length review in the Atlantic. An article entitled “The Old-Fashioned, Modern Marriage of Ina and Jeffrey” declares that Cooking for Jeffrey “doubles as an insight into the workings of ‘the most cherished celebrity couple in the world.'” It’s true that sprinkled among the book’s recipes are personal anecdotes about Ina and Jeffrey’s marriage, but what makes the book worth buying are the recipes, entertaining tips, and gorgeous photographs.

skinnytaste-fast-and-slow-cookbook-550x700Of course, you can’t cook like Ina every night. She uses a lot of butter and cream, for one thing. One of my favorite cookbooks of the season is Skinnytaste Fast and Slow: Knockout Quick-Fix and Slow Cooker Recipes, by Gina Homolka. Half of the recipes can be prepared in 30 minutes or less, and half are designed for the slow cooker. Everything I’ve made has been easy, delicious, and healthy — I highly recommend the turkey-zucchini meatballs, which take four hours in the crockpot. Most slow cooker recipes take eight hours or more, but many of the recipes in this book take only a few hours, which is great if you want to throw your Sunday dinner in at 3:00 PM.

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Zaatar roasted carrots

Forest Feast Gatherings: Simple Vegetarian Menus for Hosting Friends and Family, by Erin Gleeson, is a wonderful follow-up to the original Forest Feast, one of my most-used cookbooks. It’s also so pretty you’ll want to leave it on the kitchen counter. You can tell the author is a food photographer and stylist. The recipes are simple and wholesome as well as photo-worthy; our store manager, Max, made the roasted carrots and they look ready for Instagram.

9780399583377Jane Green’s Good Taste: Simple, Delicious Meals for Family and Friends is fun to cook from and just as fun to read. (Do you notice that cookbook subtitles frequently mention cooking for “family and friends”? Who else would you cook for? Strangers and enemies?) Like all my favorite cookbooks, it’s also an entertaining guide and has plenty of appealing photos. Green, who has written eighteen novels, includes amusing stories about cooking, herself, and her family, making Good Taste a great book to keep on your nightstand.

index-pperlIn Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin says, “To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup” and “There is nothing like soup. It is by nature eccentric: no two are ever alike, unless of course you get your soup in a can.” Soup Nights: Satisfying Soups and Sides for Delicious Meals All Year, by longtime cooking teacher Betty Rosbottom, contains more than enough soup recipes to keep you safe and warm all winter. (Rosbottom also includes some cold soups for the warmer months.) The broccoli soup with creme fraiche is the best broccoli soup I’ve ever had, and takes only thirty minutes from start to finish. A friend of mine has a monthly Soup Night with her friends, which replaced their book club when no one could agree on which book to read. Every month, someone makes a big pot of soup and everyone brings a book to exchange. I think everyone in this group needs a copy of Soup Nights!

Actually, I think everyone needs a new cookbook this season. To quote Laurie Colwin once again:

Cookbooks hit you where you live. You want comfort; you want security; you want food; you want to not be hungry and not only do you want those basic things fixed you want it done in a really nice, gentle way that makes you feel loved. That’s a big desire, and cookbooks say to the person reading them, “If you will read me, you will be able to do this for yourself and for others.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Literary Matchmaking: Nonfiction & Fiction

A recent study conducted at the New School for Social Research claims that reading literary fiction can help develop empathy. Other studies have had similar results, finding that while literary novels enhance readers’ ability to connect with others, popular fiction and nonfiction don’t have the same effect. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last week (“Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior”):

We’ve long known about the collateral benefits of habitual reading—a richer vocabulary, for example. But that’s only part of the picture. Mounting evidence over the past decade suggests that the mental calisthenics required to live inside a fictional character’s skin foster empathy for the people you meet day-to-day . . .

Nonfiction—along with horror, sci-fi or romance novels—had little effect on the capacity to detect others’ feelings and thoughts. Only literary fiction, which requires readers to work at guessing characters’ motivations from subtle cues, fostered empathy.

In these studies, the reading of nonfiction not only failed to spur empathy but also predicted loneliness and social isolation, specially among men. Of course, nonfiction reading has its virtues. Other research suggests that various kinds of nonfiction can prompt empathetic feelings—as long as the narrative is moving and transformative.

The “other research” the article refers to makes a lot more sense to me. Some of the most “moving and transformative” books I’ve read are nonfiction: The Boys in the Boat, Unbroken, Angela’s Ashes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,When Breath Becomes Air . . . perhaps the psychologists who found that nonfiction doesn’t spur empathy didn’t include powerful books like these in their studies. I also wonder which comes first, the chicken or the egg; perhaps people who are naturally empathetic are drawn to literary fiction because they are interested in the feelings of other people?

E.L. Doctorow said, “There is really no fiction or nonfiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other.” Here are five pairs of books, nonfiction and fiction, that offer terrific narratives and characters (real and imagined) with whom you can empathize:

Want to go behind the scenes at a restaurant?

9781583335802Nonfiction: Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream by Karen Stabiner
Stabiner, a journalist and cookbook author, follows ambitious young chef Jonah Miller as he opens his own restaurant in New York. The risks and stress are overwhelming, and readers will find themselves emotionally invested in Jonah’s venture.

Fiction: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
While Generation Chef focuses on the pressures facing the chef/owner of a trendy restaurant, Danler’s roman à clef takes us into the heart of restaurant culture from the viewpoint of an employee. It’s a fictionalized version of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

In love with Paris?

Nonfiction: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson
Francophile Carlson had the crazy idea of opening an American-style diner in Paris. After many years of trials and tribulations, his restaurant (Breakfast in America) succeeded — in 9781910477304-228x360spite of the  challenges presented by the legal and economic system in France.

Fiction: French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain
French Rhapsody, like Laurain’s earlier novels, is clever and charming without being lightweight. It’s the perfect book to tuck into your bag for a flight — not only is it delightful, but it’s short, with an attractive cover. A middle-aged Parisian doctor receives a letter, lost in the French postal system for 33 years, that has the potential to change his life.

Interested in understanding the 2008 financial crisis?

Nonfiction: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Published in 2010, this book remains the most readable and entertaining book about the United States housing bubble. The 2015 movie version was very good as well.

9780812998481Michael Lewis has a new book coming out in December, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, about two Israeli psychologists who did groundbreaking research on decision-making and judgment.

Fiction: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Just before the collapse of 2008, Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon who hopes for a better life for his family in the United States, begins working for a top Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. One of my favorites of 2016, this is an insightful story about immigration and the American Dream, and also about marriage.

Want to read an uplifting book about hospice and end-of-life decisions?

9781594634819-1Nonfiction: On Living by Kerry Egan
Hospice chaplain Egan has written a beautiful and inspiring book about her experiences working with dying patients. According to Publishers Weekly, “As the title suggests, this is not just a book about dying. It’s one that will inspire readers to make the most of every day.”

Fiction: The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
One of my favorite novels of 2015, The Hummingbird deserves to be widely read. The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, this novel is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring. I loved the multiple story lines (including a book within a book) and it’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity.

Interested in learning more about rural and Rust Belt poverty?

162224Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy has been receiving a lot of praise and publicity since it was published in June. It’s two books in one — a very personal story of growing up poor in southern Ohio (reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’) and an exploration of the economic and social problems facing “hillbilly culture” .The New Yorker calls it “one of this campaign season’s saddest and most fascinating books” and the New York Times says that “Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Fiction: Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Although Sweetgirl is set in northern Michigan, it reminded me of Daniel Woodrell’s crime novels set in the Missouri Ozarks. Woodrell refers to his work as “country noir”, and that seems like a good term for Sweetgirl as well. (These kinds of novels are often called “gritty”.)  A teenage girl ventures into a blizzard to find her drug-addicted mother, and finds a neglected infant instead. I stayed up late to find out what would happen next.

I just finished reading The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, about a young girl in 19th century Ireland who claims not to have eaten for four months. Is she a saint, or a hoax? The author says that the book was inspired by almost fifty cases of “Fasting Girls” between the 16th and 20th centuries. I can’t find a good nonfiction book about these girls — so I guess, in spite of what my grandmother used to say, not every pot has a lid!

Why I Love Epistolary Novels – and Real Letters

9781101971390If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Roger Angell, This Old Man: All in Pieces

Dear Fellow Bookworms,

When I was in grade school, I learned to write what was called the Friendly Letter. The Friendly Letter always included the Complimentary Close — “Yours truly”, “Your friend”, “Sincerely”, or “Love”. (Mrs. Pierce, my third grade teacher, warned us only to use “Love” when writing to a family member.) There are dozens of ways to end a letter, from the ubiquitous “Best”, (best what? I always wonder),”Fondly”, “Regards”, to the more elaborate closings of days gone by. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for example, ends this way: “This salutation by my own hand–Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.” Thomas Jefferson popularized the closing, “Your most humble and most obedient servant”. Charles Dickens often closed personal letters with the charming phrases “Ever your affectionate friend” or “Yours heartily and affectionately”.

cover-1-jpg-rendition-460-707Mina Harker, one of Dracula’s victims, closes her letters by saying “Your ever-loving Mina Harker.” Frankenstein’s ill-fated fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, ends a letter with “Adieu! Take care of yourself, and I entreat you, write!”. What do these two characters have in common? They both appear in epistolary novels, books written either entirely or mostly in letters.

When you read a good epistolary novel, you have a sense of immediacy and realism that’s usually not found in a book narrated in the first or third person. You feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a cache of private letters. I think the first novel of this type I read was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, published in 1912. It’s the story of a young girl raised in an orphanage who, through the help of a mysterious benefactor with whom she corresponds, is able to attend college. Katherine Reay wrote an absolutely delightful, and award-winning novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, which is a modern version of the Daddy-Long-Legs story.

Over the years, many of my favorite novels have been based on letters:

  • Alice Walker’s modern classic, The Color Purple, tells Celie’s story through her letters to God.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, aunt and niece) is a series of letters from a London writer to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey.
  • In Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, a young poet from the remote Isle of Skye receives a fan letter from an American student, and their correspondence turns into a complicated love affair.
  • Marilyn Robinson’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, is a letter from a dying minister to his young son.
  • Carlene Bauer based Frances and Bernard on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Like Gilead, this novel is concerned with the characters’ spiritual lives.
  • In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a brilliant teenager tries to track down her missing mother — and Maria Semple used letters, emails, blog posts, notes, and interview transcripts involving a wacky cast of characters to show just how she does that.
  • Julie Schumacher cleverly assembled a hilarious novel made up solely of recommendation letters that a beleaguered English professor is constantly called upon to write in Dear Committee Members.
  • Code Name Verity, a YA novel by Elizabeth Wein, is the gripping story of two young British women captured in occupied France during World War II, told through the “confessions” they write to their interrogators.
  • A completely different YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky) is a coming-of-age story consisting of letters from a shy and precocious teenager to an unnamed recipient.

51691419-1Of course, sometimes only real letters will do. I treasure several anthologies of letters from both famous and ordinary people.  War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Andrew Carroll) and Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (edited by Shaun Usher). Volume 2 of Letters of Note just came out last month, and I’m savoring every letter. My all-time favorite epistolary book is Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (which, surprisingly, was made into a movie that does justice to the book), which chronicles a 20-year correspondence between Hanff, a writer in New York, and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. Another favorite is My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, which contains just a fraction of the 1,100 letters that the couple wrote to each other during the many separations they endured over the course of their 54-year marriage. Their letters bring the world of this country’s founders alive more than any other surviving documents.

signed-sealed-delivered-9781451687163_hrIn a recent book called Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, Nina Sankovitch describes finding a trunk filled with hundreds of letters in a shed attached to a house her family was renovating in the Upper West Side of New York. The letters belonged to the original owners of the home, the Seligman family, and the vast majority of them were written by James Seligman to his parents (whom he addressed as “Dearest Mamma” or “Darling Parents”) during his years at Princeton, 1908-1912. Nina feels that rereading the letters James left behind “proves all over again, the power of the written, the handwritten, word.” Aside from a listing on an online family tree, James left no other evidence of his life. Nina says:

Paper and ink have created a lasting connection between James and me. The connection has made me a better person, if only for having laughed so much and indulged in so much pleasurable company through his letter. And isn’t that what we say about our friends, that they have enriched our lives and made us better people?

Ever your affectionate friend,

Ann @ Books on the Table

 

10 Fall Paperback Picks — 2016

The seasonally appropriate blog post would be suggestions for Halloween books, which I suppose are horror novels about ghosts, vampires, and monsters. If you’re interested, there are all sorts of lists available online:” 15 Scary Books to Terrify You This Halloween”; “15 Creepy Books to Get You in the Halloween Spirit”; “10 Spooky Halloween Reads” . . . well, you get the idea. I’m not a fan of these kinds of books, ever since I read ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and couldn’t sleep all night because I thought I heard a vampire tapping at my window. Every rule has an exception, of course, and one of my favorite books is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. If you want to read a spine-chilling, perfectly constructed novel, go no further. (And then read the recent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life — it’s excellent.)

This fall, bookstore tables are piled high with terrific new paperback releases. Here are a ten of my favorites, both fiction and nonfiction –none of which features a ghoul, monster, or evil spirit. (Be warned, however:  The Guest Room contains plenty of real-life evil.)

9780307743602The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
When horses are curled up and then they stand, it is beautiful and funny, like babies walking. They put their front feet down like it’s the first time and they don’t know for sure how, they need to go slow and feel on each foot, their body going one way and the other until they find the strong spot and boom, they are proud on their legs again. Watching made my heart soft, made me want to hug her.
Told from multiple viewpoints, The Mare is the affecting story of Velveteen Vargas (“Velvet”) , a young Dominican girl from Brooklyn who spends summers in upstate New York as a Fresh Air Fund child, and Ginger, her “foster mother”, who becomes deeply involved in Velvet’s life. One of my favorite books last year, it was included in “best books of 2015” lists by the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and many others.

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
But now he he wanted only to make amends, to make things right. To caulk the hollow in the heart of his family. To make sure this poor girl whose soul had been battered almost since birth was safe.
I’m adding this to my list of books that made me cringe, but that I couldn’t put down. Does that make sense? As always, Chris Bohjalian knows how to tell a story. In his latest novel, he sheds light on white slavery and prostitution. Think of the movie Taken — but imagine those horrific events taking place in the United States, with the involvement of upper-middle class suburbanites.

this-was-not-the-plan-9781501103766_hrThis Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger
I’ve gotten plenty of invitations, mostly from couples who were friends of Mira’s and mine who didn’t quite know what to do with me. Should they invite me to Saturday brunch, but as a third wheel? Do they seat me next to a single girlfriend at a dinner party? Worse still, do they wedge me between couples, the ninth chair at a table clearly meant for eight?
Charlie Goldwyn didn’t plan on becoming a widower responsible for a high-maintenance five-year-old. Nor did he plan on losing his job at a high-powered Manhattan law firm. Charlie’s mother is dead, and he’s never had a relationship with his father. Alone and adrift, he finally learns what it means to be a parent — and a son. I thoroughly enjoyed this witty and poignant story about family and friendship — it’s perfect if you’re in the mood for a romantic comedy.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
Life’s full of events – they occur and you adjust, you roll and move on. But at some point you realize some events are actually developments. You realize there’s a big plan out there you know nothing about, and a development is a first step in that new direction. Sometimes things feel like big-time developmens but in time you adjust, you find a new way and realize they didn’t throw you off course, they didn’t change you. They were just events. The tricky part is telling the difference between the two.
Before I read this collection of longish short stories, I couldn’t understand how it could have won the 2015 National Book Award instead of A Little Life. I still think A Little Life should have won, but I can see why the judges awarded the prize to Fortune Smiles. Each story is brilliant and memorable.

9780812979527My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.
A young woman from an abusive and impoverished background (perhaps, she suggests, because she is “ruthless”) becomes a functioning adult and successful writer. This lovely, spare novel raises many questions and will stay with you for a long time.

Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon
The Vineyard is famously lovely, compared often to sections of Scotland and Ireland. Plots of land are casually separated by stone walls, like a sentence that doesn’t take the turn you think it will take, but takes another way around.
I’m not usually a fan of celebrity biographies/memoirs, but this one was a pleasant surprise. It’s well-written and perceptive, filled with just the right number of juicy tidbits.

9780143108429The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
That’s the shock, and the surprise, to a lot of repatriates: No one back home cares. There’s an initial, shallow interest in what life is like abroad, but most Americans aren’t actually interested, at all.
I dislike the term “women’s fiction” — but when you have a novel about three women, all expatriates in Hong Kong, who are grappling with their roles as mothers/caretakers and daughters, that’s what it is. But it’s women’s fiction at its very best — tautly written, with well-developed characters and a surprising storyline. The New York Times says, “A female, funny Henry James in Asia, Janice Y. K. Lee is vividly good on the subject of Americans abroad.”

This Old Man by Roger Angell
If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of heir letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Angell, now 96 years old, was fiction editor of the New Yorker for many years. This Old Man is a collection of his writings, including essays, jingles, letters, and literary criticism– in his words, “a mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.” It’s terrific bedside reading.

9780143128915Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell
Of all the influences in his life she was the most woefully unappreciated but in truth she was the strongest.
The first biography written about one of the 20th century’s most fascinating women reveals Clementine Churchill to be a strong-minded feminist who wielded tremendous political power behind the scenes. Sometimes I find that biographers are so anxious to include every detail they’ve uncovered that they forget to build a narrative, but that’s not the case with Clementine.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Now there were no more stories to tell, to soothe, to comfort, to draw strangers close together; to link like hearts and minds.
The surprise in this delightful book is not that Melanie Benjamin paints a complete portrait of Truman Capote, which I expected, but that she brings Babe Paley to life as a lonely and wounded woman. All of Benjamin’s books are entertaining, informative, and well worth reading, but this is my favorite.

Happy Halloween!

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.