Housebound Hit List, Part II

Reading is an intimate encounter that does not require social distance. In our current world of restricted movement, the book is a geography where complete freedom remains possible.
Siri Hustvedt, “Fairy Tales and Facts: How We Read in a Pandemic”

Author Siri Hustvedt asks us to consider what reading does for us in difficult times: “What could fiction with its imaginary ramblings possibly give anyone at such a time, except an escape into the unreal?” Reading forgettable page-turners for comfort and82BD0802-4499-47ED-A030-6E5AFE17D11F_4_5005_c diversion is enjoyable and therapeutic, she acknowledges (“This kind of reading is like eating chocolate in bed. I am all for it”) but reading more complex literature — books we’ll remember years from now —  can enrich our spirits.

I have to admit that my own recent reading has leaned more to the chocolate in bed variety.  Here are a baker’s dozen of my recent favorites — some of which I think will stick with me and remind me of the months I spent at home.

Fiction

All Adults Here (Emma Straub) — If you like a dysfunctional family story with a lighter touch, this one is for you. I loved that the main character is 68 years old and just discovering who she is. All Adults Here is an of-the-moment story about just about every issue that 21st century families might face, with plenty of warmth and humor.

9781643750255Afterlife (Julia Alvarez) — Antonia, a retired professor in Vermont, grieving after the sudden death of her husband, reluctantly offers shelter to an undocumented immigrant. Meanwhile, her mentally unbalanced sister has vanished and she and her other sisters are searching for her. I adored this story of healing, hope, and family love.

The Book of Lost Friends (Lisa Wingate) — The author of Before We Were Yours is back with another terrific historical novel about families ripped apart. This novel tells the stories of several enslaved families trying to reconnect after the Civil War. Actual newspaper ads for missing family members were Wingate’s inspiration, and are interspersed throughout the novel. It’s a topic I hadn’t read about before, and I found it fascinating and moving.

F79AA300-94ED-4F74-A218-752200CD4022_4_5005_cThe Fountains of Silence (Ruta Septys) — I absolutely loved this book, and applaud Ruta Septys for writing yet another historical novel that appeals to both teenagers and adults. She said in an interview, “I’m an author of young adult fiction that happens to appeal to adults.” I don’t know what it says about me that I thought The Fountains of Silence is the best book I’ve read about the Spanish Civil Wand its legacy. It’s long (512 pages), but I raced through it over one rainy weekend.

The Guest List (Lucy Foley) — The reviews all liken The Guest List, set at a destination wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland, to an Agatha Christie novel. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never actually read Agatha Christie. I’ve also never enjoyed mysteries much — I didn’t even like Nancy Drew when I was a child.  I’m generally more interested in characters and relationships than plot. But I might become a convert, because I loved The Guest List. 

25B7BF04-0DB9-4F0A-A1CB-4A96193FEDD7_4_5005_cThe Illness Lesson (Clare Beams) — I thought this was a pretty great book about feminism, the education of women, and sexual abuse, but it’s the kind of book that will probably be overlooked because it doesn’t fit into a tidy category. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? Horror? The Washington Post described it as Louisa May Alcott meets Shirley Jackson. Set at an experimental school for girls in late 19th century Massachusetts where a mysterious illness is plaguing the students, the novel reminded me of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

A Long Petal of the Sea (Isabel Allende) — Allende’s latest, which has not a trace of magical realism, is a gorgeous love story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and revolutionary Chile. Roser, a young pianist escapes fascist Spain and marries her fiancé’s brother out of desperation. Together, they travel to Chile on a ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda and build a life there — one in which they face terrible hardships.

29D45E7B-2BA3-439D-BFD2-44745FFCA3FA_4_5005_cLost Roses (Martha Hall Kelly) — Eliza Ferriday (based on a real person and the mother of Caroline Ferriday, protagonist of Kelly’s earlier Lilac Girls) travels to St. Petersburg to visit her friend Sofya, a member of the Romanov family. But when World War I breaks out, Eliza returns to the United States, while Sofya struggles to survive in Russia. Fun, fast-paced historical fiction.

Redhead By the Side of the Road (Anne Tyler) — Every Anne Tyler book is pretty much the same — Baltimore setting, quirky characters, attention to detail, and her own brand of  sympathetic humor. Her latest novel (and, I’m pretty sure, her shortest) is no different. It’s a little piece of perfection, and I found it comforting and hopeful.

The Red Lotus (Chris Bohjalian) — I was disappointed in Bohjalian’s last book, The Flight Attendant, but The Red Lotus was a happy surprise — a well-written page turner (about a pandemic, no less) that I sped through in a couple of days.  It’s more than a thriller, though, emphasizing characters and their relationships along with a diabolically clever plot. Don’t let the theme scare you off — the pandemic in this book is bacterial, not viral, and, without giving anything away, originated quite differently from Covid-19.

y648Valentine (Elizabeth Wetmore) — This debut novel is astonishing in many ways, but particularly in the way it brought West Texas, a place I’ve never visited, to life. The story Wetmore tells will grab you immediately: after an oil rig worker brutally attacks Gloria, a young Mexican girl, the fault lines in the community become apparent. The characters who lend their voices to the narrative are all memorable, from Mary Rose, the rancher’s wife who bravely testifies at the trial, to Corrine, the widowed teacher who befriends her, to D.A. the neglected little girl who sees more than the adults realize.

Nonfiction

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Robert Kolker) — This is narrative nonfiction at its best — a “truth is stranger than fiction” story packed with information. Mimi and Don Galvin of Colorado had twelve children between 1945 and 1965 — ten boys and two girls. Six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health, providing invaluable information about the role of heredity in mental illness. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Hidden Valley Road is a heartbreaking family story and an account of scientific discovery. I couldn’t put it down.

y648-1My Wife Said You Might Want to Marry Me (Jason Rosenthal) — Unabashedly sentimental, Rosenthal’s memoir of his wife (writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who published a “Modern Love” essay shortly before her death about Jason, entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband”) is a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and grief.

I’d love to know what you’ve been reading!

P.S. Check out Read in 2020, which includes almost everything I’ve read this year, the good, the bad, and the in-between.

What to Read When You Can’t Focus

“I can’t read. I can’t concentrate.”

“I’m having trouble reading.”

“All I can read are news stories.”

Nearly everyone I know is having trouble focusing. I’ve found myself reading the same sentence over and over, without remembering what I just read. Maybe now is not the time for long, plot-heavy books. Maybe now is the time to explore the world of poetry. Here’s a poem I discovered today that a friend posted on Facebook:

Here in the Time Between

Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into

the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. The pile of ashes

in the fireplace, haphazard sticks
on the paths and gardens, leaves
tangled in the ivy and periwinkle

lie in wait against our will. This
drawing near of renewal, of stems
and blossoms, the hesitant return

of the anarchy of mud and seed
says not yet to the blood’s crawl.
When the deer along the stream

look back at us, we know again
we have left them. We pull
a blanket over us when we sleep.

As if living in a prayer, we say
amen to the late arrival of red,
the stun of green, the muted yellow

at the end of every twig. We will
lift up our eyes unto the trees hoping
to discover a gnarled nest within

the branches’ negative space. And
we will watch for a fox sparrow
rustling in the dead leaves underneath.

-Jack Ridl

827F05A7-C2A6-444E-B3F5-5B4953041C70_4_5005_cLike so many others, I’m having a hard time concentrating on literary novels. I started Colum McCann’s Apeirogon last week and it’s wonderful. I’m in awe of the way, in all of his novels, he takes disparate threads and weaves them into a cohesive whole. Apeirogon (which means “generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides — got that?) tells the story of two men, one Israeli, one Palestinian, who become friends after they each lose a daughter to senseless violence. It’s a book to savor and admire — but I keep reading a few pages and putting it down, scrolling through news stories on my phone.

47375B86-7326-4819-AD8E-45AE919043D2_4_5005_cThanks to a great recommendation from my friend Di, I found a book that lured me away from the news. I flew through Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by TV comedy writer Bess Kalb in one day. I tend to take blurbs with a grain of salt, but in this case they were accurate — the book really did make me laugh and cry. Kalb has written a poignant memoir about her late grandmother, using voicemails and emails she saved over the years to recreate the story of their relationship, written in the voice of her beloved “Bobby”.  You’ll find yourself underlining your favorite parts, and there will be many.

Here in Illinois, as in many other states, bookstores are closed because they’re not considered “essential” businesses. (It’s interesting that we’re still permitted to go load our carts at liquor stores.) Nancy Bass Wyden, third generation owner of the iconic Strand Bookstore in New York, has appealed to the state for designation as an essential business so the store can begin fulfilling online orders.  Many independent bookstores, including Lake Forest Book Store, can take orders online that will be shipped directly from Ingram, their largest book distributor.

Until your new books arrive, try a book that’s been languishing on your shelf. Exchange books with friends and neighbors. Stop by the nearest Little Free Library. (I guess you have to disinfect the books you lend and borrow.) Listen to audiobooks and short story podcasts. And make sure to read a poem every day.

 

 

 

 

Housebound Hit List

 . . . These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.
Roald Dahl

We read to know that we are not alone.
C.S. Lewis

IMG_1297
Apparently my wish came true . . .

We’re all housebound now. In the past, I loved those days, few and far between, when for one reason or another (a snowstorm or a sore throat), I got to stay home and curl up on the couch with a good book. Now, faced with an endless number of days at home, I’m trying to think of this time as the perfect opportunity to read as much as possible. Read more

Just Discuss: A New Twist on Book Clubs

Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
Neil Gaiman

fullsizeoutput_3d36I love short stories. When my New Yorker arrives, I turn first to to the featured fiction. (Last week’s story, “Motherless Child”, by Elizabeth Strout, is wonderful — Olive Kitteridge is back!) I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but check out my sales pitch for short stories, 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories, and then read a really good story (I’ve 37569319included some suggestions at the end of this post) and maybe you’ll become a convert.

My second sales pitch is for a short story series in Chicago this fall. This project, my friend Alice Moody’s brainchild, has been going strong at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. Now, “Just Discuss: For Literature Lovers” will be expanding to Chicago. Discussions will take place at the Blue Door Kitchen (52 W. Elm Street) on Mondays (with me as facilitator) and Wednesdays (with Alice as facilitator), from 10 am until noon, starting on September 16.

Fall M:W 2019Here’s how it works: you settle into a comfortable seat, perhaps with a cup of coffee or tea in front of you, and listen to a professional actor read a carefully chosen, thought-provoking story. You have no idea each week what the story will be. After the reading, we’ll discuss what we just heard.

Last winter, I attended “Just Discuss” at the Writers Theatre, and it was the highlight of my week. No screens, no phones, no distractions, just two hours of reflection and conversation with a diverse group of interesting people. I hope you can join us this fall– please email me (bksonthetable@gmail.com) or Alice (alice@platinumpenconsulting.com) for more information.

Stories performed and discussed in previous sessions include:

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver
The Enormous Radio by John Cheever
Community Life by Lorrie Moore
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris
L. Debard and Aliette by Lauren Groff
Brownies by ZZ Packer
A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger
Leopard by Wells Tower
A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro
Prairie Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Chicxulub by T.C. Boyle
The Five Forty Eight by John Cheever
The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff
Adams by George Saunders
Roy Spivey by Miranda July

Summer Reading 2019

IMG_5664
One of my favorite summer reading spots (and one of my favorite reading companions).

Every year, summer reading lists suggest “beach reads” you’ll want to “dive into”,  the “hottest” books that are “making waves”. Dozens and dozens of books are touted as “must reads” for your beach bag or suitcase. The World Economic Forum takes a data-driven approach to summer reading recommendations,  analyzing 67 lists and presenting what it calls “the most statistically sound summer reading list on the internet.” The 45 books on this list are almost all fiction written by women, and almost all were published in the last six months.

9780385537070The World Economic Forum recommends some pretty good books — City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (#1 on the list), The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner — as well as The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (#2 on the list), probably the most acclaimed book of the summer. (I haven’t read it yet — I’m saving it for my vacation this month.)

What this list of the summer’s “most-endorsed reads” doesn’t include are five of my recent favorites:

ask-again-yes-9781982106980_lgAsk Again, Yes (Mary Beth Keane) — I couldn’t love a book any more than I loved Ask Again, Yes. Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope grow up next door to each other in New York City suburb, both the children of Irish immigrants in the police force. A tragic incident divides the two families, but Kate and Peter remain friends and eventually fall in love. I don’t want to reveal any more about the plot, but I will say that this is a grace-filled story of love and forgiveness that will stay with you.

9780525520412Disappearing Earth (Julia Phillips) — “This should win the Pulitzer!” a friend exclaimed at a recent book club meeting. I agree — Disappearing Earth is definitely prize-worthy. Set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in northeastern Russia, this highly original and beautifully written novel explores the lives of girls and women, both “native” and Russian, in this remote and tension-filled area. Each chapter is a short story, introducing new characters, but is also a piece of a puzzle. What happened to the young girls who disappeared in the opening pages? You won’t be able to put the book down until the final chapter. Maybe this is a stretch, but it reminded me of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — without all the confusing parts.

9780374156022Miracle Creek (Angie Kim) — One of the book clubs I moderate chose this as their favorite book of the past few years. It’s a terrific page-turner, with plenty to discuss (experimental medical treatments, raising special needs children, the experience of immigration, cultural differences, marital secrets). When a hyperbaric therapy chamber explodes, killing two people, law enforcement quickly recognizes this was no accident and accuses the chamber’s owner, a Korean immigrant. But could it have been the mother of a patient, or perhaps one of the fanatics who had been demonstrating against the controversial therapy? A series of unreliable narrators provide their version of events, leading to a surprising conclusion.

9780525559221Rules for Visiting (Jessica Francis Kane) — May Attaway is a forty-year-old single woman, working as a gardener at a university and living with her eighty-year-old father. When a professor wins a prize for writing a poem about a tree that May planted, the university rewards her with thirty days of paid leave. Realizing she’s neglected her friendships, May leaves her comfort zone and reconnects with four old friends. This is a lovely jewel of a book, filled with warmth and wit, that will remind you of the importance of friends, good books — and plants.

On the World Economic Forum’s “list of lists” and very good:

9780385544252The Most Fun We Ever Had (Claire Lombardo) — If you like dysfunctional family dramas  (and I do!), this is for you. It’s one of the best of its kind. Marilyn and David, married (mostly happily) for forty years, have raised four very different adult daughters. Their world is rocked when a teenage grandson, given up for adoption, enters their lives. Chicagoans, take note: this absorbing novel is set in our city and the suburbs.

9781594634734City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) — Maybe you loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love; maybe you hated it. It doesn’t matter, because you would never guess they’re written by the same author. I suppose you could say they both focus on the same theme — the freedom of women to live as they choose — but the style and tone couldn’t be more different. City of Girls covers seventy years in the life of Vivian Morris, who comes to New York as a naive college dropout in 1940 and becomes a successful costume designer as well as a sexual adventurer. What I enjoyed most about this fun book was the dialogue (plenty of witty repartee), the eccentric characters, the clothes, and Vivian’s unexpected friendship with a damaged veteran.

9780525510871Fleishman Is in Trouble (Taffy Brodesser-Akner) — Recently separated from his workaholic wife, Rachel, Toby Fleishman is enjoying a robust social life when Rachel vanishes, leaving him with their two children. This clever and insightful debut novel both satirizes and scrutinizes contemporary marriage. It bogged down for me a bit in the middle — I got tired of Toby’s exploits in the world of dating apps — but ultimately redeemed itself with a satisfying, and unexpected, ending. Reviewers have compared this book to Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, and I can see why.

I hope August is a wonderful reading month for you!

Rainy Day Thoughts on Reading and Reviewing

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Raymond Carver

Rainy day reading . . . beach reading . . . airplane reading . . . what’s the difference? To me, a good book is a good book whether I’m curled up on the couch on a rainy day, lying on a lounge chair at the beach, or crammed into a middle seat on a long flight. But there is something about a dreary day that makes a person want to hibernate and read. We’ve had a lot of those days recently in the Midwest — so many that I finally read quite a few long magazine articles that I was literally saving for a rainy day.

One of those articles was “Like This or Die: The Fate of the Book Review in the Age of the Algorithm” by Christian Lorentzen, published in the April issue of Harper’s. Lorentzen laments the decline of the traditional book review:

The basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?

reesewitherspoon_47691676_295576967825248_7818922326852586208_nI don’t think authors need me to criticize them. I assume that by the time their books are published, they’ve received a lifetime’s worth of criticism, from professors, classmates, editors, and “sensitivity readers”. Lorentzen’s basic point, which is that both readers and writers deserve “painstaking appraisals” of serious books is a good one. I agree with him that much of what now passes as literary journalism is lightweight — for example, lists of “reading recommendations” with blurbs lifted from jacket copy, Instagram photos of celebrities with books as props, and five-minute TV interviews in which it’s obvious that interviewer hasn’t read the author’s book. But if a photo of Reese Witherspoon reading The Library Book inspires her fans to read Susan Orlean’s fascinating narrative about public libraries and their place in our society, what’s wrong with that?

9780143110439Objecting to what he calls “a consumerist vision of reading”,  Lorentzen says, “I’m skeptical of the popular and the commercial.” Yes, bestselling books can be poorly written and formulaic, but so are many “literary” books.  It seems almost too obvious to state that many bestsellers are popular for a very good reason — they’re terrific books by any standard. For example, the current New York Times bestseller list includes Circe by Madeline Miller, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande — books beloved by both critics and ordinary readers.

Lorentzen can’t resist recommending his own favorite authors, mentioning Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing  (“formally daring historical fiction”) and Nico Walker, the incarcerated author of Cherry (“the opioid epidemic’s hard-boiled chronicler”). I would say yes to Gyasi and her powerful, lyrical novel about slavery and its legacy; no to Walker and his repetitive, needlessly vulgar novel with thinly developed female characters.

Bookmarks editor Dan Sheehan asked fourteen literary critics to weigh in on Lorentzen’s essay:

Is relentlessly sunny book “coverage” replacing honest book criticism, or merely supplementing it? Are listicles, Bookstagram, and literary Twitter nothing but treacly promotion puddles on the surfaces of which books can float unscrutinized and unchallenged; or are they in fact vibrant and necessary new arenas of discourse wherein previously silenced critical voices can finally be heard?

In a thoughtful discussion (“The Book Review is Dead: Long Live the Book Review”), most critics found some merit in Lorentzen’s argument, but most also — like me — agreed that Lorentzen’s elitism ignores the positive aspects of 21st century book coverage:

What’s the point of panning a disappointing debut that the vast majority of your audience doesn’t—and has no reason to—know of? ~ David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cheerleading, not when there are so many wonderful books to talk about, not when there’s a chance that people might be listening. ~ Steph Cha, LA Times

Readers come in all stripes, and offering a wide array of reviews and profiles and Q&As and lists (or listicles) is a way to draw more attention to books, a way to offer more variety and attract the attention and interest of readers to books they might want to read. ~ Laurie Hertzel, National Book Critics Circle President

Criticism should not only be evaluation or recommendation, but it’s not anti-intellectual or wrong for readers to want recommendations or to enjoy curated lists . . . The best we can do is to keep thinking and writing about books, relentlessly and endlessly, as much as we possibly can. ~ Constance Grady, Vox

I keep a log of all the books I’ve read, with brief reviews. (For the current list, see Read in 2019.) You can see that there are a few books I really disliked, but not many, probably because if I’m not enjoying a book, I don’t finish it. The books that I choose to spotlight in blog posts are books I liked enough to recommend to other readers. They’re not necessarily masterpieces. Here are a six books (one fiction, five nonfiction) that I enjoyed recently, with appropriately positive reviews. (I draw the line at posting photos of me with books, however — I’m firmly in Christian Lorentzen’s camp when it comes to selfies.)

the-island-of-sea-women-9781501154850_hrThe Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
The best part of this book was learning about a culture that I had no idea even existed — the lives of haenyeo (female divers who can hold their breath for up to three minutes and earn their living by harvesting animals and plants from the ocean) and their matrifocal community of Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Beginning during the Japanese colonial period in the 1930s and moving through decades of rapid change, The Island of Sea Women tells the story of the friendship between Mi-Ja, the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and Young-Sook, the daughter of the diving collective’s leader.

9781328662057_hresMaybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
When an unexpected crisis sends therapist Lori Gottlieb into a depression, she seeks the help of another therapist to reassemble the pieces of her life. With humor and compassion, Gottlieb weaves her story with the stories of several patients she’s treating, including an insufferably egotistical Hollywood producer, a lonely elderly woman who’s planning to commit suicide on her next birthday, a newlywed recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, and a millennial who can’t seem to form meaningful relationships. Although it’s nonfiction, this book has twists that will keep you turning the pages. You’ll root for Gottlieb and for her patients — even that obnoxious producer, who has a backstory that will bring tears to your eyes.

the-storm-on-our-shores-9781451678376_lgThe Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II by Mark Obmascik
Probably, most readers don’t know much about the only World War II battle fought in North American — the Battle of Attu, which took place in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in 1943. This well-researched account personalizes history by focusing on two soldiers — a Japanese medic named Paul Tatsuguchi, educated in America and drafted into the Imperial Army, and an American coal mine, Dick Laird who killed him — and found his diary. Versions of the diary were distributed to American soldiers. Many questions are left unanswered at the end of this book, which I suppose is inevitable because this is real history, not historical fiction; still, I felt the author could have spent more time addressing some of the moral controversy raised by the diary.9780525511359

The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams
I must be a masochist because I can’t seem to stop reading memoirs written by people who are dying:  The Bright Hour, When Breath Becomes Air, and now The Unwinding of the Miracle. Each one is more heartbreaking — and yet more inspiring — than the last. Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-Williams barely survived childhood; her family tried to euthanize her because of her disability. So it truly is a miracle that she escaped Vietnam in a leaky boat, received surgery in the United States that allowed her to see, graduated from Williams College and  Harvard Law School, married, and had a family. Her book, based on a blog she started when she was diagnosed with cancer, is a beautifully written account of a life well lived.

9780385543897Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis
This northern lady really enjoyed Helen Ellis’s collection of sharp and snappy essays, Despite the title, they’re not all about being Southern. And anyway, how can you not adore a writer whose idea of a fun evening is to invite her girlfriends over to drink wine and put together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of “a spooky owl in mid-flight”? I just want to know how I can get on Helen’s guest list. If you like David Sedaris, you’ll love Helen Ellis.

9780812996104Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting by Anna Quindlen
How could I not love this book? Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite authors AND I recently became a grandmother. This is going to be my go-to gift for all the new grandmothers in my life. That said, I don’t think you need to be a grandmother to enjoy Nanaville; if you’ve had a beloved grandparent in your life, that’s enough.

Since you’ve read this far, here’s a bonus recommendation: Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, out on May 28. One of my favorites this year, it’s the story of the complicated relationship between next-door neighbors.

10 New Books Worth Your Time

The book must of necessity be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, must be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil!
William Gladstone

IMG_2762 2According to multiple Internet sources, Frank Zappa came up with the saying, “So many books, so little time.” Well, it turns out that Zappa didn’t coin this phrase; it comes from a pamphlet  called So Many Books, So Little Time, What to Do? published in 1892 by a British organization called the National Home Reading Union that aimed to guide middle-class and working-class citizens in their “reading practices and choices.” Frank Zappa did say some other smart things, such as “Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff” and “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” He also said, “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts” and “Tobacco is my favorite vegetable” Well, keep in mind this is a person who named his children Moon Unit and Dweezil.

Someone once gave me a T-shirt that says “So many books, so little time” and if that T-shirt hadn’t been too small, I’d have worn it the other day while cleaning out my bookshelves. (I apologize to whoever gave me the shirt, but it’s going in the donation bag .. . as soon as I decide to tackle my closet. Sorting through books can be fun, sorting through clothes is never fun.) I had totally run out of shelf space and had to make some tough decisions. A few were not so difficult — I had no problem tossing Mary Ellen’s Best Helpful Hints, 1983 edition — but it was hard to get rid of piles of yellowed paperbacks I’d never read that I knew were good books. I’d just never gotten to them, and enticing new books keep arriving. What does it mean that I’ve never been in the mood to pick up  Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, even though I’m pretty sure I’d like it?

At the end of my cleaning project, I had two shelves of books I want to read, plus a basket full of books I have to read for upcoming discussions. I’m going to adhere to a new policy: one in, one out — if I add a book to the TBR shelves, I have to remove one and pass it along. My mother just gave me a copy of The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin, so Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson had to go. I slid it into the Little Free Library around the corner, hoping someone would give it a good home.

Here are ten books that were definitely worth my time:

40000705The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and A Girl Saved by Bees by Meredith May
You know you’re reading a really good book when the topic is one in which you’ve previously had no interest — but you still can’t put the book down. The topic here is beekeeping and the natural world of honeybees, and it’s absolutely fascinating — both in its own right and as a metaphor used by Meredith May’s beekeeper grandfather to teach her life lessons. Meredith May’s memoir of growing up in a rural area of northern California, near Big Sur, ranks at the top of my list of terrific coming-of-age memoirs.

41644326Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
I loved every page of Ruth Reichl’s behind-the-scenes look at her career as editor of Gourmet magazine. Reichl, who was the restaurant critic for the New York Times when Conde Nast approached her to run the magazine, initially turned down the job, citing her lack of editorial experience. But she finally decided to take a chance, spending ten exhilarating years at the helm of Gourmet.  At a time when print magazines are becoming an endangered species, Reichl’s love letter to Gourmet — and her talented and idiosyncratic colleagues (chefs, writers, and editors)  — is particularly poignant. It’s truly a joy to read, whether you’re a foodie or not.

9780385538800An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
In a heartbreaking book that offers no easy answers, Alex Kotlowitz examines the rampant gun violence in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods during the summer of 2013. He brings to life the perpetrators, victims, and their families, demonstrating their shared humanity and the twists of fate that can shape one person into a killer and another into a victim. The story of gun violence isn’t a story of statistics, Kotlowitz shows us. That said, I wish he had included more facts in the book — for example, the fact that Chicago’s murder rate has been going down, and that it isn’t among the top ten most violent cities in the country, or that other major cities (notably, New York) have seen an even larger drop in violence in recent years.

9780735223042Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan
Henry, Himself is the third in a trilogy about a middle-class Pittsburgh family. In the two earlier books, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, we meet Henry only in retrospect — he has died and his grieving family is trying to move on without him. In this lovely, quiet novel, we see Henry and his family through his own eyes. Short, well-titled chapters alternate between the present, when Henry is 75, and the past, starting with his childhood and moving through his service In World War II and his adult years. The novel brims with affection for its main character, an ordinary man wrestling with big questions: What is the meaning of an individual life? What do we leave behind? You don’t have to have read the previous books to enjoy this one, but once you’ve read Henry, Himself, you’ll want to read the others.

34409176The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
I’m generally not drawn to dystopian fiction, or magical realism. If it couldn’t really happen, I lose interest. But there are exceptions to every rule, and The Dreamers is one of them. I couldn’t stop reading this haunting, and yes, dreamy, story of a college town struck by a mysterious flulike illness whose victims fall deeply asleep and experience vivid dreams. This novel, which reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Station Eleven, will stay with me for a long time. (I just noticed that Emily St. John Mandel provided the cover blurb!)

y648The Huntress by Kate Quinn
The best page-turner/World War II novel I’ve read in ages! Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger — you won’t be able to stop reading. Kate Quinn expertly weaves the story of the Nazi “huntress” with several others, all compelling: the female Soviet pilots known as the “Night Witches”, two postwar Nazi hunters, and a young girl and her antique dealer father living in Boston. Bonus: it’s a paperback original.

34810320Sadie by Courtney Summers
If you’re an adult reader who’s a bit wary of YA fiction, Sadie is a great place to start. This smart and original thriller, about a missing teenage girl, is also perfect for fans of true crime podcasts. Half the book is narrated by Sadie, the runaway girl, and half is a transcription of a podcast called “The Girls”. It’s an addictive read for both older teenagers and adults. For readers who noticed that A.J. Finn provided the cover blurb, check out the fascinating New Yorker article, A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions, which shows “A.J. Finn” (the pseudonym of Dan Mallory) to be a pathological liar.

fullsizeoutput_3bdeThe Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
I loved learning about Lee Miller, the 1920s Vogue model who was surrealist Man Ray’s muse in Paris and then become a celebrated photographer, documenting the horrors of World War II. If you enjoyed any of Paula McClain’s novels, especially Love and Ruin (about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway), you’ll adore this book.

9780525521877The River by Peter Heller
Two Dartmouth students, experienced outdoorsmen, embark on a journey in northern Canada that they intend to be a rugged adventure in the wilderness but that turns out to be a “Deliverance”-style nightmare. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, but this novel is much more than that. For one thing, Heller’s writing is gorgeous; for another, he has created two characters that are as real as any you’ll meet on the page. The last lines of the Denver Post review are “I could not put this book down. It truly was terrifying and unutterably beautiful”, and I couldn’t agree more.

y648-1Little Faith by Nickolas Butler
Lyle and Peg Hovde have recently welcomed their daughter, Shiloh, and her six-year-old son, Isaac into their home in rural Wisconsin. Having lost a baby boy in infancy, the Hovdes relish their roles as hands-on grandparents. But when Shiloh joins a fundamentalist church that practices faith healing, and declares that little Isaac is a gifted healer, Lyle and Peg are faced with difficult decisions. This beautiful novel, covering a year of the changing Midwestern seasons, raises provocative questions about faith and family. I’m looking forward to hearing Butler talk about the novel at a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon on April 25 — click here for more details.

Random Recommendations on a Snowy Day

Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness.
Mary Oliver

Happy 2019! I’m not sure why, but I haven’t written a blog post since October. Today, the snow is falling and my plans for the day have been canceled. It’s a perfect time to sit at my desk and put together a list of winter reading recommendations. But it’s been so long . . . where do I start? Books that are hot off the press? New in paperback? My favorites from 2018?

original_400_600A list of books with “winter” in the title would be fun — The Dakota Winters, by Tom Barbash , is a brand-new and absorbing novel about growing up in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York, with John Lennon as a neighbor, and The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, is terrific historical fiction about an Austrian medical student sent to a remote field hospital during World War I. And how about Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter, a beautiful novel about three characters whose lives collide during a Brooklyn blizzard, and Robin Oliveira’s Winter Sisters, a page-turner set in 19th century Albany, New York that features a former Civil War surgeon, Mary Sutter (last seen in My Name is Mary Sutter)? My favorite “winter” novel has to be The Long Winter, which I think is the best of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.

Some random thoughts on more of my recent reading, which has been mostly nonfiction:

  • 97803163906371I really love books about whaling. I’m one of those rare readers who not only enjoyed Moby Dick but didn’t skip the long passages about whaling techniques. Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, narrative nonfiction about shipwrecked whalers, is one of my favorite books. I’m also fascinated with indigenous people who live in remote areas, so The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific With a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life, by Doug Bock Clark, hit my sweet spot.  I think anyone who enjoys excellent narrative nonfiction will find this book fascinating, and hard to put down. The New York Times review says, it “has the texture and coloring of a first-rate novel”, and I agree.
  • 7dd3a5322ec6cdebffa99c6200b0b3e3545fabe1When a lot of people whose opinions you respect keep telling you to read a book, you should listen to them. For some reason, I was dubious about Elena Ferrante’s  acclaimed Neapolitan Novels, but after watching My Brilliant Friend on HBO, I decided to give the series another try — and now I’m hooked. I wish someone had told me that these books are an Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — but even better, because the story just keeps going.
  • 9781524732714For some memoir authors, one book isn’t enough. An article about the increasing number of “serial memoirists” explores this phenomenon: “This Is the Story of My Life. And This Is the Story of My Life.”  Dani Shapiro, for example, has just published her fifth memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. I don’t have enough material to fill even a fraction of one memoir, but my AncestryDNA results were, unlike Shapiro’s, exactly what I expected. I read this book in one day and can’t wait to discuss it with a book group.
  • y648Bill Bryson, watch out — Jennifer Traig is encroaching on your territory. In Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, she delves deep into the history of Western child-rearing, starting with ancient Rome, juxtaposing detailed research with scathing wit. In order to keep their babies from stumbling into “bubbling pots of gruel”, medieval parents swaddled their babies tightly and hung them from hooks on the hall, “like purses on a bathroom stall.”
  • y648-1I can never resist a book about books, especially one about children’s books, so I couldn’t wait to read The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal.  (Doesn’t that sound like a dream job?) She shares fascinating data from the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, among other research centers, that prove what “we enthusiasts have long suspected is true: reading aloud really is a kind of magic elixir.”
  • fullsizeoutput_3b65I am such a word nerd that I actually enjoy reading books about grammar and vocabulary. I don’t know how many people like me exist, but there must be enough of us to justify publishing these books. How to Tell Fate From Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions by Charles Harrington Elster and Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (copy chief of Random House). If you were the kind of kid who liked to read the dictionary, you’ll enjoy both of these books, which are both full of humor as well as useful information.
  • 900You might think a certain category of book is not for you, but then you read one  and change your mind. I didn’t think I would like a graphic memoir, but I absolutely adored Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before, and humanizes the opioid crisis in way no other book I’ve read on the subject has been able to do.

I’d love your recommendations!

What I’ve Been Reading — Fall 2018

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

. . .  And Books on the Table is starting all over again, with a brand new design that’s a little cleaner and easier on the eyes. Over the past five years, the content has changed as well. Good-bye, in-depth book reviews; hello, collections of short reviews. I’m not as concerned with reviewing brand-new books as I used to be. Just because a book has been out for a few months — or even a year — doesn’t mean it’s yesterday’s news. The frequency of posts has slowed down as well. Once a month or so seems about right. I have a long list of post ideas, and I also have a huge pile of unread books. Most of the time, I choose to pick up a book rather than write a blog post. Here are a dozen terrific books I read recently when I could have been doing other things:

Nonfiction

A book for book lovers:

the-library-book-9781476740188_hrThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

The Library Book is one of my favorites of 2018. At its heart is the mysterious fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 that destroyed nearly a million books, but it covers a lot of territory — the story of the accused arsonist, the history of libraries, the value of the printed page, the dedication of librarians to their work. Susan Orlean brilliantly weaves all these strands, and more, together to create a fascinating narrative that celebrates public libraries. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she said, “There’s plenty to feel joyful about: that we still write books and read books and preserve books in places like libraries where they’re available for everyone to share.”

A must-read for parents of young children, and also anyone who’s interested in the direction of American society:

9781250089557-1Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks
And so children do not go to the store to buy bread and milk for their parents. They do not take long walks through the woods, or ride bikes along paths, or build secret tree houses or forts while we are inside working or cooking or talking to other adults or leading our lives. They are no longer afforded, as Mona Simpson writes, “the luxury of being unnoticed, of being left alone.”

After her arrest for leaving her four-year-old in a car in a suburban parking lot for a few minutes, novelist and essayist Kim Brooks began to wonder about the origins of our culture’s misplaced and often superstitious fears. When, and why, did we become so anxious to protect our children from every possible form of danger, no matter how statistically unlikely it is to occur, and why are we so quick to blame parents — particularly mothers — when something goes wrong? This engaging and thought-provoking book — part memoir, part sociological study — will inspire lively discussion.

why-we-sleep-9781501144325_lgA science book for nonscientists (or anyone who’s ever dreamed of a good night’s sleep):

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, Ph.D.
The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations—diseases that are crippling health-care systems, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer—all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker (director of the Sleep Lab at UC Berkeley) presents, in an entertaining and conversational way, all the evidence that adequate sleep, especially the REM sleep in which we dream, is essential to good health.  He also outlines the methods to ensure a good night’s sleep. So why did I stay up too late reading this book?  Because, since childhood, I’ve had the sleep-depriving habit of reading just one more chapter of books that capture my attention. He doesn’t mind if readers use his book as a sleep aid: “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”

A book that helps readers understand the causes of the opioid crisis, along with possible solutions:

Macy_DopesickDopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America by Beth Macy
America’s approach to its opioid problem is to rely on Battle of Dunkirk strategies—leaving the fight to well-meaning citizens, in their fishing vessels and private boats—when what’s really needed to win the war is a full-on Normandy Invasion.

I’ve read other books that trace the roots of the opioid epidemic (Dreamland by Sam Quinones, American Pain by John Temple), but journalist Beth Macy’s harrowing narrative not only lays bare the corporate greed that has contributed to human suffering, it brings us face-to-face with the real people affected by this complicated crisis — addicts and their friends and families.  As fast-paced and readable as any thriller, this book will outrage you.

Two excellent memoirs — one by an author at the end of his adult life, one by an author at the beginning of hers:

9781328826343_hresCarnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall

When I was young, my language wore coats and shirts and trousers, neckties, bespoke shirts. In my lifetime as a writer I have cast off layer after layer of clothing in pursuit of nudity. I held nothing back except transitions that might once have elaborated notes into an essay. . . . As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember. Why should a nonagenarian hold anything back?

Poet Donald Hall died at age 89, just weeks before his last book, a series of short essays, was published. It’s a lovely parting gift from a beloved writer. In an essay called “He Holds Up a Lantern For the Rest of Us” , Ann Patchett writes: “The book is about who Don was and how he saw the world. I’m here to tell you there is nothing better. Every superfluous word is stripped away and what is left is the pure force of life.”

fullsizeoutput_3a1aAll You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
By the time I was five or six years old, I had heard the tale of my loving, selfless birth parents so many times I could recite it myself. I collected every fact I could, hoarding the sparse and faded glimpses into my past like bright, favorite toys. This may be all you can ever know, I was told. 

When she was expecting her first child, Nicole Chung decided to search for her birth family. What she learned shocked her and went far beyond the medical history she had hoped to find. Chung not only tells a riveting and suspenseful story, she explores transracial adoption and biological heritage.

Fiction

Two slim books with lots of  “meat” for discussion:

his-favorites-9781476799391_lgHis Favorites by Kate Walbert
This is not a story I’ve told before. No one would believe me. I mean, really believe me. The would get that look and nod. They would ask certain questions that suggested I was somehow culpable or that I was making most of it up out of nothing — just girlish fantasies and daydreams.

His Favorites is a perfect addition to Short Novels Your Book Club  Will Actually Finish — only 160 pages and packed with material for discussion. In the aftermath of tragedy, a teenage girl goes to boarding school and encounters a charming but predatory young teacher.

9781101947395Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman
My friend was, they’d been told, the most wounded man from both the wars. As advanced as medicine had become, that likely made him the most wounded man in the history of war, and they’d just kept him alive from one side of the world to the other.

Decorated veteran and National Book Award nominee Elliot Ackerman (Dark at the Crossing) has written a powerful modern-day version of Johnny Got His Gun that will break your heart. After Eden is gravely injured in Iraq, his best friend, killed in the same blast, narrates the story of Eden and his wife, Mary: “Ever since then I’ve been around too, just on that other side, seeing all there is, and waiting.”

For fans of Pat Conroy’s Southern fiction (The Prince of Tides, South of Broad) and/or Barbara Kingsolver’s eco-fiction (Prodigal Summer, Flight Behavior):

9780735219090Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know that a sentence could be so full.

I adored this novel about a young girl, abandoned by her family, who is forced to raise herself in a remote North Carolina marsh. First-time novelist Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist, and her love of the natural world shows in this beautiful and satisfying book, which combines both a coming-of-age story and a murder mystery.

A quiet, character-driven novel about family dynamics:

a-cloud-in-the-shape-of-a-girl-9781501194368_lgA Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson
And yet history shifted underneath your feet . . . The present was a dizzy perch that every so often began to spin and slide . . . You held onto your life with both hands, you told yourself to pay attention to this moment, the here and now. But one minute passed into the next, and at some point you looked back and everything was over and people called it history.

Starting during the Second World War II and  moving through succeeding generations, A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl examines the lives of three Midwestern women — grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter — as they struggle with career choices and imperfect marriages, Jean Thompson is one of many underappreciated writers who is a master at creating complex and interesting characters.

For readers who like Jodi Picoult but want something less formulaic:

97814555617591If We Had Known by Elise Juska
After twenty-eight years, Maggie could rely on the arc of a semester: the way, in the beginning, the freshmen would be tentative, wary, fifteen versions on insecurity — the glibness, the shyness, the overwrought machismo — was there any teenage behavior without insecurity at the root? — but as the weeks passed, they gained confidence in their work.

English professor Maggie Daley is shocked to learn that a former student was responsible for a shooting at a nearby shopping mall. Meanwhile, her college-bound daughter tries to protect her mother from dangerous secrets. After Maggie makes an error in judgment, she’s forced to examine her role in the events around her. This a thought-provoking, well-paced novel — perfect for book clubs.  (Not to be confused with You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, another great character-oriented page-turner.)

Great historical fiction:

9781101967386Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
Real writing, I was beginning to realize, was more like laying bricks than waiting for lightning to strike. It was painstaking. It was manual labor. And sometimes, sometimes if you kept putting the bricks down and let your hands just go on bleeding, and didn’t look up and didn’t stop for anything, the lightning came.

If you enjoyed The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, you will love Love and Ruin, about his extraordinary third wife, reporter and novelist Martha Gellhorn. The pair fell in love while covering the Spanish Civil War and were married for four tumultuous years. Gellhorn, who was the only woman to land on D-Day (defying Hemingway’s wishes) was to become one of the most renowned journalists of the twentieth century, covering every major war and publishing many books. She emerges in this captivating novel as a strong, independent woman ahead of her time.

There are so many good books coming out this fall — I’m especially excited by Barbara Kingsolver’s latest (Unsheltered), Tana French’s stand-alone mystery (The Witch Elm), and Kate Atkinson’s spy novel (Transcription). How about you?

 

What I’ve Been Reading — Summer 2018

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.
John Lubbock

And of course, reading is never a waste of time. The number of good books to read is overwhelming, and sometimes I get frustrated when I realize I’ve spent hours reading something that is just OK, when there are piles of other books waiting for me. It’s maddening to go on a trip with several carefully chosen books, only to find that not one of them is especially engaging. That’s when I have to remind myself that I’m not going to love every book, and that even the time spent reading a mediocre book is time well spent. As Will Schwalbe says in Books for Living, “You can learn something from the very worst books . . . even if it’s just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.”

Case in point: on a recent long weekend, I packed a couple of brand-new books I thought I would love: The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson and That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam. They were both disappointing, but I learned a couple of things that I probably should have already known: 1) Just because a book centers on an independent bookstore doesn’t mean it’s a great book; and 2) If I didn’t like the author’s first book (in this case, Alam’s Rich and Pretty) it’s unlikely that I’ll like his second.

The third book I read on that trip, which I didn’t start until the plane ride home, was one that I tossed in my bag at the last minute — The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. A terrific mash-up of true crime and memoir, this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years. When she was a law student, the author spent the summer working on an appeal for a convicted child murderer, Ricky Langley. An avowed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich found herself wishing for Langley’s execution. As she examined the case, eventually spending years studying every detail, she came to a new understanding of her own painful childhood and a radically different view of the legal system.

Here are eight more books I recommend, whether you’re in the mood for easy summer reading (The High Season, The Book of Essie), serious literary fiction (Asymmetry, The Great Believers, The Dependents), something in between (The Locals, Visible Empire), or bittersweet humor (Less).

The High Season by Judy Blundell
This is the quintessential beach book! The High Season is the most entertaining book I’ve read in a long time. Ruthie Beamish abandoned her art career to direct a small museum on the West Fork of Long Island. Now a board filled with social climbers wants to oust her, and Ruthie faces losing not only her job but her beloved waterfront home. Take this one on your next vacation, whether you’re on the beach or not.

Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard
I love books where several plot threads come together in an unexpected way, and I love books based on little-known events in history — so Visible Empire hit my sweet spot. In 1962, an Atlanta-bound jet crashed in Paris, killing 121 passengers, most of whom were prominent in Atlanta society, who’d just finished a cultural tour of Europe. Pittard imagines the aftermath of this tragedy, focusing on several characters connected to the deceased passengers.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is that rarest of all literary prize winners — a comic novel.  The readers I’ve discussed this book with seem bewildered about why Greer’s novel won the prize. Recent winners have covered the violence of slavery (The Underground Railroad), the legacy of the Vietnam War and the immigrant experience (The Sympathizer), and the horrors of World War II (All the Light We Cannot See). How does a story about a middle-aged gay man traveling around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding compare to these lofty works? Read it, and prepare to be dazzled. The blurb on the Pulitzer website describes the book better than I ever could: “A generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.”

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
One of my favorite novels of the year, and the only one that’s moved me to tears, The Great Believers tells the story of Chicago’s AIDS crisis in the 1980s through the eyes of Yale Tishman, the development director at an art gallery. Makkai skillfully weaves the story of Yale and his community with two others that are almost as compelling: that of Fiona, his deceased friend Nico’s younger sister, who loses her daughter to a religious cult and goes to Paris to track her down, and Nora, the elderly owner of a valuable art collection she wants to donate to Yale’s art gallery, against the wishes of her family. Don’t start this book unless you have plenty of time, because you won’t want to stop.

The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir
Seventeen-year-old Essie Hicks is the youngest daughter of an evangelical preacher. Nearly every move she makes is filmed for the TV reality show featuring her family. When she becomes pregnant, the producers, aided by her conniving mother, spin the story by planning a wedding — to be aired on TV, naturally. It’s all rather unbelievable, until you remember the Duggar family (“19 Kids and Counting”) and their fall from grace — and you’ll keep turning the pages. The Book of Essie, Weir’s debut, is an adult novel, but it reads like YA and is perfect for teenagers.

The Dependents by Katherine Dion
The Dependents is a lovely and quiet novel that will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page. In its beautifully rendered exploration of relationships — between husband and wife, parent and child, and friends — it reminds me of Alice McDermott’s fiction. Another reviewer mentioned that the book reminded her of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (I assume because of the focus on the lifelong friendship between two married couples), and that is high praise indeed.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
When Lisa Halliday was in her twenties, she had an affair with Philip Roth. Her debut novel is about a young editor who has a relationship with a famous author who bears a strong resemblance to Philip Roth. At least, that’s what you think this novel is about — until the second section, when the narrative focuses on a Muslim man detained at Heathrow. Imaginative and thought-provoking, Asymmetry is a “literary phenomenon”, according to the New Yorker. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to discuss the minute you finish it. Less than 300 pages long, Asymmetry raises more questions and covers more territory than most books twice its length.

The Locals by Jonathan Dee
Just after 9/11, a wealthy New Yorker, Philip Hadi, moves his family to their vacation home in the Berkshires, and quickly becomes involved — perhaps over-involved — in local politics. Meanwhile, Mark Firth, a contractor who’s remodeling Hadi’s house, faces his own problems. As the novel progresses and tensions between the locals and the interloper escalate, Dee introduces a cast of characters in fictional Howland, Massachusetts, each with a distinct voice. The Locals is reminiscent of Richard Russo’s upstate New York novels — but with a bit more of an edge. There’s plenty of material for a book group discussion; I’d start out by asking why Dee included the first chapter, narrated by a New York City con artist who never becomes important to the story.

What four-star books have you read recently?