10 War Novels for Memorial Day

Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.
Pericles, Funeral Oration ( delivered in Athens 2500 years ago and a source of inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

Memorial Day is almost over, and I’m finally getting to my Monday blog post — so this will be short.  (I guess I should have written it ahead of time!) I’ve just returned from my son Charlie’s college graduation. He’s now on a cross-country road trip, starting in Ithaca, New York and ending in San Francisco. His first stop was Gettysburg, where he saw as much of the battlefield and monuments as he could until the sun set. To coin Lincoln’s phrase, it seems “altogether fitting and proper” that Charlie visited Gettysburg on the day that has been set aside to honor those who died while serving in our armed forces.

Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, is a modern classic. I have to admit I’ve never read it, but my husband (a true Civil War buff) says it’s well worth reading. My list of favorite war novels includes books about the Civil War, and World Wars I and II as well:

coverCorelli’s Mandolin  (Louis deBernieres) There’s just a touch of magical realism in this lovely novel about a Greek island that’s occupied by the Italian army during World War II.

City of Thieves  (David Benioff) During the siege of Leningrad, two Russians must carry out an impossible task — or face execution.

Restless  (William Boyd) An English woman learns that her mother is a White Russian who was recruited by the British as a spy. From the New York Times: “Boyd has written a crackling spy thriller, but more than that, he has evoked the atmosphere of wartime espionage: the clubby, grubby moral accommodations, the paranoia . . .”

The Absolutist (John Boyne ) From Publishers Weekly: “In this relentlessly tragic yet beautifully crafted novel, Boyne documents the lives of two inseparable men navigating the trenches of WWI and the ramifications of a taboo involvement.”6d2d32a98c258c6c1a7b112eda9968b9

Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) A young Englishman falls in love with a married French woman during a business trip to France in 1910; they meet again, during World War I. I read this for the first time about 15 years ago, and have never forgotten the vivid scenes of trench warfare, or the love story.

The Widow of the South (Robert Hicks) Based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, who tended the graves of the 1,500 soldiers buried on her family’s land. We visited the actual site in Franklin, Tennessee last fall.

A Very Long Engagement (Sebastian Japrisot) A French woman who doesn’t believe her fiancé was killed in the First World War embarks on an investigation and discovers the corrupt system the French government used to deal with soldiers who tried to avoid combat.

Gone With the Wind  (Margaret Mitchell) I don’t know how many times I read this book as a teenager, but my old paperback copy is falling apart. I can even remember the first sentence, without looking: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

cover-1The Invisible Bridge  (Julie Orringer) The best World War II novel I’ve read in the past few years.  From the Chicago Tribune: “Set largely in Hungary, with Paris, the city of light, serving as a kind of Byzantium for several characters who spend hopeful, youthful years there in the opening chapters of the novel, The Invisible Bridge is a tale of war-torn lovers, family and survival of the luckiest rather than the fittest.”

The Caine Mutiny (Herman Wouk) An old favorite, The Caine Mutiny takes place on a Navy warship in the Pacific. I’ve loved all of Herman Wouk’s books — The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, and two wonderful (and unappreciated) coming-of-age stories — Marjorie Morningstar and City Boy. (No, they’re not war novels, but since I’m touting Herman Wouk I have to mention them!)

I’ve read very little fiction about the more recent wars. On my list are Matterhorn by Karl Marantes  (Vietnam), The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Iraq), and Redeployment (Iraq and Afghanistan). I read Sparta by Roxana Robinson, about Conrad, a young veteran returning from Iraq who has difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Conrad is a classics major at Williams College from an upper-middle class (and decidedly unmilitary family) from suburban New York City. When he comes home suffering from PTSD, his family is too bewildered to offer any meaningful help. The book was insightful in many ways, but I couldn’t fathom the idea that a family like Conrad’s would abandon him to the bureaucracy of the VA.

Our next national holiday is July 4. I plan to read a contemporary war novel by then and let you know what I think. If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Charlie at Gettysburg, May 26, 2014
Charlie at Gettysburg, May 26, 2014






The Supreme Macaroni Company — Book Review

9780062136596Every once in a while, I’m in the mood for a fun escape novel. When that mood strikes, I want to read something clever, entertaining, and well-written, with a touch of humor. Sometimes I need the reading version of comfort food — macaroni and cheese, anyone? Adriana Trigiani’s novels are perfect “comfort reading” — they’re warm and substantial.

Trigiani grew up in a large Italian family in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. A theater major in college, she spent 15 years as a playwright, comedy troupe actress, TV writer/producer (writing several episodes for the Cosby Show), and documentary filmmaker before turning to fiction writing.  Her first novel, Big Stone Gap, the first in a series set in her hometown, started out as a screenplay. The movie version (written and directed by Trigiani and starring Ashley Judd) has just been filmed and is due for release this year.)

The Supreme Macaroni Company — which has almost nothing to do with a macaroni company — is the third in a series about shoe designer Valentine Roncalli and her family. (Trigiani has also written stand-alone novels and a memoir.) I’ve read almost all of Trigiani’s books, and every one is a delight. Don’t worry about reading them in order; you’ll enjoy your introduction to Trigiani’s wonderful characters wherever you start, and Trigiani skillfully weaves the background information into each story.

At the heart of The Supreme Macaroni Company is a love story. The book opens on Christmas Eve on the roof of the Angelini Shoe Company, where Valentine becomes engaged to Gianluca Vechiarelli (her grandmother’s stepson). Valentine loves Gianluca, but she also loves her family’s shoe company. Her workaholic tendencies will later put a strain on her new marriage, but for now she is full of optimism about their future:

A shoemaker would marry a tanner.
This could work.
Shoemakers and tanners form a symbiotic relationship out of necessity. One provides the leather while the other whips it into a glorious creation. At Vechiarelli & Son in Arezzo, Gianluca creates some of the most sumptuous leather, calfskin, and suede in Italy . . . For over a century, there has been and remains a shorthand between our families’ shops. The Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village has proudly used Vechiarelli & Son’s goods for generations.

Valentine and Gianluca marry on Valentine’s Day, in the wedding her mother has always dreamed of — starting with “proper invitations”:

Years from now, you’ll want a permanent record of your wedding. An invitation is the bride’s Dead Sea scroll at the bottom of her hope chest . . . I’ll have the invitations printed up. You don’t even have to look at them. When Chrissy Pipino got married, she had a fold-out card with a tissue, and if you remember, it was gold-leafed. She even had a pop-up angel. You yanked a satin ribbon and the little cherub went over and down like a windshield wiper. We don’t have time for a pop-up, but we will have our version of Caravaggio angels.

Valentine’s mother, like  almost every character in this novel, is funny and lovable. Curmudgeonly Aunt Feen — who is truly heinous — is a comic foil, highlighting the essential goodness of the other family members. (Aunt Feen has a bit of a drinking problem: “She was having another Bailey’s on the rocks, and she was about to hit them hard like an old dinghy.”)  It’s a pleasure, every now and then, to read about people who are honest and well-meaning. They have flaws and make mistakes,to be sure, but they are decent people — people with big hearts, quick wits, and humor. I can’t tell you how many times I laughed out loud while reading this book. (I also cried, just a little, but I won’t tell you any more about that.)

Consider the reaction of Valentine’s family when they learn that the appointed priest will not be able to officiate at the wedding:

When my mother returned, she had a look of panic on her face, which she tried to mask with a smile so broad it reminded me of the sample choppers dentists use to demonstrate proper flossing. “Val, we thought we had Father Drake.”
“Who do we have?”
“Father Nikako.”
“What happened to Father Drake?” Tess asked.
“He’s giving last rites at Queens County Hospital,” Mom explained.
“There’s a full-time job for you,” Aunt Feen piped up. “You better be bleeding like an animal when you go over there, otherwise you got a nine-hour wait. I saw a man holding his liver over there when I went for my flu shot . . . But Nikako? Jesus. I can’t understand a word he says.”
“He’s from Nigeria,” Mom snapped.

It’s easy to see that Trigiani has a background in TV sitcom writing! But she also writes lovely prose, equally at home describing the beauty of the Hudson River at night, the otherworldly appeal of New Orleans, and the struggle within Valentine between love and work.

Our bookstore has been fortunate enough to host Adriana Trigiani for several events. Before one of her appearances, Trigiani’s publicist warned us that “one thing about Adriana is that she will keep talking until someone stops her so if there is some kind of time limit just let her know beforehand and then politely give her a signal when it’s time to wrap up.” Well, I don’t think anyone wanted her stop talking. However, it’s probably time for me to stop writing. If you, like me, need a break from war, murder, psychopaths, and devastating family tragedies, I recommend The Supreme Macaroni Company. You’ll learn something about the shoemaking business to boot. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

For further reading:

Interview with Adriana Trigiani

Feature article about Adriana Trigiani’s Greenwich Village home

I read this book as part of a blog tour. To visit more stops on the blog tour, click here:

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We Were Liars — Book Review

coverTime shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,
Who covers faults at last with shame derides.
Cordelia, to her lying sisters in King Lear

If E. Lockhart’s remarkable new novel, We Were Liars, is typical of its genre, I might become a YA convert. Actually, I dislike the term “genre” when it comes to reading. When Gillian Flynn was asked by a New York Times interviewer, “Do you have a favorite genre? Any literary guilty pleasures?”, she said:

I read all kinds of novels, as long as they’re good. I get a bit piqued when people say, “I don’t really like that kind of book. It’s akin to marking yourself as proudly poorly read. I like westerns, fantasy, sci-fi, graphic novels, thrillers, and I try to avoid the word “genre” altogether. A good book is a good book. And as far as guilty pleasures, I don’t ever feel guilt if I’m enjoying reading something.

I certainly didn’t feel any guilt when I was reading We Were Liars. I knew from the first page that I was reading something extraordinary. Lockhart’s writing is lovely — simple and poetic, with dialogue worthy of a screenplay. The voice of the narrator, teenager Cadence Sinclair Eastman, is completely authentic. Cady’s story takes place on her grandfather’s private island off the coast of Massachusetts, where she spends every summer with her extended family. The island setting is important to the plot, but even more crucial to the otherworldly atmosphere of the novel. Everything that happens in the book seems to take place in an almost magical realm, with little connection to the outside world.

Cady introduces herself as the “eldest Sinclair grandchild. Heiress to the island, the fortune, and the expectations.” Her mother is one of three daughters:

yhst-137970348157658_2313_1375965663Granddad’s only failure was that he never had a son, but no matter. The Sinclair daughters were sunburnt and blessed. Tall, merry, and rich, those girls were like princesses in a fairy tale. They were known throughout Boston, Harvard Yard, and Martha’s Vineyard for their cashmere cardigans and grand parties. They were made for legends. Made for princes and Ivy League schools, ivory statues and majestic houses.

The island has always been a refuge for Cady, but one summer (“summer fifteen”, she calls it), something traumatic happens to her there; something she can’t seem to remember. Now,  more than two years later, she is suffering from “selective amnesia” and  “migraine headaches caused by traumatic brain injury” and trying to piece together the events of “summer fifteen”.  She recalls the beloved fairy tales of her childhood: “So many have the same premise: once upon a time, there were three . . . I have time on my hands, so let me tell you a story. A variation, I am saying, of a story you have heard before.”

9780140714760MThe story she tells — interwoven with pieces of her own story — is “Meat Loves Salt”, the tale of a farmer with three daughters who rejects his youngest daughter because he doesn’t understand her love and her honesty.  A Publishers Weekly interview with Lockhart points out that “Shakespeare liked this one too; it’s the same tale thought to have inspired King Lear.” (It’s worth noting that when Cady starts giving away her possessions, one of the first things she donates is a copy of King Lear.) Lockhart says “as a child, I was captivated by these beautifully illustrated collections my mother owned . . . Fairy tales have been a preoccupation of mine for a very long time, and for a long time I wanted to write a contemporary story with a fairy-tale structure so I could unpack some of what I had spent so much time thinking about.”

After I finished We Were Liars, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I wondered about the significance of the title. The “liars” of the title are Cady, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, a family friend: “The family calls us four the Liars, and probably we deserve it. We are all nearly the same age, and we all have birthdays in the fall. Most years on the island, we’ve been trouble.”  But the irony is that the adults in the family are the real liars, as Cady (and the reader) gradually discover. Their lies are numerous and their reasons for lying are complicated.  Cady, evoking King Lear’s honest daughter, Cordelia, is the only person who is trying to learn the truth about herself and her family. Her father left the family because “he couldn’t smile, couldn’t lie, couldn’t be part of that beautiful family in those beautiful houses.”

I deliberately haven’t talked much about the plot of We Were Liars. In the letter that came with the ARC, the publisher said:

It’s not often that I write a letter asking a reader to do this, but please trust me. I won’t tell you the plot of this book. It is better for you to just read it. We Were Liars is a dazzler. It’s suspenseful, literary, and romantic . . . You don’t need to know more. More would spoil it . .  Whatever you do, don’t spoil it for the people who haven’t read it yet. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Marketing hype? Maybe. Still, I won’t ruin it for you by telling you any more.  I’ll echo the publisher and ask you to trust me. And I’m not a liar.

For more reading:

An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean (New York magazine)

Why I Read Young Adult Literature (Book Riot website)

Review of We Were Liars (New York Times)

Interview with E. Lockhart (Publishers Weekly)





10 Books for “Carnivorous” Readers

Is anyone else really, really tired of the term “curated”? To quote from the Chowhound website: “You curate a museum, or perhaps an art collection for a billionaire”. I agree — restaurants don’t “curate” wine lists, and book reviewers don’t “curate” lists of books. I promise never to use that annoying word in this blog! What I will do is present a list of books that my oldest son liked a lot. Today is David’s 27th birthday, so of course I bought him a book. (I also bought him a plane ticket, but he’ll need something to read on the plane, right?) I started thinking about David’s evolution as a reader, from Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, to the DK Eyewitness Pond and River LIfe, to Rick Reilly’s Who’s Your Caddy?.

To make a silly analogy to the animal kingdom, readers can be divided into three categories: herbivores (fiction readers), carnivores (nonfiction readers), and omnivores (people who read anything). David, like so many of his gender, is a carnivore. Even as a young child, he preferred the fact-oriented series The Magic Schoolbus to its fictional cousin, the Magic Tree House series. (Although he loved Jon Scieszka’s  books about the Time Warp Trio — it must have been the humor. I’ve found, as a bookseller and a parent, that if a book is funny a little boy will like it.)

coverSo is it any surprise that a book David recently enjoyed, and recommends to other carnivores, is called Meat Eater? It’s written by journalist Steven Rinella, also the author of American Buffalo: A Lost Icon. But don’t take David’s word for it. Here’s what the New York Times and Wall Street Journal had to say about the book:

The stories in Meat Eater are full of empathy and intelligence….In some sections of the book, the author’s prose is so engrossing, so riveting, that it matches, punch for punch, the best sports writing. When Mr. Rinella wades into the surging Grand River, to throw a fly for steelheads, the story moves as well as Tom Callahan writing about Johnny Unitas in the 1958 championship or Bill Nack writing about Secretariat. — Wall Street Journal

Truth be told, I have lived a life plenty comfortable with my disdain toward hunters and hunting. And then along comes Steven Rinella and his revelatory memoir Meat Eater to ruin everything. Unless you count the eternal pursuit of the unmetered parking space, I am not a hunter. I am, however, on a constant quest for good writing. . . This is survival of the most literate. —New York Times

If you’re a carnivore, or know someone who is, here are a few other suggestions from David’s library (both his childhood library and his current bookshelves):

Harris and Me (Gary Paulsen)
All Paulsen’s books are wonderful, but this one is special. It’s about a city boy who spends the summer on his cousin’s farm. There are many hilarious incidents, with just the right amount of crude humor to appeal to grade school age boys. It’s fiction — as are many of Paulsen’s other books (including the Hatchet series) — but still good for carnivores.

9780060537845Joe and Me: An Education in Fishing and Friendship  (James Prosek)
A coming of age story about a teenage boy who runs afoul of the local fish and game warden. David’s copy looks like it’s been read a few times. Prosek has written many other terrific books about fly fishing, but this is the only one for YA readers.

Who’s Your Caddy?: Looping for the Great, Near Great, and Reprobates of Golf (Rick Reilly)
I think I enjoyed this book as much as David did, and I don’t even follow golf. Reilly has to be a great writer if he can get me to read a golf book. I started reading it because I was slightly worried about the content, and then got hooked. (Looking back, I can’t believe I was worried about what a sophomore in high school was reading. Can you tell David is my oldest?)

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (Jon Krakauer)
A classic adventure story about an ill-fated ascent of Mount Everest in 1996. Krakauer’s Into the Wild is excellent as well.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (Jon Ronson)
Our whole family passed this book around on vacation a couple of summers ago — it’s fascinating!  What a relief it was to find that none of us is a psychopath.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Nick Reding)
Journalist Reding spent four years in a small town in Oelwein, Iowa, examining the effects of the meth epidemic on that town and similar towns all over the Midwest. My daughter and I couldn’t put this book down either.

9780393081817_300Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (Michael Lewis)
It seems that Michael Lewis can do no wrong — his books, starting with Liar’s Poker (another favorite of David’s) — are uniformly excellent, transforming complicated economics into entertaining and informative narratives.

No Easy Day: A Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden (Mark Owen)
The movie Zero Dark Thirty tells a little bit of the story; this book, written by a Navy SEAL,  provides all the details. Apparently the author (who used a pseudonym) was criticized for revealing secrets without clearance from the government.

An American Caddie in St. Andrews: Growing Up, Girls, and Looping on the Old Course (Oliver Horovitz)
An American teenager spends a “gap year” in Scotland as a caddy at the world’s most famous golf course — and returns to work there year after year, even after college graduation.

Guess where we are going to celebrate David’s birthday tonight? A hot new barbecue restaurant in Chicago — Green Street Smoked Meats*. And I hope he likes the book I’m giving him: The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, by Bill Cohan. It just got a rave review in the New York Times.

*Thank you, Gina, for organizing!


Fallout — Book Review (and Giveaway!)

FalloutI will read fiction about almost any topic, as long as the story, the characters, and the writing engage me. Certain topics are shoo-ins — I can’t resist books about boarding schools and colleges; I’m fascinated by novels that have a medical angle; and I gravitate towards fiction about World Wars I and II. Other subjects don’t intrigue me in the least, but that doesn’t stop me from reading about them. I can’t think of a subject I’m less interested in than college baseball, but I absolutely loved Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Because, of course, The Art of Fielding isn’t “about” baseball. Westish College baseball is the vehicle Harbach uses to develop the relationships among his characters. Similarly, Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me is “about” professional ballet — but what engaged me was the story of the characters’ struggles to come to terms with their limitations. Learning a little bit about ballet was a bonus.

I’m an avid theatergoer, so it was with high hopes that I picked up Fallout, by Sadie Jones. The novel is set in England during the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on four young people struggling to make it in the world of theater: Luke, a playwright, Paul, a producer, Leigh, a stage manager, and Nina, an actress. Love triangles ensue — Luke, Paul, and Leigh; Luke, Nina, and Tony, an older theater producer. Clandestine love affairs destroy long friendships and working collaborations. The novel is painstakingly constructed, unfolding at a steady pace and returning always to Luke, the protagonist.

Luke is the son of an alcoholic and neglectful father and a mentally ill mother who has been hospitalized during most of his childhood. He has an artist’s sensibility from an early age, with intellectual curiosity and an intense drive to succeed. He writes journal entries, poems, and plays (before he has ever seen one performed on stage):

He read anything, everything, and then his Shakespeare again. And again . . . He watched all the plays on the BBC, wrote down the names of the playwrights and transposed the dialogue in a high-speed scrawl, not looking at the page . . . The life inside him was tearing him up; writing himself inside out in lined-paper notebooks, rushing and looking and working and moving but knowing all the time that he was just staying still.

The reader knows from the prologue that Luke will become a success. What the reader doesn’t know is how he achieves his success, and the fates of his friends and lovers. The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were about Luke as a creator of plays and about the experience of being part of a theatrical production. Jones beautifully describes Nina’s reaction to seeing the audience respond to Luke’s first hit play:

And then the first laugh; a scattered, surprised sort of laugh, moving from the front of the audience to the back as if it were asking permission, and not quite reaching them. She looked at Luke again. He had dug his face further into his hands, hunched down in his seat. Then there was another laugh — this one quick and shocked — quite loud and from the whole theatre together. It was as if the audience had decided as one how they felt, from then on there was a batting back and forth between the actors and the watchers, like percussion; beat, line, laugh, line, laugh, beat and the play came to life.

Luke’s plays come to life in Fallout, but the characters never really came alive for me — especially Paul and Leigh. In one scene, Leigh protests against the misogyny she perceives in a play produced by Tony (and starring Nina), but, disappointingly, her character becomes little more than a love interest until much later in the book.  Luke is certainly the most well-developed character, but I never warmed up to him. Nina, the damaged product of a manipulative stage mother, shows promise as a well-rounded character but ends up as a stereotypical victim who can’t accept that she deserves happiness. Tony, her cruel and abusive husband, is a villain with no redeeming qualities except the love of theater: “Luke saw that they loved theatre, and cared for the plays and helpless as he was in his hatred of Tony as Nina’s jailor he could not help but admire his incisive mind. He had a rare talent; he knew what worked.”

There’s a certain grim humorlessness in this novel; I found myself wishing for some comic relief. I recall reading somewhere that no one in a Chekhov play is ever happy, and this book reminded me a bit of a Chekhov play. (There’s even an aspiring actress named Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.) The tone of the book surprised me; it’s very different from Jones’s last book, The Uninvited Guests, a clever comedy of manners that takes place in an Edwardian country house. The Uninvited Guests is filled with black humor, and the pace moves briskly. I applaud Jones for trying something different and perhaps more ambitious with Fallout. I haven’t read her first two books yet — The Outcast and Small Wars, both set in the 1950s and both very well-received.

Sadie JonesSadie Jones, the daughter of an actress and a writer, worked as an unsuccessful screenwriter for 15 years before becoming a novelist. Her debut novel,  The Outcast, won the prestigious Costa Award for a first novel in 2008. What kept her going, she told the London Telegraph, were “tales of writers such as Mary Wesley and J.K. Rowling who became successful after years of struggle . . . Now it’s nice to be someone else’s hopeful story.”

Fallout received excellent reviews in two London newspapers, the Guardian (“Fallout: Sadie Jones at the Peak of Her Powers”) and the Independent (“a hugely enjoyable contribution to the backstage genre”).

The publisher, HarperCollins, has generously provided me with an extra copy of Fallout. If you’d like to receive it — along with a copy of The Uninvited Guests — please write a brief comment below about why you’d like to receive the books. I’ll pick a name out of the proverbial hat. U.S. entries only, please.

I read this book as part of a blog tour. To visit more stops on the tour, click here.

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