10 Books to Read This Fall

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of September. It’s been a glorious month here in Chicago, and I’m savoring every minute of the warmth and sunshine. For what it’s worth, the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another frigid and snowy winter in the Midwest. All the more reason to have a pile of good books waiting to be read! Here are 10 books either just published or due to be published this fall to add to your list.

9780062306814The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton)
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see recently in the Rijksmuseum.  The Guardian says it is “a fabulously gripping read” that will “appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch“, which think describes it perfectly. (Although I dislike the word “read” used as a noun . . .)9780062336019

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Alix Christie)
Author Christie, a letterpress printer, contends that Gutenberg’s success was due to his gifted young apprentice, Peter Schoeffer. According to the New York Times, “Christie spotlights intriguing parallels between 15th-century Europe and the digital media of the 21st-century world.” As a lover of the printed page, I can’t wait to read this one.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Jeff Hobbs)
Robert Peace escaped the slums of Newark, New Jersey to attend Yale University — where he was author Hobbs’s roommate. He died at age 30, the victim of a gang-related drug assassination. The book has been receiving a lot of acclaim; the Los Angeles Times says: “In the end, The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’s book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey.” (Two other excellent books on this topic are The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind.)

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering (Matt Richtel)
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable page-turner about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving story of heartbreak and healing. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

What the Lady Wants (Renee Rosen)
Rosen’s first historical novel, Dollface, is an entertaining and enlightening excursion back to Prohibition-era Chicago.  I’m anxious to read her next book, set in the Gilded Age, about department store tycoon Marshall Field and his love affair with Delia Canton. There will be opportunities in Chicago to meet Renee Rosen, hear her read from the book, and ask questions; details to come.  (Due November 4)

9780307700315Some Luck (Jane Smiley)
Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a modern-day retelling of King Lear.  She returns to Iowa farm country with her new novel about 33 years in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five very different children. Each chapter covers a single year, beginning in 1920 soon after Walter’s return from World War I. The book is the first installment in a trilogy about the Langdons, and about the transformation of American culture and society in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Publishers Weekly, “Smiley conjures a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next.”

A Sudden Light (Garth Stein)
The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Stein’s new novel. This one is not narrated by a dog — instead, by a 14-year-old boy, Trevor Riddell. Trevor’s bankrupt, recently separated father brings him and his sister Serena to their grandfather’s mansion in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father from carrying out his plan. I’m in the middle of the book now, and loving it . . . and that is surprising, because I hate ghosts.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”

Five Days Left (Julie Lawson Timmer)
If you’re in the mood for a good cry, this is the book for you. Two people have five days left with the people they love most. I can’t really tell you more than that, except that if you read it on public transportation, make sure you have some Kleenex handy. It will definitely get your book club talking, although if you are the one who recommends it, you may be accused of suggesting “depressing” reading material.

Nora Webster (Colm Tóibín)9781439138335
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Irish author Tóibín, especially Brooklyn and The Master, and have been hearing wonderful things about his new novel. Set in his hometown in Wexford County, Nora Webster is the story of a widow raising four children in Ireland during the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Chicago Tribune says: “There is no flash and dazzle in Tóibín’s writing, just unobtrusive control, profound intelligence and peerless empathy that is almost shocking in its penetration.” I’m looking forward to hearing Tóibín speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 9. (Due October 7)



Liar Temptress Soldier Spy — Book Review

Liar Temptress Soldier SpyShe risked everything that is dear to man — friends — fortune — comfort — health — life itself — all for the one absorbing desire of her heart — that slavery might be abolished and the union preserved.
Epitaph on Elizabeth Van Lew’s tombstone

If your only exposure to feisty Civil War women is fictional heroine Scarlett O’Hara, you are missing out on some fascinating literature about real-life heroines. Last week, I reviewed I Shall Be Near to You, Erin Lindsay McCabe’s historical novel based on the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Wakeman, like hundreds of other women, assumed the identity of a man and fought in the Civil War. Now I’m reading Neverhome, by Laird Hunt, another historical novel inspired by the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

Rosetta makes a cameo appearance in Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, Karen Abbott’s rollicking chronicle of the exploits of four female spies.  When Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy with a very high opinion of herself, was arrested and imprisoned, her guard was “Private Lyons Wakeman” of the 153rd New York:

When Belle blew kisses to the blue-eyed, five-foot-tall soldier she was unwittingly flirting with a woman: twenty-year-old Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who had left her home in upstate New York a year earlier and reinvented herself as a man. She signed many of her letters home “Rosetta”, confident that her true identity would remain secret as long as she needed it to be.

Truth is certainly stranger than fiction, an adage that Abbott demonstrates in Liar Temptress Soldier Spy. Many events seem unbelievable; I kept having to remind myself I was reading history, not historical fiction.  Abbott skillfully weaves the stories of each of the four women into one suspenseful narrative. Divided into five parts — one section for each of the war years, plus a final section about the women’s lives after the war — the book is much more than a collection of stories about four brave and independent women. It’s a painstakingly constructed history of the Civil War, based on the experiences of women who “chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war”. Each woman’s distinct personality comes to life on the page, thanks to the diaries, letters, archival notes, transcripts, and family stories that Abbott used in her research.

Belle Boyd literally got away with murder — she shot a Union soldier in her own home and then dared his compatriots to shoot her: “‘Only those who are cowards shoot women,’ she said, and spread open her arms. ‘Now shoot!'” She was later exonerated, and began a career in espionage, always looking for the chance to become the center of attention. Infatuated with Stonewall Jackson, she seized the opportunity to deliver a message to the general:

Hope, fear, the love of life, and the determination to serve my country to the last, conspired to fill my heart with more than feminine courage, and to lend preternatural strength and swiftness to my limbs. I often marvel, and even shudder, when I reflect how I cleared the fields, and bounded over the fences with an agility of a deer.

Belle, as Abbott frequently (and amusingly) makes clear, did not suffer from a lack of self-esteem.

Widow Rose O’Neal Greenhow ran the Confederate spy ring in Washington, D.C., conducting affairs with Northern politicians  to gather information and using her own eight-year-old daughter to pass along intelligence. After Allan Pinkerton arrested her, she was imprisoned and eventually exiled to the South, where she continued her espionage activities. Jefferson Davis sent her as his emissary overseas to “court the French and British elite, in the hope she might rally support for the Confederacy”.

Emma Edmonds escaped a miserable family situation by disguising herself as “Frank Thompson” and joining the Union Army. She took cross-dressing to a new level when she carried out spy missions behind enemy lines “with yet another layer of disguise, a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman”.  Her daring acts of espionage were often the product of her own creative thinking, and also reflected her personal beliefs about slavery:

Emma went out of her way to interact with slaves whenever she had the chance, listening to their stories and hoping she might one day teach them. Her choice to disguise herself again as a slave was, in her current circumstances, the best way she knew to show empathy.

Although she lived in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, Elizabeth Van Lew was an abolitionist. She enlisted the help of her beloved servant, Mary Jane (a well-educated “free person of color”), in her espionage activities. She placed Mary Jane as a “sleeper agent” in the Confederate White House as an “excellent house servant” to First Lady Varina Davis. Mary Jane played the part of a “simple, illiterate maid, obsequious in manner and bumbling in speech  . . . No one would think twice when she cleaned the president’s library, lingering as she dusted the desk piled with maps of fortifications and statistics about his troops”.

The title of Abbott’s book pays homage to John le Carré’s classic spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy isn’t just about women in the Civil War; it’s about espionage in general.  Like le Carré’s novel, Abbott’s study of Civil War espionage is about treachery and betrayal. The motives of female spies are as varied as the motives of male spies — belief in a cause; egotism; attraction to danger; escape from difficulty or heartache.

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy is a fascinating and illuminating reading experience. Abbott’s attention to detail shows not only in her exhaustive notes, but in the many excellent black and white photographs she includes. I also really appreciate the inventive titles she gives to each chapter.  The chapter titles help set the tone in an apt and colorful way. Abbott could have started with “Chapter One”, but she decided on “The Fastest Girl in Virginia (Or Anywhere Else For That Matter) “.  Already, the reader knows something about Belle Boyd, and about the kind of history book this is going to be.

Highly recommended!

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Beyond Macbeth — Books Set in Scotland

9780451526779HYesterday’s leading news story was Scotland’s vote against independence from Great Britain. As I watched the morning news, my thoughts turned away from politics and economics and went straight to literature. I thought of Macbeth, and wondered what the current-day residents of Cawdor Castle think of Scotland’s decision. (As I’ve mentioned, Macbeth  — always referred to as “the Scottish play” by superstitious theater people  —  is my favorite Shakespeare play. Perhaps because it’s the first one I ever read?)

Several years ago, I read a fascinating memoir by Liza Campbell called A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. Campbell, the daughter of the real-life Thane of Cawdor, was the last child born in the actual castle associated with Shakespeare’s play. The memoir itself is garden-variety family dysfunction: drugs, domestic abuse, extramarital affairs, money problems. What interested me was the history of the Cawdor estate. Today, Liza Campbell is a vocal member of the Hares, a group of aristocratic British women supporting the Equality (Titles) bill, also known as the “Downton Abbey” law, 9780312384968which would allow first-born daughters to inherit titles.

As I thought more about books set in Scotland, I realized I haven’t read many.  I’ve read countless books set in England and Ireland, but I’ve neglected Scotland.  I’ve never read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series . . . or Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. I haven’t read anything by Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin, or Irvine Welsh.  Also, I have never been to Scotland. A friend and her daughter went to the Edinburgh Book Festival last month and had a marvelous time. Jeff has always wanted to play golf in Scotland; maybe next summer we could combine a trip to Edinburgh with a visit to St. Andrews?

If we do visit Scotland, the first book on my reading list will be How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created the Modern World and Everything In It by Arthur Herman. Everything? Sounds like a bold claim, and certainly warrants further investigation.

I did a quick Google search on “Scottish literature” and found that most of the recommended books are bodice-rippers featuring handsome and lusty Scotsmen. Apparently the Scottish highlands are the place to go if you’re looking for romance. A few of the suggested titles are: To Tame a Highland Warrior, In Bed With a Highlander, Taming the Scotsman, How to Abduct a Highland Lord, Thirty Nights With a Highland Husband. Need I go on?

9780345542625I did recently read an absolutely charming novel that takes place in Scotland — specifically, on the remote Isle of Skye. Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is written entirely in letters, starting just before World War I and ending after World War II. Publishers Weekly says that it’s a “remarkable story” in which “the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn, leaving just enough blanks to be filled by the reader’s imagination.”

After I read Letters from Skye, I remembered that Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, To the Lighthouse, is set on the Isle of Skye. It’s one of my most beloved books; my old paperback copy is falling apart. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

Three Junes, the debut novel of Julia Glass (one of my favorite authors), won the National Book Award for fiction in 2002. The book is actually three linked novellas about a Scottish family, the McLeods. The story develops over the course of three Junes in the late 20th century, and in Scotland, the United States, and Greece. Many of the characters reappear in Glass’s later novels.

9780380727506Bill Bryson is always entertaining and informative. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson recounts his trip exploring  — using only public transportation — the nooks and crannies of England, Scotland, and Wales. Here’s his description of arriving in Edinburgh:

And so I went to Edinburgh. Can there anywhere be a more beautiful and beguiling city to arrive at by train early on a crisp, dark Novembery evening? To emerge from the bustling, subterranean bowels of Waverley Station and find yourself in the very heart of such a glorious city is a happy experience indeed. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh for years and had forgotten just how captivating it can be  . . .  Every bookshop window was full of books about Scotland or by Scottish authors. And of course the voices were different. I walked along, feeling as if I had left England far behind . . .

I’d like to see those bookshop windows myself. I just hope they’re not packed with piles of Ravished by a Highlander and Seduction of a Highland Lass.

I Shall Be Near to You — Book Review

9780804137744But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Letter from Major Sullivan Ballou (2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment) to his wife, Sarah. Ballou died in July 1861 of wounds sustained in the first Battle of Bull Run.

I first heard Ballou’s letter on the Ken Burns PBS documentary series The Civil War, and it brought me to tears. Erin Lindsay McCabe’s beautiful novel of undying love during the Civil War, I Shall Be Near to You, made my eyes water as well. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the story. But keep in mind that war stories rarely have fairy-tale endings.)

Sarah Ballou, like almost every wife of a soldier, waited at home for her husband. Rosetta Wakefield, the determined and courageous heroine of I Shall Be Near to You, follows her new husband, Jeremiah, into battle. Rosetta is partially motivated by her love for Jeremiah — who only joined the 97th New York State Volunteers to earn money so he and Rosetta could buy a farm in Nebraska — and partially by her desire to escape life in Flat Creek, New York, where she is tormented by her mother-in-law and a hostile neighbor.

Jeremiah slips away to enlist, leaving Rosetta a letter that explains his leave-taking:

I am writing this letter as your Husband, and that is something Good. It don’t mean a thing is different about my Feelings that I am setting off without you knowing, or seeing you one more time and telling you all my Thoughts. You will cry to Hear them said so that is why I am Going this way, so I can Make myself Leave without causing you any more Pain.

He also leaves a map of the United States and its territories: “Jeremiah has made a heart at Flat Creek and a star at Herkimer. But in the Nebraska Territory he has written, I shall always be near to you.”

Rosetta decides to take Jeremiah’s promise literally. She will enlist with him in the Union Army and “earn a soldier’s pay instead of just a nurse’s or a laundress’s and stay with Jeremiah for as long as this war drags on.” Her impulsive and brave (or foolhardy?) decision shows us that she is no ordinary 19th century woman:

Laying there on our bed is Jeremiah’s work shirt where I left it, the map unfolded beside it. And then like a hornets’ nest in the hot dust that you almost don’t see until it’s too late, but once you have, you can’t not see it for the buzzing in and out of the crack in the dirt crust, the idea of it just comes to me.

Rosetta’s character is based on a real woman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who fought in the Civil War disguised as a man. Her family later shared her letters, which were published in a book called An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. According to McCabe, “the fictional Rosetta is greatly informed by the feisty and strong-willed voice that shines through Wakeman’s letters home”. (Apparently Wakeman was not as “uncommon” as you might think; historians believe there were hundreds of women who saw combat in the Civil War.)

That “feisty and “strong-willed voice” shines brilliantly through I Shall Be Near to You, bringing Rosetta Wakefield (a.k.a. “Ross Stone”) to life on the page. McCabe perfectly captures her youthful enthusiasm, stubbornness, and bravery — and her deep and abiding love for Jeremiah. She doesn’t make the mistake so many writers of historical fiction seem to make, which is placing characters with modern-day sensibilities in a decidedly “un-modern” context. Rosetta may be more independent-minded than other young women of her time, but she is still a product of the mid-19th century. Growing up with no brothers, Rosetta has been treated more like a son than a daughter.

McCabe pays careful attention to detail throughout the novel, describing not only how novice soldiers were trained in the art of war and how they fought on the battlefield, but also how they cooked, ate, slept, bathed, and amused themselves. She also does a masterful job portraying their emotional reactions to the horror and carnage of war. Historical fiction, by allowing the author to let her imagination go beyond recorded facts, can be a very powerful way of making history come alive. No one knows what the real Rosetta’s reaction to seeing a deserter being branded would have been, or how she would have felt visiting dying men in a hospital. McCabe’s storytelling removes the distance between the reader and the historical events, helping the reader empathize with the characters.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, my husband is a Civil War buff. (Yes, it’s called the Civil War. I was recently seated at a dinner next to a gentleman from Mississippi who referred to that conflict in our nation’s history as the “War of Northern Aggression”. Sorry, no.) Jeff has an unending appetite for Civil War books — detailed accounts of military campaigns, biographies of generals, nonfiction covering various aspects of the war (prison camps, spies, battlefield medicine, etc.). Occasionally, he will read historical fiction about the war — for example, he and I both loved E.L. Doctorow’s The March — but he’s more of a nonfiction reader. He loved I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, which should tell you it’s a really good Civil War novel. (Just in case you don’t believe me.)

I highly recommend Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott, a brand-new  nonfiction account of four women who served as spies during the Civil War (two for the Union, two for the Confederacy). One of the women, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, makes a cameo appearance in I Shall Be Near to You. Also recently published (and in my TBR stack) is Neverhome, by Laird Hunter, a novel about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Union, leaving her husband at home on the farm.

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Wonder Woman and Me

WonderWomanV5When I started Books on the Table last September, it didn’t really occur to me that people I didn’t know would read it. I thought the blog would be a fun creative outlet and a way for me to share my love of books with friends and acquaintances. Obviously, I had a lot to learn. Most of my readers, as far as I can tell, are people I’ve never met. They’ve found the blog through friends of friends, with the help of Google and other search engines, via links on other blogs and social media . . . and because they are fans of Lynda Carter, a.k.a. Wonder Woman.

A little background for those of you who didn’t grow up in the 1970s: Wonder Woman, Amazon warrior princess of comic book fame, was played by Lynda Carter on TV from 1975 through 1979. Lynda also was Miss World USA in 1972 and has had a successful acting and singing career. And it turns out that Lynda is the aunt of Michaela Carter, independent bookstore owner and author of the recently published novel, Further Out Than You Thought.

I thought Further Out Than You Thought was a terrific novel, albeit a little edgier than the fiction I usually read, and posted a positive review on the blog. I received some comments, including a nice message from the author, and moved on to the next review. Then, a few days later, I got a notification from WordPress that there was unusually high activity on my blog. I assumed that the blog was hacked . . . but I soon learned that Wonder Woman was at work. She had shared my review with the hundreds of thousands of people who follow her on Facebook and Twitter: “So proud of my niece, Michaela Carter’s first novel”.  It seems that a lot of Lynda’s fans — including someone from the Lynda Carter Fan Club of Latin America — reposted the review as well. For a couple of days, my blog traffic was 10 times what it usually is.

If anyone had asked me a couple of weeks ago what the most popular posts over the past year have been, I would have said 10 Books to Read This Summer (At the Beach or Not), 10 Books for “Carnivorous” Readers, 10 Gateway Books for Teenagers — you get the idea. People seem to love lists of book recommendations. I never would have imagined that a review of a debut novel would have been my most popular post.

My first year of blogging has been a learning experience, full of surprises. As parents tell their kids, be careful what you post on the Internet. You never know who’s going to see it — maybe even a woman with superpowers. I’m grateful to all the book lovers I’ve had the chance to connect with through Books on the Table. Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing!