Life is Short — 9 Books I’m Never Going to Read

My books have been part of my life forever. They have been good soldiers, boon companions. Every book has survived numerous purges over the years; each book has repeatedly been called onto the carpet and asked to explain itself. I own no book that has not fought the good fight, taken on all comers, and earned the right to remain.
Joe Queenan

All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. . . But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.
Nick Hornby

IMG_1221Every now and then, when my bookshelves start to overflow, I get the urge to purge. I never do a very good job. Professional organizers recommend making three piles: “keep”; “toss”; and “donate”. The “toss” pile is usually very small, because I feel terrible throwing away a book unless it is truly falling apart. I can almost always fill a bag with books to donate, but I end up re-shelving dozens of books that a more ruthless culler would donate without a second thought. My rule of thumb is that I feel any ambivalence at all, the book gets to stay. I’m not listening to the advice Marie Kondo offers in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , which is to keep no more than 30 books in a home library and to house that library in a closet.

I’ve realized that I own many books that have survived multiple purges. If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit I will never read these books. They are no longer books to be read; they are decorative objects. The question I’ve decided to ask about every unread book I own is whether I would carry it on a trip. (Keep in mind I have no problem lugging hardcover books wherever I go. I carried In the Kingdom of Ice on a two-week trip to Europe last fall and I was happy to have it with me.)

So here are 9 hardcover books I have considered reading many times but I know I will never read. I tried hard to part with at least 10, but I just couldn’t. (I have an easier time giving away paperbacks.) They’re packed in a shopping bag, ready to be dropped at the back door of the Lake Forest Library. This is the collection point for the Friends of the Library annual book sale, and there is a large sign warning potential used book thieves that security cameras are in use. I wonder if some people think that because they’re donating some books, they get to take a few as well. Those people must be even worse at cleaning out their bookshelves than I am!

If anyone thinks I’m making a big mistake getting rid of any of these books, let me know . . .

9780307958341Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
A National Book Award finalist in 2013, Book of Ages came highly recommended from a trusted source — but whenever I’m deciding what to read next, I look at its lovely cover and then choose something else.

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
A publisher sent me Thrive as part of an ill-conceived program called “Blogging for Books”.  I don’t even understand the title. What does she mean by “third metric”? I guess I would have to read the book to find out, but I’m not that curious.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François
I bought this book seven or eight years ago under the misguided impression I would want to spend any time at all (even five minutes) baking bread.  It’s never been opened.

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
This book, about a Nigerian immigrant in New York who returns to his home country, received a lot of critical acclaim, as did its predecessor, Open City. However — and this is a deal-breaker for me — it is about an unnamed character.

The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon
Over the past few years, I’ve picked it up, put it down . . . picked it up, put it down . . . Time for The Love of My Youth to find a new home where it will be appreciated.970b55d1c222cd0f5b577d2f96aab9d5

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
How on earth did I end up with a book about vampires on my shelf, even a supposedly literary one? I did consider keeping The Historian for a minute, because I came across this quotation while flipping through the book: “It was good to walk into a library again; it smelled like home.”

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui
This 750-page book, which was written by Mao’s personal physician, was given to me in 1996. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never read it. Especially since I just skimmed the first chapter and learned more than I wanted to know about Mao’s lack of oral hygiene.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
I’ve had this book so long that the pages have turned yellow. People love this series, I know. I started it, and it’s just not for me; I hate time travel.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr.
I never intended to read this book, but I thought my husband might like it. What was I thinking? He’s not going to read an 864-page “epic biography” of Ted Williams, no matter how good it is.

Oh, and by the way — in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to add that I didn’t personally carry In the Kingdom of Ice through Holland, Belgium, and France. I took every opportunity to sneak it into my husband’s bag. I think he would say that it was worth bringing with us, because he enjoyed it as much as I did.









The Half Brother — Book Review

9780385531955The Half Brother tells a familiar story: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher.  In the beginning of the book, Charlie Garrett is not much older than his students:

Teaching English at Abbott was my first job, right out of college . . . for me the idea of being employed at all, at a job that entailed skill and responsibility, was unreal, ludicrous. The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hand.

Many novels are set at schools, but I’ve read few that capture the essence of what goes in on the classroom as well as The Half Brother. Charlie has received no formal training as a teacher, and is initially terrified of his students. He develops a persona, “a tweedy, knowledgeable, unflappable self”, and discovers that he actually has a gift for teaching:

At the window of my classroom, looking out, I was in the prow of a landship, forging ahead with my new self, built on the scaffolding of these names; then I turned around and my own energy went forth, joined theirs, became something new and larger. I had not expected to feel my own self slowly emerging as I tried to draw out theirs. I had not expected to love anyone, is what I’m saying. Sometimes they looked at me in amazement at what came out of their mouths.

As a new teacher, Charlie is drawn to one of his students, May Bankhead, who is a “faculty brat” — the daughter of the school chaplain. They correspond with each other after May’s graduation, and when she returns to campus several years later to care for her dying father, May and Charlie finally admit to themselves what they’ve always felt for each other.

Later, May becomes a teacher at Abbott herself — and so does Charlie’s younger half-brother, Nicky. Charlie has always been protective of Nicky, who is brilliant, handsome, and popular, yet strangely vulnerable. The inevitable triangle follows– and that’s all that I can tell you about the plot of The Half Brother, because the plot twists — which do not rely on unreliable narrators — are truly surprising. Read more

The Last Good Paradise — Book Review


What was this thing, the pursuit of happiness, that moved out of reach as you approached? Was the emphasis on the wrong word? Was it simply about pursuit? Did said happiness evaporate when one got within proximity of it, moving off to lure one from yet another difficult, forward location?

Tatjana Soli’s new novel, The Last Good Paradise, is a black comedy that takes place on a remote island in the South Pacific. Ann and Richard, a successful couple in their thirties, run away from Los Angeles after an unscrupulous business partner bankrupts them. They take refuge at “the most isolated, lonesome destination” Ann could find — Sauvage, a resort “sans telephone, WiFi, or electricity”. Their relaxing idyll turns into a melodrama with a quirky cast of characters.

I began reading this book with high hopes, having admired the author’s previous novels — The Lotus Eaters (about a love triangle in wartime Vietnam) and The Forgetting Tree (a family tragedy set on a California citrus ranch). I’ve always been fascinated by French Polynesia, Captain Cook’s voyages, and,seafaring stories — especially Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby-Dick. Read more

Girl Runner — Book Review

9780062336040And still I run: I run and run, without rest, as if even now there is time and purpose and I will gain, at last — before my spool of silence unwinds — what I’ve yet to know.

Former Olympic athlete Aganetha Smart is 104 years old at the beginning of Girl Runner, spending her final days in a nursing home where she is wheelchair-bound, unable to speak clearly, “a bit deaf — though not so deaf as they think — and not quite blind.” She has outlived everyone she’s cared about and wonders if anyone will remember her: “My achievement is to have lived long enough to see my life vanish. Who will write my obituary?”

In 1928, Aganetha was at the top of her game, a gold medalist in the 800 meter race at the Amsterdam Olympics. Her extraordinary running ability took her far away from her family’s farm in rural Canada, where she had already suffered more grief and loss than many people experience in a lifetime. From the time she was a small child, Aggie was a runner — fast and indefatigable. She was the one the family sent running for the doctor when there was an emergency on the farm.

Although Aggie Smart is a fictional character, author Carrie Snyder was inspired to create her by Canada’s real 1928 female track and field team, known as the “Matchless Six”.  The 1928 Olympics were the first at which women competed in track and field events, and it would be the last — until 1960 — at which women were allowed to participate in races farther than 200 meters. An Olympic committee blocked women from distance running, claiming that several female runners at the 1928 race dropped out, and that several others collapsed at the finish. (Film footage of the race refutes these claims; click here for an interesting article about the controversy in Runner’s World.) Read more

WWW Wednesday — Staff Picks

9780761178422What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

Today, at our monthly meeting, our staff discussed those very questions. Our meetings are supposed to begin at 8:00 a.m., and we rush to get through as many book reviews as possible before the store opens at 9:30.

Sheet Pan Suppers, by Molly Gilbert, has been a hit with our staff and customers, although clearly the title is a bit of a misnomer — this morning we sampled the raspberry white chocolate scones, which were delicious! (The subtitle of this great cookbook is 120 Recipes for Simple, Surprising, Hands-Off Meals Straight From the Oven, Plus Breakfast, Desserts, and Snacks Too!) I noticed that the scones sat untouched for the first half of the meeting, as our health-conscious booksellers delicately nibbled on clementines, but that somehow by the end of the meeting the scones were almost gone.

What else have we read recently?9781402298684

Last week was a great reading week for me — I finished two debut novels that I absolutely adored. The Magician’s Lie, by Greer Macallister, is a historical novel about a young, female magician (the “Amazing Arden”) at the turn of the 20th century, who is accused of murder. She is captured and interrogated by a country sheriff who has problems of his own, and during the course of one long night in a rural police station, we learn about the magician’s past. How did an aspiring dancer, born into a wealthy family, end up running a successful traveling magic show — and running for her life? It’s a terrific period piece, with a murder mystery and just a touch of the supernatural. If you enjoyed Water for Elephants, you’ll love this book.

9780399169526I can’t say enough good things about My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh (due February 10).  During the summer of 1989, the narrator of My Sunshine Away is fourteen years old and in love with his neighbor on Piney Creek Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lindy Simpson. When Lindy becomes the victim of a rape, everything changes. The narrator finds himself, along with other neighbors, interrogated about the crime:

Don’t believe what you see on the crime shows today. No single hairs were tweezed out of Old Man Casemore’s lawn. No length of rope was sent off to a lab. No DNA was salvaged off the pebbles of our concrete. And although the people of Woodland Hills answered earnestly every question that was asked of them, although they tried their best to be helpful, there was no immediate evidence to speak of.

Although My Sunshine Away is suspenseful — sometimes almost unbearably so — it’s really a coming of age story. It’s about an immature, self-centered boy becoming an adult with integrity. As he recounts the pivotal events of his youth, the narrator’s voice is authentic and compelling. At one point, he reflects on the nature of nature of memory:

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

Although I’ve never been to Baton Rouge, I felt as if I had after reading Walsh’s lyrical descriptions of this singular place. Walsh, who is the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, clearly heeds every creative writing teacher’s advice: “Show, don’t tell.” He shows us a setting and characters that are as vivid as any I’ve encountered on the page. The novel reminded me in some ways of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones — but without the murder and the accompanying trip to heaven, and with a great deal more wisdom. Read more