Spring Paperback Picks — April 2016

No, I still don’t know when The Girl on the Train will be released in paperback. That’s the #1 query that leads readers to Books on the Table, and as I mentioned in 10 Spring Paperback Picks last April, publishers often delay a paperback release when the hardcover is still selling well. The Girl on the Train (currently #6 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list) has been on the list for 62 weeks.

All the Light We Cannot See has been on the hardcover list for 98 weeks; curiously, I haven’t noticed much interest in when the paperback will come out. I wonder if this is because readers view All the Light We Cannot See as the kind of book they’re willing to buy and want to own in hardcover, while they see The Girl on the Train as the type of book they  read on the beach and then pass along? In any case, All the Light still has a long way to go before it catches up with some bestselling novels of the past — The Da Vinci Code, The Bridges of Madison County, The Caine Mutiny, Auntie Mame, and Advise and Consent all stayed on the list for more than 100 weeks.

Some of my favorite books from 2015 are arriving in paperback this April. Some did well in hardcover (Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Sally Mann’s Hold Still, and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread come to mind) but some are underappreciated gems; maybe now they’ll find the audience they deserve.

Fiction

9780553392333We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (April 5)
I liked Diffenbaugh’s second novel even more than her first, The Language of Flowers. It’s the coming-of-age story of two people: 16-year-old Alex, who’s devastated when his beloved grandparents return to their native Mexico, and his mother, Letty, who must finally learn to be a parent. It’s one of the best contemporary novels about immigration I’ve read, up there with The Book of Unknown Americans. You can read my interview with the author here.

9780425278109My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (April 5)
During the summer of 1989, the narrator of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel 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. 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.

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710464_lgThe Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (April 5)
I savored every page of this beautiful novel, which explores the complicated relationships among four siblings raised by an attentive, loving father and a neglectful mother. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan (whose reviews are almost always spot-on) loved the book, saying Packer’s “splintered narrative style and the richness of her characters and language illuminate the unexpected depths of the commonplace.” Rebecca, one of the siblings, grows up to be a successful psychiatrist, and like all of us, she wonders if her childhood memories are accurate:

I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.

y6483Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight (April 19)
If you’re in the mood for smart, character-driven psychological suspense, Where They Found Her is the book for you. It’s the kind of book you read in one day, or at least consumer in big chunks. The book opens with an unnamed narrator disposing of a bag of evidence in a dumpster behind a suburban tanning salon. What has happened, and who is telling the story? Readers won’t find out for almost 300 pages, with plenty of detours along the way. It’s revealed in the first couple of chapters that the body of a newborn baby has been found in the woods near the college campus in an upscale New Jersey suburb. Molly Sanderson, wife of a Ridgedale University professor and new to the staff of the local newspaper, investigates the story — which turns out to be much more complicated than she originally anticipated, leading back to unsavory secrets in Ridgedale’s past. For my complete review, click here.

Nonfiction

9780307742223Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (April 5)
MacDougall, author of Born to Run, is a terrific writer and he has a great story to tell in Natural Born Heroes — actually, two stories. He deftly juxtaposes the story of the audacious kidnapping of a Nazi general on the island of Crete with his personal quest to emulate the physical and mental endurance of classical Greek heroes. The subtitle makes the book sound as if it’s a physical fitness manual, which in a way it is. It’s interesting that the subtitle for the hardcover was How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, emphasizing the historical aspect of the book. The London Independent says:

One of the most daring, madcap episodes of the Second World War was the kidnapping by Patrick Leigh Fermor, dirty trickster supreme, and his band of British eccentrics and Cretan hard men, of the German general Heinrich Kreipe.

Seventy years later, youngsters in inner-city London and the suburbs of Paris were becoming experts in parkour, using the urban landscape as an obstacle course to be negotiated with joyful freedom and intense physical discipline.

Christopher McDougall connects these two points, and many in between, in a heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life.

My idea of exercise is a leisurely bike ride or a brisk walk (and preferably on a warm, sunny day), but I found this book absolutely riveting.

9780393352146_300-1Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (April 4)
I have recommended this book to quite a few people, and I stuck a shelf talker under the hardcover version, which remained in the unsold book for a long time. I’m not sure anyone took my advice, and I want you to know you’re missing out on a really good book. I wrote a mini-review about it last fall, and a reader commented: “I quite enjoyed Between You and Me. I think it didn’t get a ton of love because you have to be a very specific sort of person to want to read about words.” That’s true, but the book is about much more than words. The author, Mary Norris, has been the New Yorker‘s copy editor since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. Her wicked and witty memoir is sprinkled with grammar advice, as well as plenty of gossipy tidbits. I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides.The New Republic review says: “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” is “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.”

y6482Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green (April 26)
I really can’t champion this book enough, and I hope it finds a big audience in paperback. Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history. The New York Times review commented that “It is this personal story that makes her mix of memoir and history . . . so absorbing as she returns home to interview family and friends about a past that many would rather leave there.”

Happy spring and happy reading!

 

Annoying Things People Do on Airplanes

I know from experience that traveling with small children is no picnic. I sympathize with parents trapped with children at airports and on planes, remembering very well how difficult it is to entertain squirmy, fussy, tired children in an enclosed space. In the pre-iPad era, we relied on books, travel games, and snacks to keep the kids happy.

At an airport gate recently, I made the mistake of sitting near a parent who had a  different, but highly creative, solution to her children’s boredom. When they started to whine, she reached into her big Mary Poppins bag and voila! She pulled out two harmonicas, and the little cherubs’ pouts turned into smiles as they competed to see who could play his harmonica more loudly.

Untitled-5Since I was at the gate, not strapped into an airplane seat, I was able to move out of earshot of the impromptu concert, crossing my fingers that the young musicians would not be seated near me on the plane. I was really looking forward to finishing my book, Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees.

If you like to read, a plane trip can be a little piece of heaven. Several hours of peaceful, uninterrupted reading time, out of touch with the world below. I know many planes offer wifi now, but why pay for that? The best thing about flying — besides getting to your destination — is the sense of being disconnected from the world, immersed in a book.

Sometimes, though, it seems that my fellow passengers have conspired to make sure that doesn’t happen. I can deal with crying babies — it’s not their fault their ears hurt, and almost always, their poor parents are trying hard to soothe them. It’s the adult behavior that drives me nuts.

I’m a sociable person, but  don’t want to talk to anyone on a plane, and that includes family members. My husband’s solution is headphones — he immediately puts them on, whether he is listening to something or not, assuming that most people will not strike up a conversation with someone wearing headphones. The last time I tried this, Chatty Cathy in the next seat wanted to know what I was listening to. Nothing, I wanted to say. They’re just a prop to keep nice people like you from talking to me. I think one reason people leave my husband alone on planes is because he’s male. Women are sitting ducks; we’re supposed to be friendly and accommodating. I’d like to go on about men taking up more than more share of the space and hogging the armrests, but I don’t want to alienate my male readers, so I’ll stop.

“What are you reading? What’s that about?” I dread those questions.I love talking with people about books, but not on planes. Disturbing a reader on a plane is like approaching a marathon runner in the middle of a race — “How’s it going? How much longer? Where did you get those sneakers? How much did they cost?”  Sometimes I just hold up the book, showing the cover, and smile. A couple of years ago, I was reading a book about World War II on a four-hour flight, and I made the mistake of being overly polite to the man next to me when he asked me about the book. I was treated to a monologue about his father’s experience in the war, which involved working on a farm in Nebraska because he was unfit for service.

leave-me-alone-i-m-reading-t-shirts

You can order this T-shirt from spreadshirt.com.

I am always interested in what other people are reading, and one of the worst things about e-readers is that snoopy people like me can’t tell if someone is reading Fifty Shades of Gray or Anna Karenina. I once broke my own rule about talking to people on planes when I noticed my male seatmate was reading Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. I asked him how he liked it, and he told me it was his wife’s book club selection, so he thought he’d give it a try, even though it was a “chick book”.  I asked him why a book about a woman is a “chick book”, while a book about a man is just a book. That was the end of our conversation.

I should have kept my thoughts to myself the way I do when I see the following:

• People who fidget restlessly throughout the flight, flipping through the in-flight magazine.  They are wasting a golden opportunity; why didn’t they just bring a book?

• People who allow loud music to escape from their headphones.

• People who send their young children on a plane as “unaccompanied minors” and provide them with no form of amusement. I was once seated next to a seven-year-old boy who came aboard with nothing but a jacket and a pack of gum. Guess who entertained him for two hours?

• People who travel with small, yapping dogs. One time, my son and I sat across from a woman with a dog who yelped during the entire flight. She kept telling the dog that if he would be quiet, he’d get a treat when we landed.

• People who bring hot food on the plane — well, food that was once hot. I’ve seen people sit at the gate for an hour or more, clutching a bag of greasy McDonald’s food or a pizza box, and then decide, when the plane is airborne, that the time is right to treat everyone nearby to the aroma of fast food.

rosie-project-9781476729091_lgI did not have to sit near the harmonica-playing duo on the plane. Instead, I sat across from a young mother who had an infant in a front carrier and a two-year-old in the seat beside her. Both children fell asleep within 20 minutes of takeoff. (This never once happened to me, I want you know.) She ordered a Bloody Mary, settled back in her seat, opened her book (The Rosie Project, I couldn’t help but notice) and smiled at me. “Pure bliss, right?” I said to her.

Terrible Virtue — Book Review

Terrible Virtue coverMargaret Sanger — nurse, birth control pioneer, social activist, free love advocate — led a big life. Too big to be contained in the pages of Ellen Feldman’s slim, fast-paced biographical novel, Terrible Virtue. I read Terrible Virtue in one afternoon, and although the book held me captive, it left me wanting more. Feldman races through Sanger’s long and eventful life, starting with her childhood as one of eleven siblings in a poor Irish Catholic family in upstate New York.

Determined not to become like her mother, “a wife who never had a chance to recover from the last childbirth before taking to her bed for the next; a girl who sped from youth to old age with no stop between”, the young Margaret Higgins enters a nurses’ training program. She elopes with a young architect, Bill Sanger, who convinces her to have children, and for a time they lead a conventional family life. They become involved in the radical politics of the time, “gliding among men and women who believed that love was too precious ever to be denied.”  Margaret sheds her “bourgeois camouflage” while Bill remains “obsessed with fidelity”. Eventually, Margaret’s pursuit of legalized birth control sends her first to prison and then overseas, forcing her to abandon her family:

All my life, people have been asking me the same question . . . What made you do it, they ask. What made you sacrifice everything, husband, children, a normal life — whatever that’s supposed to be — for the cause?

My mother, hunched over a washtub full of husband-and-child soiled shirts and socks and underwear; mu mother, bent over a pot of soup stretched thin as water to feed thirteen greedy mouths; my mother, kneeling on a mud-streaked floor that no amount of elbow grease would ever get clean. My gaunt, God-whipped, digger-of-her-own-grave mother made me do it . . .

margaret_sanger_at_her_brownsville_clinic_trial_-_1917Feldman presents Margaret Sanger not as a saint or a sinner, but as a complex, flawed visionary, driven not only by her passion for social justice and her vision of a better world, but by her own egotism. The reader feels both sympathy for the personal tragedy she endures and anger at her treatment of her family. Feldman, who tells most of the story from Margaret’s perspective, successfully uses short, straightforward sentences and an urgent tone to capture her voice. When Feldman breaks up Margaret’s narrative to include asides from other characters, addressed to Margaret, she is less successful. These sections, which don’t sound as though they are based on actual correspondence, are intended to add depth to Margaret’s portrayal, but they ring false to me.

Terrible Virtue takes a panoramic view of Margaret Sanger’s life, often skimming the surface. For example, her contributions to the development of the birth control pill take up only a couple of pages. Also, I’ve read that Sanger has been criticized for her support of eugenics and I was curious to see how the novel would address that issue. However, only one page of the novel discusses eugenics, with Sanger defending herself by saying, “Isn’t hindsight wonderful? Doesn’t it make us wise? . . . Eugenics was in the air. Everyone was intoxicated by it. We were going to wipe out illness and eliminate defects by engineering reproduction.”  The reader wants details — who was “intoxicated” by eugenics? How were these innovators going to create a brave new world with no illness or “defects”? But, as happens so often in this book, Feldman moves on to another subject.

Often I find biographies and biographical novels bloated, full of minutiae that don’t add to my understanding of the book’s subject. This book is just the opposite, leaving me hungry for more details and more depth. Perhaps Terrible Virtue would have been a better novel if the author had focused on one aspect or time period of Sanger’s life. That said, it’s thought-provoking and absorbing book that’s very much worth reading.

 

Click here to listen to a fascinating interview with Ellen Feldman (“Planned Parenthood Founder Gets Novel Treatment”).

 

 

 

Favorite Irish Authors — Tellers of Tales

Here’s an updated version of my 2014 post celebrating Irish authors. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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William Butler Yeats

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart longs for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.

William Butler Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore

Forget the green beer, McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes, and buttons that say, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”. Let’s celebrate one of Ireland’s greatest contributions to the world: its authors. Yeats, of course (my favorite poet of all time), James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett . . . all giants of literature, studied by every English major. I have to admit that although I loved Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I struggled with Ulysses. I’m pretty sure I skulked into the college bookstore, looking for the CliffsNotes on the revolving wire rack tucked into the back corner.

thewindingstair001Several years ago, Jeff and I visited Dublin for a few days. It was a perfect trip for a history buff (Jeff) and a literature lover (me). We explored the Dublin Writers’ Museum, saw the Joyce statue on O’Connell Street, waited in line to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College, toured Kilmainham Gaol (Jeff’s idea, not mine), went to several plays, and stopped by more than our share of pubs. (We didn’t, however, retrace Leopold Bloom’s route through the city on the guided walk offered by the Joyce Cultural Centre. ) As someone who relied on the CliffsNotes to get through Ulysses, I didn’t feel entitled to take that tour!) We did have dinner at the Winding Stair on the River Liffey. Downstairs is one of the oldest independent bookshops in Dublin and upstairs is a restaurant serving “good, old-fashioned home cooking”.

Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.
William Butler Yeats

inthewoods001I always like to read something about the place I’m visiting, so on the flight to Dublin I read In the Woods by Tana French. It’s a murder mystery/psychological thriller, featuring two detectives from the Dublin Murder Squad trying to solve two murders that have taken place 20 years apart. I’m not usually much of a mystery reader, but this one captivated me because of the gorgeous writing and the evocation of modern Ireland, in addition to the complex puzzle of two parallel crimes. One of those crimes is never solved; this is not a formulaic mystery. In an interview, Tana French describes her favorite mystery novels:

. . . the ones that experiment with the boundaries of the genre: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which is both my favorite literary novel and my favorite crime novel), where you find out on the first page who killed whom; Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair, a deeply unsettling study of a psychopath, where the villain is obvious almost from the start and the most serious crime is basically wasting police time; Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, where the guilty go free and the innocent pay for others’ crimes.

French has written four other Dublin Murder Squad novels, all excellent: The Likeness, Faithful Place,  Broken Harbor, and The Secret Place. Each touches on Irish themes, from the “Celtic Tiger” and the recession that followed to the country’s folklore and medieval history. They are, according to the New York Times, “brilliant and satisfying novels about memory, identity, loss, and what defines us as humans.” If you’re lucky enough to take a trip to Dublin, I highly recommend taking a Tana French novel or two along.

51bvmrzkf1l-_sy344_bo1204203200_If I had to choose a favorite Irish author, it would be a tie between Colm Toíbín and Sebastian Barry. When you read one of Barry’s novels, you know you are reading the work of a poet. (Barry is in fact the author of two collections of poetry and numerous plays, in addition to eight novels.) The New York Times says, “Mr. Barry has said that his novels and plays often begin as poems . . . but his language never clots the flow of his story; it never gives off a whiff of labor and strain. It is like a song, with all the pulse of the Irish language, a song sung liltingly and plaintively from the top of Ben Bulben into the airy night.” You can choose at random almost any passage from any one of his novels and be struck by the beauty of the language, but here’s one of my favorites, from A Long Long Way:

Such a singing voice he had. His mother, who was a blunt woman enough, one of the Cullens herself, daughter of the coppicer on the Humewood estate in Wicklow, got only good from it. She set him on a chair to sing like any woman might, and he threw his small head back and sang some song of the Wicklow districts, as might be, and she saw in her mind a hundred things, of childhood, rivers, woods, and felt herself in those minutes to be a girl again, living, breathing, complete. And wondered in her private mind at the power of mere words, the mere things you rolled round in your mouth, the power of them strung together on the penny string of a song, how they seemed to call up a hundred vanished scenes, gone faces, lost instances of human love.

Willie Dunne, the protagonist of A Long Long Way, who has such a beautiful singing voice as a child, ends up going to France when World War I breaks out in 1914, and fighting against his own people in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The Dunne family appears again and again in Barry’s novels. Willie is the brother of Annie Dunne, who is the title character of an earlier novel, and of Lily Bere, who is the main character in On Canaan’s Side. Similarly, The Trial of Eneas McNulty, The Secret Scripture, and the The Temporary Gentleman all focus on members of the McNulty family. Read as a whole, Barry’s novels cover the Irish experience of the entire 20th century. In interview with the Guardian, Barry says, “I am trying to rescue my characters from the cold hand of history, and from the silences that surround certain turbulent periods in our own history.”

The Irish tradition of oral storytelling continues to influence today’s Irish writers. The Guardian says, “Language remains, for Barry, something heard or spoken rather than black marks on a page, and he vividly remembers being read to as a child.”

“Storytelling pre-dates homo sapiens and the technique of writing,” Barry says. “I can’t actually do anything until I can hear it singing. I’m praised – or maybe blamed – for poetic writing, but it’s really just how I take it down. It’s not a conscious effort, it’s the language of how I hear and see those things.” In Angela’s Ashes, his wonderful memoir of growing up poor in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s, Frank McCourt describes discovering Shakespeare while quarantined in the hospital with typhoid fever: “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words. If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year.”

9781743540107Colm Toíbín, like Sebastian Barry, is a versatile wordsmith — he’s written novels, short stories, essays, plays, poems, criticism, and nonfiction. I haven’t read all his books, but I loved The Master, The Testament of Mary, and Brooklyn. Although Toíbín’s work has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize several times and has received plenty of critical acclaim, he hit the jackpot recently when his 2009 novel, Brooklyn, was made into a successful movie that received three Academy Award nominations — Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  ToíbÍn’s deceptively simple story of a young Irish immigrant, Eilis, who comes to the United States in the 1950s is a powerful meditation on love and belonging. Horribly homesick at first, Eilis falls in love and begins to make a life for herself in New York.  A tragedy calls her home to Ireland and she is torn between her two lives. Toíbín’s description of Eilis’s loneliness as a new immigrant will resonate with anyone who has ever felt friendless and alone:

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything… . Nothing here was part of her. It was false and empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday.

The spotlight also shone recently on Irish-born author Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 novel Room as well as many other novels, short story collections, plays, screenplays, and works of literary criticism. The film version was nominated for four Academy Awards this year –Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Brie Larson, who won for Best Actress, was gracious enough to thank Emma Donoghue in her acceptance speech. (Donoghue also wrote the screenplay.) Have you ever noticed how rarely actors remember to acknowledge writers — the people whose creativity started the whole project?

Here’s to all the Irish storytellers and their gift of gab!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Men — Book Review

Free Men cover

What is a free man except a man with money?
Bob, an escaped slave

My life was not my own, but my clan’s.
Istillicha, a Creek Indian

I have been in this country for twelve years, and from every angle I can only see that Americans have made a religion of the individual — it’s seeping already into the discontent slaves and the Indian factions . . .
Louis Le Clerc Milfort, French “tracker and deputy of justice”

Katy Simpson Smith’s second historical novel, Free Men, takes a hard look at one of the values our country holds dear: personal freedom. The American South in the late 18th century was a “landscape of merciless individual pursuit”, but people still longed for human connection. If you’re looking for a page-turner, this is not the book for you. But if you want to read a novel of ideas with gorgeous language, you’ll find Free Men rewarding and thought-provoking.

In  the spring of 1788, seven years after the British surrendered at Yorktown, three desperate men, all fleeing unbearable situations, join forces for a few days in the thick woods of what is now southern Alabama. They rob and murder a group of white traders (“American loyalists”) and their Indian guides. One of the guides escapes and reports the crime to his chief, Seloatka. Le Clerc, a French “gentleman adventurer” who is married to a Creek Indian woman, volunteers to hunt down the three murderers.

Le Clerc himself is on the run, having left behind a wife and a comfortable life in France: “I sought out the new, the republican, the individual,” he says. He cares more about the motives and characters of the three criminals than he does about actually bringing them to justice.  Justice, he says, “became secondary to wisdom.” More interested in the “burgeoning science” of psychology than history or philosophy, Le Clerc wants to hold a “fresh mirror up to the machinations of humanity”.

Each of the “ruthless highway robbers” that Le Clerc  pursues– Bob, an escaped slave, Istillicha, a Creek Indian, and Cat, a broken-hearted widower and farmer — has his own reasons for seeking freedom by heading west through unfamiliar and unsettled territory. They make an unlikely group of comrades; Le Clerc notes that:

In any country in the world they could not subsist together, yet here they were, wandering in a polite clump through woods that belonged apparently to no one, ignoring all the reasons to strike out on their own, to take the money and fall back into their segregated homes, because even America has rules.

The reader learns the basic facts of the story in the first two pages of the book. This is not a plot-driven novel; it’s a novel concerned with why things happened, not what happened. The four major characters — Le Clerc, Bob, Istillicha, and Cat — each, in their own distinctive voices, tell the stories of what brought them to the banks of what is now known as “Murder Creek”. Winna, the wife Bob leaves behind at the plantation, has her own short chapter in the middle of the book, reminding us that not only men sought freedom in the 18th century.

In an interview with Catherine Bock at Parnassus Books in Nashville (which picked Free Men for its First Editions Club in February), Smith said that as a reader, what she loves in a book are “sentences that are startling or playful or lush”. Free Men is full of sentences I’d describe using just those words; in fact, I stopped underlining them after the first couple of chapters because there were so many. Here are a few examples of sentences that stopped me in my tracks:

My brother Primus was dark and shiny, like someone had wrapped an old brown sheet around a boy of gold. (Bob)

There were soft apple spots in my father. (Cat)

I loved my mother’s brother as a boy will love a bear he sees through spaces in the forest. (Istillicha)

Smith, a history Ph.D. and the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, told an interviewer on WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina that the exciting aspect of writing historical fiction is examining the “emotions and motivations behind people’s actions, which very often in history is something one can only speculate about, especially with the kinds of people who didn’t leave behind written records — the enslaved, women, marginal members of society.” Perhaps she has something in common with Le Clerc, who also wants to understand why people behave as they do.

y6481Smith said “trying to get in the heads of 18th century men was a thrill for me.” While I thought the men’s voices were authentic for the most part, in some instances the characters slip into the mindsets of modern-day Americans. For example, would an 18th century slave say, “. . . this was not a life but a system, and for the first time my boyish grief took on the color of rage”?

If you enjoy literary historical fiction set in America — The Good Lord Bird (James McBride), Middle Passage (Charles Johnson),  The Known World (Edward P. Jones) — you’ll love Free Men. I’ve just started reading Smith’s previous novel, The Story of Land and Sea, which is set during the Revolutionary War on the North Carolina coast, and it’s terrific.

 

 

 

What to Read Next — March 2016

Betsy returned to her chair, took off her coat and hat, opened her book and forgot the world again.
Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

Mother used to say escape is never further than the nearest book.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

DCF 1.0As soon as March arrives, customers start asking for spring break reading recommendations for themselves and their families. You’d think it would be easy to come up with a list of fun “beach reads”, but every year that request flummoxes me. I understand that lots of people want to read lightweight books while on vacation, but far too many books pegged as “escape” reading are too predictable to be entertaining. I don’t think I’m a book snob, but if I’m going to spend six or more hours reading a book, I want to feel I’ve been enlightened as well as entertained. I want to gain something, whether it’s a little better understanding of human nature or concrete knowledge.

“Escape” reading to me means a book that will absorb and surprise me. Readers all have different ideas of what it means to lose themselves in a book, which is why it’s so difficult to recommend all-purpose vacation reading. My husband’s preferred beach reading often includes books about obscure aspects of Civil War history, while my older son likes sports biographies. Neither one of them would be interested in the latest Harlan Coben or David Baldacci. A few books have managed to intrigue nearly everyone in the family; I recall one vacation when we read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. I don’t know what that says about our family, but I do know that nonfiction is often the best vacation reading.

Several of my favorite nonfiction books from 2015 are out in paperback this month, just in time to take on vacation:

9780802124739H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
H is for Hawk was on almost every “Best Books of the Year” list and won several major literary prizes. As the New Yorker pointed out, it “defies every genre”. On the surface, it’s about poet, naturalist, and  falconer Macdonald’s grief after losing her father and her experience training Mabel, a goshawk. The writing is simply gorgeous; I savored every word. The Telegraph says:

This book is a soaring triumph. It is a joy to follow Mabel and Macdonald’s flight out of such disconsolate scenes as one settles into a new roost and the other gradually comes to realise that “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”

Macdonald will be on tour in the United States in April, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak at Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville, Illinois.

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness by Sasha Martin
The author set out to cook a recipe from every country in the world and blog about it — along the way, she made peace with her past and connected with the world around her. It’s a heartfelt, plainspoken chronicle of how food and cooking can heal damaged souls. Think The Glass Castle with recipes. (Click here for my complete review.)

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson
Two expert wreck divers (including John Chatterton, of Kurson’s terrific Shadow Divers) risk their safety and life savings to find a pirate ship off the coast of the Dominican Republic. It’s a fascinating page-turner, and I loved learning more about the Golden Age of piracy.

y648The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower
Pure fun for trivia buffs, this well-researched and detail-packed insider’s glimpse of the inner workings of the White House focuses on the staff members behind the scenes at what Harry S. Truman called the “great white jail”. According to the Wall Street Journal, Brower was inspired by “the class-bound and obligation-ruled prison represented by a fictitious country manor, the one in television’s “Downton Abbey'”. What better time to read The Residence than when we are all wondering who will be living in the White House a year from now?

If you’re willing to take a hardcover on vacation, I have four eclectic recommendations. Not one is a doorstop — they’re all packable:

wfes345528698-2The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
The surprise in this delightful book is not that Melanie Benjamin paints a complete portrait of Truman Capote, which I expected, but that she brings Babe Paley to life as a lonely and wounded woman. All of Benjamin’s books are entertaining, informative, and well worth reading, but this is my favorite. And if I had to pick the quintessential spring break book, this would be it. It’s a great book club choice — there’s plenty to discuss, plus lots of options for fun cocktails, snacks, and even costumes.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
Before I read this collection of longish short stories, I couldn’t understand how it could have won the 2015 National Book Award instead of A Little Life. I still think A Little Life should have won, but I can see why the judges awarded the prize to Fortune Smiles. Each story is brilliant and memorable. My husband and I discussed it over dinner with another couple, and we ran out of time before we ran out of material.

181307609d7413058f0f6a7067009c85This Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger
Charlie Goldwyn didn’t plan on becoming a widower responsible for a high-maintenance five-year-old. Nor did he plan on losing his job at a high-powered Manhattan law firm. Charlie’s mother is dead, and he’s never had a relationship with his father. Alone and adrift, he finally learns what it means to be a parent — and a son. I loved this witty and poignant story about family and friendship. Alger’s first novel, The Darlings, about a family much like the Madoffs,is terrific as well.

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma
It’s a formula we’ve read many times before: a group of 20-something friends grapple with adulthood in the big city. But Jansma invigorates this scenario in his new novel, which is very different from his much less conventional first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. His writing is lovely, and his characters are as real and believable as any I’ve encountered recently. A couple of years ago, I organized an event for Jansma at our store. Events with debut authors are always a gamble. Unfortunately we didn’t draw much of a crowd that evening. But he was gracious and enthusiastic. I hope his readings are standing room only now!

If you have a vacation planned this spring, what will you be reading?

 

 

 

My Reading Life with Pat Conroy

I was saddened to learn that Pat Conroy died yesterday (March 4, 2016), at the age of 70. In his obituary, the New York Times says that Conroy’s “legion of admirers . . . hung on his every word, entranced by the naked emotionalism of his male characters, the Lowcountry atmosphere and the page-turning Southern yarns.” Two years ago, I wrote about Conroy’s last book, The Death of Santini (published in 2013) and my long nearly 30-year membership in the Pat Conroy fan club.

15537-1How many aspiring writers have been told to “write what you know”? If Pat Conroy was given that timeworn advice, he’s certainly taken it to heart. Both his novels and his memoirs are about what he knows — growing up as the son of an abusive Marine Corps fighter pilot, attending the Citadel as a basketball player and budding writer, losing a brother to suicide, coping with a sister’s mental illness. In his latest memoir, The Death of Santini, Conroy says, ” My books have always been disguised voyages into that archipelago of souls known as the Conroy family.”

I discovered Pat Conroy in 1987, with a paperback copy of The Prince of Tides. My first baby was born that year, and when he was asleep, I was reading Pat Conroy. As tired as I was, I stayed up late, immersed in the drama of the Wingo family — a violent and cruel father . . . a suicidal poet sister . . . escaped convicts on the loose . . . and a ferocious pet tiger. When I finished all 664 pages, I couldn’t wait to read more of Conroy’s writing. I quickly went through The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline — and then I was finished. The books went on the shelf, and my love affair with big, fat books continued when Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities grabbed my attention.

51sqjyeth2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Conroy disappeared for years, and finally published Beach Music in 1995. I wanted to love the book, but found I couldn’t get past the flowery prose and stilted dialogue. So it was with trepidation that I picked up My Losing Season several years later. On the surface, this memoir recounts Conroy’s senior year playing basketball at the Citadel, but it’s really about his relationship with his father, his coach, and his teammates, and finding his voice as a writer.

Do you think that Hemingway knew he was a writer at twenty years old? No, he did not. Or Fitzgerald, or Wolfe. This is a difficult concept to grasp. Hemingway didn’t know he was Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man. Faulkner didn’t know he was William Faulkner. But they had to take the first step. They had to call themselves writers. That is the first revolutionary act a writer has to make. It takes courage. But it’s necessary.

Even though I’m not interested in college basketball, I was captivated by Conroy’s story of failure and how it shaped him into the person and writer he became. It remains one of my favorite memoirs . . . along with My Reading Life, which Conroy published in 2010. (I wasn’t enamored with South of Broad, Conroy’s 2009 novel.) My Reading Life isn’t exactly a memoir; it’s a collection of essays about the powerful role of reading in Conroy’s difficult life. A person can’t be a writer without first being a reader, and Conroy tells us how he became a reader:

My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always. She wanted me to read everything of value, and she taught me to out-read my entire generation, as she had done hers. . . I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children. I collected those long, melancholy lists of the great books that high school English teachers passed out to college-bound students, and I relied on having consumed those serious litanies of books as a way to ease my way into the literary life.

Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.

17857644The Death of Santini covers some familiar ground — the relationship between Conroy and his terrifyingly abusive father, Don Conroy (a.k.a. “The Great Santini”). But this is a story of redemption — Don Conroy has transformed himself from a monster into a loving father and grandfather. At the end of The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo (Pat Conroy’s alter ego), says, “I learned that I needed to love my mother and father in all their flawed, outrageous humanity. And in families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness. But it is the mystery of life that sustains me now.” Fact reflects fiction in The Death of Santini, for Conroy shows us how he is able to forgive Don Conroy for his vicious cruelty towards his family. The writing of the book was a necessary part of Conroy’s healing; he says in the prologue:

Mom and Dad, I need to go back there once again. I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time . . . Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Don Conroy was, according to his son, far more cruel and abusive than Bull Meecham, the”Great Santini” of the novel. When Conroy sent his editor a first draft of the novel, she told him she was troubled by his potrayal of the Colonel — “no reader could expect to believe that such an unsavory man could exist without a single virtue to recommend him. To make him credible, I had to include scenes that displayed a softer and kinder man.” This softer and kinder man eventually came to life, in the person of the elderly Don Conroy. Throughout his life, he enjoyed attending his son’s book signings; in fact, father and son made a pact that no customer would ever leave without a book signed by them both. (Of course, he often bragged that his line for autographs was longer.) He was enormously proud of Conroy’s success, and, in fact, wrote a letter to his entire extended family defending The Great Santini:

Pat is a very clever storyteller and I was totally absorbed and encountered every emotion, as reading very slowly, life with father unfolded in this work of fiction. It was as though I knew some of the characters personally . . . Pat did a superb job in developing the character Mary Ann . . . with all modesty, fell far short on Santini — which is quite understandable with such a dashing and complex character.

Yes, Don Conroy is a complex character — and Conroy does an extraordinary job of portraying that complexity in The Death of Santini. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Conroy describes his father’s grief after his youngest son’s funeral: “Forgiven at last, my father sat in a chair in the living room, not even trying to control his crying. His kids surrounded him, because his love of Tom provided us an understanding of his own love for all of us. It was a day of surreal, uncommon beauty.”

Conroy closes the book with the eulogy he wrote for his father’s funeral. Is this really the last time Conroy will “examine the wreckage” of his tumultuous family? In an interview in BookPage, he claims it is: “I’m going to try to leave the family in peace. There are other things to write about.” We’ll see.