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?





23 thoughts on “What to Read Next — March 2016

  1. This is a lovely list. Thank you. I have a vacation planned in June, and I am yet to figure out what to read. I have been reading a lot about ‘Why We Came to the City’. I intend to read that soon.

  2. The fact that there was so much to discuss in Fortune Smiles, has me wanting to read that one! Would it also be a good choice for a book club?

    1. It depends on the book club. Honestly, the four of us could have spent the whole evening talking about just one of the stories. They’re that good. But they’re very dark. If your book club members are the type who complain about “depressing” books, they might not be happy with this one. But if they’re literary readers, you’ll have a great discussion. I also loved Johnson’s previous novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. >

  3. Loved the MH Lovelace quote, They were my favorite books and gave me a love of history. Any ideas of where to get a full set? Most libraries no longer cararyaa them. Regards!

    1. Linda, I have all the original Betsy Tacy books — I think there are 10 of them. They have been brought back into print and should be readily available. The only difference is that the new editions combine some of the books into one volume. You can probably find the originals online, used. Libraries are very active pruners — if something doesn’t get checked out in a certain length of time, out it goes. >

  4. I completely agree with you about wanting escape reading with some depth to it! And I loved Swans – that would be a great beach read, but with things to ponder (like what it must have been like to serve as a concierge for your husband!). I’d also like to try Why We Came to the City. I sampled it recently, but ended up going in a different direction. Hope to come back to it!

    1. Sometimes I think I AM a concierge for my husband! I’m reading a really good YA now called Frannie and Tru, about Truman Capote as a teenager (out in May). I’m fascinated by Capote.


  5. I have H is for Hawk on hold and it might be one that will come in by the time I have a few days off around Easter. Otherwise, I’m not sure. I’m making my way through Being Mortal for Lent and just finished A Deadly Wandering, which you recommended (I liked it, by the way). I also do have Bad Feminist and Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl on hold as well as Your Heart Is The Muscle The Size of a Fist so maybe those will arrive by the end of the month too.

  6. Good recommendations! The Residence is a great choice — easy to read, but really interesting. And Pirate Hunters sounds great too. When I think escapist reading, I think of books that have relatively simple prose that make we want to just keep turning pages.

    1. I like your definition of escapist reading. Speaking of which — I’m reading an incredible nonfiction book right now, Evicted, and I really don’t want to put it down. But I don’t think most people would term it “escapist”!


  7. I’ve never really enjoyed the so-called “beach read” but didn’t stop to ask why. I think because they are too predictable is the reason!

    There so many great recommendations here. I plan to add them to my own TBR list and plan to savor them throughout the year.

  8. Hi Ann… it’s me again. Just read your bio. Lake Forest Book Store?? Been there a few times in my life. I am a proud graduate of Barat!! Small World! I am great friends with an nun that is living at Woodlands Academy.

  9. I read another White House behind-the-scenes type book a couple of years ago, but of course the title escapes me now. Arrgh! And I’m keen to try H is for Hawk even though I didn’t initially think I’d like it.

  10. Great list! I myself want to read “beach reads” on vacation, but tend to lose interest in them. I am thinking H is for Hawk for my book club. It has gotten so much great press. I did read a few chapters and enjoyed the writing.

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