What Would Emerson Read This Fall?

9780804172707Several days ago, a reader left a comment on the “In My Stack” page of this blog, urging me to read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. I was a little confused, since I read that unforgettable book more than a year ago. Shouldn’t I have removed it from “In My Stack” and included it in “Read in 2015”? Then I looked at the books I’d listed on “In My Stack” and realized that I hadn’t updated the list in years. Oops! (And by the way, I still think A Little Life should have won the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.)

So I wiped the list clean and started a new list of books that are In My Stack, with the intention of updating it every season. It’s hard to face the fact that it’s just not possible to read every book that catches my eye.

The three “practical rules” for reading, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, are:

1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
2. Never read any but famed books.
3. Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakspeare’s phrase,“No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

Emerson’s third rule is easy for me to follow, but the first two pose problems. Whenever I read an “old” book, I feel like I’m missing out on all the exciting new books of the season. And although I read plenty of books that have received publicity, awards, and critical acclaim, I also like to find hidden gems that haven’t received the love they deserve. I do have to acknowledge that Emerson has a point. Books that stand the test of time are worth reading. So I’ve added Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to my fall list, because so many people whose opinions I trust have recommended it.

Two books that I didn’t add to my list, because I read advance copies earlier this summer, but that I highly recommend adding to yours are Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (on sale September 13; full review to come) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (on sale September 6). Commonwealth is very good, although my favorite of Patchett’s novels remains State of Wonder.

9780670026197A Gentleman in Moscow is absolutely wonderful — one of the rare books I read slowly towards the end, because I just didn’t want to finish. It’s a hard act to follow, and every book I’ve read since has seemed vaguely second-rate in comparison. The “gentleman’ of the title is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat born in 1889, who is sentenced  by a Bolshevik tribunal to lifelong house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. The Count’s life is spared, unlike so many others of his class, because a poem he wrote struck the revolutionaries as sympathetic to their cause.

In a Publishers Weekly interview, Amor Towles says: “As awful as the crimes of Stalinism were, the vast majority of the Russian population was trying to survive, to love, to have a sense of purpose.” The Count — whose life before the Revolution was spent, in his words,”dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”, and who is accused by the tribunal of being “a man so obviously without purpose” — is able to live a purposeful, and even sometimes joyful, life as a prisoner at the Metropol.

A Gentleman in Moscow contains all the elements that make me fall in love with a book: a beautifully constructed story connected to historical events, an appealing and multidimensional protagonist, and a sharp and engaging writing style that inspired me to underline dozens of passages. Frequently, Towles addresses the reader directly:

Popular wisdom tells us that when the reel of our concerns interferes with our ability to fall asleep, the best remedy is the counting of sheep in a meadow. But preferring to have his lamb encrusted with herbs and served with a red wine reduction, the Count chose a different methodology altogether.

I’ll leave it to you to find out what his methodology was. If you’ve read Rules of Civility, you already know what a smart and entertaining writer Towles is — perfect for page-turners and page-huggers alike. A Gentleman in Moscow will certainly be on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

What will I read next? The following books are “on deck”, but that could change any time.

9781101947135Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (available now)
Homegoing, which has drawn raves from my coworkers, covers 300 years of African and American history, beginning with two sisters from Ghana, one who is sold into slavery and one who marries a British slave trader.

Shelter by Jung Yun (available now)
I need a good page-turner in the mix, and several bloggers who often share my tastes loved this book, which is rooted in the 2008 housing crisis.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyugen (available now)
A must-read — it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

cover-mischlingMischling  by Affinity Konar (September 6)
This debut novel, about identical twins at Auschwitz, has been receiving a lot of buzz (including a blurb by Anthony Doerr), and I can never read enough about World War II.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan (September 13)
McEwan is one of my favorite authors, and his new book sounds weird but interesting: it’s a murder mystery, inspired by Hamlet, told by an unborn child.

9780385535731Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard (September 20)
Millard is one of my favorite nonfiction authors, and I’m fascinated by Winston Churchill, so I’m excited to read Hero of the Empire.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (September 20)
I can never resist a book about a bibliophile, and this one packs a double punch: the main character is a librarian who becomes a bookseller.

d28652364b8b57aceef0d93cf2791343Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (October 4)
I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette and can’t wait to read Semple’s new book.

Let me know what you think I should add to (or subtract from!) my fall list.

 

 

 

 

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What’s a Page-Turner, Anyway?

I just came across an article by novelist Edan Lepucki, published in the Guardian a couple of years ago, with a catchy title: “Are you a page-turner or a page-hugger?”. Lepucki, recounting her days as a “very persuasive bookseller”, notes that some readers want a fast-paced, exciting story, some “long for a book’s language to give them pause, to slow them down with its rhythms and surprises”, and others (like me!) are “somewhere in the middle”.

I don’t need an action-packed plot, although I always enjoy well-timed, believable twists and turns. I need to feel that I’m learning something, whether it’s factual knowedge or an understanding of human nature. The books I abandon are poorly written (and that includes those that are pretentious, trying too hard to be “literary”), or their characters and situations don’t ring true. It doesn’t matter to me whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, as long as there is a sense of authenticity. And of course, some books just turn out to be boring, even though they push all the right buttons. (Sorry, Wolf Hall.)

Here are a half-dozen books published this summer that kept me turning pages, including a history book, a memoir, murder mysteries, and psychological thrillers.

9780345544803The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
If you’re a fan of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.

AllIsNotForgotten-WendyWalker-CoverAll is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
Walker, an attorney who specializes in family law, has written a disturbing and thought-provoking psychological thriller about the possible moral and legal implications of PTSD treatments, currently under development, that can erase memories of traumatic events. After fifteen-year-old Jenny Kramer is attacked at a party in her Connecticut suburb, she’s given a drug that obliterates her memory of the crime. I can’t say more without revealing key plot points, but if you like your fiction really dark (think Herman Koch), this is the book for you. Jenny’s psychiatrist, who narrates the book, reminded me of Koch’s vaguely sinister narrators.

0eb9d787dee2a96bd84e58dd82b1e459You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
When I read an article on crime fiction in the Wall Street Journal that said Abbott’s “books are driven as much by intricate character development and rhythmic sentences as they are by plot”, I immediately brought home a copy of You Will Know Me. Set in the world of competitive gymnastics, Abbott’s eighth novel is a page-turner by anyone’s definition. Sixteen-year-old Devon Knox — and her parents — have their hearts set on the Olympics when a crime in their tight-knit community of gymnasts, parents, and coaches threatens to destroy their dream. I’d never read anything by Megan Abbott before, but now I’m hooked.

9780385540599We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley
When Catherine West, the veteran of two broken engagements, meets William Stockton, the handsome son of old family friends, she thinks he’s the answer to her prayers. But is he? He seemed pretty creepy to me right off the bat, but Catherine ignores the warning signs — some subtle, some not so subtle. This debut novel — a very entertaining “beach read” —  is fun to read not so much because of its plot (which veers between predictability and ludicrousness), but because of Catherine’s voice, which is singularly funny.

9781101947012Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home by Pauls Toutonghi
The title makes this book sound awful, I know — sort of like a hokey Reader’s Digest article. But trust me — it’s a lovely book, about much more than a lost dog. Virginia Marshall, brought up in an abusive home, wants to be the kind of mother she never had. After her adult son, Fielding, loses his dog Gonker on the Appalachian Trail, Ginny and her husband, John, devote every waking minute to helping Fielding find his beloved dog. I couldn’t stop reading this book, even though I knew from the title that Gonker would be found.  The author, who’s also written two novels, is the brother-in-law of Fielding Marshall.

y6481The Lost Girls by Heather Young
In 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans disappears from her family’s lake house in northern Minnesota, and the mystery is never solved. Two generations later, Justine inherits the decrepit house from her great-aunt Lucy, Emily’s older sister, and brings her two daughters there to escape her controlling boyfriend. Young does a masterful job connecting the present-day story and the story of the summer of 1935, building suspense that kept me reading late into the night. The New York Times says: “For all the beauty of Young’s writing, her novel is a dark one, full of pain and loss. And the murder mystery that drives it is as shocking as anything you’re likely to read for a good long while.”

What page-turners have you read this summer?

 

 

What to Read Next — August 2016

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
Henry James

Guess who turned up on my front porch last Saturday afternoon? A person claiming to be the Fuller Brush Man. Who will be next? Maybe a peddler in a horse-drawn cart? That has nothing to do with my list of great books to read this month, but I just thought I’d share. I hope you can squeeze in a few more peaceful, book-filled summer afternoons. Here are some of my recent favorites, both fiction and nonfiction:

coverAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is the first news story I remember following. The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Hearst family fortune, the concept of “Stockholm Syndrome”, F. Lee Bailey’s courtroom theatrics — they’re all just as fascinating to me today as they were to me as a 13-year-old. Jeffrey Toobin masterfully sifts through all the craziness of Hearst’s kidnapping and time as a fugitive to create a portrait of an era, and of a very young and malleable woman.

9781594633164The After Party by Anton DiSclafani
I enjoyed Anton DiSclafani’s debut, The Yonalohsee Riding Camp for Girls, and The After Party is just as good — it’s what I’d call a smart beach read. Both books focus on wealthy young women constrained by the mores of their times — Yonahlosee is set in the 1930s, while The After Party takes place in 1the 1950s. Cece Buchanan, raised to be a Houston socialite, struggles to maintain a friendship with the mysterious and beautiful Joan Fortier, even when Cece’s obsession with Joan’s secretive behavior threatens Cece’s marriage. DiSclafani writes beautifully, with insight into her characters and their world, and her story keeps the reader guessing. The After Party is perfect for readers who enjoyed The Help. There’s a subplot involving Cece and Joan’s maids, and the Houston housewives are reminiscent of the Junior League ladies in Jackson, Mississippi. (And by the way, when is Kathryn Stockett going to publish another book?)

9780399165214Siracusa by Delia Ephron
I’ve loved Delia Ephron ever since the early 1980s, when I discovered How to Eat Like a Child and Other Lessons in Not Being a Grown-Up. I remember thinking that it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. Siracusa has some humorous moments, but it’s more of a psychological thriller than a comic novel. Two couples — one with an odd 10-year-old daughter, Snow — decide to vacation together on the Sicilian coast. This turns out to be, for many reasons, a  really bad decision. I listened to Siracusa on audio, and I was so absorbed in the story that I almost didn’t mind being stuck in traffic. (For more on Delia Ephron and her book of essays, check out Those Amazing Ephron Sisters.)

9780399562600Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
In a last-ditch effort to help their special needs daughter, Tilly, the Hammond family follows child development expert Scott Bean to rural New Hampshire, where they help him set up a family retreat called “Camp Harmony”. Tilly’s younger sister, Iris, and mother, Alexandra, take turns narrating the story of the Hammonds’ decidedly unharmonious attempt to begin a new life. Carolyn Parkhurst’s writing is gorgeous, and even though her plot is a bit predictable, it doesn’t matter. The reader senses what’s going to happen, but wants to see just how it will unfold. I loved the whole book, but particularly the chapters that Alexandra narrates, which are exceptionally moving and authentic.

9780812992731Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich (available August 9)
If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is the book for you. “Patient H.M.” was Henry Molaison, a young man who was lobotomized in the 1950s in attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The surgery resulted in a near total loss of short-term memory for Henry. Over the next fifty years, he was the subject of many experiments.  According to Psychology Today:

Of course many other patients with memory impairments have since been studied, including a small number with amnesias almost as dense as Henry’s, but it is to him we owe the greatest debt. His name (or initials!) has been mentioned in almost 12,000 journal articles, making him the most studied case in medical or psychological history.

The twist in this book is that the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery was Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the author’s grandfather. Luke Dittrich provides a fascinating and personal viewpoint about the medical ethics involved with his grandfather’s career, as well as the changing attitudes towards mental illness during the 20th century.

9aa87bf69c0f444ba807ae412001d027Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
The older I get, the more likely I am to fall asleep while reading in bed at night. This smart and very suspenseful thriller kept me reading well past my bedtime. A plane crashes minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, leaving only two survivors. Was one of the people aboard responsible for the crash? Told in alternating perspectives, the story is a puzzle that most readers won’t be able to solve until the very end.  The reader can tell that Noah Hawley, the author of four other novels, is also a screenwriter — the short chapters, narrated by many different characters, end with cliffhangers, and the dialogue is sharp.

y648Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
If The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? had a baby . . . it might look something like Be Frank With Me. Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel is delightful, original, and just plain fun! M.M. (Mimi) Banning, a quirky and reclusive author (sort of a mashup of J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee) is struggling to complete her second novel. She needs help with her equally quirky son, Frank, so her publisher sends a young woman, Alice Whitley, to be Frank’s nanny and Mimi’s gal Friday. Complications ensue, but like all comedies, the ending of this one is very satisfying.

9780393241655_300The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood (available August 9)
After her husband walks out on her, Ava North joins a book club that holds a monthly discussion about “the book that matters most” to a particular member. The other members all choose classics, but Ava picks an obscure, out of print book that turns out to have greater significance than she could have known. The Book That Matters Most is a book lover’s delight, full of surprising plot developments. It’s also a moving story of friendship and the connections between mothers and daughters.