10 Fall Paperback Picks — 2016

The seasonally appropriate blog post would be suggestions for Halloween books, which I suppose are horror novels about ghosts, vampires, and monsters. If you’re interested, there are all sorts of lists available online:” 15 Scary Books to Terrify You This Halloween”; “15 Creepy Books to Get You in the Halloween Spirit”; “10 Spooky Halloween Reads” . . . well, you get the idea. I’m not a fan of these kinds of books, ever since I read ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and couldn’t sleep all night because I thought I heard a vampire tapping at my window. Every rule has an exception, of course, and one of my favorite books is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. If you want to read a spine-chilling, perfectly constructed novel, go no further. (And then read the recent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life — it’s excellent.)

This fall, bookstore tables are piled high with terrific new paperback releases. Here are a ten of my favorites, both fiction and nonfiction –none of which features a ghoul, monster, or evil spirit. (Be warned, however:  The Guest Room contains plenty of real-life evil.)

9780307743602The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
When horses are curled up and then they stand, it is beautiful and funny, like babies walking. They put their front feet down like it’s the first time and they don’t know for sure how, they need to go slow and feel on each foot, their body going one way and the other until they find the strong spot and boom, they are proud on their legs again. Watching made my heart soft, made me want to hug her.
Told from multiple viewpoints, The Mare is the affecting story of Velveteen Vargas (“Velvet”) , a young Dominican girl from Brooklyn who spends summers in upstate New York as a Fresh Air Fund child, and Ginger, her “foster mother”, who becomes deeply involved in Velvet’s life. One of my favorite books last year, it was included in “best books of 2015” lists by the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and many others.

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
But now he he wanted only to make amends, to make things right. To caulk the hollow in the heart of his family. To make sure this poor girl whose soul had been battered almost since birth was safe.
I’m adding this to my list of books that made me cringe, but that I couldn’t put down. Does that make sense? As always, Chris Bohjalian knows how to tell a story. In his latest novel, he sheds light on white slavery and prostitution. Think of the movie Taken — but imagine those horrific events taking place in the United States, with the involvement of upper-middle class suburbanites.

this-was-not-the-plan-9781501103766_hrThis Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger
I’ve gotten plenty of invitations, mostly from couples who were friends of Mira’s and mine who didn’t quite know what to do with me. Should they invite me to Saturday brunch, but as a third wheel? Do they seat me next to a single girlfriend at a dinner party? Worse still, do they wedge me between couples, the ninth chair at a table clearly meant for eight?
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 thoroughly enjoyed this witty and poignant story about family and friendship — it’s perfect if you’re in the mood for a romantic comedy.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
Life’s full of events – they occur and you adjust, you roll and move on. But at some point you realize some events are actually developments. You realize there’s a big plan out there you know nothing about, and a development is a first step in that new direction. Sometimes things feel like big-time developmens but in time you adjust, you find a new way and realize they didn’t throw you off course, they didn’t change you. They were just events. The tricky part is telling the difference between the two.
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.

9780812979527My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.
A young woman from an abusive and impoverished background (perhaps, she suggests, because she is “ruthless”) becomes a functioning adult and successful writer. This lovely, spare novel raises many questions and will stay with you for a long time.

Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon
The Vineyard is famously lovely, compared often to sections of Scotland and Ireland. Plots of land are casually separated by stone walls, like a sentence that doesn’t take the turn you think it will take, but takes another way around.
I’m not usually a fan of celebrity biographies/memoirs, but this one was a pleasant surprise. It’s well-written and perceptive, filled with just the right number of juicy tidbits.

9780143108429The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
That’s the shock, and the surprise, to a lot of repatriates: No one back home cares. There’s an initial, shallow interest in what life is like abroad, but most Americans aren’t actually interested, at all.
I dislike the term “women’s fiction” — but when you have a novel about three women, all expatriates in Hong Kong, who are grappling with their roles as mothers/caretakers and daughters, that’s what it is. But it’s women’s fiction at its very best — tautly written, with well-developed characters and a surprising storyline. The New York Times says, “A female, funny Henry James in Asia, Janice Y. K. Lee is vividly good on the subject of Americans abroad.”

This Old Man by Roger Angell
If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of heir letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Angell, now 96 years old, was fiction editor of the New Yorker for many years. This Old Man is a collection of his writings, including essays, jingles, letters, and literary criticism– in his words, “a mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.” It’s terrific bedside reading.

9780143128915Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell
Of all the influences in his life she was the most woefully unappreciated but in truth she was the strongest.
The first biography written about one of the 20th century’s most fascinating women reveals Clementine Churchill to be a strong-minded feminist who wielded tremendous political power behind the scenes. Sometimes I find that biographers are so anxious to include every detail they’ve uncovered that they forget to build a narrative, but that’s not the case with Clementine.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Now there were no more stories to tell, to soothe, to comfort, to draw strangers close together; to link like hearts and minds.
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.

Happy Halloween!

News of the World –Book Review

news-of-the-world-coverJoy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again, and he smiled as he read the amusing things, the Hindi women who would not say their husbands’ names, odd telegraph messages caught by a reporter, and recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls. He saw her bright, fierce little face break into laughter when the crowd laughed. It was good. Laughter is good for the soul and all your interior works.
Paulette Jiles, News of the World

News of the World, recently shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, is a gem of a novel. Only 224 pages long, it proves that length and a complex plot are not requirements for memorable and insightful historical fiction. It’s a simple story, on the surface. Shortly after the Civil War, retired Army Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is offered a fifty-dollar gold piece to return ten-year-old Johanna, a redeemed captive of the Kiowa tribe, to her German relatives in San Antonio, Texas — a journey of 400 miles through dangerous and lawless territory. The little girl, who doesn’t know English and longs to return to her Indian “family”, becomes Captain Kidd’s reluctant companion. At first, she is “not willing to concede they might be on the same side against anyone or anything.”

Captain Kidd, a seventy-year-old widower, earns his living traveling throughout northern Texas, giving live readings from faraway newspapers. He once ran a successful printing business, but “the war had taken his press and everything else, the economy of the Confederacy had fallen apart even before the surrender”, so Captain Kidd reads aloud from the London Times, the New York Evening Post, the Boston Morning Journal, the Milwaukee Daily News (which he calls the “Cheese and Norwegian Tatler”) in rented halls and churches, collecting dimes in a paint can.

The novel opens at a reading in Wichita Falls, Texas, a town near the border of what was then called Indian Territory. The Captain feels that “his life had lately seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled, and it was something that had only come upon him lately. A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas . . .”. Although he is initially reluctant to become responsible for Johanna, a sense of purpose enters his life once he agrees. Captain Kidd — who is the father of two grown daughters — recognizes that Johanna’s hostility masks her terror, and he becomes fiercely protective of her. The two learn to communicate, and eventually to love one another. Jiles tells the story of their deepening relationship in a way that seems completely natural and believable, and with plenty of dry humor.

Johanna, as the Captain’s Irish friend Doris Dillon comments, “is like an elf. She is like a fairy person from the glamorie. They are not one thing or another.” In the author’s note, Paulette Jiles mentions some of the research she did on the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes on the frontier. She says that, like Johanna, “they apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families . . .”.

Captain Kidd, who is based on a real person, Caesar Adolphus Kydd, instinctively understands Johanna’s predicament. After she throws a fork in frustration,

He was suddenly almost overwhelmed with  pity for her. Torn from her parents, adopted by a strange culture, given new parents, then sold for a few blankets and some old silverware, now sent to stranger after stranger, crushed into peculiar clothing . .. and now she could not even eat her food without having to use outlandish instruments.

The Captain is not just a likable character; he is an admirable character, and what a joy it is to read a book whose protagonist is a kind and honorable person with unwavering morals. No goody two-shoes, he can be short-tempered and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so he is certainly not perfect. Captain Kidd makes an appearance in one of Jiles’s earlier books, The Color of Lightning, which is reason enough for me to read it.

If you had asked me last month what my favorite “western” novel was, I would have said Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Now, I think I would say it’s News of the World. Dazzling writing, characters I fell in love with, a satisfying story — and less than one-third the length of Lonesome Dove! (By the way, Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. It was not a finalist for the National Book Award, but back then there were only three finalists selected.) Max, my colleague at Lake Forest Book Store, says if you liked One Thousand White Women, by Jim Fergus (another top-notch historical novel set in the West in the 1870s), you’ll love News of the World.

I haven’t read all the nominees for the National Book Award, so I can’t weigh in on which one I’d vote for, but I’ll be thrilled if News of the World wins. Which it probably won’t, based on what I’ve been reading — it looks like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is the favorite. I’m trying to read as many of the finalists as possible before the winners are announced next month. Next up: Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson.

Readers, who do you think will win this year’s National Book Award for fiction?

 

 

 

 

 

Marrow: A Love Story — Book Review

y648It’s one thing to write about the marrow of the bones — there’s a lot of research out there to back me up when I’m describing bones and blood and stem cells. It’s another thing to write about the marrow of the self. The marrow of the bones is home to your stem cells. The marrow of yourself is home to your soul.
Elizabeth Lesser, Marrow

When her sister, Maggie, is diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma, Elizabeth Lesser learns that Maggie’s only chance for survival depends on a bone marrow transplant — and that Elizabeth is a perfect match. Marrow chronicles the sisters’ childhood and adult relationship, as well as the bone marrow transplant process.

Straddling the line between memoir and self-help and filled with both medical information and psychological insights, Marrow will appeal both to readers of Eat Pray Love and When Breath Becomes Air. I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s account of her solo travels boring and self-obsessed (although I loved her 2013 novel, The Signature of All Things), but I know Eat Pray Love struck a chord with many readers.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved — and will never forget — Paul Kalanathi’s gripping and beautiful memoir of his final days. Sad as it is, When Breath Becomes Air inspires the reader to live better, to be the best person he or she can be. Marrow may lack the stark and immediate power of When Breath Becomes Air — for one thing, the dominant voice is Elizabeth’s rather than Maggie’s; for another, the narrative frequently strays into territory that detracts from the central story of Maggie’s illness and the love between the two sisters — but in the end, it offers readers hope and inspiration.

When her second book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth didn’t expect her pragmatic sister “to even crack the book’s cover.” Maggie was “an avid reader, but her taste did not include anything that smacked of self-help. She liked novels or nonfiction books about beekeeping and bread baking.” (Maggie sounds like me, although my nonfiction tastes run to medical and historical topics, along with true crime.) However, Elizabeth notes that “there’s nothing like trauma to change one’s reading habits”, and she learned that Maggie had copied a passage from Broken Open and kept it on an index card in her car. In that passage, Elizabeth recounts that a psychic told her: “It is time for you to answer the call of your soul. It’s calling, but you’re too scared to listen. You think you know what’s important, but you don’t . . . What’s important in this life is to learn the soul lessons.”

I admit that when I start reading about psychics and soul lessons, I get a little skeptical. So it was a relief when I reached the chapter titled “Mother Cells”, in which Elizabeth describes reading a textbook called Essential Cell Biology and, in the simplest and clearest language, explains how a bone marrow transplant works: “The patient must endure a near-death experience in order to live.” The chapter ends with an entry from Maggie’s journal, in which she says, “I will try to proceed with good cheer.”

And, amazingly, she does just that, with the support of Elizabeth, their other sisters, her boyfriend, and their families. She gets fed up, as anyone would, with well-meaning friends who offer unsolicited advice about juice fasts, overseas clinics, and her “face twists into a look of wrathful disbelief when someone suggests that negative thinking, or grilled meat, or early exposure to pesticides might have caused the cancer.” An old friend suggests that if Maggie “refrains from using refined sugar and ingests large quantities of Japanese green tea she can totally heal from her disease.” Elizabeth offers readers some guidance on helping people who are sick:

Do not offer unsolicited advice  . . . If you must, go ahead and ask them if they want to hear about promising new treatments or stories of those who beat the odds. Ask in such a way that the very vulnerable, very tired patient, or the equally weary caretaker, can easily say, “No, thank you” to articles, books, and links to treatment plans and meditative YouTube videos.

Many patients and caregivers roll their eyes at “inspirational” books filled with platitudes about positive thinking, but Marrow is not one of those.  As I read, I grew to appreciate Elizabeth’s brave and honest approach to spirituality and self-discovery. Self-help books, she says, are not “superficial books that give pat answers to life’s unsolvable mysteries. They are “an ancient genre — the literature of wisdom, the philosophy of living.” (I even read one of the self-help books she recommends, The Four Agreements, which she says is “about the power of simple, honest, and bold communication.”)

Familiar books offer us consolation during difficult times. Elizabeth notes that the self-help books on her shelves give her strength and comfort, while her mother found that Walt Whitman provided solace and her father read Tolstoy repeatedly. I think that Marrow, a story about the strength of love, will be a book that many readers turn to again and again.

For an interesting interview with Elizabeth Lesser, check out this article in Psychology Today. 

 

 

10 Hurricane Books

I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds . . .
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Along with millions of others in the southeastern United States, my mother was told to evacuate her home as Hurricane Matthew approached. Once I found she was safely in a motel 150 miles inland, I had one important question for her: did she have enough reading material? She assured me she did, and then told me she couldn’t wait to get back to The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware. I guess that when faced with a hurricane, some people escape with psychological thrillers. Others might want to read about catastrophic storms. Here are ten books featuring hurricanes — both fiction and nonfiction — to pick up when you’ve watched enough swaying palm trees and crashing waves on the Weather Channel. None of these is a new book, but they’re all worth your time if you haven’t read them.

Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
I didn’t apprecitime_of_wonderate this lovely, poetic book as a child — like my own children, I much preferred Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal — but now it’s my favorite McCloskey book. (And Robert McCloskey, along with E.B. White, is my favorite children’s author.)

Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder – for wondering, for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger
Actually, The Perfect Storm isn’t about a hurricane — it’s about a real-life tempest caused by the confluence of three storm systems. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is well worth reading. It’s great narrative nonfiction, combining science with human drama.

220px-isaacsstormcoverIsaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
Isaac Cline, chief of the United States Weather Bureau’s station in Galveston, Texas, failed to anticipate the deadly strength of a hurricane that barreled through the Gulf of Mexico, killing an estimated 8,000 people — the largest loss of life in a weather-related disaster in U.S. history. According to the New York Times, Larson “weaves together the terror and stoicism of ships’ captains, housewives, children and forecasters, infusing their tales with palpable tension. Few historical reconstructions sustain such drama.”

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
On a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, a murderer has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Federal marshals search for the dangerous patient as a hurricane  bears down on the island. The story is complicated, filled with twists and turns that I defy you to predict.

220px-zeitounZeitoun by Dave Eggers
When I read Eggers’s account of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina, I thought it was his best book so far. The New York Times reviewer said: “My guess is, 50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina

13618100Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, set in Mississippi just before and during Hurricane Katrina and loosely based on the author’s own experiences, has “the aura of a classic”, according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post.

Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Rise and Fall of the Spectacular Railroad That Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford
Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil and the visionary who developed Florida as a vacation destination, built an engineering marvel: the Key West Railroad, crossing 150 miles of open sea. It was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Standiford, who’s also a novelist, has written a fascinating chronicle of a man, his accomplishments, and his era.

jamaica_200-4607c185a1e675e24bc7b743396f781e879f40f3-s300-c85A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
This is one of those neglected classics that deserves to be rediscovered. Written in 1929, and still in print, it’s the story of a group of children whose homes are destroyed in a Caribbean hurricane. When the children are sent to England, pirates seize their ship. It sounds like an adventure story, but it’s more of a psychological drama. In an NPR segment, Andrew Sean Greer said, “To say A High Wind in Jamaica is a novel about children who are abducted by pirates is to make it seem like a children’s book. But that’s completely wrong; its theme is actually how heartless children are.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Another classic (published in 1937), perhaps more widely read than A  High Wind in Jamaica, Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Florida in the early 20th century. The Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 figures prominently in this beautifully written coming-of-age novel.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.