The book must of necessity be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, must be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil!
According to multiple Internet sources, Frank Zappa came up with the saying, “So many books, so little time.” Well, it turns out that Zappa didn’t coin this phrase; it comes from a pamphlet called So Many Books, So Little Time, What to Do? published in 1892 by a British organization called the National Home Reading Union that aimed to guide middle-class and working-class citizens in their “reading practices and choices.” Frank Zappa did say some other smart things, such as “Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff” and “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” He also said, “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts” and “Tobacco is my favorite vegetable” Well, keep in mind this is a person who named his children Moon Unit and Dweezil.
Someone once gave me a T-shirt that says “So many books, so little time” and if that T-shirt hadn’t been too small, I’d have worn it the other day while cleaning out my bookshelves. (I apologize to whoever gave me the shirt, but it’s going in the donation bag .. . as soon as I decide to tackle my closet. Sorting through books can be fun, sorting through clothes is never fun.) I had totally run out of shelf space and had to make some tough decisions. A few were not so difficult — I had no problem tossing Mary Ellen’s Best Helpful Hints, 1983 edition — but it was hard to get rid of piles of yellowed paperbacks I’d never read that I knew were good books. I’d just never gotten to them, and enticing new books keep arriving. What does it mean that I’ve never been in the mood to pick up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, even though I’m pretty sure I’d like it?
At the end of my cleaning project, I had two shelves of books I want to read, plus a basket full of books I have to read for upcoming discussions. I’m going to adhere to a new policy: one in, one out — if I add a book to the TBR shelves, I have to remove one and pass it along. My mother just gave me a copy of The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin, so Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson had to go. I slid it into the Little Free Library around the corner, hoping someone would give it a good home.
Here are ten books that were definitely worth my time:
The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and A Girl Saved by Bees by Meredith May
You know you’re reading a really good book when the topic is one in which you’ve previously had no interest — but you still can’t put the book down. The topic here is beekeeping and the natural world of honeybees, and it’s absolutely fascinating — both in its own right and as a metaphor used by Meredith May’s beekeeper grandfather to teach her life lessons. Meredith May’s memoir of growing up in a rural area of northern California, near Big Sur, ranks at the top of my list of terrific coming-of-age memoirs.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
I loved every page of Ruth Reichl’s behind-the-scenes look at her career as editor of Gourmet magazine. Reichl, who was the restaurant critic for the New York Times when Conde Nast approached her to run the magazine, initially turned down the job, citing her lack of editorial experience. But she finally decided to take a chance, spending ten exhilarating years at the helm of Gourmet. At a time when print magazines are becoming an endangered species, Reichl’s love letter to Gourmet — and her talented and idiosyncratic colleagues (chefs, writers, and editors) — is particularly poignant. It’s truly a joy to read, whether you’re a foodie or not.
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
In a heartbreaking book that offers no easy answers, Alex Kotlowitz examines the rampant gun violence in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods during the summer of 2013. He brings to life the perpetrators, victims, and their families, demonstrating their shared humanity and the twists of fate that can shape one person into a killer and another into a victim. The story of gun violence isn’t a story of statistics, Kotlowitz shows us. That said, I wish he had included more facts in the book — for example, the fact that Chicago’s murder rate has been going down, and that it isn’t among the top ten most violent cities in the country, or that other major cities (notably, New York) have seen an even larger drop in violence in recent years.
Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan
Henry, Himself is the third in a trilogy about a middle-class Pittsburgh family. In the two earlier books, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, we meet Henry only in retrospect — he has died and his grieving family is trying to move on without him. In this lovely, quiet novel, we see Henry and his family through his own eyes. Short, well-titled chapters alternate between the present, when Henry is 75, and the past, starting with his childhood and moving through his service In World War II and his adult years. The novel brims with affection for its main character, an ordinary man wrestling with big questions: What is the meaning of an individual life? What do we leave behind? You don’t have to have read the previous books to enjoy this one, but once you’ve read Henry, Himself, you’ll want to read the others.
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
I’m generally not drawn to dystopian fiction, or magical realism. If it couldn’t really happen, I lose interest. But there are exceptions to every rule, and The Dreamers is one of them. I couldn’t stop reading this haunting, and yes, dreamy, story of a college town struck by a mysterious flulike illness whose victims fall deeply asleep and experience vivid dreams. This novel, which reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Station Eleven, will stay with me for a long time. (I just noticed that Emily St. John Mandel provided the cover blurb!)
The Huntress by Kate Quinn
The best page-turner/World War II novel I’ve read in ages! Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger — you won’t be able to stop reading. Kate Quinn expertly weaves the story of the Nazi “huntress” with several others, all compelling: the female Soviet pilots known as the “Night Witches”, two postwar Nazi hunters, and a young girl and her antique dealer father living in Boston. Bonus: it’s a paperback original.
Sadie by Courtney Summers
If you’re an adult reader who’s a bit wary of YA fiction, Sadie is a great place to start. This smart and original thriller, about a missing teenage girl, is also perfect for fans of true crime podcasts. Half the book is narrated by Sadie, the runaway girl, and half is a transcription of a podcast called “The Girls”. It’s an addictive read for both older teenagers and adults. For readers who noticed that A.J. Finn provided the cover blurb, check out the fascinating New Yorker article, A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions, which shows “A.J. Finn” (the pseudonym of Dan Mallory) to be a pathological liar.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
I loved learning about Lee Miller, the 1920s Vogue model who was surrealist Man Ray’s muse in Paris and then become a celebrated photographer, documenting the horrors of World War II. If you enjoyed any of Paula McClain’s novels, especially Love and Ruin (about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway), you’ll adore this book.
The River by Peter Heller
Two Dartmouth students, experienced outdoorsmen, embark on a journey in northern Canada that they intend to be a rugged adventure in the wilderness but that turns out to be a “Deliverance”-style nightmare. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, but this novel is much more than that. For one thing, Heller’s writing is gorgeous; for another, he has created two characters that are as real as any you’ll meet on the page. The last lines of the Denver Post review are “I could not put this book down. It truly was terrifying and unutterably beautiful”, and I couldn’t agree more.
Little Faith by Nickolas Butler
Lyle and Peg Hovde have recently welcomed their daughter, Shiloh, and her six-year-old son, Isaac into their home in rural Wisconsin. Having lost a baby boy in infancy, the Hovdes relish their roles as hands-on grandparents. But when Shiloh joins a fundamentalist church that practices faith healing, and declares that little Isaac is a gifted healer, Lyle and Peg are faced with difficult decisions. This beautiful novel, covering a year of the changing Midwestern seasons, raises provocative questions about faith and family. I’m looking forward to hearing Butler talk about the novel at a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon on April 25 — click here for more details.