5 Reasons to Read Short Stories

Collections of short stories are hard to sell. I can almost predict the response when I offer a book of short stories to a customer:

ME: What can I help you find this afternoon?

CUSTOMER: Well . . . I’m just looking for something good to read. Anything you’ve read lately you would recommend?

coverME: Oh, yes! I really enjoyed Astray by Emma O’Donoghue. She wrote Room.  It’s a collection of short stories, and I thought just about every story was wonderful.

CUSTOMER: Uh-huh . . . I wasn’t really looking for short stories. Anything else?

And booksellers aren’t the only ones who have trouble convincing people to read short stories. Author David Abrams has the same problem, as he notes in the website Book Riot:

I’ve always been a champion of the short story, both as a writer and a reader, and it always stuns me into silence when I have friends–good friends, well-read, intelligent, reasonable friends–who dismiss short stories with a flap of the hand, a pinch of the lips, and a deprecating, “Oh, I don’t do short stories.” It’s said in the same tone of voice a vegetarian would say, “I don’t do meat.” When I come back with, “Why not?” the answers are always vague and insubstantial. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a solid, tangible reason they don’t like short stories. I suspect they’re afraid of short stories, an aversion that began in grade school . . . By their nature, short stories compress language to its densest gem-like state (second only to poetry); novels sprawl and emphasize plot and are generally more accessible to younger readers. I could be wrong, but I think the average 15-year-old would rather read The Catcher in the Rye than “Young Goodman Brown.”

bernice_covWriters themselves have a hard time selling their short stories. Most are grateful if their stories see print in obscure literary magazines. This wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was able to support a lavish lifestyle through sales of short stories to popular magazines; the Saturday Evening Post paid him as much as $4,000 for a single story. In 1930, Edith Wharton sold a story to Cosmopolitan for $5,000.  (Imagine how much that would be in today’s dollars!) Writers used the income from short stories to support themselves as they worked on novels. Now, writes critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome. That kind of thing is just not commercial.”

I’ve been reading that the short story is experiencing a resurgence. It’s true that Alice Munro, arguably the best short story writer of our time, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013, and that George Saunders was a 2013 National Book Award finalist for his short story collection, The Tenth of December.  And digital publishing may be revitalizing the short story; in an article in the New York Times entitled “Good Fits for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories”, Leslie Kaufman writes, “The Internet may be disrupting much of the book industry, but for short-story writers it has been a good thing.” She quotes Amber Dermont, a novelist who has recently published a short story collection: “The single-serving quality of a short narrative is the perfect art form for the digital age . . . Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screens.”

A typical text conversation of mine. Not a shining example of how digital technology enhances writing skills.
A typical text conversation of mine. Not a shining example of how digital technology enhances writing skills.

In the same article, Cal Morgan, an editor at HarperCollins, says that digital communication has had a positive influence on younger writers:

The generation of writers out of college in the last few years has been raised to engage with words like no generation before. Our generation was raised on passive media like television and telephones; this generation has been engaged in writing to each other in text messages on a 24-hour basis. I think it has made them bolder and tighter.

Hmmm, I’m not sure if texting makes anyone’s writing “bolder and tighter”, and I really don’t think the new generation of writers has “been raised to engage with words like no generation before” — but I appreciate the attempt at putting a positive spin on round-the-clock texting.

Here’s my sales pitch for short stories:

  1. They’re . . .  short. When you’re between books, or don’t have the time to immerse yourself in your current book, it’s very satisfying to read a thoughtful, well-written story. You feel like you’ve accomplished something. And there are many stories you can read in 10 or 15 minutes . . . stories that you will be thinking about for much, much longer than that.
  2. They’re usually very well-written.  Writers who are able to publish collections of short stories are generally well-established literary writers. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to write a good short story. Even if you scratch your head trying to figure out what the story was really about, you will appreciate the writing.
  3. They’re perfect for book clubs. No one can show up to your book club without having read the selection — anyone can find the time to read a short story or two. How about a meeting where you compare two short stories? A discussion based on a story might actually last longer than a discussion of The Goldfinch — especially if only two members of your group have finished it and the rest don’t want the ending ruined.
  4. They are wonderful to listen to or to read aloud. I really enjoy the NPR Selected Shorts podcasts. I find it hard to listen to audiobooks; I keep losing track of the plot. But short stories are ideal for car trips or walks.
  5. They lend themselves to rereading. I’m much more likely to reread a short story than a novel. I’m often amazed by how much more I appreciate a story when I read it again. I’m sure I’d feel the same way if I reread I novel, but I rarely do that; there’s always another book waiting.

I recommend starting with a short story anthology so you can read what an editor considers the best stories by top short story writers. I love the Best American Short Stories series, which comes out in paperback every fall. Each year, there’s a different editor, who’s a well-respected author; the 2013 volume is edited by Elizabeth Strout. The O. Henry Prize Stories series is also wonderful. I can almost guarantee that if you pick up any book in either of these series, you will find at least one story that speaks to you.

cover-1Here’s a list of 10 favorite short story collections, new and old:

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
  • Different Seasons (4 novellas) by Stephen King
  • Bark by Lorrie Moore (due 2/25/14)
  • Dear Life by Alice Munro
  • The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
  • Selected Stories by William Trevor
  • Collected Stories and Other Writings by John Cheever
  • Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Next on my list? The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham.

Further reading on short stories:

A Brief History of the Short Story in America (Critical Mass, blog of the National Book Critics Circle of America)

Sorry, the Short Story Boom is Bogus (Salon)

Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the Short Story (New York Times)

Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories (New York Times)

20 for 2012: Short Story Collections (Book Riot)

Just Discuss: A New Twist on Book Clubs

Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
Neil Gaiman

fullsizeoutput_3d36I love short stories. When my New Yorker arrives, I turn first to to the featured fiction. (Last week’s story, “Motherless Child”, by Elizabeth Strout, is wonderful — Olive Kitteridge is back!) I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but check out my sales pitch for short stories, 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories, and then read a really good story (I’ve 37569319included some suggestions at the end of this post) and maybe you’ll become a convert.

My second sales pitch is for a short story series in Chicago this fall. This project, my friend Alice Moody’s brainchild, has been going strong at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. Now, “Just Discuss: For Literature Lovers” will be expanding to Chicago. Discussions will take place at the Blue Door Kitchen (52 W. Elm Street) on Mondays (with me as facilitator) and Wednesdays (with Alice as facilitator), from 10 am until noon, starting on September 16.

Fall M:W 2019Here’s how it works: you settle into a comfortable seat, perhaps with a cup of coffee or tea in front of you, and listen to a professional actor read a carefully chosen, thought-provoking story. You have no idea each week what the story will be. After the reading, we’ll discuss what we just heard.

Last winter, I attended “Just Discuss” at the Writers Theatre, and it was the highlight of my week. No screens, no phones, no distractions, just two hours of reflection and conversation with a diverse group of interesting people. I hope you can join us this fall– please email me (bksonthetable@gmail.com) or Alice (alice@platinumpenconsulting.com) for more information.

Stories performed and discussed in previous sessions include:

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver
The Enormous Radio by John Cheever
Community Life by Lorrie Moore
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris
L. Debard and Aliette by Lauren Groff
Brownies by ZZ Packer
A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger
Leopard by Wells Tower
A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro
Prairie Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Chicxulub by T.C. Boyle
The Five Forty Eight by John Cheever
The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff
Adams by George Saunders
Roy Spivey by Miranda July

Reese Recommends It, You Read It

9780140286274
Oprah’s first book club selection.

It all started with Oprah Winfrey. In 1996, she launched a book club that made an enormous impact on readers, authors, and publishers. For fifteen years, Oprah’s choices became worldwide bestsellers. During the heyday of her club,  Oprah’s power as a recommender, often called the “Oprah Effect” in the publishing world, was unparalleled. Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group, said in a USA Today article that Oprah “didn’t originate the idea of book clubs, but more than anyone, she has spread the idea of reading a book as a shared community.” Nora Rawlinson, who’s been the editor of Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and now EarlyWord, citing surveys showing that “friends’ recommendations are the top reasons people buy a book” says that “Oprah is the ultimate friend to her audience.”

31409135A lot of readers must think they’re friends with actress Emma Watson, because her feminist book club, “Our Shared Shelf”, has 294,000 Instagram followers and 215,000 Goodreads group members. (I’m glad I don’t have to supply the wine and cheese.) Watson, who became famous through her portrayal of brave and brilliant Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, is a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador with a special interest in gender equality and its benefits for both men and women. UN Goodwill Ambassadors are celebrity advocates, drawn from the “worlds of art, music, film, sport and literature to highlight key issues.” Recent selections include The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore.

9780399592867Actress and producer Reese Witherspoon has even more friends than Emma Watson —  she shares monthly book recommendations with more than 13 million Instagram followers. Here’s what she had to say about her most recent pick, You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld:

This month, we’re reading ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ by #CurtisSittenfeld… it’s her first book of short stories! I really loved all the characters in this book. They’re so complex and interesting, and in every story, you’ll find them going through these pivotal moments in their lives. Oh, and my company @hellosunshine is developing a TV series based on this collection of short stories. Can’t wait to hear what you think!

This is what I think: I loved You Think It, I’ll Say It too. (Book clubs, don’t be afraid of short stories! This collection would inspire terrific discussions.) I’m thrilled that Reese is getting on her celebrity soapbox to encourage reading and to support books she loves. I also think that Reese has pretty good taste in books. The cynic in me notices that many of her choices are books that she’s bought the film rights to — so not only does she love them, she has a financial stake in their success. Her “book club” doesn’t seem to engender much meaningful discussion; typical comments on her Instagram posts from her adoring fans are: “She always reads awesome books!”; “Have to get this one!”; “Love this selection. Love love love!”; “Thoughts on reading short stories? Never read a book like this! But it will be a TV series.” These comments are a far cry from Oprah’s hour-long, in-depth televised interviews with authors. But maybe the commenters will read Reese’s selections and discuss them with their book clubs.

Reese-Witherspoon-BookClub-1As Doubleday publishing executive Todd Doughty points out, celebrity endorsements reach a much larger audience than TV or radio interviews or newspaper reviews: “In previous times, you would have the Oprah or Daily Show bump. Now you have the Reese Witherspoon bump from Instagram.” Vogue magazine calls Witherspoon the “new patron saint of literature”, describing her posts as the “equivalent of an Oprah’s Book Club stamp for the social media generation.” An hour-long author interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air reaches a million listeners, while a photo of Reese holding a book reaches many millions of potential readers. “It’s absolutely something we think about,” says Miriam Parker, an associate publisher at Ecco Books. “We try to get books to people with big social-media followings and are strategic about it.”

Author Adriana Trigiani says, “Book clubs are the best thing that has happened to the world of publishing.” Well . . . according to a Kellogg School of Management study, probably not. Book clubs are the best thing that has happened to Adriana Trigiani. In an Atlantic Monthly article, Professor Nathaniel Garthwaite says that book “endorsements are found to be a business-stealing form of advertising that raises title level sales without increasing the market sales.” In other words, publishing is a zero sum game, with only a finite number of readers. The Atlantic article points out that celebrity recommendations might raise the visibility and sales of particular books, but don’t create thoughtful discussions among readers:

Celebrity-endorsed book clubs don’t actually teach people to make time for and privilege reading within a culture that seems to value speed, visual stimulation, and activity. They endorse “books” more than they do actual reading.

What are your thoughts? Does a celebrity recommendation make you more interested in reading a book? How do you think celebrity book clubs are shaping the literary landscape?

 

Read in 2018

His Favorites (Kate Walbert) — This is a perfect addition to Short Novels Your Book Club  Will Actually Finish — only 160 pages and packed with material for discussion. In the aftermath of tragedy, a teenage girl goes to boarding school and encounters a charming but predatory young teacher.

Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear (Kim Brooks) — After her arrest for leaving her four-year-old in a parked car in a suburban parking lot for a few minutes, novelist and essayist Kim Brooks began to wonder about the origins of our culture’s misplaced fears. When, and why, did we become so anxious to protect our children from every possible form of danger, and why are we so quick to blame parents — particularly mothers — when something goes wrong? This thought-provoking book is a must-read for parents, but also anyone who is interested in the direction of American society.

Love and Ruin (Paula McLain) — Fans of The Paris Wife will relish Love and Ruin, about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated journalists.

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) — If you love Pat Conroy, you’ll adore this novel about a young girl, abandoned by her family, raising herself in a North Carolina marsh. First-time novelist Owens is a wildlife scientist, and her love of the natural world shows in this beautiful and satisfying book.

Cherry (Nico Walker) — The author, currently incarcerated for bank robbery,  has received plenty of publicity for his autobiographical novel, about a nameless war veteran who turns to bank robbery to support his drug habit. There is some very fine writing in the novel, but also a lot of unnecessary and repetitive vulgarity. I also found the depiction of women to be troublesome; the protagonist’s girlfriend, Emily, is an undeveloped character. clearly of no real interest to the author.

Avid Reader: A Life (Robert Gottlieb) — Gottlieb, now in his eighties,  has been editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and the New Yorker, has written a delightful account of a fascinating career. His memoir is jam-packed with anecdotes about working with just about every well-known 20th century author.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (Matthew Walker, Ph.D.) — Sleep scientist Matthew Walker presents, in an entertaining way, all the evidence that adequate sleep (especially the REM sleep in which we dream) is essential to good health. So why did I stay up too late reading this book?

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America (Beth Macy) —  I’ve read other books that trace the roots of the opioid epidemic (Dreamland by Sam Quinones, American Pain by John Temple), but journalist Beth Macy’s heartbreaking narrative brings us face-to-face with the real people suffering through the crisis — addicts and their friends and families.

Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety (Donald Hall) — Poet Donald Hall died at age 89, just weeks before his last book, a series of short essays, was published. It’s a lovely parting gift from a beloved writer. In an essay called “He Holds Up a Lantern For the Rest of Us” , Ann Patchett writes: “The book is about who Don was and how he saw the world. I’m here to tell you there is nothing better. Every superfluous word is stripped away and what is left is the pure force of life.”

If We Had Known (Elise Juska) — English professor Maggie Daley is shocked to learn that a former student was responsible for a mass shooting at a nearby shopping mall. Meanwhile, her college-bound daughter tries to protect her mother from dangerous secrets. After Maggie makes an error in judgment, she’s forced to examine her role in the events around her. This a thought-provoking, well-paced novel — perfect for book clubs.  (Not to be confused with You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, another great character-driven page-turner.)

There There (Tommy Orange) — Through the voices of many (perhaps too many) characters, debut novelist Orange examines the lives of urban Native Americans gathering for the Big Oakland Powwow. The book has received enormous acclaim (“Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good!” proclaimed the New York Times Book Review) and I can see why.  It’s an amazing book in many ways. The prologue alone is worth the price of the book. Still . . . I tend to lose enthusiasm for a book when I come across grammatical errors. Call me a curmudgeon, but my trust in an author erodes when I read a sentence like this: “In her room she threw her bags down, took off her shoes, and laid on the bed.”

Still Lives (Maria Hummel) — What interested me in this whodunit: the contemporary art scene in LA. What didn’t: who killed artist Kim Lord, and why. In short, I didn’t feel any emotional connection to the characters. Love the title, though — triple entendre!

All Happy Families (Jeanne McCulloch) — The “poor little rich girl” story is familiar to most readers, but Jeanne McCulloch manages to make it fresh in this gracefully written memoir. The book opens on her wedding day, as her father lies in a coma in a nearby hospital, and goes on to examine three failed marriages — her own, her parents’, and her in-laws’.

The High Season (Judy Blundell) — This is the quintessential beach book! The High Season is the most entertaining book I’ve read in a long time. Ruthie Beamish abandoned her art career to direct a small museum on the West Fork of Long Island. Now a board filled with social climbers wants to oust her, and Ruthie faces losing not only her job but her beloved waterfront home. Take this one on your next vacation, whether you’re on the beach or not.

Now My Heart is Full (Laura June) — I was puzzled by this book. If the author had submitted any one of the chapters for a high school writing assignment, she would have received an average grade and a recommendation to review basic grammar and usage. (You do not LAY down on a bed. You LIE down. You LAY your weary body down on a bed. And on and on . . .) The book is poorly constructed, haphazardly jumping around. I just don’t understand: a) how a book like this was published, when so many worthy manuscripts never see the light of day and b) how the many grammatical errors slipped by the editorial staff at Penguin.

Visible Empire (Hannah Pittard) — I love books where several plot threads come together in an unexpected way, and I love books based on little-known events in history — so Visible Empire hit my sweet spot. In 1962, an Atlanta-bound jet crashed in Paris,  killing 121 passengers, most of whom were prominent in Atlanta society, who’d just finished a cultural tour of Europe. Pittard imagines the aftermath of this tragedy, focusing on several characters connected to the deceased passengers.

Don’t You Ever (Mary Carter Bishop) — In this honest and moving memoir, journalist Mary Carter Bishop discovers she has a brother she’s never met, and becomes obsessed with getting to know him and uncovering the secrets of her family’s complicated past.

That Kind of Mother (Rumaan Alam) — I didn’t much care for Alam’s earlier novel, Rich and Pretty, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I wasn’t crazy about That Kind of Mother either. I thought it was going to be about transracial adoption, and it did touch on that topic, but the novel focuses on the main character, an uninteresting woman who miraculously becomes a successful poet.

The Book of Essie (Meghan MacLean Weir) — Seventeen-year-old Essie Hicks is the youngest daughter of an evangelical preacher. Nearly every move she makes is filmed for the TV reality show featuring her family. When she becomes pregnant, the producers, aided by her conniving mother, spin the story by planning a wedding — to be aired on TV, naturally. It’s all rather unbelievable, until you remember the Duggar family (“19 Kids and Counting”) and their fall from grace — and you’ll keep turning the pages. The Book of Essie, Weir’s debut novel, is an adult novel, but it reads like YA and is perfect for teenagers.

Less (Andrew Sean Greer) — Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is that rarest of all literary prize winners — a comic novel.  The readers I’ve discussed this book with seem bewildered about why Greer’s novel won the prize. After all recent winners have been about the violence of slavery (The Underground Railroad), the legacy of the Vietnam War and the immigrant experience (The Sympathizer), and the horrors of World War II (All the Light We Cannot See). How does a story about a middle-aged gay man traveling around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding compare to these lofty works? Read it, and prepare to be dazzled. The blurb on the Pulitzer website describes the book better than I ever could: “A generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.”

Clock Dance (Anne Tyler) — You can’t go wrong with Anne Tyler, and this book was, like all of hers, enjoyable, with her trademark quirky characters and a Baltimore setting. But it lacks the depth and poignancy of her best books. The beginning of the novel, set in the South and the West, is promising, but as soon as Willa, the protagonist. gets to Baltimore the parade of lovable oddball characters begins — which is where I lost interest in Willa, who is the biggest doormat you’d ever want to meet. Her husband is portrayed as an insensitive jerk, but I was on his side all the way.

The Mars Room (Rachel Kushner) — There’s been lots of hype for this book (it was just longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and Kushner is a two-time National Book Award nominee), but I was underwhelmed. It’s the story of a stripper who’s serving life in prison for murder — and if you’re wondering if she’s guilty, yes, she is. (This is not a spoiler.) Kushner is asking readers to examine the question of how much control we actually have over our lives, and also to consider our system of mass incarceration. The writing is excellent, but the story failed to engage me emotionally.

The Taster (V.S. Alexander) — The story of a young German woman who, out of desperation, becomes one of Hitler’s “tasters”, this novel was fascinating from a historical point of view. The writing is nothing special and the characters aren’t well developed, but the descriptions of the inner workings of Hitler’s retreats and bunkers make the book worth reading.

The Locals (Jonathan Dee) — Just after 9/11, a wealthy New Yorker, Philip Hadi, moves his family to their vacation home in the Berkshires, and quickly becomes involved — perhaps over-involved — in local politics. Meanwhile, Mark Firth, a contractor who’s remodeling Hadi’s house, faces his own problems. As the novel progresses and tensions between the locals and the interloper escalate, Dee introduces a cast of characters in fictional Howland, Massachusetts, each with a distinct voice. The Locals is reminiscent of Richard Russo’s upstate New York novels — but with a bit more of an edge. There’s plenty of material for a book group discussion; I’d start out by asking why Dee included the the first chapter, narrated by a New York City con artist who never becomes important to the story.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Balli Kaur Jaswal) — A fun and surprisingly insightful mashup of romance, mystery, and literary fiction, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is really the coming-of-age story of a young Sikh woman in London. Through her job teaching uneducated women in a close-knit Punjabi community how to share their stories, Nicky begins to learn who she is and how to navigate her way through life.

The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai) — One of my favorite novels of the year, and the only one that’s moved me to tears, The Great Believers tells the story of Chicago’s AIDS crisis in the 1980s through the eyes of Yale Tishman, the development director at an art gallery. Makkai skillfully weaves the story of Yale and his community with two others that are almost as compelling: that of Fiona, his deceased friend Nico’s younger sister, who loses her daughter to a religious cult and goes to Paris to track her down, and Nora, the elderly owner of a valuable art collection she wants to donate to Yale’s art gallery, against the wishes of her family. Don’t start this book unless you have plenty of time, because you won’t want to stop.

Beauty in the Broken Places (Allison Pataki) —  In this heartfelt and inspiring memoir, historical novelist Allison Pataki chronicles the year after her 30-year-old physician husband’s stroke, which happened on on a flight to Hawaii when the couple was expecting their first baby.

The Dependents (Katherine Dion) — The Dependents is a lovely and quiet novel that will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page. In its beautifully rendered exploration of relationships — between husband and wife, parent and child, and friends — it reminds me of Alice McDermott’s fiction. Another reviewer mentioned that the book reminded her of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (I assume because of the focus on the lifelong friendship between two married couples), and that is high praise indeed.

A Place for Us (Fatima Farheen Mirza) — This is a solid, well-written (but not great) family story about Indian immigrants in California. I think I’d have preferred it if it were narrower in scope and shorter; as it is, the plot meanders a bit. Still, it kept my interest and the characters engaged me. Good for fans of Pachinko.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays (Amy Meyerson) — I had high hopes for this book — after all, it revolves around an independent bookstore. I enjoyed the literary references and the bookstore setting, but the mystery was easy to figure out and the characters were uninteresting.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir (Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich) — When she was a law student, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich spent the summer working on an appeal for a convicted child murderer, Ricky Langley. An avowed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich found herself wishing for Langley’s execution. As she examined the case, eventually spending years studying every detail, she came to a new understanding of her own painful childhood and a radically different view of the legal system. This is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years.

The Lost Family (Jenna Blum) — Peter Rashkin, an Auschwitz survivor tormented by guilt over the wife and daughters he failed to save, opens a popular restaurant in the United States and marries a beautiful young model, June Bouquet. I was interested in Peter’s story, not so much in June’s. If you’re looking for a World War II novel, there are much better options.

I’ll Think It, You Say It (Curtis Sittenfeld) — Readers who claim they don’t like short stories haven’t read Curtis Sittenfeld’s stories. This collection will make a convert out of anyone. I kept telling myself — “Just one more . . .” and before I knew it, I’d read the whole book.

Happiness: A Memoir: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After (Heather Harpham) — Heather Harpham became pregnant and then was abandoned by the father of the baby . . . later, after Harpham spent months dealing with her infant daughter’s life-threatening illness, the father decided to show up and take some responsibility for their sick child. Now, they are raising their two children together. Harpham is a lovely writer, but I just couldn’t get over the fact she decided to welcome her partner, novelist Brian Morton (whose books I now never want to read) back into her life.

The Perfect Mother (Aimee Molloy) — A group of new moms goes out for a few drinks, and at the end of the evening, one of their babies has been kidnapped. I’ve read better books about adjusting to the pressures of parenthood, but the “whodunit” was top-notch. And this is a spoiler, but I have to mention that the kidnapped baby is ALIVE AND SAFE at the end of the book.

American Panda (Gloria Chao) — Yet another YA novel about a girl who feels different from her peers, American Panda distinguishes itself by focusing on the college (rather than high school) experiences of a teenage girl. Mei is a seventeen-year-old freshman at MIT, and her tiger parents threaten to disown her for any behavior outside their cultural norms.

Love, Hate & Other Filters (Samira Ahmed) — This YA novel about a Muslim girl growing up in a Chicago suburb, is another “fish out of water” story about a teenager  struggling with cultural differences. The author, drawing on her own experiences, writes well and creates sympathy for her protagonist, but there’s not much original about the novel.

The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer) — Greer Kadetsky is a freshman in college when she has a life-changing encounter with feminist icon Faith Frank (who closely resembles Gloria Steinem). After graduation, Greer goes to work for Faith’s foundation, while her longtime boyfriend, Cory Pinto moves abroad for a a consulting job. After he returns to the United States, events force both Greer and Cory (who are two of the most endearing characters I’ve come across in contemporary literature) to re-examine everything they’ve  valued. Another 2018 favorite!

Alternate Side (Anna Quindlen) — You can never go wrong with an Anna Quindlen novel, and this is one of her best. Nora and Charlie seem to have everything: a brownstone on a quiet cut-de-sac in New York’s Upper West Side, surrounded by long-time neighbors who throw great parties, college-aged twins who love their visits home, and terrific jobs. But when a parking dispute turns into a violent incident, life begins to unravel.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads (Clemantine Wamariya) — A very young survivor of the Rwandan genocide tells her heartbreaking story of loss and survival. With her older sister, six-year-old Clemantine Wamariya fled her home and wandered throughout Africa in search of safety, finally receiving asylum in the United States. Extremely moving; reminiscent of Ismael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.

Laura and Emma (Kate Greathead) — This is an odd book, and not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it. Not much happens; it’s a character study of a woman named Laura, who comes from a very privileged background in New York but has never felt that she fits in. When she gets pregnant by accident, she raises her daughter, Emma, on her own. The writing is just perfect; Kate Greathead has a unique voice that resonated with me. Perfect for readers who enjoyed Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan. Both are the opposite of page-turners, but I found them more compelling than any thriller.

The Friend (Sigrid Nunez) —  I absolutely adored The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, about a writer who loses her dearest friend but finds solace when she becomes the reluctant owner of the Great Dane he has left behind. It’s a lovely, unsentimental story about grief, friendship, and the bond between people and their pets, filled with the narrator’s thoughts on reading and writing. If you love dogs and literature, you’ll savor this jewel of a book. This will definitely make my list of favorite novels at the end of the year.

The Night Diary (Veera Hiranandani) — Based on the experiences of Hiranandani’s father, who as a child endured a harrowing journey across the Pakistani/Indian border during Partition, this novel tells the story of the largest forced migration in human history through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. Technically middle-grade fiction, our YA book club enjoyed The Night Diary and thought it was a great book for adults as well as kids.

Stay With Me (Ayobami Adebayo) — Terrific for book clubs, Stay With Me is the poignant story of a Nigerian marriage. Yejide and Akin fall in love at university in Nigeria in the 1980s, a time of political turmoil. When they are unable to conceive a child, their families urge Akin to take a second wife. I don’t want to reveal more than that, but I urge you to read this beautiful novel.

Speak No Evil (Uzodinma Iweala) — Harvard-bound Niru is the pride of his successful Nigerian immigrant parents — until they accidentally learn that he is gay. This short and beautifully written novel, about family, friendship, and identity will break your heart.

The Hazel Wood (Melissa Albert) — You’ll either love or hate this quirky mashup of fantasy and reality. It starts out as a conventional YA story about a teenage girl who feels like an outcast at her New York private school and befriends another lost soul. When the two enter a world of twisted fairy tales, the book shifts gears, turning dark and confusing. The writing is gorgeous, and if you suspend disbelief, you’ll enjoy the author’s imaginative powers.

Educated (Tara Westover) — This is my first “I couldn’t put it down” book of 2018. It’s the amazing true story of a young woman raised off the grid in a strict Mormon fundamentalist family. Not allowed to attend school or visit doctors, Tara Westover was used as slave labor in her family’s scrap business, suffering life-threatening injuries multiple times. Through incredible strength and some lucky breaks, Westover got herself to college and eventually to graduate school at Cambridge.

The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah) — Hmmm. This #1 bestseller kept me turning the pages on a recent beach vacation, and I loved learning about Alaska. But the writing is subpar — lots of blankets of snow and buttery sunshine — and the characters were stereotypical and uninteresting.

An American Marriage (Tayari Jones) — Married just a year, Roy and Celestial are adjusting to marriage when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Through letters, we see Celestial’s commitment unraveling, and when Roy is released early, matters come to a head. This is an insightful portrait of flawed but appealing characters facing a no-win situation. I was a little bothered by a plot hole and would love to discuss this book with other readers.

Heather, the Totality (Matthew Weinstein) — This is a very weird little book. I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or just plain bad, and the reviews are equally divided. (See the article in Library Journal, “What to Make of Heather, the Totality.”) Perfect for book clubs, especially those looking for short books. Our group joked that we spent more time discussing the book than it took to read it.

Wild Bird (Wendelin Van Draanen) —  Wren, a troubled teenager, is sent to a therapeutic wilderness program when her parents have run out of options. It’s a well-crafted and moving story, but one best suited to YA readers.

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say (Kelly Corrigan) —  Corrigan’s trademark wisdom and self-deprecating humor shine in this series of personal essays. This is the perfect gift for your sister, mother, daughter, or friend.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Kate Bowler) — At age 35, Kate Bowler, a divinity professor and new mother, found she had Stage IV cancer. A scholar of the American prosperity gospel, which asserts that God will bless the deserving with health and wealth, Bowler is forced to confront uncertainty. She laces her heartbreaking memoir with wit and humor. Start at the end of the book — Appendix 1 (“Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List”) and Appendix 2 (“Give This a Go, See How It works: A Short List”).

Exit West (Mohsin Hamid) — Some books are best enjoyed and appreciated by solitary readers, while others demand discussion. Exit West, a finalist for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is one of the latter. It’s the story of a young couple, Saaed and Nadia, who escape their war-torn country through a series of magical doors. Fans of The Underground Railroad will love this novel.

Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward) — Last year’s National Book Award winner is a beautifully written story about, among other things, the legacy of slavery. I had to slow myself down while reading it to savor the language. Usually, when ghosts show up in a book, I put the book down in disappointment — but I can’t imagine this novel without the ghosts.

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces (Dawn Davies) — These essays are all spectacular and some of them will break your heart — the titular essay, in particular.

The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani) — Plenty of controversy has surrounded this book, which is loosely based on a real-life case in which a nanny murdered her charges. I don’t think the author is trying to make any judgments about working women. Rather, she skillfully depicts the progression of mental illness.

The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin) — Reading the jacket copy might make you think this book is a work of magical realism, but it’s really a family story — but a very creative one. Four children visit fortune teller who claims to be able to predict the day each of them will die. The rest of the novel follows each sibling’s path through life, asking the question: how much control do we have over the trajectory of our lives?

The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn) — This is a solid suspense novel that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. But what could? It kept me engrossed on a long plane trip, even if  I didn’t find the ending completely surprising. Hitchcock aficionados will enjoy the film references.

Far From the Tree (Robin Benway) — The National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature in 2017, Far From the Tree tells the affecting story of three siblings, given up by their birth mother, who find one another as teenagers. I’m a little surprised this won the National Book Award — it’s very good but not exceptional.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann) — The author of The Lost City of Z, which I loved, has written another outstanding  “truth is stranger than fiction” page-turner about a buried piece of history. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Osage Indians, who’d been banished to what the government thought was a useless piece of land in Oklahoma, discovered oil. Their newfound wealth led to a shocking and coldblooded plot to murder many of them — a plot that was uncovered by the fledgling FBI. The photos of the people involved (victims, and their family members, villains, and heroes) add to the tragic and compelling story.

Grist Mill Road (Christopher Yates) — This ambitious novel starts out with a bang — literally, as a teenage boy repeatedly shoots a female classmate with a BB gun as another boy watches, leaving  her for dead. Soon, the characters are introduced as adults and we learn that the victim and the observer are married to one another. Through each character’s version of events, we go back to the day of the crime, eventually learning what really happened and why. The twist was a big disappointment, and I closed the book feeling that I’d been cheated.

What Fiction to Read Next — Fall 2017

tom_stedfast_reading_by_the_fireAnd indeed, what is better than to sit by one’s fireside in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the window and the lamp is burning?
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Publishers love to release their big, prestigious books in the fall, just in time for holiday shopping. And people claim to love summer reading, but the cooler months are the best time to curl up with a good book. The problem every fall is that there are too many books getting lots of buzz. How do readers determine which of these books are overhyped, overlong, or overambitious?

Nearly every publication that covers the literary scene, print and online, assembles a list of “must-read” books every fall. The same titles pop up again and again, as an article in Literary Hub (The Ultimate Preview: The Most Recommended Books of Fall) points out. Literary Hub looked at seventeen articles, including The Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2017 (Publishers Weekly), 27 of the Best Books to Read This Fall (Elle), 28 Exciting New Books You Need to Read This Fall  (Buzzfeed), and 28 New Fiction Books to Add to Your Must-Read List This Fall (Huffington Post). Why 27? Why 28? Who knows.

One of the more peculiar lists is Today.com’s 6 Must-Read Books for Fall, which includes Sing,Unburied, Sing and Manhattan Beach, of course, but also the actress Anna Faris’s debut literary effort, Unqualified, in which she “shares lessons she’s learned along the way.” (Note to the Today.com writer who assembled the list: Faris’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Chris Pratt, wrote the FOREWORD to the book, not the FORWARD.)

Since I prefer lists of ten, here are the ten works of fiction that appear most often on Literary Hub’s fall previews:

  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (mentioned on nearly every list)
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (finalist for the National Book Award)
  • Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides (short stories)
  • Five Carat Soul by James McBride (short stories)
  • My Body and Other Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (short stories)
  • Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
  • The Golden House by Salman Rushdie
  • Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander
  • The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

34467031I’m currently reading and enjoying Manhattan Beach — but it’s very different from Jennifer Egan’s earlier novels, which experimented with form and content. According to an article in the New Yorker, “Jennifer Egan’s Travels Through Time”, Egan “is a realist with a speculative bent of mind, a writer of postmodern inclinations with the instincts of an old-fashioned entertainer. She’s known for her roving, unpredictable imagination, and for the dazzling ingenuity of her narrative conceits.” Manhattan Beach is straightforward historical fiction, focusing on Anna Kerrigan, who becomes one of the U.S. Army’s first female deep-sea divers during World War II. Egan spent nearly fifteen years writing the book, doing prodigious amounts of research and producing draft after draft.

It’s interesting that three of the books most frequently recommended are collections of short stories, because in my experience hardly anyone wants to read short stories. I’m not sure why, because short stories are perfect for those times when you’re between books, or don’t have the time to immerse yourself in your current book. It can be very satisfying to read a thoughtful, well-written story. You feel like you’ve accomplished something. And there are many stories you can read in 10 or 15 minutes . . . stories that you will be thinking about for much, much longer than that. But they’re a tough sell. To read my sales pitch for short stories, check out Five Reasons to Read Short Stories.

I had the pleasure of hearing Nicole Krauss discuss Forest Dark at a local bookstore event. One of her earlier books, The History of Love, is on my list of all-time favorites. My reaction after reading Forest Dark: Wow, this is a brilliant book. My reaction after listening to Krauss speak, and read from her novel: Wow, she is brilliant. The New York Times calls her “an incisive and creative interpreter of Kafka”; the Guardian says Forest Dark is “blazingly intelligent, elegantly written and a remarkable achievement. Yes, but . . . this is a novel that I admired more than I loved.

33931059On the other hand, I loved Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour. McDermott is one of my very favorite writers, and I’ve had to wait four years for The Ninth Hour. (Someone came out in 2013). Every time I read one of her books, I think, This one is her best, and that’s exactly what went through my mind when I finished The Ninth Hour. In Brooklyn, about one hundred years ago, a young husband commits suicide, leaving behind his pregnant wife. His widow, Annie, and his daughter, Sally, are taken in by nuns in the nearby convent. Sally marries a local boy, Patrick, and their children and grandchildren are the narrators of this beautiful and poetic novel.

81bfa5_e351e59e2bca4560b16e670e16b69be0mv2I can’t stop raving about Little Fires Everywhere. It’s hard to believe that Celeste Ng could top Everything I Never Told You, her debut novel, but I think she has. In many ways, the books are similar. Everything I Never Told You starts with the mysterious death of a teenager; Little Fires Everywhere starts with a mysterious house fire. Both novels are concerned with the secret lives of teenagers and clashes between cultural groups. But Little Fires Everywhere adds even more layers of depth, with more characters and subplots. Don’t start this book until you have plenty of reading time ahead of you — you won’t want to stop. By the way, Little Fires Everywhere was Reese Witherspoon’s September pick for her book club. She often chooses terrific books — Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic, which is next up in my TBR pile, is her selection this month.

32223884One book I haven’t seen on any of the fall preview lists is Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, and I don’t know why, because it’s one of the best books I’ve read all year. If anyone thought Denfeld was a one-hit wonder (The Enchanted) — don’t worry, The Child Finder is spectacular. The “child finder” of the title is Naomi, a private investigator who has a mysterious gift for finding missing children — and who was once a missing child herself. A heartbroken couple hires her to find their little girl, Madison, lost when they were cutting down a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. As Naomi searches for Madison, she comes closer to discovering the secrets of her own past. Echoes of fairy tales resound throughout this gorgeous novel, reminding the reader of the power of stories and imagination to heal and redeem. I can’t wait to meet the author at a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon this Wednesday.

What are you reading this fall?

 

 

Cookbook Season

9780307474414The table is a meeting place, a gathering ground, the source of sustenance and nourishment, festivity, safety, and satisfaction. A person cooking is a person giving; even the simplest food is a gift.
Laurie Colwin

Last Sunday, a group of sailors from the naval training base just a few miles from our store stopped by to pick up some books for their precious free time. Young and earnest, they asked us for suggestions, wanting to know what our “desert island” books would be.  I mentioned a few of mine that they might like  (Pillars of the Earth, Crossing to Safety, The Prince of Tides) as well as some recent favorites that might appeal to young men (The Boys in the Boat, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, The Art of Fielding), but I didn’t mention two books that I would want on my desert island:the late Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen.

Colwin, who wrote five novels and three collections of short stories, was a passionate cook and a columnist for Gourmet magazine. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking contain essays about food (mostly comfort food) and Colwin’s favorite family recipes. Here’s what Colwin has to say about roast chicken: “There is nothing like roast chicken. It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.”

I hope my desert island has a fully equipped kitchen to accompany Colwin’s “musings, anecdotes, and quirkily imprecise, not-altogether-reliable recipes”. It would be nice to have a few other cookbooks, as well as some other castaways to share meals and conversation. Colwin says:

One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends. People who like to cook like to talk about food.

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Tarragon shrimp salad

Our bookstore staff likes all of the above, and of course we like reading about food as well. Fall is cookbook season in the publishing world, and it’s exciting to page through all the beautiful new cookbooks that release every week in September, October, and November. Ina Garten’s tenth cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey, was the most highly anticipated cookbook this season. Our staff had a “Cook Like Ina” party several weeks ago, with everyone bringing a recipe from the Barefoot Contessa. Every one of them was delicious and worth making again; we filled our plates with kale salad with pancetta and pecorino, tomato tart, tarragon shrimp salad, crusty baked shells and cauliflower . . . and then when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, out came the limoncello ricotta cheesecake and vanilla cream cheese pound cake.

9780307464897-2You know a cookbook is more than a cookbook when it merits a full-length review in the Atlantic. An article entitled “The Old-Fashioned, Modern Marriage of Ina and Jeffrey” declares that Cooking for Jeffrey “doubles as an insight into the workings of ‘the most cherished celebrity couple in the world.'” It’s true that sprinkled among the book’s recipes are personal anecdotes about Ina and Jeffrey’s marriage, but what makes the book worth buying are the recipes, entertaining tips, and gorgeous photographs.

skinnytaste-fast-and-slow-cookbook-550x700Of course, you can’t cook like Ina every night. She uses a lot of butter and cream, for one thing. One of my favorite cookbooks of the season is Skinnytaste Fast and Slow: Knockout Quick-Fix and Slow Cooker Recipes, by Gina Homolka. Half of the recipes can be prepared in 30 minutes or less, and half are designed for the slow cooker. Everything I’ve made has been easy, delicious, and healthy — I highly recommend the turkey-zucchini meatballs, which take four hours in the crockpot. Most slow cooker recipes take eight hours or more, but many of the recipes in this book take only a few hours, which is great if you want to throw your Sunday dinner in at 3:00 PM.

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Zaatar roasted carrots

Forest Feast Gatherings: Simple Vegetarian Menus for Hosting Friends and Family, by Erin Gleeson, is a wonderful follow-up to the original Forest Feast, one of my most-used cookbooks. It’s also so pretty you’ll want to leave it on the kitchen counter. You can tell the author is a food photographer and stylist. The recipes are simple and wholesome as well as photo-worthy; our store manager, Max, made the roasted carrots and they look ready for Instagram.

9780399583377Jane Green’s Good Taste: Simple, Delicious Meals for Family and Friends is fun to cook from and just as fun to read. (Do you notice that cookbook subtitles frequently mention cooking for “family and friends”? Who else would you cook for? Strangers and enemies?) Like all my favorite cookbooks, it’s also an entertaining guide and has plenty of appealing photos. Green, who has written eighteen novels, includes amusing stories about cooking, herself, and her family, making Good Taste a great book to keep on your nightstand.

index-pperlIn Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin says, “To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup” and “There is nothing like soup. It is by nature eccentric: no two are ever alike, unless of course you get your soup in a can.” Soup Nights: Satisfying Soups and Sides for Delicious Meals All Year, by longtime cooking teacher Betty Rosbottom, contains more than enough soup recipes to keep you safe and warm all winter. (Rosbottom also includes some cold soups for the warmer months.) The broccoli soup with creme fraiche is the best broccoli soup I’ve ever had, and takes only thirty minutes from start to finish. A friend of mine has a monthly Soup Night with her friends, which replaced their book club when no one could agree on which book to read. Every month, someone makes a big pot of soup and everyone brings a book to exchange. I think everyone in this group needs a copy of Soup Nights!

Actually, I think everyone needs a new cookbook this season. To quote Laurie Colwin once again:

Cookbooks hit you where you live. You want comfort; you want security; you want food; you want to not be hungry and not only do you want those basic things fixed you want it done in a really nice, gentle way that makes you feel loved. That’s a big desire, and cookbooks say to the person reading them, “If you will read me, you will be able to do this for yourself and for others.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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!

The Summer Guest — Book Review

The Summer Guest coverI just enjoy translating, it’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge.
Iris Murdoch

I gamble on a lot of books by authors I’m not familiar with, often giving up on them after fifty pages or so. Life is too short to slog through books I don’t enjoy. I picked up The Summer Guest after sampling several books that didn’t capture my attention, thinking I’d probably be adding it to the pile of disappointments. The author, Alison Anderson, is an award-winning translator, perhaps best known for  translating The Elegance of the Hedgehog from the French — yet another well-regarded book I failed to finish. Also, I was annoyed by the title. Justin Cronin wrote a lovely book by that name about ten years ago. I’ll never understand why authors recycle a title; it seems to marginalize the first book, as if it’s been forgotten by now.

I shouldn’t have worried, because not only did I finish The Summer Guest, I’m sure I’ll be adding it to my list of favorite books of the year. Anderson’s elegantly constructed novel, like all the books I love, engages both the mind and the heart. Readers will learn about Chekhov, Russian and Ukrainian history,  and the art of translation, and they will reflect on the meaning of love and friendship.

The “summer guest” in the novel is Anton Chekhov, who rents a cottage on the estate of the Lintvaryov family in eastern Ukraine. Chekhov, a doctor who writes short stories and plays to earn extra cash, develops a close friendship with Zinaida Lintvaryova, who is also a doctor but has recently become blinded by illness. Zinaida keeps a diary chronicling her relationship with Chekhov. When the diary surfaces more than 100 years later, London publisher Katya Kendall hires Ana Harding to translate — and to help solve the mysteries it contains. Did Chekhov write a novel during the time he spent on the Lintvaryov estate? The missing novel could change literary history, and also revitalize Ana Harding’s career and make it possible for Katya Kendall’s publishing house to survive:

Ana: “What did she really expect from the lost novel? Why did the thought of it cause a knot in her stomach, a jolt of sleep-depriving adrenaline? Because it would change her life. It would respond to yearning, fill a void.”

Katya: “She imagined the money coming in, the thrill of being not only solvent but also able to turn things around. To defy the recession and geopolitics and the received opinions of the publishing world . . . Ah, Zinaida, miracles do happen.”

There will be no literal miracle for Zinaida, who suffers from an incurable illness. The miracles that Katya and Ana discover — and I’m not giving anything away — are the magic of literature and the power of the imagination. In a discussion with the director of a Ukrainian museum devoted to Chekhov, Ana explores the meaning of fiction:

Was that not the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it and, above all, felt it? Was there a finer way to honor friendship, and love, and being in the world?

In an article on Lithub, Anderson describes how her reading life inspired her to write The Summer Guest:

One of the more interesting aspects of being a lifelong reader is to discover which authors and books in one’s personal library stay the course over time, and which ones we consign to the recycle bin with the sad realization that the author no longer speaks to us as he or she once did. Then there are those whose voice was too quiet when we were young, but who now speak with such assurance and such pitch-perfect wisdom and grace that we find them all the more enthralling for having overlooked or underestimated them earlier in life.

Anton Chekhov has been just such an author for me . . .

Anderson says Chekhov’s letters, in which he describes the Lintvaryov family, were the starting point for the novel. Zinaida’s perspective allows her to present a subjective view of Chekhov, “limited by time and blindness and the constraints of society”, and Zinaida’s feelings reflect the “love, admiration and gratitude” that Anderson feels toward the writer.

Anderson estimates she went through twenty or thirty different versions of the novel, struggling most with the ending: “I won’t say that writing the diary of a sightless Ukrainian woman in the 19th century was the easy part, but it was certainly easier than coming up with an ending for the story of the beleaguered translator whose job it is to render the diary into English.” The ending, which involves a twist the reader may or may not anticipate, perfectly ties together the novel’s three storylines — Zinaida’s, Ana’s, and Katya’s.

The three characters all struggle to translate both life and language. As Zinaida loses her sight, she relies on Chekhov to interpret the world for her. Katya, a native Russian speaker, sees her language as her “greatest comfort and pride” and laments the “relative poverty” of English. Clinging to the language of her childhood is damaging her relationship with her husband and business partner. Ana finds that the Russian language has taught her something “completely unexpected and equally precious: another way of seeing the world”.

 

 

 

 

 

Read a Little Poetry

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life . . .
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As I sat staring at my screen, trying to decide which books to include in my list of summer reading recommendations, it occurred to me that I’ve never said much in Books on the Table about my love of poetry. I’ve begged readers to give short stories a try (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories), pointing out that they are perfect for anyone who needs what novelist Amber Dermont calls a “single serving” of literature. Expanding on her metaphor, I’d like to suggest that if you need a shot (espresso or liquor, take your pick!) of literature, read a poem.

eb_white_and_his_dog_minnie
E.B. White

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer . . . He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poem utterly clear is a trifle glaring.
E.B. White

E.B. White, known for the lucid and concise prose advocated in The Elements of Style, also celebrated the mysterious nature of poetry. If you know White only through his classic children’s books, I encourage you to read his essay collections, which are spectacular. You’ll never read better writing. In Here is New York, White says: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.” White wrote several books of poetry, all now out of print, although you can find some of his poems online.

I treasure my poetry books more than any others I own, but I also enjoy reading poetry on my phone or computer screen. Before watching or reading the news in the morning, I like to read a poem. It puts me in a much better frame of mind, and if I’m lucky, certain lines will resonate with me and stick with me for the rest of the day. Rereading old favorites is always a pleasure, but it’s a special treat to discover new poems. You can subscribe to Poem-a-Day, Your Daily Poem, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, or other websites that will deliver poems to your inbox every day. The Poetry Foundation has a free app with thousands of poems. If you’re stuck waiting in line for a few minutes, what better way to spend your time than reading a poem?

9780142003442Garrison Keillor has collected his favorite selections from The Writer’s Almanac public radio show in anthologies — Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times. Two other anthologies I recommend are Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them and Poems That Make Grown Women Cry: 100 Women on the Words That Move Them. The editors of these books (father and son team Anthony and Ben Holden) asked notable men and women this question: “What poem moves you to tears?” Please don’t be put off by the word “cry” in the titles; the poems are emotionally powerful, not depressing.

In grade school, I was forced to memorize poems, which was not so bad, and then to recite them to the class, which was dreadful. I don’t think that’s part of today’s curriculum, unfortunately. I probably sound like a curmudgeon, but I think rote memorization is good mental exercise, and being made to do something that makes you uncomfortable builds character. Anyway, when you can’t sleep, it’s helpful to have a little treasure trove of memorized poetry in your brain. Strangely, I’m often comforted by Macbeth’s soliloquy, delivered as he struggles with guilt and possible insanity: “Is this a dagger which I see before me/The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee . . .”

This morning’s poem, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”, by Wallace Stevens, is everything a poem should be: lovely, evocative, and a little puzzling. Please read it, let it soak in, and be glad you don’t have to analyze it for English class.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Note: I just discovered a wonderful blog called Read a Little Poetry — check it out!

 

 

 

 

What to Read Next — May 2016

Long stormy spring-time, wet contentious April, winter chilling the lap of very May; but at length the season of summer does come.
Thomas Carlyle

The bad news is that April was a slow reading month for me. My major projects were caring for a new puppy and battling a bronchial infection. As I stood coughing under an umbrella, pelted by hailstones and waiting for said puppy to take care of business so I could put him to bed, I thought longingly of reading on my porch on a sunny May day. The good news is that that’s exactly where I am now — and that I did manage to read some terrific books in April, all by debut authors and all published today. Happy book birthday to Pamela Wechsler, Elizabeth J. Church, and Maria Toorpakai (and her co-author, Katherine Holstein)!

9781466887138Pamela Wechsler, an attorney who spent many years as a criminal prosecutor in Boston and later became a consultant and writer for several TV shows, met the actor Billy Bob Thornton while she was a legal advisor on his movie, The Judge. Thornton — who won an Academy Award for writing the Sling Blade script — encouraged Wechsler to write a novel. The result is the page-turner Mission Hill, first in a planned series about Abby Endicott, a blue-blooded Boston prosecutor whose family expects her to join a white-shoe law firm but opts for the gritty world of criminal law. Thornton’s blurb is better than any description I could come up with: “Pam Wechsler delivers a thrill ride, crackling with suspense, wit and style. The story is rich, the characters are complex, and the writing is deft. I can’t wait for the next one.” I’m with Billy Bob! Watch for an interview with Wechsler on Books on the Table — but I warn you, the interview I just read on a website called The Thrill Begins will be a tough act to follow. I love Shannon Kirk’s “Worst Questions for a Debut Author”. Now I have to think of some creative questions of my own!

Church_AtomicWeight_HC_FINAL_PRNT.inddElizabeth J. Church, author of The Atomic Weight of Love, is also an attorney. Church, who’s published scholarly articles in legal and scientific journals as well as short stories, left the law after practicing for 30 years. She grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the daughter of a research chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Church’s debut novel was inspired by the lives of her parents and their contemporaries. Meridian (Meri), a young biology student at the University of Chicago, marries her much older professor, Alden, and gives up her own dreams of becoming an ornithologist when her husband is sent to Los Alamos to help develop the atomic bomb. This lovely novel of love, sacrifice, and societal change spans 30 years in Meri and Alden’s flawed marriage. This would be a perfect book club selection — beautiful writing and plenty of issues to discuss. (Meri’s own experiences with women’s discussion groups are not very successful!)

f76c11fc5e15e2c9f36f5d66b81617c6Squash champion Maria Toorpakai, author of the stunning memoir A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight, risked her life to become a professional athlete.  For over two years, death threats forced her to practice squash in her cement-walled bedroom. Born in Waziristan, the Taliban-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Area of northwest Pakistan, Toorpakai lived as a boy until she was sixteen. Her loving and liberal family supports her dream of athletic success, eventually allowing her to flee Pakistan and train with Jonathon Power, the world champion squash player who now runs the Power Squash Academy in Toronto. The human rights abuses that the Toorpakai vividly describes are numerous and shocking — as a young girl, is beaten by a mullah for showing an interest and athletics, and she sees a woman stoned to death. Don’t miss this powerful and inspiring memoir. I can’t wait to see Power’s documentary about Toorpakai’s s The War to Be Her, scheduled for release in September. (Special thanks to Aidan Harrison, squash pro at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois and friend of Jonathon Power, who alerted me to Toorpakai’s amazing story.)

I just realized that I neglected to mention two fabulous March debuts that you should add to your reading list. The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, is a perfect book for your next vacation, or just a lazy Sunday afternoon. Four siblings — who are all in their forties but often behave like spoiled children — have put their lives on hold until they inherit their share of the family trust (“The Nest”). This clever, insightful, and often very funny novel had me turning the pages late into the night. If you liked Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements or Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, you’ll love The Nest. I’m adding it to my list of novels about WASPS behaving badly.

Our YA book group at Lake Forest Book Store loved The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Zentner is a successful singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Nashville who also works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp. His insight into young people — particularly those from isolated Southern towns — shines through in his first novel, about three friends  growing up in Forrestville, Tennessee (named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan). “The Serpent King” refers to the religious background of the main character,  Dill Early, whose father is a disgraced snake-handling preacher. Zentner writes sentences you’ll want to underline and fills his coming-of-age story with plenty of surprising twists.

I also need to mention one March release that probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that I read in two days. The North Water, by Ian McGuire, was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, so I can’t be the only person who willingly reads about violence aboard a 19th century whaling expedition — gruesome murders, polar bear attacks, animal slaughter, and violence galore. I haven’t been brave enough to watch The Revenant yet, but I couldn’t stop reading this book. The Times reviewer says:

The North Water, Ian McGuire’s savage new novel about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition, is a great white shark of a book — swift, terrifying, relentless and unstoppable. It is also as epically bloody as a Jacobean drama or a Cormac McCarthy novel . . . Mr. McGuire is such a natural storyteller — and recounts his tale here with such authority and verve — that The North Water swiftly immerses the reader in a fully imagined world.

What’s on your reading list for May? I’m overwhelmed with all the new releases — and looking forward to attending BEA (BookExpo America) in Chicago next week. Send me a message if you’ll be there and we can try to meet up!