Rainy Day Thoughts on Reading and Reviewing

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Raymond Carver

Rainy day reading . . . beach reading . . . airplane reading . . . what’s the difference? To me, a good book is a good book whether I’m curled up on the couch on a rainy day, lying on a lounge chair at the beach, or crammed into a middle seat on a long flight. But there is something about a dreary day that makes a person want to hibernate and read. We’ve had a lot of those days recently in the Midwest — so many that I finally read quite a few long magazine articles that I was literally saving for a rainy day.

One of those articles was “Like This or Die: The Fate of the Book Review in the Age of the Algorithm” by Christian Lorentzen, published in the April issue of Harper’s. Lorentzen laments the decline of the traditional book review:

The basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?

reesewitherspoon_47691676_295576967825248_7818922326852586208_nI don’t think authors need me to criticize them. I assume that by the time their books are published, they’ve received a lifetime’s worth of criticism, from professors, classmates, editors, and “sensitivity readers”. Lorentzen’s basic point, which is that both readers and writers deserve “painstaking appraisals” of serious books is a good one. I agree with him that much of what now passes as literary journalism is lightweight — for example, lists of “reading recommendations” with blurbs lifted from jacket copy, Instagram photos of celebrities with books as props, and five-minute TV interviews in which it’s obvious that interviewer hasn’t read the author’s book. But if a photo of Reese Witherspoon reading The Library Book inspires her fans to read Susan Orlean’s fascinating narrative about public libraries and their place in our society, what’s wrong with that?

9780143110439Objecting to what he calls “a consumerist vision of reading”,  Lorentzen says, “I’m skeptical of the popular and the commercial.” Yes, bestselling books can be poorly written and formulaic, but so are many “literary” books.  It seems almost too obvious to state that many bestsellers are popular for a very good reason — they’re terrific books by any standard. For example, the current New York Times bestseller list includes Circe by Madeline Miller, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande — books beloved by both critics and ordinary readers.

Lorentzen can’t resist recommending his own favorite authors, mentioning Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing  (“formally daring historical fiction”) and Nico Walker, the incarcerated author of Cherry (“the opioid epidemic’s hard-boiled chronicler”). I would say yes to Gyasi and her powerful, lyrical novel about slavery and its legacy; no to Walker and his repetitive, needlessly vulgar novel with thinly developed female characters.

Bookmarks editor Dan Sheehan asked fourteen literary critics to weigh in on Lorentzen’s essay:

Is relentlessly sunny book “coverage” replacing honest book criticism, or merely supplementing it? Are listicles, Bookstagram, and literary Twitter nothing but treacly promotion puddles on the surfaces of which books can float unscrutinized and unchallenged; or are they in fact vibrant and necessary new arenas of discourse wherein previously silenced critical voices can finally be heard?

In a thoughtful discussion (“The Book Review is Dead: Long Live the Book Review”), most critics found some merit in Lorentzen’s argument, but most also — like me — agreed that Lorentzen’s elitism ignores the positive aspects of 21st century book coverage:

What’s the point of panning a disappointing debut that the vast majority of your audience doesn’t—and has no reason to—know of? ~ David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cheerleading, not when there are so many wonderful books to talk about, not when there’s a chance that people might be listening. ~ Steph Cha, LA Times

Readers come in all stripes, and offering a wide array of reviews and profiles and Q&As and lists (or listicles) is a way to draw more attention to books, a way to offer more variety and attract the attention and interest of readers to books they might want to read. ~ Laurie Hertzel, National Book Critics Circle President

Criticism should not only be evaluation or recommendation, but it’s not anti-intellectual or wrong for readers to want recommendations or to enjoy curated lists . . . The best we can do is to keep thinking and writing about books, relentlessly and endlessly, as much as we possibly can. ~ Constance Grady, Vox

I keep a log of all the books I’ve read, with brief reviews. (For the current list, see Read in 2019.) You can see that there are a few books I really disliked, but not many, probably because if I’m not enjoying a book, I don’t finish it. The books that I choose to spotlight in blog posts are books I liked enough to recommend to other readers. They’re not necessarily masterpieces. Here are a six books (one fiction, five nonfiction) that I enjoyed recently, with appropriately positive reviews. (I draw the line at posting photos of me with books, however — I’m firmly in Christian Lorentzen’s camp when it comes to selfies.)

the-island-of-sea-women-9781501154850_hrThe Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
The best part of this book was learning about a culture that I had no idea even existed — the lives of haenyeo (female divers who can hold their breath for up to three minutes and earn their living by harvesting animals and plants from the ocean) and their matrifocal community of Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Beginning during the Japanese colonial period in the 1930s and moving through decades of rapid change, The Island of Sea Women tells the story of the friendship between Mi-Ja, the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and Young-Sook, the daughter of the diving collective’s leader.

9781328662057_hresMaybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
When an unexpected crisis sends therapist Lori Gottlieb into a depression, she seeks the help of another therapist to reassemble the pieces of her life. With humor and compassion, Gottlieb weaves her story with the stories of several patients she’s treating, including an insufferably egotistical Hollywood producer, a lonely elderly woman who’s planning to commit suicide on her next birthday, a newlywed recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, and a millennial who can’t seem to form meaningful relationships. Although it’s nonfiction, this book has twists that will keep you turning the pages. You’ll root for Gottlieb and for her patients — even that obnoxious producer, who has a backstory that will bring tears to your eyes.

the-storm-on-our-shores-9781451678376_lgThe Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II by Mark Obmascik
Probably, most readers don’t know much about the only World War II battle fought in North American — the Battle of Attu, which took place in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in 1943. This well-researched account personalizes history by focusing on two soldiers — a Japanese medic named Paul Tatsuguchi, educated in America and drafted into the Imperial Army, and an American coal mine, Dick Laird who killed him — and found his diary. Versions of the diary were distributed to American soldiers. Many questions are left unanswered at the end of this book, which I suppose is inevitable because this is real history, not historical fiction; still, I felt the author could have spent more time addressing some of the moral controversy raised by the diary.9780525511359

The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams
I must be a masochist because I can’t seem to stop reading memoirs written by people who are dying:  The Bright Hour, When Breath Becomes Air, and now The Unwinding of the Miracle. Each one is more heartbreaking — and yet more inspiring — than the last. Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-Williams barely survived childhood; her family tried to euthanize her because of her disability. So it truly is a miracle that she escaped Vietnam in a leaky boat, received surgery in the United States that allowed her to see, graduated from Williams College and  Harvard Law School, married, and had a family. Her book, based on a blog she started when she was diagnosed with cancer, is a beautifully written account of a life well lived.

9780385543897Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis
This northern lady really enjoyed Helen Ellis’s collection of sharp and snappy essays, Despite the title, they’re not all about being Southern. And anyway, how can you not adore a writer whose idea of a fun evening is to invite her girlfriends over to drink wine and put together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of “a spooky owl in mid-flight”? I just want to know how I can get on Helen’s guest list. If you like David Sedaris, you’ll love Helen Ellis.

9780812996104Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting by Anna Quindlen
How could I not love this book? Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite authors AND I recently became a grandmother. This is going to be my go-to gift for all the new grandmothers in my life. That said, I don’t think you need to be a grandmother to enjoy Nanaville; if you’ve had a beloved grandparent in your life, that’s enough.

Since you’ve read this far, here’s a bonus recommendation: Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, out on May 28. One of my favorites this year, it’s the story of the complicated relationship between next-door neighbors.

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10 New Books Worth Your Time

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!
William Gladstone

IMG_2762 2According 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:

40000705The 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.

41644326Save 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.

9780385538800An 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.

9780735223042Henry, 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.

34409176The 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!)

y648The 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.

34810320Sadie 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.

fullsizeoutput_3bdeThe 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.

9780525521877The 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.

y648-1Little 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.

Random Recommendations on a Snowy Day

Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness.
Mary Oliver

Happy 2019! I’m not sure why, but I haven’t written a blog post since October. Today, the snow is falling and my plans for the day have been canceled. It’s a perfect time to sit at my desk and put together a list of winter reading recommendations. But it’s been so long . . . where do I start? Books that are hot off the press? New in paperback? My favorites from 2018?

original_400_600A list of books with “winter” in the title would be fun — The Dakota Winters, by Tom Barbash , is a brand-new and absorbing novel about growing up in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York, with John Lennon as a neighbor, and The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, is terrific historical fiction about an Austrian medical student sent to a remote field hospital during World War I. And how about Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter, a beautiful novel about three characters whose lives collide during a Brooklyn blizzard, and Robin Oliveira’s Winter Sisters, a page-turner set in 19th century Albany, New York that features a former Civil War surgeon, Mary Sutter (last seen in My Name is Mary Sutter)? My favorite “winter” novel has to be The Long Winter, which I think is the best of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.

Some random thoughts on more of my recent reading, which has been mostly nonfiction:

  • 97803163906371I really love books about whaling. I’m one of those rare readers who not only enjoyed Moby Dick but didn’t skip the long passages about whaling techniques. Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, narrative nonfiction about shipwrecked whalers, is one of my favorite books. I’m also fascinated with indigenous people who live in remote areas, so The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific With a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life, by Doug Bock Clark, hit my sweet spot.  I think anyone who enjoys excellent narrative nonfiction will find this book fascinating, and hard to put down. The New York Times review says, it “has the texture and coloring of a first-rate novel”, and I agree.
  • 7dd3a5322ec6cdebffa99c6200b0b3e3545fabe1When a lot of people whose opinions you respect keep telling you to read a book, you should listen to them. For some reason, I was dubious about Elena Ferrante’s  acclaimed Neapolitan Novels, but after watching My Brilliant Friend on HBO, I decided to give the series another try — and now I’m hooked. I wish someone had told me that these books are an Italian version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — but even better, because the story just keeps going.
  • 9781524732714For some memoir authors, one book isn’t enough. An article about the increasing number of “serial memoirists” explores this phenomenon: “This Is the Story of My Life. And This Is the Story of My Life.”  Dani Shapiro, for example, has just published her fifth memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. I don’t have enough material to fill even a fraction of one memoir, but my AncestryDNA results were, unlike Shapiro’s, exactly what I expected. I read this book in one day and can’t wait to discuss it with a book group.
  • y648Bill Bryson, watch out — Jennifer Traig is encroaching on your territory. In Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, she delves deep into the history of Western child-rearing, starting with ancient Rome, juxtaposing detailed research with scathing wit. In order to keep their babies from stumbling into “bubbling pots of gruel”, medieval parents swaddled their babies tightly and hung them from hooks on the hall, “like purses on a bathroom stall.”
  • y648-1I can never resist a book about books, especially one about children’s books, so I couldn’t wait to read The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal.  (Doesn’t that sound like a dream job?) She shares fascinating data from the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, among other research centers, that prove what “we enthusiasts have long suspected is true: reading aloud really is a kind of magic elixir.”
  • fullsizeoutput_3b65I am such a word nerd that I actually enjoy reading books about grammar and vocabulary. I don’t know how many people like me exist, but there must be enough of us to justify publishing these books. How to Tell Fate From Destiny: And Other Skillful Word Distinctions by Charles Harrington Elster and Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer (copy chief of Random House). If you were the kind of kid who liked to read the dictionary, you’ll enjoy both of these books, which are both full of humor as well as useful information.
  • 900You might think a certain category of book is not for you, but then you read one  and change your mind. I didn’t think I would like a graphic memoir, but I absolutely adored Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, and Dealt With Family Addiction, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before, and humanizes the opioid crisis in way no other book I’ve read on the subject has been able to do.

I’d love your recommendations!

What I’ve Been Reading — Fall 2018

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

. . .  And Books on the Table is starting all over again, with a brand new design that’s a little cleaner and easier on the eyes. Over the past five years, the content has changed as well. Good-bye, in-depth book reviews; hello, collections of short reviews. I’m not as concerned with reviewing brand-new books as I used to be. Just because a book has been out for a few months — or even a year — doesn’t mean it’s yesterday’s news. The frequency of posts has slowed down as well. Once a month or so seems about right. I have a long list of post ideas, and I also have a huge pile of unread books. Most of the time, I choose to pick up a book rather than write a blog post. Here are a dozen terrific books I read recently when I could have been doing other things:

Nonfiction

A book for book lovers:

the-library-book-9781476740188_hrThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

The Library Book is one of my favorites of 2018. At its heart is the mysterious fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 that destroyed nearly a million books, but it covers a lot of territory — the story of the accused arsonist, the history of libraries, the value of the printed page, the dedication of librarians to their work. Susan Orlean brilliantly weaves all these strands, and more, together to create a fascinating narrative that celebrates public libraries. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she said, “There’s plenty to feel joyful about: that we still write books and read books and preserve books in places like libraries where they’re available for everyone to share.”

A must-read for parents of young children, and also anyone who’s interested in the direction of American society:

9781250089557-1Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks
And so children do not go to the store to buy bread and milk for their parents. They do not take long walks through the woods, or ride bikes along paths, or build secret tree houses or forts while we are inside working or cooking or talking to other adults or leading our lives. They are no longer afforded, as Mona Simpson writes, “the luxury of being unnoticed, of being left alone.”

After her arrest for leaving her four-year-old in a 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 and often superstitious fears. When, and why, did we become so anxious to protect our children from every possible form of danger, no matter how statistically unlikely it is to occur, and why are we so quick to blame parents — particularly mothers — when something goes wrong? This engaging and thought-provoking book — part memoir, part sociological study — will inspire lively discussion.

why-we-sleep-9781501144325_lgA science book for nonscientists (or anyone who’s ever dreamed of a good night’s sleep):

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, Ph.D.
The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations—diseases that are crippling health-care systems, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer—all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker (director of the Sleep Lab at UC Berkeley) presents, in an entertaining and conversational way, all the evidence that adequate sleep, especially the REM sleep in which we dream, is essential to good health.  He also outlines the methods to ensure a good night’s sleep. So why did I stay up too late reading this book?  Because, since childhood, I’ve had the sleep-depriving habit of reading just one more chapter of books that capture my attention. He doesn’t mind if readers use his book as a sleep aid: “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”

A book that helps readers understand the causes of the opioid crisis, along with possible solutions:

Macy_DopesickDopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America by Beth Macy
America’s approach to its opioid problem is to rely on Battle of Dunkirk strategies—leaving the fight to well-meaning citizens, in their fishing vessels and private boats—when what’s really needed to win the war is a full-on Normandy Invasion.

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 harrowing narrative not only lays bare the corporate greed that has contributed to human suffering, it brings us face-to-face with the real people affected by this complicated crisis — addicts and their friends and families.  As fast-paced and readable as any thriller, this book will outrage you.

Two excellent memoirs — one by an author at the end of his adult life, one by an author at the beginning of hers:

9781328826343_hresCarnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall

When I was young, my language wore coats and shirts and trousers, neckties, bespoke shirts. In my lifetime as a writer I have cast off layer after layer of clothing in pursuit of nudity. I held nothing back except transitions that might once have elaborated notes into an essay. . . . As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember. Why should a nonagenarian hold anything back?

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.”

fullsizeoutput_3a1aAll You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
By the time I was five or six years old, I had heard the tale of my loving, selfless birth parents so many times I could recite it myself. I collected every fact I could, hoarding the sparse and faded glimpses into my past like bright, favorite toys. This may be all you can ever know, I was told. 

When she was expecting her first child, Nicole Chung decided to search for her birth family. What she learned shocked her and went far beyond the medical history she had hoped to find. Chung not only tells a riveting and suspenseful story, she explores transracial adoption and biological heritage.

Fiction

Two slim books with lots of  “meat” for discussion:

his-favorites-9781476799391_lgHis Favorites by Kate Walbert
This is not a story I’ve told before. No one would believe me. I mean, really believe me. The would get that look and nod. They would ask certain questions that suggested I was somehow culpable or that I was making most of it up out of nothing — just girlish fantasies and daydreams.

His Favorites 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.

9781101947395Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman
My friend was, they’d been told, the most wounded man from both the wars. As advanced as medicine had become, that likely made him the most wounded man in the history of war, and they’d just kept him alive from one side of the world to the other.

Decorated veteran and National Book Award nominee Elliot Ackerman (Dark at the Crossing) has written a powerful modern-day version of Johnny Got His Gun that will break your heart. After Eden is gravely injured in Iraq, his best friend, killed in the same blast, narrates the story of Eden and his wife, Mary: “Ever since then I’ve been around too, just on that other side, seeing all there is, and waiting.”

For fans of Pat Conroy’s Southern fiction (The Prince of Tides, South of Broad) and/or Barbara Kingsolver’s eco-fiction (Prodigal Summer, Flight Behavior):

9780735219090Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know that a sentence could be so full.

I adored this novel about a young girl, abandoned by her family, who is forced to raise herself in a remote North Carolina marsh. First-time novelist Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist, and her love of the natural world shows in this beautiful and satisfying book, which combines both a coming-of-age story and a murder mystery.

A quiet, character-driven novel about family dynamics:

a-cloud-in-the-shape-of-a-girl-9781501194368_lgA Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson
And yet history shifted underneath your feet . . . The present was a dizzy perch that every so often began to spin and slide . . . You held onto your life with both hands, you told yourself to pay attention to this moment, the here and now. But one minute passed into the next, and at some point you looked back and everything was over and people called it history.

Starting during the Second World War II and  moving through succeeding generations, A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl examines the lives of three Midwestern women — grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter — as they struggle with career choices and imperfect marriages, Jean Thompson is one of many underappreciated writers who is a master at creating complex and interesting characters.

For readers who like Jodi Picoult but want something less formulaic:

97814555617591If We Had Known by Elise Juska
After twenty-eight years, Maggie could rely on the arc of a semester: the way, in the beginning, the freshmen would be tentative, wary, fifteen versions on insecurity — the glibness, the shyness, the overwrought machismo — was there any teenage behavior without insecurity at the root? — but as the weeks passed, they gained confidence in their work.

English professor Maggie Daley is shocked to learn that a former student was responsible for a 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-oriented page-turner.)

Great historical fiction:

9781101967386Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
Real writing, I was beginning to realize, was more like laying bricks than waiting for lightning to strike. It was painstaking. It was manual labor. And sometimes, sometimes if you kept putting the bricks down and let your hands just go on bleeding, and didn’t look up and didn’t stop for anything, the lightning came.

If you enjoyed The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, you will love Love and Ruin, about his extraordinary third wife, reporter and novelist Martha Gellhorn. The pair fell in love while covering the Spanish Civil War and were married for four tumultuous years. Gellhorn, who was the only woman to land on D-Day (defying Hemingway’s wishes) was to become one of the most renowned journalists of the twentieth century, covering every major war and publishing many books. She emerges in this captivating novel as a strong, independent woman ahead of her time.

There are so many good books coming out this fall — I’m especially excited by Barbara Kingsolver’s latest (Unsheltered), Tana French’s stand-alone mystery (The Witch Elm), and Kate Atkinson’s spy novel (Transcription). How about you?

 

What I’ve Been Reading — Summer 2018

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.
John Lubbock

And of course, reading is never a waste of time. The number of good books to read is overwhelming, and sometimes I get frustrated when I realize I’ve spent hours reading something that is just OK, when there are piles of other books waiting for me. It’s maddening to go on a trip with several carefully chosen books, only to find that not one of them is especially engaging. That’s when I have to remind myself that I’m not going to love every book, and that even the time spent reading a mediocre book is time well spent. As Will Schwalbe says in Books for Living, “You can learn something from the very worst books . . . even if it’s just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.”

Case in point: on a recent long weekend, I packed a couple of brand-new books I thought I would love: The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson and That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam. They were both disappointing, but I learned a couple of things that I probably should have already known: 1) Just because a book centers on an independent bookstore doesn’t mean it’s a great book; and 2) If I didn’t like the author’s first book (in this case, Alam’s Rich and Pretty) it’s unlikely that I’ll like his second.

The third book I read on that trip, which I didn’t start until the plane ride home, was one that I tossed in my bag at the last minute — The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. A terrific mash-up of true crime and memoir, this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years. When she was a law student, the author 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.

Here are eight more books I recommend, whether you’re in the mood for easy summer reading (The High Season, The Book of Essie), serious literary fiction (Asymmetry, The Great Believers, The Dependents), something in between (The Locals, Visible Empire), or bittersweet humor (Less).

The High Season by 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.

Visible Empire by 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.

Less by 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. Recent winners have covered 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.”

The Great Believers by 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.

The Book of Essie by 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, is an adult novel, but it reads like YA and is perfect for teenagers.

The Dependents by 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.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
When Lisa Halliday was in her twenties, she had an affair with Philip Roth. Her debut novel is about a young editor who has a relationship with a famous author who bears a strong resemblance to Philip Roth. At least, that’s what you think this novel is about — until the second section, when the narrative focuses on a Muslim man detained at Heathrow. Imaginative and thought-provoking, Asymmetry is a “literary phenomenon”, according to the New Yorker. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to discuss the minute you finish it. Less than 300 pages long, Asymmetry raises more questions and covers more territory than most books twice its length.

The Locals by 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 first chapter, narrated by a New York City con artist who never becomes important to the story.

What four-star books have you read recently?

 

 

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?

 

Introducing . . . Between the Covers: Professionally Led Book Discussions

No two persons ever read the same book.
Edmund Wilson

Robert_Lewis_Reid_-_Two_Girls_ReadingIf you’ve ever participated in a book club, you know that Edmund Wilson is absolutely right. That’s what makes book discussions such enriching — but sometimes frustrating — experiences. Over the past thirty years, I’ve been a member of several book groups and I’ve facilitated many others. Highlights, or perhaps lowlights, of groups I’ve facilitated: the club “discussing” The Poisonwood Bible in which not one person had read the book (which didn’t prevent them from expressing strong opinions) and the group of elderly women who thought our meeting to talk about Tolstoy and the Purple Chair was actually naptime.

y6481Readers in Chicago’s northern suburbs, please come to one of our book discussions next month:

  • Thursday, May 3, 7:00 p.m., The Heart’s Invisible Furies with Alice Moody (Gorton Community Center, Lake Forest)
  • Tuesday, May 8, 8:15 a.m., American Panda with Ann Walters and Diane Grumhaus (Lake Forest Book Store, Lake Forest)
  • Thursday, May 10, 6:30 p.m.,The Woman in The Window with Alice Moody (The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, Winnetka)

33135584We’re also planning to hold presentations on “Books You Can’t Wait to Discuss” this summer — the first is scheduled for the evening of Thursday, July 12 at the Book Stall. What was the latest book you couldn’t wait to talk about with your book club (or your spouse, best friend, or co-worker)?  Please share your recent favorite in the comment section below, on Facebook or Twitter, or via email (bksonthetable@gmail.com).

For me, it was Educated by Tara Westover. My sister just told me that this memoir, about surviving a difficult childhood in a Mormon fundamentalist family, provided material for her book club’s best discussion ever. I wish I could have been there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Books to Read This Spring

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Raymond Carver

9781594488405I won’t bore you with long-winded complaints about the weather, but I will mention that it snowed and rained all weekend — which meant that I had the perfect excuse to stay home and become completely absorbed in The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer.

Books were an antidepressant . . . she’d always been one of those girls with socked feet tucked under her, her mouth slightly open in stunned, almost doped-up concentration. . . Novels had accompanied her throughout her childhood, that period of protracted isolation, and they would probably do so during whatever lay ahead in adulthood.

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 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.

The publicity surrounding Wolitzer’s twelfth novel have focused on its political themes — female ambition and activism, the evolution of the women’s movement, sexual assault on campus — but this isn’t a political book; it’s a traditional, character-driven novel. There’s even a satisfying, mostly happy ending. For an interesting interview with Meg Wolitzer, check out the Parnassus Books blog. Fun fact from the interview: Nora Ephron was Meg Wolitzer’s mentor, who encouraged her to find her voice just as Faith makes Greer’s “head crack open”.

9780812996067

Like Meg Wolitzer, Anna Quindlen is an author who never disappoints me. I think her latest book, Alternate Side, is one of her best, although quite a few reviewers disagree with me, finding her focus too rarefied.

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.

Like Nora Ephron, Quindlen zeroes in on her characters with just the right details. (Is it a coincidence that Quindlen named her protagonist Nora?) Nora, a passionate New Yorker, can’t understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else:

“I hear it’s snowing there!” Bebe would bellow jubilantly when she called in later in the day, in that way Florida people always did, as though temperate weather alone were equivalent to Lincoln Center, Broadway theater, endless restaurants, Saks.

According to the Washington Post, “Quindlen has written a book that only a New Yorker — or at least someone who has lived there for a stint — could love. The rest of the world may have a hard time relating to the characters.” I disagree —  you certainly don’t need to have lived in New York, or even to understand the city’s “alternate side” parking regulations, to enjoy this novel.

Laura-EmmaNot everyone is going to love Kate Greathead’s debut novel, Laura and Emma, but I’m crazy about 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. It’s perfect for readers who enjoyed Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan, Someone by Alice McDermott, or My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. These books are the opposite of page-turners, but I found them more compelling than any thriller.

Laura, who incongruously makes her living as an event planner, is a keen observer:

The featured guest was an author who had recently published a bestselling novel, the kind of book everyone they knew was reading. Laura didn’t need to read it to know it was trash. She could tell from the cover: two pairs of feet and rumpled bedsheets. The author himself looked like he’d just emerged from an afternoon in a hotel room, with his tousled hair, slap-happy grin, and dress shirt unbuttoned one button too many.

35214109Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser successfully combines the true story of Wilder’s difficult life and American expansion in the West in an original and captivating narrative. This meticulously researched book — which just won the Pulitzer Prize for biography — will fascinate not only Little House on the Prairie fans but anyone with an interest in the complicated history of pioneers and homesteaders.

Wilder’s perseverance gave rise to one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches stories in American letters . . . Wilder reimagined her frontier childhood as epic and uplifting. Her gently triumphal revision of homesteading would convince generations that the American farm was a model of self-sufficiency. At the same time, it would hint at the complex realities behind homesteading, suggesting that it broke more lives than it sustained.

9780451495327In one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read, Clemantine Wamariya, a very young survivor of the Rwandan genocide, tells her heartbreaking story of loss and survival. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After is reminiscent of A Long Way Gone by former child soldier Ismael Beah. With her older sister, six-year-old Clemantine fled her home and wandered throughout Africa in search of safety, finally receiving asylum in the United States. As a young adult, she tries to come to terms with the tragedy that shaped her life:

I had been so absorbed as a young child, in knowing the world, and then I’d lost the whole world that I knew . . . Now I was sitting here, in Kenilworth, across a rift in the galaxy a million miles wide, learning about one group of people killing another group of people, people they lived with and knew. 

9780735219441 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, literature, and the bond between people and their pets, filled with the narrator’s thoughts on reading and writing. If you love dogs and books, you’ll savor this jewel of a book. I promise you that it’s not sappy. This will definitely make my list of favorite novels at the end of the year.

Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.

I recommended Alternate Side, The Friend, and Prairie Fires in an earlier post this month (How to Celebrate National Poetry Month), but that post has the dubious distinction of being my least-read post in years — which shows that one, National Poetry Month was not an enticing topic to most readers, and two, that I’m not good at writing catchy titles. There are actually websites devoted to creating click-bait blog post titles — you plug in the topic and an algorithm fills in the blanks. Here are some of the headlines suggested to me:

Five Stereotypes About National Poetry Month That Aren’t Always True; The Worst Advice We’ve Ever Heard About National Poetry Month; Think You’re Cut Out for Poetry? Take This Quiz and Find Out!; and my favorite, Does National Poetry Month Make You Feel Stupid? Actually, no — what makes me feel stupid is when I click on a ridiculous headline created by an algorithm, not a thoughtful human being.

 

 

How to Celebrate National Poetry Month –and National Car Care Awareness Month

y648April is National Poetry Month!

The act of treating poetry like a difficult activity one needs to master can easily perpetrate those mistaken, and pervasive, ideas about poetry that make it hard to read in the first place. Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate . . . To learn to read poetry is first a matter of forgetting many incorrect things we have learned in school. And then of learning to accept what is right before us on the page.
Matthew Zapruda, Why Poetry

9780399563249If your idea of reading poetry is your sophomore English teacher leading the class through a grim line-by-line analysis of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, I suggest you pick up a copy of Matthew Zapruda’s Why Poetry — along with Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. These books will show you the joy of reading a poem without viewing it as a coded message.

9781250113320Believe it or not, a century or so ago, poetry was popular, published every day in newspapers and magazines. Consider Margaret Fishback , the real-life inspiration for the title character in Kathleen Rooney’s absolutely delightful Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, Fishback, a highly paid advertising copywriter long before the days of Madmen, published four bestselling books of poetry, and her clever verse, amusing and easy to understand, was  published in Vanity Fair, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, to name just a few. Lillian Boxfish, just out in paperback, is a charming chronicle not only of the life of a remarkable woman but of six decades of change in Lillian’s beloved New York City.

Poetry fans aren’t the only people who have claimed April as their official month. Dozens of other causes and organizations have designated April as National Whatever Month — here are a few examples, along with recommended reading:

y648Distracted Driver Awareness Month
Please for the love of God, if you drive a car and you haven’t read A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age by Matt Richtel, read it and make sure your kids do too. It’s truly a lifesaving book about a teenage driver who killed two people when he decided to send his girlfriend a quick text. But it’s not homework —  it’s also as compelling a story as any thriller. For my complete review, click here.

Confederate History Month
This one doesn’t sit well with me. I suggest one of the recent award winners about the horrors and legacy of slavery — Sing Unburied Sing by Jesymn Ward and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Or you could read Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table, which would also count for National Food Month.

9780735219441Pets Are Wonderful Month, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, and National Canine Fitness Month
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.

Confederate History Month
This one doesn’t sit well with me. I suggest one of the recent award winners about the horrors and legacy of slavery — Sing Unburied Sing by Jesymn Ward and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. You could also read Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table, which would also count for National Food Month.

9781400040414National Food Month (also, National Fresh Celery Month and National Soft Pretzel Month)
First of all, shouldn’t it be National Soft HOT Pretzel Month? Because if pretzels are soft but they’re not hot, they’re no good at all.) I have no suggestions for books about celery or pretzels, but I can recommend a terrific memoir masquerading as a food book: The Best Cook in the World (to be published April 24)I loved journalist Rick Bragg’s earlier stories of growing up poor in the deep South, and this installment is just as good. But don’t read it for the recipes, unless you relish pan-roasted pig’s feet and baked possum.

National Autism Awareness Month
If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, don’t miss Ginny Moon. Narrated by the title character, a fourteen-year-old girl with autism, Ginny Moon holds surprises on nearly every page. Your heart will go out to Ginny, who is misunderstood at every turn. The author, Benjamin Ludwig, knows what he’s talking about: like the couple in his novel, he and his wife adopted a young autistic girl who longed to return to her birth mother.

35214109National Older Americans Month
Older? Older than whom? I am 57. Am I an “older American”? There are a lot of much older Americans. Still, it’s nice to read books written by and about these older Americans. I was inspired by Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, which successfully combines the true story of Wilder’s difficult life and the history of American expansion in the West in an original and captivating narrative. Wilder published her first book in the beloved Little House series when she was sixty-five.

9780812996067Anna Quindlen’s new book, Alternate Side, about a Manhattan couple with an empty nest (who could be described as “older Americans”) who are facing problems with each other and in their closely knit  neighborhood, is terrific. According to the Washington Post, “Quindlen has written a book that only a New Yorker — or at least someone who has lived there for a stint — could love. The rest of the world may have a hard time relating to the characters.” It’s true that this book — like Lillian Boxfish and The Friend — is a New York book, but you certainly don’t need to have lived in New York, or even to understand the city’s “alternate side” parking regulations, to enjoy this novel. You can never go wrong with Anna Quindlen.

National Car Care Awareness Month
I have no suggestions. I’m going to take my car for a wash.

P.S. I forgot to mention that it’s National Safe Digging Month, and I do have a suggestion for that: Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, still a favorite among preschoolers.

What I’ve Been Reading

I also believe that there is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest. You can learn something from the very worst books . . . even if it’s just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.
Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

I agree with Will Schwalbe. Although I don’t love every book I finish, there’s something to appreciate, enjoy, and learn in each one. Usually, if a book isn’t working for me, I won’t finish it — but sometimes, I persevere because reviews have led me to believe that it’s going to improve. This is like heading outside with no raincoat or umbrella as black storm clouds gather. Here are some mini-reviews of books I’ve read recently, starting with my favorites.

33135584My favorite book this year (so far):

Educated: A Memoir (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 fundamentalist/survivalist 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.

9780735213180My favorite novel so far this year:

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 a 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?

Terrific narrative nonfiction:

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 cold-blooded 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.

The perfect gift for your sister, mother, daughter, or friend:

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.

9780399592065For anyone who loved When Breath Becomes Air:

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”).

97807352122062017 Man Booker Prize finalist, new in paperback:

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.

I should have read it in 2017 . . . but I’m glad I finally got to it:

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.

34275229To keep on your bedside table:

Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces (Dawn Davies) — A collection of essays about parenthood that will have you chuckling one moment and choking up the next, Mothers of Sparta is a raw and beautiful book. The titular essay, about the challenges of raising a severely handicapped son, is particularly moving. Davies intersperses the story of her son’s difficult childhood with the story of mothers raising sons to be Spartan warriors.

Oprah’s recent book club choice — I thought it was pretty good:

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.

Written by a publishing insider:

The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn, pseudonym) — 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.

38330854For fans of domestic thrillers:

The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani) — Plenty of controversy has surrounded this French bestseller which is loosely based on a real-life case in New York City in which a nanny murdered her charges. The author has been accused of making judgments about working women and of exploiting a tragedy (see this article in the New York Times). I thought it was a realistic, if horrifying, glimpse into the mind of a person descending into insanity.

Novel that our YA book group enjoyed discussing:

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.

Currently #1 on the New York Times bestseller list — but why?

The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah) — Hmmm. This novel about PTSD, domestic abuse, and the Alaska wilderness kept me turning the pages on a recent beach vacation, and the Little House in the Prairie fan in me loved learning about twentieth century homesteading. But the writing is subpar — lots of blankets of snow and buttery sunshine — and the characters were stereotypical and uninteresting.

Heather, the Totality (October 2017) by Matthew WeinerThe shortest hardcover book I’ve ever read: (144 pages, lots of white space):

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. The author is the creator of Madmen, which is interesting because there’s hardly any dialogue in the book.

Skip this one — but read the author’s earlier novel, Black Chalk:

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.