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.


8 More Short Books for Your Book Club

Nothing against sprawling, 700-page novels, but I tend to like little books that make a big noise. These novelists work on a small scale because they make their works with exceptional power, grace, and complexity and don’t need to belabor a strong point.
Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star (172 pages)

The most popular post on Books on the Table in 2017 was 8 Short Novels Your Book Club Will Actually Finish, which was viewed and shared approximately one gazillion times more than any other post. The takeaway from this is that I shouldn’t bother to write about any other book-related topics but should stick to lists of short book club books. So, in an effort to provide what readers want, I’ve assembled another list of quick reads.

The average reader should be able to finish any of these books in four hours, give or take a few minutes. So if your club meets once a month, you have no excuse for not finishing your book club book — you only need to devote eight or ten minutes a day to it.

A surprising number of classics that most of us read in school are short (The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Heart of Darkness, Fahrenheit 451, Ethan Frome . . .) and they’re worth re-reading from an adult point of view. You can easily find dozens of lists of “short classics” and “the best short books of all time” online. Here’s an updated list of ten current books, most around 250 pages, that your book club will enjoy discussing.

by Ian McEwan (208 pages) — Told from the viewpoint of an unborn child and inspired by Hamlet, Nutshell is a murder mystery unlike anything you’ve read before — starting with the first sentence: “So, here I am, upside down inside of a woman.” I’ve discussed this book with two different groups and both found plenty of rich material for discussion.

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn (244 pages) — Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which Shakespeare’s plays are retold by notable contemporary authors, Dunbar reimagines King Lear as the story of the CEO of a global media corporation who has made the mistake of turning his business over to his two scheming daughters. An ambitious book group could pair this book with a reading of King Lear.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (240 pages) — 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 also recommend another short novel by Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.)

33931059The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (256 pages) — Alice 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.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers (288 pages) — There’s nothing I love more than an epistolary novel. The author’s use of letters and diary entries heightens the suspense in this amazing story, which is based on a real-life court case from the mid-19th century.  This slim novel, perfect for book clubs, will inspire discussion about race and the legacy of slavery, women’s changing roles, forgiveness, and redemption.

Morningstar: Growing Up With Books by Ann Hood (192 pages) — Novelist Ann Hood has written a series of charming essays about the books that shaped her, starting with childhood favorites. It would be fun and illuminating for a book club to read Hood’s essays and share their own formative books with each other.

9781250106490_custom-0bc5591f3ef51f06795e9286805a88a13705af4b-s300-c85Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence (256 small pages) — Annie Spence’s book is snarkier than Ann Hood’s, perhaps aimed at a millennial audience, but clever and delightful. Maybe every book club member could write a love letter (or breakup note) to a book on her shelves?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi (256 pages) — Everyone should read this powerful and heartbreaking — yet inspirational book. It’s a meditation on what it means to lead a worthwhile life, written by a young neurosurgeon dying of lung cancer. Another moving book on the same subject, also brief, is Dying: A Memoir, by Cory Taylor.

What’s on your book club reading list for 2018?

Not Too Busy to Read

I cannot imagine life without books any more than I can imagine life without breathing.
Terry Brooks

Dear Terry Brooks,

I’m sorry that I’ve never read one of your books, because they are epic fantasy novels, and if all books were fantasy novels, I would be too busy to read. But I like your quote, so in a way I’m a fan of yours, even though I’ll never read The Sword of Shannara or any of its many sequels. I’m glad you write these books, because fantasy readers are book lovers too, and as my grandmother used to say, “There’s a lid for every pot.” 


Ann @ Books on the Table

y450-293What do you plan to do the day before Thanksgiving? We’ve all heard that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is supposed to be one of the year’s busiest travel days, but now, according to a recent Barnes & Noble survey, Thanksgiving Eve is the “busiest reading day of the year”.

The poll, conducted by an independent research organization, found that 77% of “Americans read a book, magazine, or newspaper during Thanksgiving travel” and that
73% “generally think that traveling on Thanksgiving Eve is a good time to bring a book they would enjoy and be able to read.” (By “able to read”, I assume the designers of the survey meant “find time to read”.)

The discrepancy between these two statistics is confusing. Do some Thanksgiving Eve readers think it’s not a good idea to read while traveling? Also, how do these numbers show that Thanksgiving Eve is the busiest reading day of the year? Maybe 85% of Americans read on a random Sunday in March.

The survey also showed that 28% of respondents “think that bringing a great book along for Thanksgiving could give them a way to get out of an uncomfortable or awkward conversation with a relative or other guest.” I want to know how this works. Do you pull out the book and start reading when the awkward conversation begins? Or do you change the subject, saying, “Let’s not discuss politics. Let me tell you about the book I’m reading. You’d love it!”

When asked to list the benefits of reading while traveling, over half the respondents said that “Reading is a good pastime if I get delayed.” Other benefits cited were “reading is relaxing and helps ease the stress of hectic traveling”; “A good book transports me somewhere else”;  “I can catch up on books that I have wanted to read, but normally do not have the time to read.”

716162Where were these people last Wednesday when I was delayed for several hours at O’Hare? I read almost an entire book in that time (Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt), and I’m not a speed reader. I’m leading a book discussion on Laurie Frankel’s novel, This Is How It Always Is, about a family raising a transgender child, and wanted to read nonfiction about this subject. If you really want to liven up your Thanksgiving gathering, I recommend either of these books.

Almost everyone at the gate appeared bored and restless, fiddling with their phones and fidgeting in their seats. A few idly flipped through magazines. One man was absorbed in a paperback, but he was the only one. Some people  stared into space and did absolutely nothing. I wondered if they had rich interior lives or if the opposite were true. I also wondered if these were the same people who say they can’t find time to read, because if they were, they were missing a golden opportunity.

If you’re an avid reader, you are often forced to respond to a maddening, passive-aggressive comment : “I don’t know how you find the time to read.” The subtext here is, “You’re kind of a lazy slob without much to do, so you spend you time reading, whereas I’m a very busy important person.”

Even though I’ve heard this comment, or its cousin, “How on earth do you find the time to read?”, more times than I can count, I still don’t know how to respond. Because, of course, most reading doesn’t happen at airport gates during lengthy delays, or even aboard airplanes, unless you’re a jet-setter.

So how do you make time to read? It’s all a matter of priorities. Your house may not be as tidy as you’d like, you may rarely make it to the gym, your houseplants may live short and unhappy lives, you may not walk your dog as much as she’d like, and you might have to decline some of the volunteer opportunities that come your way (“So sorry! I can’t spend my Saturday supervising the middle school concession stand!”).

read-a-book-wallpaper-500pxPeople who manage to find time to read do it two ways: first, they squeeze reading into their days in creative ways, and second, they make it a priority. They don’t think of reading as an indulgence. Why do people think taking an hour out of the day to exercise is a necessity, while they see spending an hour with a book as a luxury, on a par with window shopping or bubble baths? And who, except maybe medical residents on a 36 hour shift or parents of newborn twins, doesn’t spend at least an hour a day watching TV or checking social media? Really, hardly anyone is “too busy to read.” It’s all in how you choose to spend your time. No judgment if you’d rather do other things, but don’t say, “I just don’t have time to read!”

There are hints galore on the Internet about how to find more time to read, if you care to look, but here are the things I think work best:

  • Decide if you really do want to read more, or if you just think you should. Maybe you’d rather spend your limited free time baking bread or perfecting your golf swing. But keep in mind that reading is one of the few activities you can do when you’re trapped somewhere, whether it’s an airplane seat, a broken-down rental car by the side of the highway, or an elevator. (And I have been in all these situations and in each one I was very happy to have a book with me.)
  • Find the right books that you love and that you can’t wait to get back to reading. Don’t waste time slogging through books you find boring. One of my writing classmates mentioned that she struggled with feeling guilty about abandoning books that weren’t working for her, and our teacher directed us to “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac, in which the third item on the list is “The right not to finish a book.” (Item #5 is important as well: “The right to read anything”).
  • Be efficient with your time — listen to audiobooks while walking and driving. Some people seem concerned about whether this counts as reading, for some reason. Yes, it does.
  • If you find you waste a lot of time with social media on your phone, set a timer. Or delete the apps so you have to go to the websites. You can download a screen saver that says “Read a book instead.”  Writer Austin Kleon designed the screen saver because “Reading books makes me happy. Being on my phone makes me miserable.”
  • Get rid of games on your phone.  I found that Words With Friends did a number on my reading time. I deleted it, and guess what — I still have friends.)
  • Always carry a real book with you. Technology can malfunction, and batteries can drain. But on the other hand, always have a book downloaded on your phone or tablet. On my last flight, the overhead light didn’t work and I wouldn’t have been able to read if I hadn’t had a book on my phone.
  • Plan ahead for reading time. Novelist Tim Parks acknowledges it’s a different environment for readers today than it was before the advent of intrusive technology. In an article in the New York Review of Books, he theorizes that today’s authors are writing books that can be picked up and put down, knowing that most readers are easily distracted and read in shorter bursts than in the past. Every moment of reading, he says, “has to be fought for, planned for.”

9781250106490_custom-0bc5591f3ef51f06795e9286805a88a13705af4b-s300-c85This Thanksgiving Eve, I won’t be traveling. I’ll be at home, curled up with She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels, a memoir about Kathleen Hill’s reading life and how it has intersected with her “real” life.  My current audiobook is Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life, by Annie Spence, which is absolutely delightful, although I could do without all the f-bombs. We all know librarians are cool.

Next up: Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, because it just won the National Book Award, and Hue: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden, because we’ll be discussing it at our next couples’ book club.

Coming soon: recommended winter reading (fiction and nonfiction, paperback and hardcover) and holiday gift ideas. Have a happy Thanksgiving! I hope you find some time to read over the long weekend — and not because you’re stuck in an airport.



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?




Award Season

The book trade invented literary prizes to stimulate sales, not to reward merit.
Michael Moorcock

5194744409_f6d5829a19_bAlmost every year, when the nominees for the major literary prizes (Man Booker, National Book Award, and Pulitzer) are announced, I am bewildered. There’s always at least one book that I think is a masterpiece that the panels overlook, and there’s always at least one book that I think is mediocre that makes the shortlists.

The selection process for each of the prizes is different. For the National Book Awards, publishers submit nominations to the National Book Foundation, paying an entry fee for each book. There are four categories — Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature — and each category has five judges. The judges receive the books by July 1, announce a longlist in September, choose finalists in October, and present the awards at a ceremony in November. According to the National Book Foundation’s website, “Each panel reads all of the books submitted in their category over the course of the summer. This number typically ranges from 150 titles (Poetry) to upwards of 500 titles (Nonfiction).” This year, publishers submitted 394 titles for the Fiction prize.

34467031Wow — that’s a lot of summer reading. It seems like the Poetry judges get off easy! The judges are authors, booksellers, librarians, and critics. This year’s Fiction judges are authors Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Karolina Waclawiak, and Jacqueline Woodson (chair), and bookseller Annie Philbrick. Last week, they chose ten novels that include works by established authors and past winners (Manhattan Beach by 2001 finalist Jennifer Egan, to be published October 3, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by 2011 winner Jesmyn Ward) as well as by debut authors (The Leavers by Lisa Ko, A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Barren Island by Carol Zoref).

According to Bustle (an online women’s magazine that covers the literary world, among other things), “These are the best of the best, book nerds, so get ready to read them all.” But are they really? I’m not actually qualified to say — I’ve only read two of the ten books, Ko_TheLeavers_HC_rgb_2MBThe Leavers and Pachinko (by Min Jin Lee) — but it’s hard to believe that those two novels are “the best of the best.” I enjoyed them both, but do they deserve to be National Book Award nominees?

Pachinko is the engrossing story of a Korean family, starting in in Japanese-occupied Korea in the beginning of the twentieth century and ending in Japan in the 1980s. It’s the sort of multigenerational saga that I adore, with the added benefit of covering unfamiliar territory: the experiences of ethnic minorities in Japan, and the culture of the pachinko parlor. Pachinko grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn’t let me go. However . . . I didn’t love the writing style. I was frequently distracted by oddly structured or ungrammatical sentences.

round-midnight-9781501157783_hrThe Leavers, about a Chinese immigrant woman and the son she abandons, also addresses cultural differences. It’s a worthwhile and enjoyable novel — but is it better than Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, or Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar? Those excellent novels also concern themselves with adoption, race, and class. Actually, so does ‘Round Midnight by Laura McBride, which will definitely make my list of favorite novels at the end of 2017. McBride brilliantly weaves together the stories of several characters with Las Vegas as the backdrop. The writing is gorgeous and the story is perfectly paced and constructed, with surprises at every turn.

9781101870365Julia Glass’s A House Among the Trees is another of my favorites that didn’t make this year’s National Book Award longlist. Inspired by the life and career of Maurice Sendak, this compassionate and insightful novel explores art, truth-telling, and loyalty, while telling a well-plotted story. Glass won the National Book Award for her debut novel, Three Junes, in 2002. surprising the literary community. According to an article in New York magazine titled “Cinderella Story,”:

Jaws dropped when unknown author Julia Glass beat a field crowded with literary luminaries to win the National Book Award . . . She was selected over such best-selling competition as Ann Packer (The Dive From Clausen’s Pier) and Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and such hip lit boys as Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated), Mark Costello (Big If), and Adam Haslett (You Are Not a Stranger Here).

Ann Packer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Adam Haslett have had successful careers since 2002, but Mark Costello hasn’t published another novel and Alice Sebold has only published one (The Almost Moon) and it was pretty awful. Julia Glass, on the other hand, has published five more very good books.

It’s anyone’s guess who will win this year’s National Book Award for Fiction. Last year’s choice, Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad), was the expected winner, but in 2015, Adam Johnson won for his short story collection, Fortune Smiles, beating  favorites Hanya Yanigahara (A Little Life) and Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies).

29983711Here’s the 2017 longlist for the National Book Award in Fiction — cast your vote, and we’ll see what happens in November. And if you’ve read any of those, I’d love to know what you think.

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarçon
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward
Barren Island by Carol Zoref


Sons and Soldiers — Book Review

In occupied Germany, the refrain “We didn’t know” was becoming as common as “Ich bin kein Nazi” (I am no Nazi). The Germany Manny had left when his mother put him on a train as a fourteen-year-old to join other Jewish refugee children on a ship to America had lots of flag-waving Nazis. Now that the Thousand Year Reich had fallen, where had they all gone?
Bruce Henderson, Sons and Soldiers, describing the wartime experiences of Manfred Steinfeld, 82nd Airborne Division

fullsizeoutput_35caThe subtitle of Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers is The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. (Is it my imagination, or are the subtitles of nonfiction books keep getting longer and longer?) This workmanlike subtitle not only summarizes the book, but tells readers two things about Sons and Soldiers: 1) It’s one of a seemingly endless stream of books about fascinating but little-known aspects of World War II; and 2) The writing will be competent but not brilliant.

I will read almost anything about World War II, and I’m particularly drawn to relatively undiscovered stories, nonfiction and fiction. Sons and Soldiers, which tells the story of more than 2,000 German-born Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and joined the United States Army as military intelligence specialists, is exactly the kind of book that appeals to me. While It didn’t disappoint me –I found the stories of these extraordinarily brave men compelling and inspiring — Sons and Soldiers is not one of the best World War II books I’ve read. Henderson did an amazing amount of research on the Ritchie Boys, working with a team of researchers for two years to uncover their stories, and interviewing many veterans. Although he says, “Narrative nonfiction starts and ends with rigorous research, which allows an author to be meticulously selective in using only the material that adds to the impact of the story,” I thought he sometimes included too many details. I could have done without some of the long descriptions of battle scenes; I just wanted to know what the Ritchie Boys were doing.

What interested me most in the book were the stories of each of the Ritchie Boys that Henderson follows through the war years — their childhoods in Germany, their journeys to America, their wartime heroism, and the eventual fates of their families. I was captivated by Henderson’s account of the unorthodox interrogation technique that Werner Angress used during the Battle of the Bulge on a tough, battle-hardened German sergeant who, unlike most of his peers, refused to supply any information other than his name, rank, and serial number:

Werner shrugged and sat back . . . he inquired in German just how such an experienced old bird like him was taken prisoner by a bunch of green young Yankees. Offended, the prisoner began to stutter in response, then exploded in indignation. As the sergeant spewed an angry torrent of words, Werner interrupted with brief technical questions, all of which were promptly answered before the sergeant continued his diatribe. In this way, Werner soon knew the identity and strength of the sergeant’s unit, the names of his commanders, and other information . . . where the sergeant’s regimental headquarters were located, where their machine guns were placed, and even where the German soldiers lined up to get their chow.

After the war, the Army estimated that more than sixty percent of the credible intelligence gathered in Europe came from the Ritchie Boys. Their interrogation techniques relied not on bullying and intimidation, but on understanding the culture and psychology of the men they were interrogating.

The narrative isn’t linear, but jumps around as Henderson focuses on various Ritchie Boys — each of whom has a more incredible story than the next. I was sometimes confused, since one of the main characters would appear on one page and disappear for several chapters, only to show up in a different time and place. For example, the book opens with the arrest and deportation to Dachau of twelve-year-old Martin Selling. A couple of chapters later, he is released from Dachau and manages to obtain an exit visa from Germany. In the intervening chapters, we’re introduced to several other young German Jews whose families are trying desperately to get them out of the country, so when Martin reappears, most readers will find themselves flipping back to the beginning to reacquaint themselves with his story.

Despite my occasional frustration with the flow of the book, I couldn’t stop reading it. The courage these men displayed is almost unbelievable. As boys, they left their families behind, not knowing if they would ever see them again, and as young men, they risked their lives repeatedly, often turning down relatively safe assignments for dangerous missions. They all knew if they were captured by the Germans they wouldn’t be treated as American prisoners of war, but would be executed as Jews.

Stephan Lewy, one of the Ritchie Boys profiled in Sons and Soldiers, has spoken to more than 20,000 schoolchildren since he retired in 1991. One child asked him, “Are you like a cat with nine lives?” — a question that could reasonably be asked to any of the Ritchie Boys. Lewy, now ninety-one years old, has found it therapeutic to share his story, saying:

When I look into their faces as they listen to my story, I have hope that I can make a difference. My story shows what can happen if people do not act. Perhaps if enough people hear these stories, history will not repeat itself. I only hope the world has learned a lesson.



Little Free Libraries

IMG_3066A new Little Free Library just popped up in my neighborhood. I’ll admit to feeling a little jealous, because I’ve always thought that my house, which is on a corner lot, would be the perfect location for a Little Free Library.

This Little Free Library is hidden away on a woodsy side street that doesn’t get much traffic, but that is a favorite of local runners, dog walkers, and stroller pushers. One of the fanciest Little Free Libraries I’ve seen, it includes interior lighting and has a child-sized Adirondack chair placed next to it for little readers.

There are more than 50,000 Little Free Libraries in all fifty states and all over the world. Established in 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin, and inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who funded more than 2,500 public libraries around the turn of the twentieth century, Little Free Library “is a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world.”

Almost every day, as I walk my dog, I open the door and peek in to see which books have been donated and which have been taken. Children’s books go fast, I’ve noticed, as do mainstream mysteries and literary fiction. Time for Bed by Mem Fox, The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan, Counting Kisses by Karen Katz, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomonsand Most Wanted by Lisa Scottoline all disappeared overnight. Meanwhile, none of our neighborhood readers seem interested in Joseph Campbell’s study of the primitive roots of mythology, The Masks of God, or Rodney Dangerfield’s autobiography, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect But Plenty of Sex and Drugs. 

I have a shameful confession. I am the neighbor who contributed It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me to the Little Free Library. When I placed it on the shelf, alongside prizewinning novels The Good Earth and Cold Mountain, I didn’t fully understand the philosophy of Little Free Libraries. This is clearly spelled out in the organization’s website:

Little Free Library book exchanges have a unique, personal touch. There is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community; Little Libraries have been called “mini-town squares.”

IMG_3101It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me is not one of my favorite books. In fact, I have no idea how it ended up in my house. Did I pick it up at a booksellers’ conference? Did it arrive in the mail, unsolicited, for me to review? Did it belong to one of my children? I have no idea, but when I scanned my shelves for something to donate to the new Little Free Library, I didn’t see anything I wanted to part with, until I spotted It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me. I certainly didn’t want to part with one of my favorite books. Now I feel guilty, because obviously Little Free Libraries are not intended to be dumping grounds for dud books — although an article in the Denver Post calls Little Free Libraries “Little Jails for Bad Books.” Maybe someone in town is a huge Rodney Dangerfield fan and will be thrilled to find a pristine, hardcover copy of this book, free for the taking.

Little Free Libraries seem like such a wonderful idea that I was surprised to find that not everyone is in favor of them. A Wisconsin librarian, Joe  says there are four Little Free Libraries near his home, and worries that, while they don’t seriously encroach on real public libraries, their existence causes people to take public libraries less seriously. In his post, “A Little Rant Against Little Free Libraries”, this librarian says “A library is not a wooden box”, and wonders if people will ask, ““Why do we need our tax money to go to something that can be done for FREE?”.

Dan Greenstone, a resident of Oak Park, Illinois, received a Little Free Library as a gift from his wife. He found that he and his family ended up supplying books to their freeloading neighbors, rarely receiving any in exchange. In a Salon article called “My Little Free Library war: How our suburban front-yard lending box made me hate books and fear my neighbors“, Greenstone says:

 Little Free Library has a seductive marketing slogan that’s carved into the top of every unit: “Take a Book; Return a Book.” Such a simple equation. And such wishful thinking. Take? Oh, absolutely. People are, in fact, really good at that part.

5d1367e3f15a78dddf64c5f28d93d06eMy neighbors seem to be less greedy than Greenstone’s. I’m going to keep donating books to the Little Free Library, but it’s unlikely I’ll share my favorites. Saints for All Occasions? No way. ‘Round Midnight? I don’t think so. The Devil and Webster. No. Maybe I’d lend those to trustworthy friends. I’d be happy to donate my copy of Idaho . . . somebody might like it.