Summer Reading 2017 — A List of Lists

children-on-a-hammockThis is the time of year when just about every magazine and newspaper publishes a list of recommended summer reading. Some of these lists emphasize “beach books” — page-turners that don’t require much concentration. Others focus on the latest and greatest in literary fiction, while some provide an eclectic mix of new books for all kinds of readers. One list, in fact, suggests both Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy’s literary novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and  Sarah MacLean’s The Day of Duchess (#3 in the Scandal and Scoundrel romance series).

Some of the lists irk me with their guilt-inducing tone: “7 New Books You Need to Read This Summer” (Vulture); 22 Exciting New Books You Need to Read This Summer” (Buzzfeed); 24 Incredible New Books You Should Read This Summer” (Huffington Post); 10 Books You Have to Read This Summer” (Redbook) . . . well, you get the point. The fun of summer reading is to read whatever you want, with no sense of obligation.

trevor-noah-born-a-crimeThe New York Times has a terrific list with a nice title: “Books to Breeze Through This Summer,” and Bill Gates recommends two of my favorites (Hillbilly Elegy and Born a Crime) in “5 Good Summer Reads.” I like his modest approach — just five well-chosen books, and they’re good. Not necessarily incredible or exciting, but solidly good.

In my online search for lists of recommended summer books, I came across a couple of quizzes designed to help readers find just the right book. One said my “reading personality” was “Big Kid”, which is pretty accurate; it also suggested I read an obscure book from 2011, “The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims, which I absolutely loved. (I’m thinking this was a lucky guess because the other book it recommended was The Cardboard Valise by Ben Catcher, which is a graphic novel, and if there’s one thing I am not interested in reading, it’s a graphic novel. I get a headache just thinking about it.

Another, called “Which Summer Beach Read is Perfect for You?”, promised to find the perfect beach book “for my personality” — which turned out to be The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, a book I did not enjoy and is the farthest thing from a beach read I can imagine. This is why it usually works best to ask a real person — a friend, bookseller, librarian — for a recommendation.

Ko_TheLeavers_HC_rgb_2MBAuthor/bookstore owners Ann Patchett (Parnassus Books, Nashville) and Emma Straub (Books Are Magic, Brooklyn) shared some of their favorite new releases in a recent New York Times article, “Summer Reading Recommendations From 6 Novelists Who Own Bookstores.” One of Straub’s picks is Saints For All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan, which tops my list as well — along with Straub’s own Modern Lovers, new in paperback. Patchett highly recommends The Leavers by Lisa Ko, which shows up on just about every other summer reading list also.

Here are three summer reading lists, highlighting books I love: new in hardcover (fiction and nonfiction), new in paperback (fiction), and new in paperback (nonfiction). I’m hoping there’s something for everyone!

New in hardcover:

9781627796316My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul
Dark books say to us, “This isn’t about you. You are in fact alive and safe. Yes, there’s an implicit and unavoidable warning, an edge of danger; these things happen, the books say. And yet, as bad as it gets inside this book, you, the reader, are securely outside.
I’ll read and enjoy just about any book about books — but My Life with Bob is the most captivating and original “bookworm book” I’ve read. Oh, how I wish I’d done what Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, has done her whole life — kept a written record of my reading.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
When word came that Keith had died of cancer, Abel was astonished. That astonishment had to do with death, with the wiping out of a person, with the puzzlement that the man was simply gone.
Elizabeth Strout can do no wrong! I loved these linked stories about Lucy Barton’s family and neighbors. Her writing is gorgeous. simple on the surface but actually profound.

9781101870365A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass
But there were still plenty of bookstores. In them, Tommy found refuge from the heat and consolation from all the unsettling changes; new books might arrive daily, but none would displace Hardy or Eliot or Tolstoy. 
When Mort Lear, legendary book author and illustrator, dies unexpectedly, his longtime assistant, Tomasina Daulair, becomes the executor of his complicated and controversial estate. Inspired by the life and career of Maurice Sendak, Julia Glass’s compassionate and insightful novel explores art, truth-telling, and loyalty, while telling a well-plotted story. This is my favorite novel of 2017 — so far.

‘Round Midnight by Laura McBride
Her world spun and spun, and all these ordinary parts of it, these things that made perfect sense, did not make sense at all. What was she doing? And what would she do now?
As she did in We Are Called to Rise, Laura 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. The reader’s heart goes out to the four women whose lives intersect: June, a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey turned nightclub owner; Honorata, a Filipina forced to become a mail-order bride; Engracia, a Mexican immigrant who has suffered a tragedy; and Coral, a music teacher trying to understand her mysterious past. I loved every page of this special novel.

9780307959577Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
She met her worries in the same old way. Whatever the hour, she would rise to her feet and climb the attic stairs to Patrick’s bedroom, so that she might lay eyes on him. This was a bargain she struck, a ritual to guarantee safety. Nothing truly bad could happen if she was expecting it.
I’ve enjoyed all of J. Courtney Sullivan’s novels, but this one could be my favorite. As always, she excels at creating characters who come to life on the page. At the heart of Saints for All Occasions are two sisters who emigrate from Ireland to Boston. After a painful falling out, one sister becomes a nun, while one marries and raises a family that includes a troubled son. The secrets from their pasts drive them apart, only to bring them together when a family crisis occurs.

Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Coming Home by Amy Dickinson
I was so happy I thought I would inflate and float, balloon-like, over the crowd, out of the chapel, and fly and drift over the village, and the hills, fields, streams, and lakes of this challenging countryside that is my home.
I enjoyed Dickinson’s earlier memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, and this follow-up is even better. It’s a delightful collection of essays about family, home, and rolling with life’s unexpected punches.

do-not-become-alarmed-review-ew Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy
A few times during the day, Liv saw the ship’s tenders ferrying people ashore and wondered if they should have gone. That was something she was trying to work on: not always second-guessing her decisions, wondering if she’d made the wrong one. But how could you know if you’d made the right decision when you on saw one version play out?
Don’t start this book until you have an uninterrupted stretch of time, because you won’t be able to stop reading. When two families decide to spend their Christmas vacation on a luxury cruise, a shore excursion turns into a nightmare when the children disappear into the jungle. Ann Patchett’s blurb, “smart and thrilling and impossible to put down” is right on the money.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
When I was a baby, someone tucked me into an old boat and pushed me out to sea. I washed up on a tiny island, like a seed riding the tide. It was Osh who found me and took me in. Who taught me how to put down roots, and thrive on both sun and rain, and understand what it is to bloom.
Who can resist a story about an infant who lands on the shore of an island in a little rowboat? Not me, especially when the book is set in the Elizabeth Islands of Massachusetts, where I spent time during my childhood summers. Lauren Wolk’s second book for young readers is just as lovely as Wolf Hollow, and will appeal to adult readers in the same way.

New in Paperback — Fiction

Mischling by Affinity Konar
Reminiscent of The Book Thief, Mischling is the haunting story of real-life identical twins who were subjects of Dr. Josef Mengele’s medical experiments at Auschwitz.

y648The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson
Anderson’s elegantly constructed novel, like all the books I love, engages both the mind and the heart. Readers will learn about Chekhov, Russian and Ukrainian history, and the art of translation, and they will reflect on the meaning of love and friendship. For my full review, click here.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Bert Cousins can’t bear to stay home with his pregnant wife and three children, so he crashes Franny Keating’s christening party, where he kisses Franny’s beautiful mother, Beverly — and causes the breakup of two families. Ann Patchett’s novel,  brilliantly structured as a series of nine linked stories that supply bits and pieces of the Keating and Cousins families’ complicated history, spans fifty years in their lives. For my full review, click here.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
One of my favorites of 2016, Homegoing begins with the story of two half-sisters born in 18th century Ghana and unknown to each other, one sold into slavery and one married to a British slave trader. The succeeding chapters (each one a self-contained story) follow their descendants in Africa and the United Sates.

The Nix by Nathan Hill
If Tom Wolfe and John Irving had a baby — it would be The Nix — my favorite “big” book of 2016. Every once in a while, you want to wrap yourself up in a long novel that covers everything from family relationships to social history.

9780399562617Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst (June 13)
In a last-ditch effort to help their special needs daughter, Tilly, the Hammond family follows child development expert Scott Bean to rural New Hampshire, where they help him set up a family retreat called “Camp Harmony”. Tilly’s younger sister, Iris, and mother, Alexandra, take turns narrating the story of the Hammonds’ decidedly unharmonious attempt to begin a new life.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron
Two couples — one with an odd 10-year-old daughter, Snow — decide to vacation together on the Sicilian coast. This turns out to be, for many reasons, a really bad decision.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
When I read an article on crime fiction in the Wall Street Journal that said Abbott’s “books are driven as much by intricate character development and rhythmic sentences as they are by plot”, I immediately brought home a copy of You Will Know Me. Set in the world of competitive gymnastics, Abbott’s eighth novel is a page-turner by anyone’s definition. Sixteen-year-old Devon Knox — and her parents — have their hearts set on the Olympics when a crime in their tight-knit community of gymnasts, parents, and coaches threatens to destroy their dream. Perfect crossover book for older teens.

9781594634680Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Straub’s The Vacationers was one of my favorite beach books in 2014, and Modern Lovers is just as clever and entertaining. (It’s “too deftly and thoughtfully written to be relegated merely to the beach,” according to the New York Times Book Review.) The novel takes place during one summer in Brooklyn, and like The Vacationers, it focuses on two middle-aged couples with children who are facing crises in their relationships.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
The older I get, the more likely I am to fall asleep while reading in bed at night. This smart and very suspenseful thriller kept me reading well past my bedtime. A plane crashes minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, leaving only two survivors. Was one of the people aboard responsible for the crash? Told in alternating perspectives, the story is a puzzle that most readers won’t be able to solve until the very end.

New in Paperback — Nonfiction

9780345803153American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is the first news story I remember following. Toobin masterfully sifts through all the craziness of Hearst’s kidnapping and time as a fugitive to create a portrait of an era, and of a very young and malleable woman.

Look at You Now: How Keeping a Teenage Secret Changed My Life Forever by Liz Pryor
This memoir about a young girl from a prominent family whose parents send her to a state-run “home” for unwed mothers that’s actually  a juvenile detention center, kept me up late at night — and broke my heart. I’m in awe of the author’s kind and forgiving spirit.

9780143109280Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France by Thad Carhart
This captivating blend of memoir and history is filled with the author’s affection for French culture. Carhart’s portrait of France in the 1950s is one readers rarely see, where the wounds of the war are still fresh and the country is just beginning to become a modern consumer society. I loved seeing midcentury France through the eyes of a young child. For my full review, click here.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you’ll find Patient H.M. equally fascinating. “Patient H.M.” was Henry Molaison, a young man who was lobotomized in the 1950s in attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The twist in this book is that the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery was Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the author’s grandfather. Dittrich provides a fascinating and personal viewpoint about the medical ethics involved with his grandfather’s career, as well as the changing attitudes towards mental illness during the 20th century.

Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing by Jennifer Weiner
Weiner is sensitive about being categorized as “chick lit”, so she would hate to hear me say I don’t love her novels because of their genre. However, I really enjoyed her book of essays, and found myself underlining passages and turning down pages.

y6481The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner
The author became a regular attendee at her mother’s Monday afternoon bridge club for nearly three years, strengthening her connection with her mother, building friendships with the other octogenarian “Bridge Ladies” — and falling in love with the game of bridge. Lerner, a literary agent and poet, writes beautifully. Her story will resonate with mothers and daughters, bridge players or not. For my full interview with the author, click here.

Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
If you’re a Seinfeld fan, don’t miss this book, which the New York Times reviewer said made him want to “buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning.” (Armstrong’s last book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, is terrific as well.)

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner
Wow! I read this memoir about growing up in a polygamist Mormon doomsday cult in one day. The author is her mother’s fourth child and her father’s 39th. If you liked The Glass Castle, The Sound of Gravel is for you.

Enjoy your summer reading!

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

“I’m wondering what to read next.” Matilda said. “I’ve finished all the children’s books.”
Roald Dahl, Matilda

cassatt_mary_nurse_reading_to_a_little_girl_1895My mother, who reads more than just about anyone I know, is generous with her books. She reads books quickly and then passes them along, keeping only a select few. Once she’s finished a book, she sees no reason for it to take up valuable shelf space. Out it goes into a shopping bag in her garage; when the bag is full, she takes it to a used bookstore that rewards her with store credit. And of course, her friends and family benefit from her reading habit. When I find a padded manila envelope in my mailbox marked “Media Mail”, sometimes it’s from a New York publisher, but often it’s from my mother.

So when my mother mentioned that her book club asked each member to share a list of her ten favorite books, I was curious to know which ones made the cut. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that most of them were children’s books, because I suppose that many readers would list children’s books as their favorites. The books we read (and reread) in our formative years embed themselves in our hearts like old childhood friends. As adults, it’s a real pleasure to become reacquainted with the books we loved as children, and eventually to introduce them to the next generation.

My mother prefaced her “top ten” list with this comment:

Given a better memory I am sure I could come up with some different ones but these are a good start. You will notice that many of my favorites are children’s books  — childhood was when I discovered the joy and delight of reading and losing myself in a good book – which, as you know, I still do.

Clearly, my mother is better at reading than she is at math, since she gave me a list of eleven favorite books. Here’s her list, in no particular order, with my editorial comments:

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland (and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass) as a child; on rereading them later in life, I was surprised at how much darker and more adult the books are than the movie versions.

0140361219Winnie-the-Pooh (the set of four books, including the stories and the poems) by A.A. Milne
These are the best read-aloud books for young children! I can still recite some of the poems from When We Were Very Young:

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.

Mary Poppins (and the sequels) by P.L. Travers
Like Alice in Wonderland, the Mary Poppins books are much darker than the movie and stage versions. Both my mother and I enjoyed Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, by Valerie Lawson. Lawson wrote that while the movie character of Mary Poppins, played by Julie Andrews, is  “sweet, gentle, and cheerful”, the character in the book is “tart and sharp, rude, plain, and vain” — much like P.L. Travers herself.

5659The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
This lovely book, full of humor and wisdom, seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years. I’m not sure why — maybe because there are virtually no female characters in it? That didn’t register with me when I read it as a little girl, which is interesting because I guarantee a young boy would have noticed that he was reading book with no male characters. But what child, male or female, hasn’t been tempted to betray a confidence:

Secrets had an immense attraction to him, because he never could keep one, and he enjoyed the sort of unhallowed thrill he experienced when he went and told another animal, after having faithfully promised not to.”

Stuart Little by E.B. White
E.B. White’s books for children are pure perfection. My mother and I are in agreement with Stuart that “‘a misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone'”, as he tells the class when he steps in as a substitute teacher. And any mother who’s ever enjoyed the early morning while everyone else is sleeping will identify with Stuart:

He liked the feeling of being the first one stirring; he enjoyed the quiet rooms with the books standing still on the shelves, the pale light coming in through the windows, and the fresh smell of day.

9780380001095-us-300Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
My mother gave me mass-market copy of Gone With the Wind when I was about twelve (which I still have, although its pages are yellow and brittle) and I really couldn’t put it down. I think this was the first grown-up book I ever read, and it paved the way for all the other fat historical sagas I loved as a teenager — The Good Earth, Kristin Lavransdatter, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Pillars of the Earth . . .

A Death in the Family by James Agee
James Agee died at age 45 in 1955, leaving behind a handwritten, untitled manuscript that was published as A Death in the Family in 1957. Ten years ago, a scholar named Michael Lofaro, reconstructed the novel, claiming that the new version was closer to the author’s original intention. According to the New York Times:

This tidying is good in its own right, but the main reason to celebrate the publication of this version is that it serves as a fresh reminder of the wondrous nature of Agee’s prose — unabashedly poetic, sacramental in its embrace of reality, and rhythmical as rain on a Tennessee tin roof.

51fn1qvtd5lThe World According to Garp by John Irving
This isn’t my favorite John Irving book — that would be A Prayer for Owen Meany, or maybe The Cider House Rules — but it’s the one that introduced me to Irving and his outsized imagination. As Garp himself says, “‘Imagining something is better than remembering something.'” I think of Garp sometimes when I take a walk around the neighborhood at night and see a television on in almost every house: “His real irritation is a writer’s irritation: he knows that wherever the TV glows, there sits someone who isn’t reading.”

Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
As a teenager, I loved this coming-of-age story about a young girl rebelling against her upper-middle class family in 1930s Manhattan. In The End of Your Life Book Club (a memoir about a book club with two members: the author and his mother), Will Schwalbe asks his mother to name her favorite books of all time. Her number one choice is Gone With the Wind, followed by Marjorie Morningstar. Schwalbe read the book on his mother’s recommendation, saying: “In Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk created a huge, all-enveloping book that sucks you in like Gone With the Wind.”

9780141439600_p0_v1_s1200x630A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
True confession from an English major: I never finished reading A Tale of Two Cities. My mother gave me a copy, which I probably still have somewhere with the page marked where I stopped reading. Sorry, Mom! I don’t think I’ve actually ever finished a Dickens book, except A Christmas Carol.

Biographical Questioning and the Quest for the Real in Contemporary Spanish Narrative by Virginia Newhall Rademacher
Definitely not for children, my sister’s Ph.D. dissertation (all 500+ pages) is an incredible source of pride for my mother.

What books would make your Top Ten list?

Novel Destinations — Author Interview

Novel Destinations cover. . . In our travels near and far, we’ve not only looked to novels to provide a new dimension to our travel experiences, but equally, we’ve sought out the literary places in our travels that will give us a deeper perspective on the books we cherish.
Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, Novel Destinations

If you love to read and to travel (and to read while you travel!) you will feel as though the authors of Novel Destinations wrote their informative and delightful book just for you. Subtitled A Travel Guide to Literary Landmarks From Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, this comprehensive handbook, including 500 literary sites,  is a dream come true for traveling bibliophiles. I think I used a whole pad of Post-it notes marking all the bookish places I want to visit. Like the authors (“two lifelong voracious readers who share an equally passionate appetite for exploration”), I prepare for a trip by reading novels about the area I’m preparing to visit.

js1

The authors at Washington Irving’s estate in Tarrytown, NY

Part of the appeal of Novel Destinations is its creative organization and beautiful design. The book is divided into two sections, “Travel by the Book”, which covers literary experiences (author houses and museums, writers at home and abroad, literary festivals and tours, and book-related lodgings, restaurants, and bars), and “Journeys Between the Pages”, which describes in depth eleven locales immortalized by famed novelists. The two authors spent years traveling the world collecting information — from locations, dates, and hours to reading suggestions and fun literary trivia and gossip.

Shannon was kind enough to answer, in detail, my questions about her top tdestinations and her favorite books, authors, and characters. She even shared a few packing tips!

Of all the “novel destinations” you’ve visited, was there one that a) surprised you the most and b) disappointed (or underwhelmed you) the most? Can you pick your very favorite literary destination — one that you’d return to again and again?

A place that surprised me is Alexandre Dumas’ Château de Monte Cristo near Paris for how completely imaginative it is. First you walk along a wooded path and through man-made grottos, then past a waterfall and a moat-encircled pavilion Dumas used as his office. Finally, you reach the castle, which looks like a confection made of stone. One of the highlights inside is the ornate and colorful Moorish Room, designed by Tunisian craftsmen Dumas brought back with him after visiting the African nation. The Château de Monte Cristo is a domain worthy of an adventure writer.

Honestly, I haven’t been disappointed in any of the literary sites I’ve visited. Moderating expectations is a good idea, though, depending on the place because each one really is unique. Some are lavish like Sir Walter Scott’s castle in the Scottish border country, whereas Edgar Allan Poe’s tiny cottage in New York City reflects his hardscrabble circumstances. Mark Twain’s richly designed and decorated house in Connecticut incorporates his love of travel, while W.B. Yeats’ stone tower in the Irish countryside contains no furnishings but plenty of atmosphere.

Hemingway Home in Key WestA literary landmark that I have returned to again and again is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. I’ve been there three times, taking the excellent and entertaining tour on each visit. Although I confess it’s not only the literary aspect that draws me to the Hemingway Home. There are 50 or so cats that live on the property and have the run of the house and grounds, even sleeping in Hemingway’s bedroom. A ship’s captain gave Hemingway a six-toed cat named Snow White, and some of the felines that live there today are its descendants. With the combination of a literary connection and cats, the Hemingway Home is pretty much my version of heaven.

What would your five “desert island” books be? I find it impossible to choose just one, but if you can — go for it!

71ptfhgn4clIt doesn’t seem fair to select a novel by just one Brontë sister, so I would have to go with Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne). Plus while reading the books I could reminisce about visiting Brontë Country, the atmospheric moors in West Yorkshire, England.

Rounding out my picks would be two of my favorite travel books: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (gossipy and lyrical) and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the ultimate road trip memoir.

Do you read electronically when you travel, or do you carry paper books with you? What’s your favorite reading location — on a plane, a beach, a cafe, your hotel room . . .? Have you ever been stranded anywhere without anything to read?

I was slow coming around to the idea of an e-reader, but now I wouldn’t travel without one. It means you have a current read plus a choice of back-up books at the ready; it has built-in lighting, which is handy when sharing a hotel room with another person who wants to turn in earlier than you do; and it saves space. I spent the last three years trekking around the globe with a 40-litre backpack as my main piece of luggage, and there wasn’t much room to spare. And since I’ve been using an e-reader while traveling, I’ve never been caught without anything to read (every bibliophile’s nightmare!). Even if I’m somewhere with no shops around or finish a book late at night in a hotel room, I can download something .

I read printed books, too, especially when I’m in a fixed location for a while and don’t need to tote them along. On a book exchange shelf at a ferry terminal along Alaska’s Inside Passage, I found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and devoured it during the ride instead of admiring the scenery.

My favorite place to read is at the beach, with sitting in front of a roaring fire a close second—the latter is more of a fantasy, though, since it rarely happens.

Can you share any special packing tips for travelers? Anything you can’t leave home without?

m_56df5ef73c6f9f87d700d6c4Mostly my packing tips are about saving space, honed during years of living from a backpack. Some of my favorites: exfoliating soap bars (no need to carry both bath gel and a mesh scrubby; Etsy.com has a ton of varieties), a sun hat that can be rolled up (ones made of grosgrain ribbon are attractively detailed and sturdy enough to keep their shape), and Butterfly Twists folding ballet flats. And I always have a pashmina or other large scarf with me. It can double as a blanket on an airplane and comes in handy as a cover-up when visiting churches or temples.

What were your favorite books as a child?

I trace my wanderlust back to a book I read as a kid: an illustrated children’s version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The thrilling story was like a siren’s song with its depictions of distant ports of call. I was also partial to biographies about women like Clara Barton and Marie Curie. And Nancy Drew mysteries.

If you could meet a fictional character (or two), who would you pick?

Sleuthing with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson would be a great adventure. We would then cap off a day of detecting with a stop at the Museum Tavern, a London pub across from the British Museum where Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular.

1934If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?

I once took an online quiz, “Which Classic Literary Character Are You?”, and it came up with Jo March. Which seems appropriate because Novel Destinations was partly inspired by a trip I took to Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, with my mother, sister, and niece. Visiting Orchard House is like stepping into the pages of Little Women.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you want to know?

I would love an invitation to visit Edith Wharton at The Mount, her grand Berkshires estate. (She designed the 42-room house and elaborate gardens herself.) We would sit on the terrace and reminisce about our travels, including her journeys to Malta, the Italian Alps, and other destinations. Joining us would be Henry James, Wharton’s close friend and a regular guest at The Mount. The two once traveled together through France and toured the home of French feminist writer George Sand, whom they both admired. True literary travelers, the duo even nicknamed their car “George” in her honor.

9780345516541And finally — what’s the best book you’ve read recently (in the past year or so)?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan has adventure and romance, lovely writing and a literary angle. It’s a novel featuring Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Osbourne, how they met and their remarkable life together, which took them from an art colony in France to the South Seas. The story made me cry at the end, which I consider the sign of a good book.

The Women in the Castle — Book Review

The Women in the Castle coverAlbrecht had not approved at first. Assassination. Murder. It was not the culmination he wanted for the resistance movement. In his estimation, injustice could be fought only with justice — he was a lawyer to the core. Murder was evil. This was an absolute. But if it would end the war and prevent the murder of thousands? Even millions? They had debated this often deep into the night with him probing his own convictions and Marianne playing devil’s advocate. Although in fact, she was not the devil’s advocate. She believed Connie and von Stauffenberg and the others were right. Hitler must be killed.
Jessica Shattuck, The Women in the Castle

The “women in the castle” are widows of three of the men who participated in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. In the aftermath of the war, they and their children take refuge in Burg Lingenfels, an ancient, crumbling castle in Bavaria. Their only common bond is that their husbands sacrificed their lives in a futile effort to save their country from Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels, the moral center of the novel and “the product of an oppressively proper Prussian upbringing”, shelters her fellow war widows and their children in the safest place she knows, a fortress once famous for parties that celebrated “liberal, bohemian culture.”

The novel opens on November 9, 1938, the date that Nazis carried out pogroms against German Jews in the infamous attacks that would later be known as Kristallnacht.  That night, at a party at Burg Lingenfels, the news reaches Marianne, her husband, Albrecht, her close childhood friend, Martin Constantine (Connie) Fledermann, and others who oppose Hitler. Shocked and saddened, they “commit to active resistance from this day forward”. Although she is insulted by the men’s chauvinism, Marianne agrees to be “the commander of wives and children”, a role she takes seriously, “long after Connie was dead, Albrecht was dead, Germany itself was dead, and half the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two . . .”.

The novel jumps to June 1945, when Marianne rescues Connie’s widow, Benita Fledermann, a young and uneducated woman from a small village, who has been held captive by the Russians in Berlin, along with her young son, who spent the war in a “Children’s Home” run by the Gestapo. Later, Marianne tracks down Ania Grabarek, widow of Pietre Grabarek, a Polish resister, in a displaced persons camp and brings her and her two sons to the castle.

The rest of the novel is devoted to the women’s experiences during and after the war, as Jessica Shattuck skillfully shifts points of view and time periods. The story, which both begins and ends at Burg Lingenfels, is not a traditional plot, but the unfolding of the women’s lives as they grapple with the guilt they feel for their wartime actions. In this way, they are emblematic of the German people, faced with their complicity in Nazi war crimes. But each of the women emerges as a believable, full recognized character. Readers may not agree with some of their choices, but they will understand.

In an interview, the author describes the origins of her novel: her German mother and Nazi grandparents. She spent a summer during college interviewing her grandmother, who was remarkably open about Nazism. (Shattuck’s grandfather, a “difficult and intimidating figure” was not as forthcoming.) Shattuck realized that many, if not most, members of her grandparents’ generation (“ordinary Germans”) were enthusiastic Nazis. Her grandmother wanted to talk about how this could have happened:

And she wanted to explain how it was possible that she could have been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. She did not want to be forgiven. She wanted to be understood. This is, I think, an important and often confused distinction. And in some ways, it formed the foundation of my novel.

Another source of inspiration for The Women in the Castle was a reunion of the wives and children of resisters that Shattuck attended:

One of my mother’s best friends was the daughter of a man executed for his role in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The summer after my mother died, I accompanied this friend to her mother’s eightieth birthday party . . . Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had a wholly different connection to their German past: their loved ones had been heroes rather than villains.

647492Shattuck says that although “The Women in the Castle centers on three widows of resisters, it is as much a book about complicity as it is one about resistance.”  Franz Muller, with whom Benita falls in love, is tortured by his complicity in atrocities. I wasn’t surprised to read in Shattuck’s Acknowledgments that Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning was one of her sources. One of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, Ordinary Men describes how a group of middle-aged men willingly murdered thousands of innocent Jews, even though they would suffer no negative repercussions if they refused to participate.

We’d all like to think that if we were Germans in 1938, we would have seen Hitler’s evil as clearly Marianne von Lingenfels and her fellow resisters did. But would we?

Readers who appreciate character-driven novels and want to understand World War II from a different perspective will love The Women in the Castle. I’m adding to my list of favorite World War II fiction, along with All the Light We Cannot See (still my #1!), Lilac Girls, Salt to the Sea, and The Invisible Bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Spring Break

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March 31

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April 1

According to the saying, March goes out like a lamb. I don’t know about that, because yesterday as I looked out the window on the 18th floor of a Chicago high-rise I saw low-lying gray clouds obscuring the tops of skyscrapers, cold waves crashing dangerously close to Lake Shore Drive, and rain blowing sideways. Today, on April 1, the sun is shining and runners are once again crowding the sidewalks and paths, so maybe spring is on its way. I’m going to take a “spring break” from blogging for a few weeks, but here are a few books I enjoyed that have just hit the shelves.

You’ve probably heard about two of this spring’s “big books”, The Women in the Castle and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

25150798I loved Lisa See’s breakout novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but didn’t think her subsequent books were quite as good. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is on a par with Snow Flower. The story, centered on a Chinese peasant woman and the daughter she’s forced to abandon, who is adopted by an American family, is terrific — and the novel is packed with interesting information about Chinese hill tribes and the tea industry. When I started the book I assumed it was set in the past, and was shocked when I realized the tribal culture See describes so well has only recently faded away as modernization has entered the most remote areas of China.  (By the way,  On Gold Mountain, the chronicle of the See family’s history in the United States, reads like a novel and might be my favorite of all See’s books.)

y648Jessica Shattuck’s debut novel, The Women in the Castle, has received a lot of pre-publication hype — deservedly so. If you think you’ve read more than your share of World War II novels, think again, because The Women in the Castle provides a fascinating perspective unfamiliar to most readers. The “women” of the title are the widows of three conspirators who plotted to assassinate Hitler. I’ll post a full review on April 20.

5d1367e3f15a78dddf64c5f28d93d06eI’d like to recommend a smaller novel you may not have heard about — The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz. (For those who are wondering, the author is a cousin of Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road.) I read this book almost without stopping, and when I reached the very satisfying ending, I actually wished the book were longer. Often, when I finish a book, I think, Didn’t anyone edit this book? I could have cut out a third of it.

Not only is Korelitz a marvelous writer, whose sentences inspire admiration, she’s spun a clever tale about a topic of great interest to me: political correctness and dissent on college campuses. Readers of The Sabbathday River, a thriller Korelitz published almost twenty years ago, may remember the character of Naomi Roth — I actually did, which says a lot about the strength of Korelitz’s writing. Naomi Roth reappears in The Devil and Webster, this time as the president of a prestigious liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, struggling with a student protest that threatens both her career and her relationship with her daughter.

The student protestors are irate that a popular professor, whose field of study is “folklore” and is known for his entertaining lectures and easy A’s, has been denied tenure. What they don’t know, and the college administration can’t legally share with them, is that he is guilty of academic dishonesty:

Plagiarism, plagiarism, Naomi thought, scanning the printout from the website, which Kinikini had brought for her. It was an ugly word, ugly to anyone who’d ever attempted the delicate but gut-wrenching task of setting words onto paper (or its technological equivalents). Words might feel universal, but they were not, because when they were put together they made patterns, and those patterns were as personally composed as any line of music or labored-over pigment on a canvas.

Anyone who’s a fan of campus novels or social satire will love The Devil and Webster. I’ve enjoyed all of Korelitz’s earlier books (unlike her famous cousin, Helene Hanff, whose response to Korelitz’s first effort was “Why would you write this?”), particularly Admission and You Should Have Known (read my review here). Please let me know what’s on your reading list this spring!

10 Spring Paperbacks — 2017

Happy first day of spring! Today is the vernal equinox (or the autumnal equinox, if you’re in the southern hemisphere). I was a little fuzzy on the term “equinox”, so I turned to Google and found that the London Telegraph explained it very clearly:

The March equinox marks the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from south to north. This happens on March 19, 20 or 21 every year . . . Since night and day are nearly exactly the same length – 12 hours – all over the world the event is called the equinox, which in Latin, literally means ‘equal night’ (equi – equal, and nox – night).

I also didn’t know that certain rituals are associated with the spring equinox. According to the Elephant Journal, picnics, kite-flying, and special cleansing baths accompanied by candles and incense are good ways to celebrate spring. The article’s author also suggests an activity that, despite my enthusiasm for the coming season, I will not be engaging in:  “Gather a circle of sisters around a fire, to share stories, laughter and music. I’m usually naked dancing by my first bonfire if the neighbors are not up for the weekend, or indoors by the wood stove.”

9780544954618_hresI’m all for sharing stories, laughter, and music, but I like to keep my clothes on. And even though it’s supposed to be spring, I still like a cozy blanket over me when I read on the couch in the evening. Right now, I’m reading Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Irish author Sara Baume, just out in paperback. Told in poetic language, it’s the story of  two outcasts, a lonely 57-year-old man and his one-eyed dog. If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this will appeal to you.

Here are nine other terrific books, just out in paperback, that you may have missed in hardcover:

9781101883082Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find Hall’s debut novel both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis. Three narrators — a Polish teenager, a German doctor, and an American humanitarian, all based on real women, lend their distinctive voices to this meticulously researched story of heartbreak and courage.

The North Water by Ian McGuire
This adventure story certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I read it in two days. The North Water was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s ten best books, so I can’t be the only person who willingly reads about violence aboard a 19th century whaling expedition — gruesome murders, polar bear attacks, animal slaughter, and violence galore.

Church_AtomicWt_pbk_REV_rgb_HR_2MB (1)The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
Meridian (Meri), a young biology student at the University of Chicago, marries her much older professor, Alden, and gives up her own dreams of becoming an ornithologist when her husband is sent to Los Alamos to help develop the atomic bomb. This lovely novel of love, sacrifice, and societal change spans 30 years in Meri and Alden’s flawed marriage. This would be a perfect book club selection — beautiful writing and plenty of issues to discuss.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, brings us a kinder, gentler World War I book than most. The story centers on Beatrice Nash, a young Latin teacher who arrives in the small village of Rye during the summer of 1914. Determined to make her own way after the death of her beloved father, Beatrice is thwarted by the sexist mores of the times. She befriends a local family, the Kents, whose nephews — each for his own complicated reasons — volunteer to serve in France soon after war is declared. Warning: you may shed a tear or two at the end of this lovely, charming book, which is a perfect choice for fans of Downton Abbey.

1b1ceb0507bb9dd5c5166e1f00d0c6a0The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton (coming in paperback on April 4)
Jane Hamilton is one of my very favorite authors, and it’s been seven years since her last novel. The Excellent Lombards is well worth the wait. It’s a jewel. The story, like so many others I’ve read recently, is about a young person growing up and finding her place in the world. Mary Frances Lombard (“Frankie”) enters a grade school geography bee, learning from her teacher that “‘everything about the place where you live determines Who You Are’”.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold
The question that everyone asked after the Columbine tragedy, Where were their parents?, is partially answered in this painfully honest memoir by the mother of one of the two killers.

9780553447453Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Desmond, a sociologist, has written a work of nonfiction that reads like the most compelling novel you can imagine. Evicted is reminiscent of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Random Family, and There Are No Children Here. He follows eight Milwaukee families struggling to find and keep safe and affordable housing, along with the property owners who control their fates.

Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books Tht Can Change Lives by David Denby
Denby, film critic for the New Yorker for many years, wanted to learn how schools can foster the love of reading in screen-addicted teenagers. His account of the time he spent observing dedicated teachers fighting this uphill battle kept me reading late at night.

y6481The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love by Melissa Faye Greene
Melissa Fay Greene ( author of Praying for Sheetrock and There Is No Me Without You, among others) is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. The Underdogs tells the story of Karen Shirk, founder of the service dog academy 4 Paws for Ability. Karen trained her own service dog after she became profoundly disabled and was rejected by every service dog agency she approached. I was riveted by Karen’s story, and the stories of the amazing dogs she trains who are able to help people in ways that humans cannot.

Novels for Art Lovers

After finishing  A Piece of the World, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World” (reviewed earlier this week), I started thinking about novels inspired by paintings. Many favorites came to mind, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. Ever since I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I’ve loved books that take place in the art world. (Today’s children can enjoy Blue Balliett’s wonderful art mysteries, starting with Chasing Vermeer, and Marianne Malone’s Sixty-Eight Rooms series, set in one of the most enchanting places I know — the Thorne Miniature Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago.)

meisje_met_de_parelIn a TED talk called “Finding the Story Inside the Painting”  , Chevalier describes the affliction of “gallery fatigue” that many museumgoers experience when overwhelmed by galleries full of dazzling art. Her solution is to be selective and to concentrate on one painting:

When I go into a gallery, first of all, I go quite fast, and I look at everything, and I pinpoint the ones that make me slow down for some reason or other. I don’t even know why they make me slow down, but something pulls me like a magnet and then I ignore all the others, and I just go to that painting. So it’s the first thing I do is, I do my own curation. I choose a painting. It might just be one painting in 50. And then the second thing I do is I stand in front of that painting, and I tell myself a story about it.

Chevalier found inspiration in art for two of her other novels — Burning Bright (the paintings and poetry of William Blake) and The Lady and the Unicorn (the medieval tapestries hanging in the Cluny Museum in Paris). So have many other authors — here are a few of my favorites:

y648The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky
The boy in the painting was not pretty. He was too skinny in his red uniform, his face pasty and elongated. The paint was thick, thrown on; it looked as if the painter couldn’t be bothered to slow down and pay attention. Rose didn’t understand why her mother loved it so.
Rose Zimmer’s parents save her life by sending her on a Kindertransport from Austria to England in 1939. After the war, she desperately searches for her family’s Chaim Soutine painting, stolen by the Nazis. The search leads her to Lizzie Goldstein, whose father was the last owner of the painting — which has been stolen again, on Lizzie’s watch.

the_goldfinch_by_donna_tartThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2014)
. . .  If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.
I know it’s probably longer than it should be, but if you haven’t read The Goldfinch , which is all about the enduring power of art, you’re missing out on a real treasure. For a complete list (with illustrations) of the many paintings referred to in The Goldfinch, check out Beyond the Bird: Art in The Goldfinch.

madame_x_madame_pierre_gautreau_john_singer_sargent_1884_unfree_frame_cropI Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto
I had thought photography could reflect the truth of a woman’s beauty. But after seeing these horrible prints, I decided it was an imperfect art, impossible for the photographer and sitter to control. Painting, on the other hand, I began to believe, could reveal something greater than reality. In the right hands with the right chemistry between artist and sitter, painting could illuminate a higher truth. More to the point, it had the power to immortalize.
John Singer Sargent’s portrait of American beauty Virginie Gautreau shocked audiences at the 1884 Paris Salon, damaging the reputations of both artist and subject.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
She thought of all the people in all the paintings she had seen that day, not just Father’s, in all the paintings of the world, in fact. Their eyes, the particular turn of a head, their loneliness or suffering or grief was borrowed by an artist to be seen by other people throughout the years who would never see them face to face. People who would be that close to her, she thought, a matter of a few arms’ lengths, looking, looking, and they would never know her.
Based on a fictional painting by Vermeer, Vreeland’s novel moves through several centuries as the painting passes from owner to owner. Vreeland has built her career on fiction set in the world of art — Lisette’s List (Chagall), The Passion of Artemisia (Artemisia Gentileschi), Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Louis Tiffany), Luncheon of the Boating Party (Renoir) . . .

painted-girls_ffThe Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
We are the daughters of sewing maids and fruit peddlers, charwomen and laundresses, dressed up and painted to look like something we are not. All the years of practicing, the sweat and toil, the muscles aching at the end of the day, it comes down to learning trickery—to leap with the lightness that lets the theatergoers think of us as queens of the Opéra stage instead of scamps with cracking knees and heaving ribs and ever-bleeding toes.
Buchanan imagines the lives of ballet dancer Marie van Goethem, the model for Edgar Degas’ sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen”, and her sisters.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Without light nothing can be seen. And with it, still so much is unobserved.
In 1990, thirteen paintings and drawings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  The crime has never been solved, and if you visit the museum today, you’ll see blank spaces on the walls where the works of art should hang. In Shapiro’s entertaining and enlightening novel, one of the paintings apparently resurfaces.

One Willy H. Smith, commenter on the Washington Post‘s book blog, is not a fan of novels based on paintings:

This is a terrible trend. You can’t see the paintings in the National Gallery for all the novelists trying to find a source for their next romance novel. You’d think the review somewhere would mention that this has been done to death. And speaking of death, I think I’ll write a lad’s adventure story about the guys who are getting shot in Goya’s “The Third of May”. Anybody got any purple prose to spare?

I think maybe Willy hasn’t read the female-written “romance” novels he disparages. The only purple prose I’ve encountered in an art-related novel can be found in a novel written by a man — Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

stolen-beauty-9781501131981_hrI’ve just started reading Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese, about Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer, the “woman in gold” who is the subject of two of his most famous paintings. So far, so good — and my husband highly recommends Anne-Marie O’Connor’s nonfiction account, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

An exhibit based on “Whistler’s Mother” has just opened at  the Art Institute of Chicago. Whistler actually titled the portrait “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and said, “Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” I’m willing to bet there’s a story in there . . .