Rainy Day Thoughts on Reading and Reviewing

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

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

Raymond Carver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 New Books Worth Your Time

The book must of necessity be put into a bookcase. And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, must be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil!
William Gladstone

IMG_2762 2According to multiple Internet sources, Frank Zappa came up with the saying, “So many books, so little time.” Well, it turns out that Zappa didn’t coin this phrase; it comes from a pamphlet  called So Many Books, So Little Time, What to Do? published in 1892 by a British organization called the National Home Reading Union that aimed to guide middle-class and working-class citizens in their “reading practices and choices.” Frank Zappa did say some other smart things, such as “Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff” and “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” He also said, “Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts” and “Tobacco is my favorite vegetable” Well, keep in mind this is a person who named his children Moon Unit and Dweezil.

Someone once gave me a T-shirt that says “So many books, so little time” and if that T-shirt hadn’t been too small, I’d have worn it the other day while cleaning out my bookshelves. (I apologize to whoever gave me the shirt, but it’s going in the donation bag .. . as soon as I decide to tackle my closet. Sorting through books can be fun, sorting through clothes is never fun.) I had totally run out of shelf space and had to make some tough decisions. A few were not so difficult — I had no problem tossing Mary Ellen’s Best Helpful Hints, 1983 edition — but it was hard to get rid of piles of yellowed paperbacks I’d never read that I knew were good books. I’d just never gotten to them, and enticing new books keep arriving. What does it mean that I’ve never been in the mood to pick up  Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, even though I’m pretty sure I’d like it?

At the end of my cleaning project, I had two shelves of books I want to read, plus a basket full of books I have to read for upcoming discussions. I’m going to adhere to a new policy: one in, one out — if I add a book to the TBR shelves, I have to remove one and pass it along. My mother just gave me a copy of The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin, so Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson had to go. I slid it into the Little Free Library around the corner, hoping someone would give it a good home.

Here are ten books that were definitely worth my time:

40000705The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and A Girl Saved by Bees by Meredith May
You know you’re reading a really good book when the topic is one in which you’ve previously had no interest — but you still can’t put the book down. The topic here is beekeeping and the natural world of honeybees, and it’s absolutely fascinating — both in its own right and as a metaphor used by Meredith May’s beekeeper grandfather to teach her life lessons. Meredith May’s memoir of growing up in a rural area of northern California, near Big Sur, ranks at the top of my list of terrific coming-of-age memoirs.

41644326Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
I loved every page of Ruth Reichl’s behind-the-scenes look at her career as editor of Gourmet magazine. Reichl, who was the restaurant critic for the New York Times when Conde Nast approached her to run the magazine, initially turned down the job, citing her lack of editorial experience. But she finally decided to take a chance, spending ten exhilarating years at the helm of Gourmet.  At a time when print magazines are becoming an endangered species, Reichl’s love letter to Gourmet — and her talented and idiosyncratic colleagues (chefs, writers, and editors)  — is particularly poignant. It’s truly a joy to read, whether you’re a foodie or not.

9780385538800An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
In a heartbreaking book that offers no easy answers, Alex Kotlowitz examines the rampant gun violence in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods during the summer of 2013. He brings to life the perpetrators, victims, and their families, demonstrating their shared humanity and the twists of fate that can shape one person into a killer and another into a victim. The story of gun violence isn’t a story of statistics, Kotlowitz shows us. That said, I wish he had included more facts in the book — for example, the fact that Chicago’s murder rate has been going down, and that it isn’t among the top ten most violent cities in the country, or that other major cities (notably, New York) have seen an even larger drop in violence in recent years.

9780735223042Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan
Henry, Himself is the third in a trilogy about a middle-class Pittsburgh family. In the two earlier books, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, we meet Henry only in retrospect — he has died and his grieving family is trying to move on without him. In this lovely, quiet novel, we see Henry and his family through his own eyes. Short, well-titled chapters alternate between the present, when Henry is 75, and the past, starting with his childhood and moving through his service In World War II and his adult years. The novel brims with affection for its main character, an ordinary man wrestling with big questions: What is the meaning of an individual life? What do we leave behind? You don’t have to have read the previous books to enjoy this one, but once you’ve read Henry, Himself, you’ll want to read the others.

34409176The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
I’m generally not drawn to dystopian fiction, or magical realism. If it couldn’t really happen, I lose interest. But there are exceptions to every rule, and The Dreamers is one of them. I couldn’t stop reading this haunting, and yes, dreamy, story of a college town struck by a mysterious flulike illness whose victims fall deeply asleep and experience vivid dreams. This novel, which reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Station Eleven, will stay with me for a long time. (I just noticed that Emily St. John Mandel provided the cover blurb!)

y648The Huntress by Kate Quinn
The best page-turner/World War II novel I’ve read in ages! Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger — you won’t be able to stop reading. Kate Quinn expertly weaves the story of the Nazi “huntress” with several others, all compelling: the female Soviet pilots known as the “Night Witches”, two postwar Nazi hunters, and a young girl and her antique dealer father living in Boston. Bonus: it’s a paperback original.

34810320Sadie by Courtney Summers
If you’re an adult reader who’s a bit wary of YA fiction, Sadie is a great place to start. This smart and original thriller, about a missing teenage girl, is also perfect for fans of true crime podcasts. Half the book is narrated by Sadie, the runaway girl, and half is a transcription of a podcast called “The Girls”. It’s an addictive read for both older teenagers and adults. For readers who noticed that A.J. Finn provided the cover blurb, check out the fascinating New Yorker article, A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions, which shows “A.J. Finn” (the pseudonym of Dan Mallory) to be a pathological liar.

fullsizeoutput_3bdeThe Age of Light by Whitney Scharer
I loved learning about Lee Miller, the 1920s Vogue model who was surrealist Man Ray’s muse in Paris and then become a celebrated photographer, documenting the horrors of World War II. If you enjoyed any of Paula McClain’s novels, especially Love and Ruin (about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway), you’ll adore this book.

9780525521877The River by Peter Heller
Two Dartmouth students, experienced outdoorsmen, embark on a journey in northern Canada that they intend to be a rugged adventure in the wilderness but that turns out to be a “Deliverance”-style nightmare. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, but this novel is much more than that. For one thing, Heller’s writing is gorgeous; for another, he has created two characters that are as real as any you’ll meet on the page. The last lines of the Denver Post review are “I could not put this book down. It truly was terrifying and unutterably beautiful”, and I couldn’t agree more.

y648-1Little Faith by Nickolas Butler
Lyle and Peg Hovde have recently welcomed their daughter, Shiloh, and her six-year-old son, Isaac into their home in rural Wisconsin. Having lost a baby boy in infancy, the Hovdes relish their roles as hands-on grandparents. But when Shiloh joins a fundamentalist church that practices faith healing, and declares that little Isaac is a gifted healer, Lyle and Peg are faced with difficult decisions. This beautiful novel, covering a year of the changing Midwestern seasons, raises provocative questions about faith and family. I’m looking forward to hearing Butler talk about the novel at a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon on April 25 — click here for more details.

Random Recommendations on a Snowy Day

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

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

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

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

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

I’d love your recommendations!

What I’ve Been Reading — Summer 2018

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

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

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

The third book I read on that trip, which I didn’t start until the plane ride home, was one that I tossed in my bag at the last minute — The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. A terrific mash-up of true crime and memoir, this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years. When she was a law student, the author spent the summer working on an appeal for a convicted child murderer, Ricky Langley. An avowed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich found herself wishing for Langley’s execution. As she examined the case, eventually spending years studying every detail, she came to a new understanding of her own painful childhood and a radically different view of the legal system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What four-star books have you read recently?

 

 

6 Books to Read This Spring

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

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

Raymond Carver

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

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

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

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

9780812996067

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

Nora and Charlie seem to have everything: a brownstone on a quiet cut-de-sac in New York’s Upper West Side, surrounded by long-time neighbors who throw great parties, college-aged twins who love their visits home, and terrific jobs. But when a parking dispute turns into a violent incident, life begins to unravel.

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

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

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

Laura-EmmaNot everyone is going to love Kate Greathead’s debut novel, Laura and Emma, but I’m crazy about it. Not much happens; it’s a character study of a woman named Laura, who comes from a very privileged background in New York but has never felt that she fits in. When she gets pregnant by accident, she raises her daughter, Emma, on her own. The writing is just perfect; Kate Greathead has a unique voice that resonated with me. It’s perfect for readers who enjoyed Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan, Someone by Alice McDermott, or My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. These books are the opposite of page-turners, but I found them more compelling than any thriller.

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

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

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

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

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

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

9780735219441 I absolutely adored The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, about a writer who loses her dearest friend but finds solace when she becomes the reluctant owner of the Great Dane he has left behind. It’s a lovely, unsentimental story about grief, friendship, literature, and the bond between people and their pets, filled with the narrator’s thoughts on reading and writing. If you love dogs and books, you’ll savor this jewel of a book. I promise you that it’s not sappy. This will definitely make my list of favorite novels at the end of the year.

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

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

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

 

 

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

y648April is National Poetry Month!

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

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

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

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

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

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

9780735219441Pets Are Wonderful Month, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, and National Canine Fitness Month
I absolutely adored The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, about a writer who loses her dearest friend but finds solace when she becomes the reluctant owner of the Great Dane he has left behind. It’s a lovely, unsentimental story about grief, friendship, and the bond between people and their pets, filled with the narrator’s thoughts on reading and writing. If you love dogs and literature, you’ll savor this jewel of a book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’ve Been Reading

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

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

33135584My favorite book this year (so far):

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

9780735213180My favorite novel so far this year:

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

Terrific narrative nonfiction:

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

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

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say (Kelly Corrigan) —  Corrigan’s trademark wisdom and self-deprecating humor shine in this series of personal essays.

9780399592065For anyone who loved When Breath Becomes Air:

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

97807352122062017 Man Booker Prize finalist, new in paperback:

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

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

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

34275229To keep on your bedside table:

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

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

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

Written by a publishing insider:

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

38330854For fans of domestic thrillers:

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

Novel that our YA book group enjoyed discussing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.