A Piece of the World — Book Review

a-piece-of-the-world-coverThis is a girl who has lived through broken dreams and promises. Still  lives. Will always live on that hillside, at the center of a world that unfolds all the way to the edges of the canvas.
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World

Born just before the dawn of the twentieth century, middle-aged Christina Olson has spent her life on a remote and primitive farm on the coast of Maine. Time stands still for Christina, who suffers from a mysterious degenerative disease, and her bachelor brother, Al. They live as their ancestors did, hauling water from a nearby spring, making soap, chopping firewood, growing vegetables, and tending animals.

Christina’s father forces her to leave school after eighth grade, despite her quick and curious mind. “The wider world is no place for her,” he declares.  When Christina takes refuge in a book of poems by Emily Dickinson, her mother “dumps a basket of air-dried sheets” in her lap, admonishing that there’s “no time for lollygagging.” Throughout the novel, the reclusive poet’s puzzling lines resonate with the lonely Christina.

One summer afternoon, a young painter named Andrew Wyeth asks her for a glass of water. Summer after summer he returns, setting up his studio in an empty room in the farmhouse. “Andy” is fascinated with Christina and Al’s circumscribed life, asking questions not only about their habits and routines, but about the reasons they live as they do: “. . . Over time his inquiries became more personal. Why do Al and I live here alone, with all these empty rooms? What was it like when it was full of people, before most of the fields went to flower? . . . Did you or Al ever want to live somewhere, anywhere, else?”

6198741820_ebb42d5f9c_bOver the years, the artist and his subject develop a close and trusting relationship. Christina, a bitter woman whose life has brought her many disappointments, is difficult for most people to like. She rejects the kind, if awkward, attempts of neighbors to befriend and help her. But she and Andy are kindred spirits, in a way:

Later I reflect on the things we have in common and the things we don’t. Our stubbornness and our infirmities. Our circumscribed childhoods. His father kept him out of school; we’re alike that way. But N.C. trained him to be a painter and Papa trained me to take care of the house, and there’s a world of difference in that.

one_more_step_mr-_handsWhen Christina first meets Andrew Wyeth, he’s introduced as N.C. Wyeth’s son: “‘You know N.C. Wyeth. The famous illustrator? Treasure Island?'” Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel stands in contrast to the story of Christina’s life, in which a trip to Boston is an exciting experience. Al, who longed to make a living on the sea and whose forebears traveled the world on sailing ships, read Treasure Island a dozen times — “Might be the only book I ever actually finished, now that I think about it,” he says.

“Treasure” is a motif that recurs throughout A Piece of the World. As children, Christina and Al are fascinated with the legend of nearby Mystery Tunnel, where pirates hid their treasure. Christina’s summertime boyfriend, Walton, refers to her as a treasure. Christina’s nephew, John, visits “Treasure Island” in the Pacific on his way home from naval duty in World War II. The real treasure in the novel is Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World”, which shows “what no one else can see”.  Art — Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels, Emily Dickinson’s poetry — is valuable beyond measure. It brings us the world, and it endures.

Christina Baker Kline’s lovely novel is not a page-turner, but I didn’t want to put it down. The narrative drive comes not from plot but from the portrait Kline paints of Christina Olson and her friendship with Andrew Wyeth. Kline’s decision to tell the story entirely from Christina’s point of view gives the novel a sense of intimacy and helps the reader connect with a character who may inspire sympathy but not affection. Kline says she that Wyeth “managed to get at the core of Christina’s self”. The novel imagines the details and background that make up that essence, giving a face to a woman whose face we’ve never seen.

8 Short Novels Your Book Club Will Actually Finish

Very few very long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil.
Ian McEwan

I’ve never met a reader who doesn’t like short novels . . .What a short novel asks is that you commit, in one sitting, the same amount of time to reading as you frequently commit to a film or a football match. Make that commitment and, in many cases, the payoff outweighs the investment.
Cynan Jones

img_2656-2

Three books, 2,208 pages

Let’s face it: Most books are too long. If I’m going to read a book that’s 400 pages or more, it had better be spectacular. It seems to me that books, like people, have been getting heavier over the past 20 years — and recent studies confirm my suspicion. The Guardian says:

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

Even children’s books are getting longer; one study states that the average length of a middle-grade book published in 1996 was 137 pages, while in 2016 the average length was 290 pages.

img_2658

11 books, 1,825 pages

Peirene Press, a boutique publishing company based in London, specializes in short books. They “only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.”  What if book clubs, especially those whose members aren’t showing up or aren’t finishing (or even starting) the assigned reading, took a leaf out of Peirene’s book, so to speak, and only chose books that are 200 pages or shorter? Length does not necessarily correspond with complexity or quality. The Great Gatsby, the quintessential Great American Novel and required reading for almost every high school student, is only 180 pages long.

Book clubs are often too ambitious with their selections, choosing books that they think they should read, not books they really want to read, AND picking books that are very long.  One book club with which I’m intimately acquainted chose Barkskins by Annie Proulx (736 pages), with less than stellar results: no one finished the book. They still managed to have a great discussion, and everyone agreed the book was worth finishing. This group, all great readers, had much better luck with News of the World (224 pages), Homegoing (320 pages), and The Book of Unknown Americans (304 pages), which everyone in the group read and loved. (However, another favorite was A Little Life, 720 pages long.)

The average reading speed is about 300 words per minute. A trade paperback has roughly 300 words per page, depending on variables such as font size and amount of dialogue. So a 200-page book takes the average reader a little over three hours to read. I think anyone who’s committed to a book group can devote three hours to the monthly selection, unless it’s truly dreadful. Here are thumbnail reviews of ten books, both old and new, that you can polish off on a Saturday afternoon. The New York Times describes The Sense of an Ending as “a short book, but not a slight one”, which actually characterizes all these books.

9780307947727The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (163 pages)
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, this novel is much more accessible and plot-driven than the typical Booker Prize novel. Tony Webster, a retired historian in his sixties, receives an unusual bequest that causes him to reflect on his past. This was a favorite of my coed book group.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (184 pages)
Based on the author’s experience with “re-education” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, this is the tale of two city boys sent to the countryside for manual labor. They discover a hidden suitcase full of Western literature and begin their own program of re-education, introducing the village seamstress to Balzac, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and other forbidden writers.

9781101971727Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (177 pages)
Downton Abbey fans will love this book, which NPR says “is one of those deceptively spare tales (like The Sense of an Ending) that punch well above their weight.” Jane Fairchild, now a successful author in her nineties, was a housemaid to an upper-class British family after World War I — and was involved in an affair with one of the family’s wealthy neighbors. How can you resist a novel that opens with this sentence: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid . . .”?

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (159 pages)
When a Parisian bookseller comes upon a lost handbag containing a red notebook and no identification, he tries to track down the owner. This lovely little book about the power of kindness is just right for readers who find many contemporary novels “depressing”, and it has more depth than you might first imagine. (Two of Laurain’s other books are available in English translation as well — The President’s Hat and French Rhapsody. They’re both delightful, and barely above the 200-page cutoff.)

5497435-_uy200_Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (146 pages)
Manny DeLeon, manager of a failing Red Lobster, has just learned that his restaurant is closing and he’s been demoted to assistant manager at a nearby Olive Garden. Despite a blizzard that keeps customers and employees away on the restaurant’s final night, Manny won’t close early. It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but O’Nan (one of my favorite authors) has written an emotionally resonant reflection on the American Dream.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (192 pages)
Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length.

another-brooklyn-393x600Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (170 pages)
A runner-up for last year’s National Book Award, Another Brooklyn is a poetic coming-of-age story set in 1970s Brooklyn. I was tempted to race through, but forced myself to slow down and savor the spare and beautiful language.

The Common Reader by Alan Bennett (120 pages)
Queen Elizabeth II stumbles upon a bookmobile parked by Buckingham Palace and discovers a love of reading, with amusing and unexpected consequences. It’s a perfect book for any bookworm — I l love that the Queen keeps a reading journal.

Which do you prefer — a big fat book you can get lost in for days or weeks, or a short novel you can read in a couple of hours?

Secrets From the Eating Lab — Book Review

secrets-from-the-eating-lab-cover-1I urge you to get to your leanest livable weight and then, whatever it is, decide that it’s okay. Because your weight is not the point. You were not put on this earth to mold yourself into a perfect physical specimen.
Traci Mann, Secrets From the Eating Lab

I’ve never reviewed a diet book before. In fact, I’ve always thought that diet books were a waste of time and money. If you want to lose weight, there’s no quick fix. Eat less and exercise more. Honestly, on the cold and gray January day I picked up Traci Mann’s Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, The Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, I didn’t expect to be entertained or to learn much. I thought I’d skim the book so I could convince myself that a diet was a really bad idea.

Traci Mann, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Minnesota, where she founded the Health and Eating Lab.  Her area of expertise is the psychology of eating, dieting, and self-control. She has compiled research from dozens of psychological and medical studies to argue two major points: first, that weight is largely controlled by genetics, and second, that obesity is “not a death sentence”.

Secrets From the Eating Lab is not the only book to claim that diets don’t work for long-term weight loss, but according to psychotherapist Jean Fain, author of another “no diet” diet book, The Self-Compassion Diet, it’s the “most persuasive and entertaining”.  To whet your appetite, so to speak, here are a few examples of Mann’s wit and wisdom:

On willpower and self-control:

Sometimes it may look like people are doing an impressive job of resisting something when really they simply aren’t tempted by it. Maybe your friends who are so good at resisting cookies are just not that into cookies. People like that, are, after all, alleged to exist.

On dieting and shame:

There is no cause for guilt or shame about things you eat. Eating is not a moral act. Perhaps there are certain circumstances in which eating can be immoral, such as the occasional act of cannibalism, taking candy from a baby, or finishing your husband’s carton of salted caramel ice cream before he gets home from work.

On how people’s eating is influenced by their culture and other people:

Sometimes our family members have an unspoken influence on our eating. When I am sneaking thin slice after thin slice of Rice Krispie treats from a pan on my counter, I eat a precisely calibrated amount. I eat until right before so much is gone that the people in my household will kill me if I eat any more.

On the increase in portion sizes:

My favorite piece of evidence about the increase in portion sizes comes from a study comparing the size of the foods in different paintings of the Last Supper from over the centuries. To control for the different-sized paintings, the researchers did their comparisons by calculating a food-to-head ratio. Presumably heads have not gotten larger in that time. Over the years, however, the bread, entrees, and plates all did.

Yes, this is an entertaining diet book. Mann’s tone is chatty and humorous, making Secrets From the Eating Lab as fun to read as any novel you’d take to the beach. I particularly enjoyed reading about the studies conducted in Mann’s eating lab. Deception, Mann says, is necessary in eating research because if people know their eating habits are being studied, they will change their behavior. “We have to be a little sneaky,” Mann says.

As fascinating as I found Mann’s descriptions of research on eating, dieting, and willpower, I wasn’t entirely convinced by her arguments. I found myself wondering what studies weren’t included in the book. It’s hard to believe that people are genetically programmed to be obese, or that it’s truly healthy to be obese. Mann cites studies that claim that weight distribution (belly fat) is more unhealthy than extra weight. “It is the apple pattern that is problematic, not the pear pattern,” she says, adding that she knows “only one apple-shaped woman.” Really ??? Also, I wish she had addressed the issue of the increase in childhood obesity.

You won’t find any “secrets” in this book, but you will find some great commonsense tips for healthy eating. One of my favorites is to “get alone with a vegetable”. Don’t eat anything until you have eaten some vegetables, Mann says, because “there is only one contest that a healthy food has a fighting chance at winning: a contest between a healthy food and no food at all.”

Please excuse me while I go feast on some cucumber slices . . . there aren’t any Rice Krispie treats or salted caramel ice cream in my house!

Cookbook Season

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

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

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

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

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

img_9230

Tarragon shrimp salad

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

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

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

img_1493

Zaatar roasted carrots

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

Literary Matchmaking: Nonfiction & Fiction

A recent study conducted at the New School for Social Research claims that reading literary fiction can help develop empathy. Other studies have had similar results, finding that while literary novels enhance readers’ ability to connect with others, popular fiction and nonfiction don’t have the same effect. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last week (“Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior”):

We’ve long known about the collateral benefits of habitual reading—a richer vocabulary, for example. But that’s only part of the picture. Mounting evidence over the past decade suggests that the mental calisthenics required to live inside a fictional character’s skin foster empathy for the people you meet day-to-day . . .

Nonfiction—along with horror, sci-fi or romance novels—had little effect on the capacity to detect others’ feelings and thoughts. Only literary fiction, which requires readers to work at guessing characters’ motivations from subtle cues, fostered empathy.

In these studies, the reading of nonfiction not only failed to spur empathy but also predicted loneliness and social isolation, specially among men. Of course, nonfiction reading has its virtues. Other research suggests that various kinds of nonfiction can prompt empathetic feelings—as long as the narrative is moving and transformative.

The “other research” the article refers to makes a lot more sense to me. Some of the most “moving and transformative” books I’ve read are nonfiction: The Boys in the Boat, Unbroken, Angela’s Ashes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,When Breath Becomes Air . . . perhaps the psychologists who found that nonfiction doesn’t spur empathy didn’t include powerful books like these in their studies. I also wonder which comes first, the chicken or the egg; perhaps people who are naturally empathetic are drawn to literary fiction because they are interested in the feelings of other people?

E.L. Doctorow said, “There is really no fiction or nonfiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other.” Here are five pairs of books, nonfiction and fiction, that offer terrific narratives and characters (real and imagined) with whom you can empathize:

Want to go behind the scenes at a restaurant?

9781583335802Nonfiction: Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream by Karen Stabiner
Stabiner, a journalist and cookbook author, follows ambitious young chef Jonah Miller as he opens his own restaurant in New York. The risks and stress are overwhelming, and readers will find themselves emotionally invested in Jonah’s venture.

Fiction: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
While Generation Chef focuses on the pressures facing the chef/owner of a trendy restaurant, Danler’s roman à clef takes us into the heart of restaurant culture from the viewpoint of an employee. It’s a fictionalized version of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

In love with Paris?

Nonfiction: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson
Francophile Carlson had the crazy idea of opening an American-style diner in Paris. After many years of trials and tribulations, his restaurant (Breakfast in America) succeeded — in 9781910477304-228x360spite of the  challenges presented by the legal and economic system in France.

Fiction: French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain
French Rhapsody, like Laurain’s earlier novels, is clever and charming without being lightweight. It’s the perfect book to tuck into your bag for a flight — not only is it delightful, but it’s short, with an attractive cover. A middle-aged Parisian doctor receives a letter, lost in the French postal system for 33 years, that has the potential to change his life.

Interested in understanding the 2008 financial crisis?

Nonfiction: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Published in 2010, this book remains the most readable and entertaining book about the United States housing bubble. The 2015 movie version was very good as well.

9780812998481Michael Lewis has a new book coming out in December, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, about two Israeli psychologists who did groundbreaking research on decision-making and judgment.

Fiction: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Just before the collapse of 2008, Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon who hopes for a better life for his family in the United States, begins working for a top Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. One of my favorites of 2016, this is an insightful story about immigration and the American Dream, and also about marriage.

Want to read an uplifting book about hospice and end-of-life decisions?

9781594634819-1Nonfiction: On Living by Kerry Egan
Hospice chaplain Egan has written a beautiful and inspiring book about her experiences working with dying patients. According to Publishers Weekly, “As the title suggests, this is not just a book about dying. It’s one that will inspire readers to make the most of every day.”

Fiction: The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
One of my favorite novels of 2015, The Hummingbird deserves to be widely read. The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, this novel is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring. I loved the multiple story lines (including a book within a book) and it’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity.

Interested in learning more about rural and Rust Belt poverty?

162224Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy has been receiving a lot of praise and publicity since it was published in June. It’s two books in one — a very personal story of growing up poor in southern Ohio (reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’) and an exploration of the economic and social problems facing “hillbilly culture” .The New Yorker calls it “one of this campaign season’s saddest and most fascinating books” and the New York Times says that “Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Fiction: Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Although Sweetgirl is set in northern Michigan, it reminded me of Daniel Woodrell’s crime novels set in the Missouri Ozarks. Woodrell refers to his work as “country noir”, and that seems like a good term for Sweetgirl as well. (These kinds of novels are often called “gritty”.)  A teenage girl ventures into a blizzard to find her drug-addicted mother, and finds a neglected infant instead. I stayed up late to find out what would happen next.

I just finished reading The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, about a young girl in 19th century Ireland who claims not to have eaten for four months. Is she a saint, or a hoax? The author says that the book was inspired by almost fifty cases of “Fasting Girls” between the 16th and 20th centuries. I can’t find a good nonfiction book about these girls — so I guess, in spite of what my grandmother used to say, not every pot has a lid!

10 Fall Paperback Picks — 2016

The seasonally appropriate blog post would be suggestions for Halloween books, which I suppose are horror novels about ghosts, vampires, and monsters. If you’re interested, there are all sorts of lists available online:” 15 Scary Books to Terrify You This Halloween”; “15 Creepy Books to Get You in the Halloween Spirit”; “10 Spooky Halloween Reads” . . . well, you get the idea. I’m not a fan of these kinds of books, ever since I read ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and couldn’t sleep all night because I thought I heard a vampire tapping at my window. Every rule has an exception, of course, and one of my favorite books is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. If you want to read a spine-chilling, perfectly constructed novel, go no further. (And then read the recent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life — it’s excellent.)

This fall, bookstore tables are piled high with terrific new paperback releases. Here are a ten of my favorites, both fiction and nonfiction –none of which features a ghoul, monster, or evil spirit. (Be warned, however:  The Guest Room contains plenty of real-life evil.)

9780307743602The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
When horses are curled up and then they stand, it is beautiful and funny, like babies walking. They put their front feet down like it’s the first time and they don’t know for sure how, they need to go slow and feel on each foot, their body going one way and the other until they find the strong spot and boom, they are proud on their legs again. Watching made my heart soft, made me want to hug her.
Told from multiple viewpoints, The Mare is the affecting story of Velveteen Vargas (“Velvet”) , a young Dominican girl from Brooklyn who spends summers in upstate New York as a Fresh Air Fund child, and Ginger, her “foster mother”, who becomes deeply involved in Velvet’s life. One of my favorite books last year, it was included in “best books of 2015” lists by the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and many others.

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
But now he he wanted only to make amends, to make things right. To caulk the hollow in the heart of his family. To make sure this poor girl whose soul had been battered almost since birth was safe.
I’m adding this to my list of books that made me cringe, but that I couldn’t put down. Does that make sense? As always, Chris Bohjalian knows how to tell a story. In his latest novel, he sheds light on white slavery and prostitution. Think of the movie Taken — but imagine those horrific events taking place in the United States, with the involvement of upper-middle class suburbanites.

this-was-not-the-plan-9781501103766_hrThis Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger
I’ve gotten plenty of invitations, mostly from couples who were friends of Mira’s and mine who didn’t quite know what to do with me. Should they invite me to Saturday brunch, but as a third wheel? Do they seat me next to a single girlfriend at a dinner party? Worse still, do they wedge me between couples, the ninth chair at a table clearly meant for eight?
Charlie Goldwyn didn’t plan on becoming a widower responsible for a high-maintenance five-year-old. Nor did he plan on losing his job at a high-powered Manhattan law firm. Charlie’s mother is dead, and he’s never had a relationship with his father. Alone and adrift, he finally learns what it means to be a parent — and a son. I thoroughly enjoyed this witty and poignant story about family and friendship — it’s perfect if you’re in the mood for a romantic comedy.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
Life’s full of events – they occur and you adjust, you roll and move on. But at some point you realize some events are actually developments. You realize there’s a big plan out there you know nothing about, and a development is a first step in that new direction. Sometimes things feel like big-time developmens but in time you adjust, you find a new way and realize they didn’t throw you off course, they didn’t change you. They were just events. The tricky part is telling the difference between the two.
Before I read this collection of longish short stories, I couldn’t understand how it could have won the 2015 National Book Award instead of A Little Life. I still think A Little Life should have won, but I can see why the judges awarded the prize to Fortune Smiles. Each story is brilliant and memorable.

9780812979527My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.
A young woman from an abusive and impoverished background (perhaps, she suggests, because she is “ruthless”) becomes a functioning adult and successful writer. This lovely, spare novel raises many questions and will stay with you for a long time.

Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon
The Vineyard is famously lovely, compared often to sections of Scotland and Ireland. Plots of land are casually separated by stone walls, like a sentence that doesn’t take the turn you think it will take, but takes another way around.
I’m not usually a fan of celebrity biographies/memoirs, but this one was a pleasant surprise. It’s well-written and perceptive, filled with just the right number of juicy tidbits.

9780143108429The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee
That’s the shock, and the surprise, to a lot of repatriates: No one back home cares. There’s an initial, shallow interest in what life is like abroad, but most Americans aren’t actually interested, at all.
I dislike the term “women’s fiction” — but when you have a novel about three women, all expatriates in Hong Kong, who are grappling with their roles as mothers/caretakers and daughters, that’s what it is. But it’s women’s fiction at its very best — tautly written, with well-developed characters and a surprising storyline. The New York Times says, “A female, funny Henry James in Asia, Janice Y. K. Lee is vividly good on the subject of Americans abroad.”

This Old Man by Roger Angell
If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of heir letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Angell, now 96 years old, was fiction editor of the New Yorker for many years. This Old Man is a collection of his writings, including essays, jingles, letters, and literary criticism– in his words, “a mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.” It’s terrific bedside reading.

9780143128915Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell
Of all the influences in his life she was the most woefully unappreciated but in truth she was the strongest.
The first biography written about one of the 20th century’s most fascinating women reveals Clementine Churchill to be a strong-minded feminist who wielded tremendous political power behind the scenes. Sometimes I find that biographers are so anxious to include every detail they’ve uncovered that they forget to build a narrative, but that’s not the case with Clementine.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Now there were no more stories to tell, to soothe, to comfort, to draw strangers close together; to link like hearts and minds.
The surprise in this delightful book is not that Melanie Benjamin paints a complete portrait of Truman Capote, which I expected, but that she brings Babe Paley to life as a lonely and wounded woman. All of Benjamin’s books are entertaining, informative, and well worth reading, but this is my favorite.

Happy Halloween!

News of the World –Book Review

news-of-the-world-coverJoy and liveliness had come back to his readings now. His voice had its old vibrancy again, and he smiled as he read the amusing things, the Hindi women who would not say their husbands’ names, odd telegraph messages caught by a reporter, and recalled how dull his life had seemed before he had come upon her in Wichita Falls. He saw her bright, fierce little face break into laughter when the crowd laughed. It was good. Laughter is good for the soul and all your interior works.
Paulette Jiles, News of the World

News of the World, recently shortlisted for the National Book Award for fiction, is a gem of a novel. Only 224 pages long, it proves that length and a complex plot are not requirements for memorable and insightful historical fiction. It’s a simple story, on the surface. Shortly after the Civil War, retired Army Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is offered a fifty-dollar gold piece to return ten-year-old Johanna, a redeemed captive of the Kiowa tribe, to her German relatives in San Antonio, Texas — a journey of 400 miles through dangerous and lawless territory. The little girl, who doesn’t know English and longs to return to her Indian “family”, becomes Captain Kidd’s reluctant companion. At first, she is “not willing to concede they might be on the same side against anyone or anything.”

Captain Kidd, a seventy-year-old widower, earns his living traveling throughout northern Texas, giving live readings from faraway newspapers. He once ran a successful printing business, but “the war had taken his press and everything else, the economy of the Confederacy had fallen apart even before the surrender”, so Captain Kidd reads aloud from the London Times, the New York Evening Post, the Boston Morning Journal, the Milwaukee Daily News (which he calls the “Cheese and Norwegian Tatler”) in rented halls and churches, collecting dimes in a paint can.

The novel opens at a reading in Wichita Falls, Texas, a town near the border of what was then called Indian Territory. The Captain feels that “his life had lately seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled, and it was something that had only come upon him lately. A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas . . .”. Although he is initially reluctant to become responsible for Johanna, a sense of purpose enters his life once he agrees. Captain Kidd — who is the father of two grown daughters — recognizes that Johanna’s hostility masks her terror, and he becomes fiercely protective of her. The two learn to communicate, and eventually to love one another. Jiles tells the story of their deepening relationship in a way that seems completely natural and believable, and with plenty of dry humor.

Johanna, as the Captain’s Irish friend Doris Dillon comments, “is like an elf. She is like a fairy person from the glamorie. They are not one thing or another.” In the author’s note, Paulette Jiles mentions some of the research she did on the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes on the frontier. She says that, like Johanna, “they apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families . . .”.

Captain Kidd, who is based on a real person, Caesar Adolphus Kydd, instinctively understands Johanna’s predicament. After she throws a fork in frustration,

He was suddenly almost overwhelmed with  pity for her. Torn from her parents, adopted by a strange culture, given new parents, then sold for a few blankets and some old silverware, now sent to stranger after stranger, crushed into peculiar clothing . .. and now she could not even eat her food without having to use outlandish instruments.

The Captain is not just a likable character; he is an admirable character, and what a joy it is to read a book whose protagonist is a kind and honorable person with unwavering morals. No goody two-shoes, he can be short-tempered and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so he is certainly not perfect. Captain Kidd makes an appearance in one of Jiles’s earlier books, The Color of Lightning, which is reason enough for me to read it.

If you had asked me last month what my favorite “western” novel was, I would have said Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Now, I think I would say it’s News of the World. Dazzling writing, characters I fell in love with, a satisfying story — and less than one-third the length of Lonesome Dove! (By the way, Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. It was not a finalist for the National Book Award, but back then there were only three finalists selected.) Max, my colleague at Lake Forest Book Store, says if you liked One Thousand White Women, by Jim Fergus (another top-notch historical novel set in the West in the 1870s), you’ll love News of the World.

I haven’t read all the nominees for the National Book Award, so I can’t weigh in on which one I’d vote for, but I’ll be thrilled if News of the World wins. Which it probably won’t, based on what I’ve been reading — it looks like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is the favorite. I’m trying to read as many of the finalists as possible before the winners are announced next month. Next up: Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson.

Readers, who do you think will win this year’s National Book Award for fiction?