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?

 

 

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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.

8 More Short Books for Your Book Club

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

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

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

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

33931210Nutshell
by Ian McEwan (208 pages) — Told from the viewpoint of an unborn child and inspired by Hamlet, Nutshell is a murder mystery unlike anything you’ve read before — starting with the first sentence: “So, here I am, upside down inside of a woman.” I’ve discussed this book with two different groups and both found plenty of rich material for discussion.

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

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (240 pages) — Some books are best enjoyed and appreciated by solitary readers, while others demand discussion. Exit West, a finalist for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is one of the latter. It’s the story of a young couple, Saaed and Nadia, who escape their war-torn country through a series of magical doors. Fans of The Underground Railroad will love this novel. (I also recommend another short novel by Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.)

33931059The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (256 pages) — Alice McDermott is one of my very favorite writers, and I’ve had to wait four years for The Ninth Hour. (Someone came out in 2013). Every time I read one of her books, I think, This one is her best, and that’s exactly what went through my mind when I finished The Ninth Hour. In Brooklyn, about one hundred years ago, a young husband commits suicide, leaving behind his pregnant wife. His widow, Annie, and his daughter, Sally, are taken in by nuns in the nearby convent. Sally marries a local boy, Patrick, and their children and grandchildren are the narrators of this beautiful and poetic novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reading 2017 — A List of Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New in hardcover:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New in Paperback — Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New in Paperback — Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy your summer reading!

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What books would make your Top Ten list?