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?

Books for Living

Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.
Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

9780385353540“Attention Book-Lovers: Take the 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge”; “Around the Year in 52 Books”; “11 Tips to Read More in 2017, Because 2017 Is the Year You Conquer Your TBR
List” . . .

Along with dieting, exercising, and generally becoming better people, we’re also supposed to revamp our reading lives this year. It’s not enough to read what we enjoy — we’re supposed to “read harder”, which apparently means reading a “superhero comic with a female lead” and an “LGBTQ+ romance novel”. We’re advised to schedule reading time, the same way we’re supposed to squeeze in workouts.

I appreciate the message behind the articles offering advice for readers. Making time for reading is important, and so is reading outside our comfort zones. Many of them have great ideas; the Miami Herald recently published a terrific story, 9 Ways to Read More Books in 2017, which suggests, among other things, putting down your phone, reading audiobooks, and abandoning books you don’t enjoy:

If a book doesn’t grab you, give up. I have been told my 25-page rule is too hasty, so let’s make it 50 pages. If a book hasn’t grabbed you 50 pages in, move along and feel no guilt. It’s the author’s responsibility to reel you in, not yours to finish something you don’t like. I’m still bitter about the time I wasted on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch only to abandon it 200 pages in.

17370-men-and-women-performing-aerobic-exercises-pvHowever, I don’t see how reading a book “with a red spine” or one with “a cat on the cover” will enrich my reading life, and I have mixed feelings about what some of these articles seem to imply. They unfortunately convey the impression that reading is just another activity for self-improvement, akin to running on the treadmill. Put in your hour a day with a book by an author “with a different ethnicity than you” and you will be a better reader and a better person. I never liked the reading logs my children were required to keep in grade school. The well-intentioned logs implied that reading was a dreary task that had to be documented, conflicting with my view that reading was a pleasurable activity very different from memorizing multiplication tables. Flashlight under the covers, anyone?

Some of the “reading challenges” online do include inspiring suggestions for readers looking to expand their reading horizons. I particularly like the list posted on The Modern Mrs. Darcy, Reading for Fun: Put the Oomph Back in Your Reading Life. This challenge includes my favorite kind of book —  a “book about books or reading”.

Enter Will Schwalbe, who has written an entire book, Books for Living, about how books of all kinds can  help us “engage with the world, become better people, and understand life’s questions, big and small”. Some of the books that have changed his life, he says, “are undoubtedly among the great works of our time. Others almost certainly are not.” No book is a waste of time according to Schwalbe: “There is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest . . even “just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.”

9780804172707Books for Living contains 26 chapters, each focusing on a particular book that resonated with Schwalbe at a particular time in his life — and that continues to resonate with him. He discusses what led him to each book , the people in his life he associates with the book, and why it is important to him. The books range from children’s books (Stuart Little, Wonder) to classics (The Odyssey, David Copperfield) to contemporary fiction (A Little Life, The Girl on the Train).

How did he choose to read these books? Through trial and error, mostly:

I’m not a particularly disciplined or systematic seeker. I don’t give a great deal of thought to the books I choose—I’ll read anything that catches my eye. Most of the time, when I choose what I’m going to read, it has absolutely nothing to do with improving myself. Especially when I’m at my happiest, I’m unlikely to search for a book to make me happier. But it’s often during these periods of non-seeking that I’ve stumbled across a book that has changed my life.

I can’t imagine a better way to start your reading year than by picking up a copy of Books for Living. When I started the book, I began underlining. And underlining, and underlining — until I realized that I needed to stop, because I was underlining almost everything. (The first passage I underlined was in the first page of the introduction, when Schwalbe describes a terrifying recurring dream, in which he’s in an airport, about to miss his flight, when he realizes has nothing to read on the plane.)

Best wishes for a happy year of reading!

Schwalbe published an essay in the Wall Street Journal, The Need To Read, which is a wonderful distillation of Books for Living

My New Year’s Resolution

Maybe our favorite quotations say more about us than about the stories and people we’re quoting.
John Green

You may want to keep a commonplace book which is a notebook where you can copy parts of books you think are in code, or take notes on a series of events you may have observed that are suspicious, unfortunate, or very dull. Keep your commonplace book in a safe place, such as underneath your bed, or at a nearby dairy.
Lemony Snicket

81mlx7kp13l-_sx355_

One of the literary quote mugs my son gave me for Christmas

At the end of the year, how do I know which books were my favorites? All I have to do is go through my books to see which ones have the most dog-eared pages.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce, once reprimanded me for turning down the page of my book. She informed me that this was called “dog-earing” and it was very, very bad, on a par with wasting food at lunchtime and talking in the halls — two other crimes I had committed. Now I’m almost as old as Mrs. Pierce was then, and I can dog-ear my books anytime I want. If you borrow a book from me and there are lots of pages turned down, you know that this is a really good book filled with passages worth rereading and remembering.

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to transcribe my favorite quotes and passages into a notebook. I already do this with poems, and have found that the act of copying lines of poetry by hand helps me understand and remember them.  I have a brand new “commonplace book” ready to fill, along with a box of my favorite Bic fine point roller pens. (I also plan to lose ten pounds . . . )

commonplace_book_mid_17th_century

17th century commonplace book

In high school, one of my favorite English teachers, Mr. Regan, told us that “quote” is a verb and “quotation” is a noun. Mr. Regan, the co-author of our textbook, the English Competence Handbook, devoted an entire chapter to the proper use of “Quotations”. To the chagrin of English teachers everywhere, the word “quote” has become commonly used as a noun. Even the people in charge of websites devoted to cataloging quotes seem confused. One website calls itself The Quote Garden (tagline: “I dig old books”) but lists quotations in hundreds of categories, from “curmudgeonesque” to “ladybugs”.

Ever since I left Mrs. Pierce’s classroom, I’ve dog-eared quite a few pages. Here are some of my favorite quotes (sorry, Mr. Regan!) from some of the best novels I read in 2016:

9780812979527My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.
Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton

And then he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information. And he, like a runner, immobile in his smeared printing apron bringing it to them. Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.
Paulette Jiles, News of the World

When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains), probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such of cups of tea and friendly chats) had actually deserved their immediate attention.
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

cover-mischlingBooks had never led me in the wrong direction. It seemed foolish to try to endure without such counsel by my side.
Affinity Konar, Mischling

Franny  on the other hand was just now opening the hardback copy of A Tree Grows inBrooklyn from her grandmother. Even from the first sentence, from the look of the words on the page, she could tell that was what she would be reading over Christmas vacation, not an LSAT prep book.
Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

Besides, could children ever be considered quite of sound mind? Seven was counted the age of reason, but Lib’s sense of seven-year-olds was that they still brimmed over with imagination. Children lived to play. Of course they could be put to work, but in spare moments they took their games as seriously as lunatics did their delusions. Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.
Emma Donoghue, The Wonder

9780393241655_300They had been raised, Charlotte and Beatrice, on books. When they had a question, literature answered it. If they complained about being bored, their mother — a melancholy Parisian who used laudanum to assuage the pains of homesickness and her husband’s infidelities — would hand them a book. “No one who reads can ever be bored,” she’d tell them . . .
Ann Hood, The Book That Matters Most

Forgiveness, they shouted, all the while committing their wrongs. When he was younger, Yaw wondered why they did not preach that the people should avoid wrongdoing altogether.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

wolf-hollow-by-lauren-wolkAt times, I was so confused that I felt like the stem of a pinwheel surrounded by whir and clatter, but through that whole unsettling time I knew that it simply would not do to hide in the barn with a book and an apple and let events plunge forward without me.
Lauren Wolk, Wolf Hollow

Was that not the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it and, above all, felt it? Was there a finer way to honor friendship, and love, and being in the world?
Alison Anderson, The Summer Guest

Her boxes and crates of books were stacked alongside, and Beatrice had to still a quiver of anxiety that she was to live, for the first time, in a place without a single bookshelf.
Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

Church_AtomicWeight_HC_FINAL_PRNT.inddHis years on earth had taught him that good things happen to those who honor the kindheartedness of others.
Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers

I thought about how lives bump up against each other, whether for moments of superficial conversation in line at the post office or a deeper enmeshment, such as that I had with Jerry for those few months. How much meaning should I ascribe to knowing a stranger for the moments it took for me to donate to a V-book campaign? What are the evolutionary implications of kindness?
Elizabeth Church, The Atomic Weight of Love

Happy New Year! What are your reading resolutions for 2017?

Books for Men

man_reading_by_john_singer_sargent_reading_public_museumAt a recent get-together, a (male) friend told me all about a great book he’d just read, prefacing his comments by saying, “I’m sure you haven’t read it.” The book? Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides, published about ten years ago. Obviously, he couldn’t imagine that Blood and Thunder would appeal to women, and he doesn’t know me well enough to know that I’ve loved books about the American West ever since I was a child, both fiction and nonfiction. (And yes, I have read Blood and Thunder. It’s great, as is anything by Hampton Sides; my favorite is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible  Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette).

cb6702a0ceab927360bf8e23f45ccefbThe same evening, I got involved in a nostalgic conversation about favorite childhood books. When I mentioned The Little House on the Prairie series, someone said wistfully that she’d loved those books as a child but couldn’t share them with her children because she has only boys. I told her that I’d read the whole series — not just Farmer Boy — to one of my boys, and he’d enjoyed them almost as much as I did. “But they’re about girls!” she said. Well, no. They’re about people, and the settling of the American West. We give boys books featuring animals, aliens, and wizards, but we balk at suggesting they read about girls?

Male and female reading tastes often differ, to be sure. It’s a safe bet that most readers of a new account of an obscure Civil War battle will be male, just as most readers of the latest novel about a young woman coming of age will be female. (It’s interesting to me that so many literary novelists are male, when their audience seems to be predominantly female.)

news-of-the-world-coverSeveral of my favorite books this year have been truly “unisex”. A Gentleman in Moscow, News of the World, When Breath Becomes Air, Salt to the Sea — all would appeal to almost any reader, male or female. Still, I need to oblige a friend who asked me to recommend books for men. I know she’s not alone in her quest to find books suitable for husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons — so here are some ideas for last-minute shoppers.

The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
Fans of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand will love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.

9780812992731Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
“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.

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”.

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
The (male) Seinfeld fans in my family enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the creative partnership between Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

a4f0f87eaa1b738dbb6a5f0923733ecdIndestructible: One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John R. Bruning
When naval aviator Pappy Gunn’s wife and four children are  taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines, he devotes the next three years to rescuing them — and developing new weapons that would have a major effect on the war in the Pacific. I think male readers would find this story as riveting as I did.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, is one of my favorite authors of narrative nonfiction.  The Wall Street Journal says that Millard “has developed a distinctive approach to writing about historical giants. She focuses tightly on a forgotten yet riveting episode in an extremely well-documented life . . .  for her latest book, Ms. Millard tackles one of modern history’s most chronicled figures, Winston Churchill. By one count, there are more than 12,000 books written about Churchill. Ms. Millard’s Hero of the Empire recounts an episode in a near-forgotten conflict: young Winston Churchill’s capture and dramatic escape during the Boer War.” One of my most discriminating male readers says this is his top book of 2016.

9781622795944_JKTmech.inddThe North Water by Ian McGuire
This adventure story probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I read it in two days. The North Water was chosen by  the New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s ten best books, so I can’t be the only person who willingly reads about violence aboard a 19th century whaling expedition — gruesome murders, polar bear attacks, animal slaughter, and violence galore. I think my friend who couldn’t believe I read Blood and Thunder would be even more shocked I enjoyed The North Water.

Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith
In the spring of 1788, seven years after the British surrendered at Yorktown, three desperate men, all fleeing unbearable situations, join forces for a few days in the thick woods of what is now southern Alabama. They rob and murder a group of white traders  and their Indian guides. One of the guides escapes and reports the crime to his chief, Seloatka. Le Clerc, a French “gentleman adventurer” who is married to a Creek Indian woman, volunteers to hunt down the three murderers. Perfect for fans of literary historical fiction who liked The Good Lord Bird (James McBride) or The Known World (Edward P. Jones).

14358879245_d675382279_bA few more manly suggestions:

For music fans, Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen), Testimony (Robbie Robertson); for golfers, A Life Well Played: My Stories (Arnold Palmer);  for business guys, Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Phil Knight);  for Civil War buffs, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (Ronald C. White); and for mystery readers, Manitou Canyon (William Kent Krueger).

Happy Holidays!

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!

Why I Love Epistolary Novels – and Real Letters

9781101971390If 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 their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Roger Angell, This Old Man: All in Pieces

Dear Fellow Bookworms,

When I was in grade school, I learned to write what was called the Friendly Letter. The Friendly Letter always included the Complimentary Close — “Yours truly”, “Your friend”, “Sincerely”, or “Love”. (Mrs. Pierce, my third grade teacher, warned us only to use “Love” when writing to a family member.) There are dozens of ways to end a letter, from the ubiquitous “Best”, (best what? I always wonder),”Fondly”, “Regards”, to the more elaborate closings of days gone by. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for example, ends this way: “This salutation by my own hand–Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.” Thomas Jefferson popularized the closing, “Your most humble and most obedient servant”. Charles Dickens often closed personal letters with the charming phrases “Ever your affectionate friend” or “Yours heartily and affectionately”.

cover-1-jpg-rendition-460-707Mina Harker, one of Dracula’s victims, closes her letters by saying “Your ever-loving Mina Harker.” Frankenstein’s ill-fated fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, ends a letter with “Adieu! Take care of yourself, and I entreat you, write!”. What do these two characters have in common? They both appear in epistolary novels, books written either entirely or mostly in letters.

When you read a good epistolary novel, you have a sense of immediacy and realism that’s usually not found in a book narrated in the first or third person. You feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a cache of private letters. I think the first novel of this type I read was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, published in 1912. It’s the story of a young girl raised in an orphanage who, through the help of a mysterious benefactor with whom she corresponds, is able to attend college. Katherine Reay wrote an absolutely delightful, and award-winning novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, which is a modern version of the Daddy-Long-Legs story.

Over the years, many of my favorite novels have been based on letters:

  • Alice Walker’s modern classic, The Color Purple, tells Celie’s story through her letters to God.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, aunt and niece) is a series of letters from a London writer to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey.
  • In Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, a young poet from the remote Isle of Skye receives a fan letter from an American student, and their correspondence turns into a complicated love affair.
  • Marilyn Robinson’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, is a letter from a dying minister to his young son.
  • Carlene Bauer based Frances and Bernard on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Like Gilead, this novel is concerned with the characters’ spiritual lives.
  • In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a brilliant teenager tries to track down her missing mother — and Maria Semple used letters, emails, blog posts, notes, and interview transcripts involving a wacky cast of characters to show just how she does that.
  • Julie Schumacher cleverly assembled a hilarious novel made up solely of recommendation letters that a beleaguered English professor is constantly called upon to write in Dear Committee Members.
  • Code Name Verity, a YA novel by Elizabeth Wein, is the gripping story of two young British women captured in occupied France during World War II, told through the “confessions” they write to their interrogators.
  • A completely different YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky) is a coming-of-age story consisting of letters from a shy and precocious teenager to an unnamed recipient.

51691419-1Of course, sometimes only real letters will do. I treasure several anthologies of letters from both famous and ordinary people.  War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Andrew Carroll) and Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (edited by Shaun Usher). Volume 2 of Letters of Note just came out last month, and I’m savoring every letter. My all-time favorite epistolary book is Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (which, surprisingly, was made into a movie that does justice to the book), which chronicles a 20-year correspondence between Hanff, a writer in New York, and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. Another favorite is My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, which contains just a fraction of the 1,100 letters that the couple wrote to each other during the many separations they endured over the course of their 54-year marriage. Their letters bring the world of this country’s founders alive more than any other surviving documents.

signed-sealed-delivered-9781451687163_hrIn a recent book called Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, Nina Sankovitch describes finding a trunk filled with hundreds of letters in a shed attached to a house her family was renovating in the Upper West Side of New York. The letters belonged to the original owners of the home, the Seligman family, and the vast majority of them were written by James Seligman to his parents (whom he addressed as “Dearest Mamma” or “Darling Parents”) during his years at Princeton, 1908-1912. Nina feels that rereading the letters James left behind “proves all over again, the power of the written, the handwritten, word.” Aside from a listing on an online family tree, James left no other evidence of his life. Nina says:

Paper and ink have created a lasting connection between James and me. The connection has made me a better person, if only for having laughed so much and indulged in so much pleasurable company through his letter. And isn’t that what we say about our friends, that they have enriched our lives and made us better people?

Ever your affectionate friend,

Ann @ Books on the Table

 

What Would Emerson Read This Fall?

9780804172707Several days ago, a reader left a comment on the “In My Stack” page of this blog, urging me to read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. I was a little confused, since I read that unforgettable book more than a year ago. Shouldn’t I have removed it from “In My Stack” and included it in “Read in 2015”? Then I looked at the books I’d listed on “In My Stack” and realized that I hadn’t updated the list in years. Oops! (And by the way, I still think A Little Life should have won the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.)

So I wiped the list clean and started a new list of books that are In My Stack, with the intention of updating it every season. It’s hard to face the fact that it’s just not possible to read every book that catches my eye.

The three “practical rules” for reading, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, are:

1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
2. Never read any but famed books.
3. Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakspeare’s phrase,“No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

Emerson’s third rule is easy for me to follow, but the first two pose problems. Whenever I read an “old” book, I feel like I’m missing out on all the exciting new books of the season. And although I read plenty of books that have received publicity, awards, and critical acclaim, I also like to find hidden gems that haven’t received the love they deserve. I do have to acknowledge that Emerson has a point. Books that stand the test of time are worth reading. So I’ve added Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to my fall list, because so many people whose opinions I trust have recommended it.

Two books that I didn’t add to my list, because I read advance copies earlier this summer, but that I highly recommend adding to yours are Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (on sale September 13; full review to come) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (on sale September 6). Commonwealth is very good, although my favorite of Patchett’s novels remains State of Wonder.

9780670026197A Gentleman in Moscow is absolutely wonderful — one of the rare books I read slowly towards the end, because I just didn’t want to finish. It’s a hard act to follow, and every book I’ve read since has seemed vaguely second-rate in comparison. The “gentleman’ of the title is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat born in 1889, who is sentenced  by a Bolshevik tribunal to lifelong house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. The Count’s life is spared, unlike so many others of his class, because a poem he wrote struck the revolutionaries as sympathetic to their cause.

In a Publishers Weekly interview, Amor Towles says: “As awful as the crimes of Stalinism were, the vast majority of the Russian population was trying to survive, to love, to have a sense of purpose.” The Count — whose life before the Revolution was spent, in his words,”dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”, and who is accused by the tribunal of being “a man so obviously without purpose” — is able to live a purposeful, and even sometimes joyful, life as a prisoner at the Metropol.

A Gentleman in Moscow contains all the elements that make me fall in love with a book: a beautifully constructed story connected to historical events, an appealing and multidimensional protagonist, and a sharp and engaging writing style that inspired me to underline dozens of passages. Frequently, Towles addresses the reader directly:

Popular wisdom tells us that when the reel of our concerns interferes with our ability to fall asleep, the best remedy is the counting of sheep in a meadow. But preferring to have his lamb encrusted with herbs and served with a red wine reduction, the Count chose a different methodology altogether.

I’ll leave it to you to find out what his methodology was. If you’ve read Rules of Civility, you already know what a smart and entertaining writer Towles is — perfect for page-turners and page-huggers alike. A Gentleman in Moscow will certainly be on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

What will I read next? The following books are “on deck”, but that could change any time.

9781101947135Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (available now)
Homegoing, which has drawn raves from my coworkers, covers 300 years of African and American history, beginning with two sisters from Ghana, one who is sold into slavery and one who marries a British slave trader.

Shelter by Jung Yun (available now)
I need a good page-turner in the mix, and several bloggers who often share my tastes loved this book, which is rooted in the 2008 housing crisis.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyugen (available now)
A must-read — it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

cover-mischlingMischling  by Affinity Konar (September 6)
This debut novel, about identical twins at Auschwitz, has been receiving a lot of buzz (including a blurb by Anthony Doerr), and I can never read enough about World War II.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan (September 13)
McEwan is one of my favorite authors, and his new book sounds weird but interesting: it’s a murder mystery, inspired by Hamlet, told by an unborn child.

9780385535731Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard (September 20)
Millard is one of my favorite nonfiction authors, and I’m fascinated by Winston Churchill, so I’m excited to read Hero of the Empire.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (September 20)
I can never resist a book about a bibliophile, and this one packs a double punch: the main character is a librarian who becomes a bookseller.

d28652364b8b57aceef0d93cf2791343Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (October 4)
I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette and can’t wait to read Semple’s new book.

Let me know what you think I should add to (or subtract from!) my fall list.