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.

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Not Too Busy to Read

I cannot imagine life without books any more than I can imagine life without breathing.
Terry Brooks

Dear Terry Brooks,

I’m sorry that I’ve never read one of your books, because they are epic fantasy novels, and if all books were fantasy novels, I would be too busy to read. But I like your quote, so in a way I’m a fan of yours, even though I’ll never read The Sword of Shannara or any of its many sequels. I’m glad you write these books, because fantasy readers are book lovers too, and as my grandmother used to say, “There’s a lid for every pot.” 

Sincerely,

Ann @ Books on the Table

y450-293What do you plan to do the day before Thanksgiving? We’ve all heard that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is supposed to be one of the year’s busiest travel days, but now, according to a recent Barnes & Noble survey, Thanksgiving Eve is the “busiest reading day of the year”.

The poll, conducted by an independent research organization, found that 77% of “Americans read a book, magazine, or newspaper during Thanksgiving travel” and that
73% “generally think that traveling on Thanksgiving Eve is a good time to bring a book they would enjoy and be able to read.” (By “able to read”, I assume the designers of the survey meant “find time to read”.)

The discrepancy between these two statistics is confusing. Do some Thanksgiving Eve readers think it’s not a good idea to read while traveling? Also, how do these numbers show that Thanksgiving Eve is the busiest reading day of the year? Maybe 85% of Americans read on a random Sunday in March.

The survey also showed that 28% of respondents “think that bringing a great book along for Thanksgiving could give them a way to get out of an uncomfortable or awkward conversation with a relative or other guest.” I want to know how this works. Do you pull out the book and start reading when the awkward conversation begins? Or do you change the subject, saying, “Let’s not discuss politics. Let me tell you about the book I’m reading. You’d love it!”

When asked to list the benefits of reading while traveling, over half the respondents said that “Reading is a good pastime if I get delayed.” Other benefits cited were “reading is relaxing and helps ease the stress of hectic traveling”; “A good book transports me somewhere else”;  “I can catch up on books that I have wanted to read, but normally do not have the time to read.”

716162Where were these people last Wednesday when I was delayed for several hours at O’Hare? I read almost an entire book in that time (Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt), and I’m not a speed reader. I’m leading a book discussion on Laurie Frankel’s novel, This Is How It Always Is, about a family raising a transgender child, and wanted to read nonfiction about this subject. If you really want to liven up your Thanksgiving gathering, I recommend either of these books.

Almost everyone at the gate appeared bored and restless, fiddling with their phones and fidgeting in their seats. A few idly flipped through magazines. One man was absorbed in a paperback, but he was the only one. Some people  stared into space and did absolutely nothing. I wondered if they had rich interior lives or if the opposite were true. I also wondered if these were the same people who say they can’t find time to read, because if they were, they were missing a golden opportunity.

If you’re an avid reader, you are often forced to respond to a maddening, passive-aggressive comment : “I don’t know how you find the time to read.” The subtext here is, “You’re kind of a lazy slob without much to do, so you spend you time reading, whereas I’m a very busy important person.”

Even though I’ve heard this comment, or its cousin, “How on earth do you find the time to read?”, more times than I can count, I still don’t know how to respond. Because, of course, most reading doesn’t happen at airport gates during lengthy delays, or even aboard airplanes, unless you’re a jet-setter.

So how do you make time to read? It’s all a matter of priorities. Your house may not be as tidy as you’d like, you may rarely make it to the gym, your houseplants may live short and unhappy lives, you may not walk your dog as much as she’d like, and you might have to decline some of the volunteer opportunities that come your way (“So sorry! I can’t spend my Saturday supervising the middle school concession stand!”).

read-a-book-wallpaper-500pxPeople who manage to find time to read do it two ways: first, they squeeze reading into their days in creative ways, and second, they make it a priority. They don’t think of reading as an indulgence. Why do people think taking an hour out of the day to exercise is a necessity, while they see spending an hour with a book as a luxury, on a par with window shopping or bubble baths? And who, except maybe medical residents on a 36 hour shift or parents of newborn twins, doesn’t spend at least an hour a day watching TV or checking social media? Really, hardly anyone is “too busy to read.” It’s all in how you choose to spend your time. No judgment if you’d rather do other things, but don’t say, “I just don’t have time to read!”

There are hints galore on the Internet about how to find more time to read, if you care to look, but here are the things I think work best:

  • Decide if you really do want to read more, or if you just think you should. Maybe you’d rather spend your limited free time baking bread or perfecting your golf swing. But keep in mind that reading is one of the few activities you can do when you’re trapped somewhere, whether it’s an airplane seat, a broken-down rental car by the side of the highway, or an elevator. (And I have been in all these situations and in each one I was very happy to have a book with me.)
  • Find the right books that you love and that you can’t wait to get back to reading. Don’t waste time slogging through books you find boring. One of my writing classmates mentioned that she struggled with feeling guilty about abandoning books that weren’t working for her, and our teacher directed us to “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac, in which the third item on the list is “The right not to finish a book.” (Item #5 is important as well: “The right to read anything”).
  • Be efficient with your time — listen to audiobooks while walking and driving. Some people seem concerned about whether this counts as reading, for some reason. Yes, it does.
  • If you find you waste a lot of time with social media on your phone, set a timer. Or delete the apps so you have to go to the websites. You can download a screen saver that says “Read a book instead.”  Writer Austin Kleon designed the screen saver because “Reading books makes me happy. Being on my phone makes me miserable.”
  • Get rid of games on your phone.  I found that Words With Friends did a number on my reading time. I deleted it, and guess what — I still have friends.)
  • Always carry a real book with you. Technology can malfunction, and batteries can drain. But on the other hand, always have a book downloaded on your phone or tablet. On my last flight, the overhead light didn’t work and I wouldn’t have been able to read if I hadn’t had a book on my phone.
  • Plan ahead for reading time. Novelist Tim Parks acknowledges it’s a different environment for readers today than it was before the advent of intrusive technology. In an article in the New York Review of Books, he theorizes that today’s authors are writing books that can be picked up and put down, knowing that most readers are easily distracted and read in shorter bursts than in the past. Every moment of reading, he says, “has to be fought for, planned for.”

9781250106490_custom-0bc5591f3ef51f06795e9286805a88a13705af4b-s300-c85This Thanksgiving Eve, I won’t be traveling. I’ll be at home, curled up with She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels, a memoir about Kathleen Hill’s reading life and how it has intersected with her “real” life.  My current audiobook is Dear 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, which is absolutely delightful, although I could do without all the f-bombs. We all know librarians are cool.

Next up: Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, because it just won the National Book Award, and Hue: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden, because we’ll be discussing it at our next couples’ book club.

Coming soon: recommended winter reading (fiction and nonfiction, paperback and hardcover) and holiday gift ideas. Have a happy Thanksgiving! I hope you find some time to read over the long weekend — and not because you’re stuck in an airport.

 

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

Little Free Libraries

IMG_3066A new Little Free Library just popped up in my neighborhood. I’ll admit to feeling a little jealous, because I’ve always thought that my house, which is on a corner lot, would be the perfect location for a Little Free Library.

This Little Free Library is hidden away on a woodsy side street that doesn’t get much traffic, but that is a favorite of local runners, dog walkers, and stroller pushers. One of the fanciest Little Free Libraries I’ve seen, it includes interior lighting and has a child-sized Adirondack chair placed next to it for little readers.

There are more than 50,000 Little Free Libraries in all fifty states and all over the world. Established in 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin, and inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who funded more than 2,500 public libraries around the turn of the twentieth century, Little Free Library “is a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world.”

Almost every day, as I walk my dog, I open the door and peek in to see which books have been donated and which have been taken. Children’s books go fast, I’ve noticed, as do mainstream mysteries and literary fiction. Time for Bed by Mem Fox, The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan, Counting Kisses by Karen Katz, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomonsand Most Wanted by Lisa Scottoline all disappeared overnight. Meanwhile, none of our neighborhood readers seem interested in Joseph Campbell’s study of the primitive roots of mythology, The Masks of God, or Rodney Dangerfield’s autobiography, It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect But Plenty of Sex and Drugs. 

I have a shameful confession. I am the neighbor who contributed It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me to the Little Free Library. When I placed it on the shelf, alongside prizewinning novels The Good Earth and Cold Mountain, I didn’t fully understand the philosophy of Little Free Libraries. This is clearly spelled out in the organization’s website:

Little Free Library book exchanges have a unique, personal touch. There is an understanding that real people are sharing their favorite books with their community; Little Libraries have been called “mini-town squares.”

IMG_3101It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me is not one of my favorite books. In fact, I have no idea how it ended up in my house. Did I pick it up at a booksellers’ conference? Did it arrive in the mail, unsolicited, for me to review? Did it belong to one of my children? I have no idea, but when I scanned my shelves for something to donate to the new Little Free Library, I didn’t see anything I wanted to part with, until I spotted It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me. I certainly didn’t want to part with one of my favorite books. Now I feel guilty, because obviously Little Free Libraries are not intended to be dumping grounds for dud books — although an article in the Denver Post calls Little Free Libraries “Little Jails for Bad Books.” Maybe someone in town is a huge Rodney Dangerfield fan and will be thrilled to find a pristine, hardcover copy of this book, free for the taking.

Little Free Libraries seem like such a wonderful idea that I was surprised to find that not everyone is in favor of them. A Wisconsin librarian, Joe  says there are four Little Free Libraries near his home, and worries that, while they don’t seriously encroach on real public libraries, their existence causes people to take public libraries less seriously. In his post, “A Little Rant Against Little Free Libraries”, this librarian says “A library is not a wooden box”, and wonders if people will ask, ““Why do we need our tax money to go to something that can be done for FREE?”.

Dan Greenstone, a resident of Oak Park, Illinois, received a Little Free Library as a gift from his wife. He found that he and his family ended up supplying books to their freeloading neighbors, rarely receiving any in exchange. In a Salon article called “My Little Free Library war: How our suburban front-yard lending box made me hate books and fear my neighbors“, Greenstone says:

 Little Free Library has a seductive marketing slogan that’s carved into the top of every unit: “Take a Book; Return a Book.” Such a simple equation. And such wishful thinking. Take? Oh, absolutely. People are, in fact, really good at that part.

5d1367e3f15a78dddf64c5f28d93d06eMy neighbors seem to be less greedy than Greenstone’s. I’m going to keep donating books to the Little Free Library, but it’s unlikely I’ll share my favorites. Saints for All Occasions? No way. ‘Round Midnight? I don’t think so. The Devil and Webster. No. Maybe I’d lend those to trustworthy friends. I’d be happy to donate my copy of Idaho . . . somebody might like it.

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!