Just Discuss: A New Twist on Book Clubs

Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
Neil Gaiman

fullsizeoutput_3d36I love short stories. When my New Yorker arrives, I turn first to to the featured fiction. (Last week’s story, “Motherless Child”, by Elizabeth Strout, is wonderful — Olive Kitteridge is back!) I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but check out my sales pitch for short stories, 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories, and then read a really good story (I’ve 37569319included some suggestions at the end of this post) and maybe you’ll become a convert.

My second sales pitch is for a short story series in Chicago this fall. This project, my friend Alice Moody’s brainchild, has been going strong at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. Now, “Just Discuss: For Literature Lovers” will be expanding to Chicago. Discussions will take place at the Blue Door Kitchen (52 W. Elm Street) on Mondays (with me as facilitator) and Wednesdays (with Alice as facilitator), from 10 am until noon, starting on September 16.

Fall M:W 2019Here’s how it works: you settle into a comfortable seat, perhaps with a cup of coffee or tea in front of you, and listen to a professional actor read a carefully chosen, thought-provoking story. You have no idea each week what the story will be. After the reading, we’ll discuss what we just heard.

Last winter, I attended “Just Discuss” at the Writers Theatre, and it was the highlight of my week. No screens, no phones, no distractions, just two hours of reflection and conversation with a diverse group of interesting people. I hope you can join us this fall– please email me (bksonthetable@gmail.com) or Alice (alice@platinumpenconsulting.com) for more information.

Stories performed and discussed in previous sessions include:

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver
The Enormous Radio by John Cheever
Community Life by Lorrie Moore
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris
L. Debard and Aliette by Lauren Groff
Brownies by ZZ Packer
A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger
Leopard by Wells Tower
A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro
Prairie Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Chicxulub by T.C. Boyle
The Five Forty Eight by John Cheever
The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff
Adams by George Saunders
Roy Spivey by Miranda July

Summer Reading 2019

IMG_5664
One of my favorite summer reading spots (and one of my favorite reading companions).

Every year, summer reading lists suggest “beach reads” you’ll want to “dive into”,  the “hottest” books that are “making waves”. Dozens and dozens of books are touted as “must reads” for your beach bag or suitcase. The World Economic Forum takes a data-driven approach to summer reading recommendations,  analyzing 67 lists and presenting what it calls “the most statistically sound summer reading list on the internet.” The 45 books on this list are almost all fiction written by women, and almost all were published in the last six months.

9780385537070The World Economic Forum recommends some pretty good books — City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (#1 on the list), The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner — as well as The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (#2 on the list), probably the most acclaimed book of the summer. (I haven’t read it yet — I’m saving it for my vacation this month.)

What this list of the summer’s “most-endorsed reads” doesn’t include are five of my recent favorites:

ask-again-yes-9781982106980_lgAsk Again, Yes (Mary Beth Keane) — I couldn’t love a book any more than I loved Ask Again, Yes. Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope grow up next door to each other in New York City suburb, both the children of Irish immigrants in the police force. A tragic incident divides the two families, but Kate and Peter remain friends and eventually fall in love. I don’t want to reveal any more about the plot, but I will say that this is a grace-filled story of love and forgiveness that will stay with you.

9780525520412Disappearing Earth (Julia Phillips) — “This should win the Pulitzer!” a friend exclaimed at a recent book club meeting. I agree — Disappearing Earth is definitely prize-worthy. Set in Kamchatka, a peninsula in northeastern Russia, this highly original and beautifully written novel explores the lives of girls and women, both “native” and Russian, in this remote and tension-filled area. Each chapter is a short story, introducing new characters, but is also a piece of a puzzle. What happened to the young girls who disappeared in the opening pages? You won’t be able to put the book down until the final chapter. Maybe this is a stretch, but it reminded me of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — without all the confusing parts.

9780374156022Miracle Creek (Angie Kim) — One of the book clubs I moderate chose this as their favorite book of the past few years. It’s a terrific page-turner, with plenty to discuss (experimental medical treatments, raising special needs children, the experience of immigration, cultural differences, marital secrets). When a hyperbaric therapy chamber explodes, killing two people, law enforcement quickly recognizes this was no accident and accuses the chamber’s owner, a Korean immigrant. But could it have been the mother of a patient, or perhaps one of the fanatics who had been demonstrating against the controversial therapy? A series of unreliable narrators provide their version of events, leading to a surprising conclusion.

9780525559221Rules for Visiting (Jessica Francis Kane) — May Attaway is a forty-year-old single woman, working as a gardener at a university and living with her eighty-year-old father. When a professor wins a prize for writing a poem about a tree that May planted, the university rewards her with thirty days of paid leave. Realizing she’s neglected her friendships, May leaves her comfort zone and reconnects with four old friends. This is a lovely jewel of a book, filled with warmth and wit, that will remind you of the importance of friends, good books — and plants.

On the World Economic Forum’s “list of lists” and very good:

9780385544252The Most Fun We Ever Had (Claire Lombardo) — If you like dysfunctional family dramas  (and I do!), this is for you. It’s one of the best of its kind. Marilyn and David, married (mostly happily) for forty years, have raised four very different adult daughters. Their world is rocked when a teenage grandson, given up for adoption, enters their lives. Chicagoans, take note: this absorbing novel is set in our city and the suburbs.

9781594634734City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) — Maybe you loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love; maybe you hated it. It doesn’t matter, because you would never guess they’re written by the same author. I suppose you could say they both focus on the same theme — the freedom of women to live as they choose — but the style and tone couldn’t be more different. City of Girls covers seventy years in the life of Vivian Morris, who comes to New York as a naive college dropout in 1940 and becomes a successful costume designer as well as a sexual adventurer. What I enjoyed most about this fun book was the dialogue (plenty of witty repartee), the eccentric characters, the clothes, and Vivian’s unexpected friendship with a damaged veteran.

9780525510871Fleishman Is in Trouble (Taffy Brodesser-Akner) — Recently separated from his workaholic wife, Rachel, Toby Fleishman is enjoying a robust social life when Rachel vanishes, leaving him with their two children. This clever and insightful debut novel both satirizes and scrutinizes contemporary marriage. It bogged down for me a bit in the middle — I got tired of Toby’s exploits in the world of dating apps — but ultimately redeemed itself with a satisfying, and unexpected, ending. Reviewers have compared this book to Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, and I can see why.

I hope August is a wonderful reading month for you!

Random Recommendations on a Snowy Day

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

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

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

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

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

I’d love your recommendations!

What I’ve Been Reading — Fall 2018

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

. . .  And Books on the Table is starting all over again, with a brand new design that’s a little cleaner and easier on the eyes. Over the past five years, the content has changed as well. Good-bye, in-depth book reviews; hello, collections of short reviews. I’m not as concerned with reviewing brand-new books as I used to be. Just because a book has been out for a few months — or even a year — doesn’t mean it’s yesterday’s news. The frequency of posts has slowed down as well. Once a month or so seems about right. I have a long list of post ideas, and I also have a huge pile of unread books. Most of the time, I choose to pick up a book rather than write a blog post. Here are a dozen terrific books I read recently when I could have been doing other things:

Nonfiction

A book for book lovers:

the-library-book-9781476740188_hrThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

The Library Book is one of my favorites of 2018. At its heart is the mysterious fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 that destroyed nearly a million books, but it covers a lot of territory — the story of the accused arsonist, the history of libraries, the value of the printed page, the dedication of librarians to their work. Susan Orlean brilliantly weaves all these strands, and more, together to create a fascinating narrative that celebrates public libraries. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she said, “There’s plenty to feel joyful about: that we still write books and read books and preserve books in places like libraries where they’re available for everyone to share.”

A must-read for parents of young children, and also anyone who’s interested in the direction of American society:

9781250089557-1Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks
And so children do not go to the store to buy bread and milk for their parents. They do not take long walks through the woods, or ride bikes along paths, or build secret tree houses or forts while we are inside working or cooking or talking to other adults or leading our lives. They are no longer afforded, as Mona Simpson writes, “the luxury of being unnoticed, of being left alone.”

After her arrest for leaving her four-year-old in a car in a suburban parking lot for a few minutes, novelist and essayist Kim Brooks began to wonder about the origins of our culture’s misplaced and often superstitious fears. When, and why, did we become so anxious to protect our children from every possible form of danger, no matter how statistically unlikely it is to occur, and why are we so quick to blame parents — particularly mothers — when something goes wrong? This engaging and thought-provoking book — part memoir, part sociological study — will inspire lively discussion.

why-we-sleep-9781501144325_lgA science book for nonscientists (or anyone who’s ever dreamed of a good night’s sleep):

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, Ph.D.
The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations—diseases that are crippling health-care systems, such as heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer—all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker (director of the Sleep Lab at UC Berkeley) presents, in an entertaining and conversational way, all the evidence that adequate sleep, especially the REM sleep in which we dream, is essential to good health.  He also outlines the methods to ensure a good night’s sleep. So why did I stay up too late reading this book?  Because, since childhood, I’ve had the sleep-depriving habit of reading just one more chapter of books that capture my attention. He doesn’t mind if readers use his book as a sleep aid: “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”

A book that helps readers understand the causes of the opioid crisis, along with possible solutions:

Macy_DopesickDopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America by Beth Macy
America’s approach to its opioid problem is to rely on Battle of Dunkirk strategies—leaving the fight to well-meaning citizens, in their fishing vessels and private boats—when what’s really needed to win the war is a full-on Normandy Invasion.

I’ve read other books that trace the roots of the opioid epidemic (Dreamland by Sam Quinones, American Pain by John Temple), but journalist Beth Macy’s harrowing narrative not only lays bare the corporate greed that has contributed to human suffering, it brings us face-to-face with the real people affected by this complicated crisis — addicts and their friends and families.  As fast-paced and readable as any thriller, this book will outrage you.

Two excellent memoirs — one by an author at the end of his adult life, one by an author at the beginning of hers:

9781328826343_hresCarnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall

When I was young, my language wore coats and shirts and trousers, neckties, bespoke shirts. In my lifetime as a writer I have cast off layer after layer of clothing in pursuit of nudity. I held nothing back except transitions that might once have elaborated notes into an essay. . . . As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember. Why should a nonagenarian hold anything back?

Poet Donald Hall died at age 89, just weeks before his last book, a series of short essays, was published. It’s a lovely parting gift from a beloved writer. In an essay called “He Holds Up a Lantern For the Rest of Us” , Ann Patchett writes: “The book is about who Don was and how he saw the world. I’m here to tell you there is nothing better. Every superfluous word is stripped away and what is left is the pure force of life.”

fullsizeoutput_3a1aAll You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
By the time I was five or six years old, I had heard the tale of my loving, selfless birth parents so many times I could recite it myself. I collected every fact I could, hoarding the sparse and faded glimpses into my past like bright, favorite toys. This may be all you can ever know, I was told. 

When she was expecting her first child, Nicole Chung decided to search for her birth family. What she learned shocked her and went far beyond the medical history she had hoped to find. Chung not only tells a riveting and suspenseful story, she explores transracial adoption and biological heritage.

Fiction

Two slim books with lots of  “meat” for discussion:

his-favorites-9781476799391_lgHis Favorites by Kate Walbert
This is not a story I’ve told before. No one would believe me. I mean, really believe me. The would get that look and nod. They would ask certain questions that suggested I was somehow culpable or that I was making most of it up out of nothing — just girlish fantasies and daydreams.

His Favorites is a perfect addition to Short Novels Your Book Club  Will Actually Finish — only 160 pages and packed with material for discussion. In the aftermath of tragedy, a teenage girl goes to boarding school and encounters a charming but predatory young teacher.

9781101947395Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman
My friend was, they’d been told, the most wounded man from both the wars. As advanced as medicine had become, that likely made him the most wounded man in the history of war, and they’d just kept him alive from one side of the world to the other.

Decorated veteran and National Book Award nominee Elliot Ackerman (Dark at the Crossing) has written a powerful modern-day version of Johnny Got His Gun that will break your heart. After Eden is gravely injured in Iraq, his best friend, killed in the same blast, narrates the story of Eden and his wife, Mary: “Ever since then I’ve been around too, just on that other side, seeing all there is, and waiting.”

For fans of Pat Conroy’s Southern fiction (The Prince of Tides, South of Broad) and/or Barbara Kingsolver’s eco-fiction (Prodigal Summer, Flight Behavior):

9780735219090Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know that a sentence could be so full.

I adored this novel about a young girl, abandoned by her family, who is forced to raise herself in a remote North Carolina marsh. First-time novelist Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist, and her love of the natural world shows in this beautiful and satisfying book, which combines both a coming-of-age story and a murder mystery.

A quiet, character-driven novel about family dynamics:

a-cloud-in-the-shape-of-a-girl-9781501194368_lgA Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson
And yet history shifted underneath your feet . . . The present was a dizzy perch that every so often began to spin and slide . . . You held onto your life with both hands, you told yourself to pay attention to this moment, the here and now. But one minute passed into the next, and at some point you looked back and everything was over and people called it history.

Starting during the Second World War II and  moving through succeeding generations, A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl examines the lives of three Midwestern women — grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter — as they struggle with career choices and imperfect marriages, Jean Thompson is one of many underappreciated writers who is a master at creating complex and interesting characters.

For readers who like Jodi Picoult but want something less formulaic:

97814555617591If We Had Known by Elise Juska
After twenty-eight years, Maggie could rely on the arc of a semester: the way, in the beginning, the freshmen would be tentative, wary, fifteen versions on insecurity — the glibness, the shyness, the overwrought machismo — was there any teenage behavior without insecurity at the root? — but as the weeks passed, they gained confidence in their work.

English professor Maggie Daley is shocked to learn that a former student was responsible for a shooting at a nearby shopping mall. Meanwhile, her college-bound daughter tries to protect her mother from dangerous secrets. After Maggie makes an error in judgment, she’s forced to examine her role in the events around her. This a thought-provoking, well-paced novel — perfect for book clubs.  (Not to be confused with You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, another great character-oriented page-turner.)

Great historical fiction:

9781101967386Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
Real writing, I was beginning to realize, was more like laying bricks than waiting for lightning to strike. It was painstaking. It was manual labor. And sometimes, sometimes if you kept putting the bricks down and let your hands just go on bleeding, and didn’t look up and didn’t stop for anything, the lightning came.

If you enjoyed The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, you will love Love and Ruin, about his extraordinary third wife, reporter and novelist Martha Gellhorn. The pair fell in love while covering the Spanish Civil War and were married for four tumultuous years. Gellhorn, who was the only woman to land on D-Day (defying Hemingway’s wishes) was to become one of the most renowned journalists of the twentieth century, covering every major war and publishing many books. She emerges in this captivating novel as a strong, independent woman ahead of her time.

There are so many good books coming out this fall — I’m especially excited by Barbara Kingsolver’s latest (Unsheltered), Tana French’s stand-alone mystery (The Witch Elm), and Kate Atkinson’s spy novel (Transcription). How about you?

 

Seen at the Beach

woman_reading_on_the_beachThe beach is not a place to work; to read, write or to think . . . too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

I’m sorry, Mrs. Lindbergh, but I respectfully disagree. Maybe my beach reading doesn’t require “real mental discipline”, but the beach gives me a sense of being removed from the rest of the world that makes it easy to disappear into the alternate reality of a book. The crashing waves and high-flying clouds are a soothing backdrop, helping me concentrate on the pages in front of me.

Psychotherapist Robin Rosenberg agrees that beach vacations are ideal for reading:

“In our regular lives we’re all over-scheduled, and probably stressed,” says Rosenberg. In addition to that stress, Rosenberg refers to the heavy “cognitive load” we carry each day—the constant need to sort and weigh information in an overstimulated environment. “When you’re sitting on a beach, the cognitive load is very low,” says Rosenberg. “You have time to wonder, to let your mind wander, to be really curious, to be introspective if you’re an introspective person.”

Of course, no matter how absorbing a book may be, every so often I have to get up and stretch my legs. During last week’s vacation in Florida, I got off my lounge chair not only for meals ,but to make sure I got in my 10,000 steps. As I walked on the beach, I took note of what other beachgoers were reading. Contrary to what you’d expect, very few people were reading the kind of books that are thought of as “beach reads” — mass market mysteries and romances. Hardcovers outnumbered paperbacks by about 2:1, and I didn’t see many e-readers. Here’s an incomplete list of the books I saw on the beach:

162224Most popular book:
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
I saw at least five people reading this book, which is currently #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. (One of them was my husband.)

Book that I have had in a pile at home for months but haven’t read:
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book that I know I should read but haven’t; 2016 National Book Award winner:
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Debut novel that I loved 15 years ago and had totally forgotten about:
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Psychological thriller that a lot of people liked but I didn’t:
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

20897517One of my all-time favorite nonfiction books:
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

The newest book on the beach (published on February 7):
Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

The oldest book on the beach, and the only classic (published in 1934):
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The second-oldest book on the beach (published in 1984)
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932) by William Manchester

small-great-things-hc-400wBest Jodi Picoult novel in a long time, if you can ignore the preachy message:
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Perfect beach reading, with self-contained chapters:
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

trevor-noah-born-a-crimeGreat book for book clubs:
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Book that no one should read on the beach, or even bring on vacation:
The Lose Your Belly Diet: Change Your Gut, Change Your Life by Travis Stork

9780399563089And what did I read? My favorites were A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline (complete review coming next week) and We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter. Hunter’s debut novel is the heart-wrenching story of an extended Polish family (five grown siblings, their parents, and spouses) who are separated during World War II. Miraculously, all survive after years of unspeakable suffering. The novel is based on the experiences of the author’s family, and is a tribute to their courage — and luck.

More reviews to come in the next few weeks . . .

What to Read Next — Winter 2017

img_2651It’s always better to have too much to read than not enough.
Ann Patchett

I have piles of brand new books to read, as well as dozens of galleys for upcoming books downloaded on my e-reader. I’m constantly amazed at the volume of high-quality books that appear every season, not to mention the number of talented debut authors. The creative spirit and the love for the written world in our world are stronger than ever.

How do I choose what to read next? Sometimes I’m crippled by indecision. I read a chapter of one so-so book and then of another, glancing over at the stack of January releases and thinking that there’s probably a gem buried in there . . . one that I will be excited to share with other readers.

9780385353540That’s why it’s so annoying when I read a book that disappoints me and that I can’t recommend. I take comfort in Will Schwalbe’s comments in Books for Living that “every book changes your life” and “there is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest”.  I would never call Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel, Idaho, a bad book, but I wish I’d devoted my treasured reading hours to a book that I could enthusiastically recommend. Ruskovich’s writing is spectacular, but to fall in love with a book, this middlebrow reader also needs a comprehensible story. I don’t need every loose end tied up, but I do want to understand something about the characters’ motivations — and I finished this overhyped book as bewildered as I was when I started. The New York Times disagreed with me (check out Smith Henderson’s review here), and so have other readers — if you’ve read Idaho, I’m curious to know what you think.)

Now . . . on to books that I encourage you to pick up this winter.

28251431-_uy200_If you like John Irving and Tom Wolfe . . .

The Nix by Nathan Hill
How could I have forgotten to recommend The Nix, which came out last summer? Hill’s debut novel is my favorite “big book” of 2016. Every once in a while, you want to wrap yourself up in a long novel that covers everything from family relationships to social history. Since you may be wondering what a “nix” is, I’ll fill you in. It’s a Norwegian house spirit that the main character, Samuel, hears frightening tales about during his childhood and is “the perfect organizing motif for a book about the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies, and secrets held too close and for too long”, according to NPR. The New York Times says the book is the “love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace”, a statement I can’t address since I’ve never been able to make my way through either of those authors’ books. I thought the satirical writing was reminiscent of John Irving and Tom Wolfe; John Irving himself compared Hill to Charles Dickens. Comparisons aside, The Nix is a creative tour de force and a joy to read.

img_1136If you enjoyed News of the World by Paulette Jiles . . .

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
I read this epistolary novel in a day, amazed at the suspense Rivers is able to build through letters, court documents, and diary excerpts. Based on historical records, The Second Mrs. Hockaday tells the story of a young girl, Placidia, who marries a Confederate officer, Major Hockaday, during the Civil War just days after they meet. When Hockaday returns home two years later, he learns that Placidia has been accused of bearing and murdering a baby while he was gone. What actually happened and why won’t Placidia speak in her own defense? This slim novel, perfect for book clubs, will inspire discussion about race and the legacy of slavery, women’s changing roles, forgiveness, and redemption,

30212107Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
I’ve just started reading Days Without End, but I am already enthralled. I think Sebastian Barry is one of our most underrated (and under-read) authors. When you read one of his books, you know you’re reading the work of a poet. You can choose at random almost any passage from any one of his novels and be struck by the beauty of the language. Here’s what the Guardian has to say about Barry’s latest novel: “Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative so propulsive that you must move on.”

Days Without End follows the adventures of teenager Thomas McNulty, who flees the Irish potato famine and signs up for the United States Army. Barry has written several other novels about the McNulty family (The Trial of Eneas McNulty, The Secret Scripture, and The Temporary Gentleman). Each one of them is well worth reading –as are his novels about the Dunne family — and you don’t need to read them in any particular order.

small-admissions-9781501122521_hrIf you’re in the mood for the print version of a romantic comedy (happy ending and all) . . .

Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel
I have a weakness for behind-the-scenes novels set in admissions departments. Small Admissions has a unusual twist: it takes place in the crazy world of New York day schools. The author apparently knows what she’s talking about, since she worked in the admissions department of a prestigious private school in New York. This novel is fun light reading, with plenty of characters you’ll love to hate and a satisfying romance.

If you loved A Gentleman in Moscow (and Doctor Zhivago) . . .

The Patriots by Sana Krasikov9780385524414
According to Yann Martel (Life of Pi), The Patriots is “a masterwork, a Doctor Zhivago for our times”, and indeed, it has much in common with that beloved classic. (Although I think the Count in A Gentleman in Moscow has more in common with Zhivago than any of the characters in The Patriots.) I absolutely loved this book, which is top-notch historical fiction about three generations, beginning with an idealistic young woman from Brooklyn who moves to Russia during the Stalin years and taking us through the tumultuous events in the Soviet Union in the 20th century to post-Cold War America.

y648Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago by Anna Pasternak
Journalist Anna Pasternak reveals the true story of the love affair between her great-uncle, author Boris Pasternak, and his muse, Olga Ivinskaya — the model for the fictional Lara in Doctor Zhivago.

What are you planning to read this winter? And how do you decide?

Giving the Gift of Reading

Books on the Table

The greatest gift is a passion for reading.
Elizabeth Hardwick

There’s nothing as cozy as a piece of candy and a book.
Betty MacDonald, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic

www.randomhouseThe buzzword in college applications today is “passion”. Every applicant is supposed to have one, and woe to the poor teenager who’s just trying to get through adolescence, not to mention chemistry and the Common App. Fortunately, when I was in high school, no one asked me if I had a “passion”. But if I’d had to answer that awful question, I would have said I was passionate about reading. I always have been, ever since I deciphered the words to Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. (My parents, convinced I had memorized the book, kept trying to trick me by skipping pages, but I was on to them.)

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would…

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Commonwealth — Book Review

The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.
The opening line of Commonwealth

commonwealth-coverBert Cousins can’t bear to stay home with his pregnant wife and three children, so he crashes Franny Keating’s christening party, where he kisses Franny’s beautiful mother, Beverly — and causes the breakup of two families. Ann Patchett’s novel covers fifty years in the lives of the Keating and Cousins families, beginning and ending with a party scene. Commonwealth is structured as a series of nine linked stories, each supplying bits and pieces of the Keating and Cousins families’ complicated history, but ultimately centering on Franny — who as a young woman “had no skills and no idea what she wanted to do with her life other than read”. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that Franny shares a name with J.D. Salinger’s Franny, a college dropout and spiritual seeker?

Franny’s father, a police officer, and her stepfather, a district attorney, agree on almost nothing, but they do agree on one thing: that Franny and her sister Caroline should go to law school. When Franny is ten, her father sends her an LSAT study guide:

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

Is it any surprise that Franny drops out of law school, works as a cocktail waitress, and becomes romantically involved with a self-important novelist, Leo Posen?  Posen writes a bestselling novel titled Commonwealth (which is made into a movie) about the trials and tribulations of the Keating-Cousins blended family. When Albie, Franny’s stepbrother, is working as a bike messenger for a publishing house in New York, the receptionist gives him a copy of Commonwealth. He sees a version of his family’s truth in print and although “he loved the book before he knew what it was about”, he is horrified by what he sees as the theft of his family’s story.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m not going to say much more about Commonwealth‘s plot, except that you will be a little confused at the beginning. For example, the first chapter ends with the infant Franny asleep in her father’s arms, and the second chapter opens with the adult Franny taking her father to chemotherapy. Have faith that eventually you will remember which children belong to which family and that all the little snippets come together to form a satisfying, if messy, whole.

I found it frustrating to learn so little about some of the characters in this book. Quite a few of them make cameo appearances and then reappear several chapters later, leaving the reader wanting to know more about what happened to them in the meantime. In an interview with the Guardian, Patchett said that each character represents one of her own family members. She says that she, her sister, and their stepsiblings “weren’t the products of our parents’ happy marriages: we were the flotsam of their divorces”.

Patchett told the Guardian that all of her novels (starting with her first, The Patron Saint of Liars, about a home for unwed mothers) basically tell the same story: “a group of people are thrown together and must forge connections to survive. ‘I’ve been writing the same book my whole life – that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family and it’s not your choice and you can’t get out.'” She said that nothing has scared her more than writing a novel based on her own family: “I would happily ride down the Amazon in a canoe and deal with snakes [as she did to research State of Wonder] rather than face my family.” But, as she told Lithub, she received her mother’s blessing, who commented, “None of it happened and all of it’s true.”

What happens to the six Keating and Cousins children in Commonwealth is shocking, sad, and sometimes, very funny. Patchett’s humor and wit really shine in this novel, more so than in any of her others. The scenes in Amagansett, where Franny is helping Leo entertain his literary colleagues, made me laugh out loud. And the scenes that take place during the children’s summers in Virginia are suffused with dark humor. Today’s so-called “helicopter parents” would be aghast at the lack of supervision, as the children “wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist“. The children, who squabble incessantly, “held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.” Left to their own devices, the children “did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

Well, actually, they do get caught, or perhaps it’s their neglectful parents who are caught. During one of those chaotic summers, something happens that will affect everyone in the family for the rest of their lives. “‘Your guilt’s got nothing on my guilt,'” Franny tells Caroline. “‘Your guilt isn’t even in the ballpark.'”

Guilt and shared secrets may bind the Keating and Cousins children together, but so does love. Thrown together against their will as children, as adults they choose to love each other and forgive their parents. “If her mother wasn’t so pretty none of it would have happened, but being pretty was nothing to blame her for,” Franny thinks.

ann-patchett-photo-by-melissa-ann-pinneyAnn Patchett is one of my most loved authors, as well as a personal heroine for her involvement in independent bookselling. I enjoyed Commonwealth very much, and particularly admire its structure and multiple viewpoints. That said, it’s not my favorite of her novels — I think Bel Canto and State of Wonder would tie for first place. They are both unlike anything else I’ve read, while Commonwealth reminds me of the work of other very accomplished contemporary authors who write about family relationships– Jane Hamilton, Ann Packer, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley. I do highly recommend Commonwealth, and I think it would be a great book club choice. (If you have one of those book clubs that serves “theme” food and drinks, this one’s easy — all you need is a bottle of gin.)

 

 

 

What to Read Next — August 2016

Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
Henry James

Guess who turned up on my front porch last Saturday afternoon? A person claiming to be the Fuller Brush Man. Who will be next? Maybe a peddler in a horse-drawn cart? That has nothing to do with my list of great books to read this month, but I just thought I’d share. I hope you can squeeze in a few more peaceful, book-filled summer afternoons. Here are some of my recent favorites, both fiction and nonfiction:

coverAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is the first news story I remember following. The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Hearst family fortune, the concept of “Stockholm Syndrome”, F. Lee Bailey’s courtroom theatrics — they’re all just as fascinating to me today as they were to me as a 13-year-old. Jeffrey Toobin masterfully sifts through all the craziness of Hearst’s kidnapping and time as a fugitive to create a portrait of an era, and of a very young and malleable woman.

9781594633164The After Party by Anton DiSclafani
I enjoyed Anton DiSclafani’s debut, The Yonalohsee Riding Camp for Girls, and The After Party is just as good — it’s what I’d call a smart beach read. Both books focus on wealthy young women constrained by the mores of their times — Yonahlosee is set in the 1930s, while The After Party takes place in 1the 1950s. Cece Buchanan, raised to be a Houston socialite, struggles to maintain a friendship with the mysterious and beautiful Joan Fortier, even when Cece’s obsession with Joan’s secretive behavior threatens Cece’s marriage. DiSclafani writes beautifully, with insight into her characters and their world, and her story keeps the reader guessing. The After Party is perfect for readers who enjoyed The Help. There’s a subplot involving Cece and Joan’s maids, and the Houston housewives are reminiscent of the Junior League ladies in Jackson, Mississippi. (And by the way, when is Kathryn Stockett going to publish another book?)

9780399165214Siracusa by Delia Ephron
I’ve loved Delia Ephron ever since the early 1980s, when I discovered How to Eat Like a Child and Other Lessons in Not Being a Grown-Up. I remember thinking that it was one of the funniest books I’d ever read. Siracusa has some humorous moments, but it’s more of a psychological thriller than a comic novel. Two couples — one with an odd 10-year-old daughter, Snow — decide to vacation together on the Sicilian coast. This turns out to be, for many reasons, a  really bad decision. I listened to Siracusa on audio, and I was so absorbed in the story that I almost didn’t mind being stuck in traffic. (For more on Delia Ephron and her book of essays, check out Those Amazing Ephron Sisters.)

9780399562600Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
In a last-ditch effort to help their special needs daughter, Tilly, the Hammond family follows child development expert Scott Bean to rural New Hampshire, where they help him set up a family retreat called “Camp Harmony”. Tilly’s younger sister, Iris, and mother, Alexandra, take turns narrating the story of the Hammonds’ decidedly unharmonious attempt to begin a new life. Carolyn Parkhurst’s writing is gorgeous, and even though her plot is a bit predictable, it doesn’t matter. The reader senses what’s going to happen, but wants to see just how it will unfold. I loved the whole book, but particularly the chapters that Alexandra narrates, which are exceptionally moving and authentic.

9780812992731Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich (available August 9)
If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is the book for you. “Patient H.M.” was Henry Molaison, a young man who was lobotomized in the 1950s in attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The surgery resulted in a near total loss of short-term memory for Henry. Over the next fifty years, he was the subject of many experiments.  According to Psychology Today:

Of course many other patients with memory impairments have since been studied, including a small number with amnesias almost as dense as Henry’s, but it is to him we owe the greatest debt. His name (or initials!) has been mentioned in almost 12,000 journal articles, making him the most studied case in medical or psychological history.

The twist in this book is that the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery was Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the author’s grandfather. Luke 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.

9aa87bf69c0f444ba807ae412001d027Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
The older I get, the more likely I am to fall asleep while reading in bed at night. This smart and very suspenseful thriller kept me reading well past my bedtime. A plane crashes minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, leaving only two survivors. Was one of the people aboard responsible for the crash? Told in alternating perspectives, the story is a puzzle that most readers won’t be able to solve until the very end.  The reader can tell that Noah Hawley, the author of four other novels, is also a screenwriter — the short chapters, narrated by many different characters, end with cliffhangers, and the dialogue is sharp.

y648Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
If The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? had a baby . . . it might look something like Be Frank With Me. Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel is delightful, original, and just plain fun! M.M. (Mimi) Banning, a quirky and reclusive author (sort of a mashup of J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee) is struggling to complete her second novel. She needs help with her equally quirky son, Frank, so her publisher sends a young woman, Alice Whitley, to be Frank’s nanny and Mimi’s gal Friday. Complications ensue, but like all comedies, the ending of this one is very satisfying.

9780393241655_300The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood (available August 9)
After her husband walks out on her, Ava North joins a book club that holds a monthly discussion about “the book that matters most” to a particular member. The other members all choose classics, but Ava picks an obscure, out of print book that turns out to have greater significance than she could have known. The Book That Matters Most is a book lover’s delight, full of surprising plot developments. It’s also a moving story of friendship and the connections between mothers and daughters.

 

 

 

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France — Book Review (and Giveaway)

I realized what a remarkable stroke of luck it was to have lived in a place that was home to one of France’s greatest structures, the Château of Fontainebleau. In my mind, the idea of France remained closely aligned with that great sprawling mass that embodies so much French history. it was both part of the local landscape in my boyhood and — something I understood only much later — a supreme repository of French style, taste, art, and architecture.
Thad Carhart, Finding Fontainebleau

9780525428800Every parent remembers listening politely (or at least pretending to listen) to their children’s long-winded plot descriptions of their favorite books, movies, or TV shows.  As a grade schooler, my younger son had a more succinct way of conveying this information. He described everything in terms of its parentage. I asked him for some contemporary examples, and he offered these: If Lord of the Rings and The Sopranos had a baby, it would be Game of Thrones . . . if Jaws and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition had a baby, it would be The Shallows. (Is there a potential party game in this?)

So . . . if Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Neither Here Nor There had a baby, the result would be Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France. Thad Carhart’s narrative is a captivating blend of memoir and history, filled with the author’s appreciation and understanding of French culture. He and his wife returned to the land of his early childhood twenty-six years ago, raising two children in Paris and making frequent visits to Fontainebleau.

Four-year-old Thad Carhart arrived in Fontainebleau, a provincial town of about 20,000 an hour away from Paris, in 1954. His father was a staff officer at the NATO command, whose offices were in the Château de Fontainebleau. Whatever his responsibilities entailed — and the reader doesn’t hear much about them — they couldn’t have been much more daunting than what Thad’s mother faced. May Carhart, trained nurse, gifted seamstress, and talented artist, moved five young children across the Atlantic into a large, imposing maison de maître. Despite its seventeen rooms, which included two kitchens and a wine cellar, “the house left much to be desired for a family of seven when modern appliances had already flooded postwar America.”

I’ve read countless books, fiction and nonfiction, that take place during and between the two World Wars in Europe, but very few about postwar Europe. Carhart’s portrait of France in the 1950s is one readers rarely see, where the wounds of the war are still fresh and the country is just beginning to become a modern consumer society. His special gift in Finding Fontainebleau is showing us midcentury France through the eyes of a young child. Carhart’s stories about visiting the beaches of Normandy, watching puppet shows in Paris, attending French kindergarten, and camping on a farm near the southern coast are filled with insight into the French character — and plenty of humor.

How, I asked myself in the opening chapters of the book, could a young child retain such clear and detailed memories? Carhart, who learned to read and write in French before he became literate in English, answers that question in his chapter about his experiences in a French classroom:

It wasn’t until many years later that I understood how much the intensity and newness of everything made me acutely observant. The utter necessity of learning French was akin to plunging into a fast-moving river and having to swim. I learned to watch and listen and name everything as if my life depended on it, which in a way it did — at least my social life. My memories from this time are correspondingly vivid . . . There are many things I recall with greater precision from this tender age than, say, from the first year after our return to America.

The French have a phrase, les mémoires des lieux, which means “the memory of the place”. This reflects, I think, what Carhart calls the “deep reverence of the French for sites that embody important parts of their history.” The Château of Fontainebleau is a national treasure that is in an ongoing state of preservation and restoration. Carhart interperses chapters about his family’s experiences in France with chapters about the history (from the 12th century to the present) of the Château, emphasizing his deep attachment to the Château “as a place that symbolized a certain idea of France itself, and of French attitudes.” The architect in charge of the Château, Patrick Ponsot, allowed Carhart behind-the-scenes access to the restoration project. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Carhart says his book is “not about me or the Carhart family, but it’s meant to be about France. It’s the attitude that although the French are still proudly part of a republic, they will do anything to retain the château and its heritage in the name of all the citizens.” As Ponsot says, “‘How can we know the past if we don’t save some of it?””

Carhart has written two other books —The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, which was an absolutely delightful work of nonfiction about how buying a used piano led Carhart to rediscover his childhood love for music and helped him connect with his Paris neighborhood, and Across the Endless River, historical fiction about Sacagawea’s son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. All of his books, he says, are concerned with “cultural dissonance . . . the intersection of dissimilar ways of life.”

I savored every page of this book. It even helped me brush up on my French history, although I’m still confused by all those kings named Louis. The book made me want to visit Fontainebleau, or at least eat a warm baguette. Fortunately, I have plenty of French wine on hand. I wonder if kindergarteners in France still learn math by counting wine bottles? One of the math exercises Carhart recalls was: “If my uncle brings two bottles of wine and puts them in the cellar with my father’s five bottles, how many bottles of wine are there in the wine cellar?”

The publisher, Viking Books, is giving away one copy of Finding Fontainebleau to a Books on the Table reader. Please leave a comment, and I’ll draw names on July 31. Bonne chance!