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?

 

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to Read Next — July 2016

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date . . .
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)

It doesn’t seem possible that the Fourth of July has passed and the days are getting shorter. The stacks of unread books in my house keep growing bigger. When I finish a book, I have a hard time deciding what to read next. Every book looks enticing . . . but  what if there’s a better one in the pile and I’m wasting my precious summer reading time on something so-so? It’s almost a relief when I’m obligated to review a book, because the decision is made for me.

Here’s a list of books that I’m very glad I decided to pluck from my piles, and that I recommend for summer reading:

26893819The Girls by Emma Cline
The New York Times calls this book — one of the most hyped novels I can recall — an historical novel, and I guess it is. Inspired by the Manson murders of 1969, The Girls is a coming-of-age story of a young girl who joins a California cult with a charismatic and violent leader. Random House beat out 11 publishers in an auction to acquire this novel, reportedly paying 25-year-old debut novelist Cline at least $2 million in a three-book deal. (For a fascinating look at the business side of publishing, check out Betting Big on Literary Newcomers in the Wall Street Journal.)  Cline’s writing is extraordinary, keeping me  enthralled from the first page to the last, but I kept finding myself comparing events in the novel to actual events — finally tracking down my old copy of Helter Skelter, written by Victor Bugliosi, who was the lead prosecutor in case against Charles Manson.

9780812998009Look at You Now: My Journey from Shame to Strength by Liz Pryor
This memoir about a young girl from a prominent family whose parents send her to a state-run “home” for unwed mothers that’s actually  a juvenile detention center, kept me up late at night — and broke my heart. I’m in awe of the author’s kind and forgiving spirit. Don’t miss this book, especially if you enjoyed The Glass Castle.

27209487Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
If I were making a list of novels about WASPs behaving badly, this book would be this summer’s entry. While at their summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, Fern and Edgar learn that their fairy-tale existence will soon come to an end — there is no more money. They make a series of bad decisions that have disastrous results for their children, who turn out to be more resilient than anyone would have guessed. Perfect for fans of Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements.

27209486Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Emma Straub’s The Vacationers was one of my favorite beach books in 2014, and Modern Lovers is just as clever and entertaining. (It’s “too deftly and thoughtfully written to be relegated merely to the beach,” according to the New York Times Book Review.) The novel takes place during one summer in Brooklyn, and like The Vacationers, it focuses on two middle-aged couples with children who are facing crises in their relationships.

e154e143a09fb5375bdd73ba157c6882The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
Jane Hamilton is one of my very favorite authors, and it’s been seven years since her last novel. The Excellent Lombards is well worth the wait. It’s a jewel. The story, like so many others I’ve read recently, is about a young person growing up and finding her place in the world. Mary Frances Lombard (“Frankie”) enters a grade school geography bee, learning from her teacher that “‘everything about the place where you live determines Who You Are'”.  Fun fact: like the characters in her book, Hamilton lives on an apple orchard in Wisconsin.

9781101875940Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
If you liked Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, you’ll love Sweetbitter — a roman a clef that takes place behind the scenes in a trendy New York City restaurant. The author, who worked in restaurants for many years, told NPR that as she was waiting tables, she would often wonder “if the guests had any idea of the rich life that is going on behind the scene, and the drama and the sexual tension and the sadness and the joy and the friendship.”

9781466884656If I Forget You by Thomas Christopher Greene
The author of The Headmaster’s Wife, one of my favorites of 2014, is back with a story of lost love. Henry Gold and Margot Fuller fall in love as students at a small college in upstate New York, only to be separated by forces beyond their control. Many years later, they meet again on a New York street and begin the painful process of reconnecting.

9781101994825Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
Wolf Hollow is one of those rare children’s books that truly is a must-read for all ages — destined to become a classic. Lauren Wolk’s Annabelle, like Harper Lee’s Scout, is a young girl who learns the world is very complicated. But this book is much more than a junior To Kill a Mockingbird, as some reviews have implied. It stands on its own as a beautifully written coming-of-age story.

 

 

 

The Summer Guest — Book Review

The Summer Guest coverI just enjoy translating, it’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge.
Iris Murdoch

I gamble on a lot of books by authors I’m not familiar with, often giving up on them after fifty pages or so. Life is too short to slog through books I don’t enjoy. I picked up The Summer Guest after sampling several books that didn’t capture my attention, thinking I’d probably be adding it to the pile of disappointments. The author, Alison Anderson, is an award-winning translator, perhaps best known for  translating The Elegance of the Hedgehog from the French — yet another well-regarded book I failed to finish. Also, I was annoyed by the title. Justin Cronin wrote a lovely book by that name about ten years ago. I’ll never understand why authors recycle a title; it seems to marginalize the first book, as if it’s been forgotten by now.

I shouldn’t have worried, because not only did I finish The Summer Guest, I’m sure I’ll be adding it to my list of favorite books of the year. Anderson’s elegantly constructed novel, like all the books I love, engages both the mind and the heart. Readers will learn about Chekhov, Russian and Ukrainian history,  and the art of translation, and they will reflect on the meaning of love and friendship.

The “summer guest” in the novel is Anton Chekhov, who rents a cottage on the estate of the Lintvaryov family in eastern Ukraine. Chekhov, a doctor who writes short stories and plays to earn extra cash, develops a close friendship with Zinaida Lintvaryova, who is also a doctor but has recently become blinded by illness. Zinaida keeps a diary chronicling her relationship with Chekhov. When the diary surfaces more than 100 years later, London publisher Katya Kendall hires Ana Harding to translate — and to help solve the mysteries it contains. Did Chekhov write a novel during the time he spent on the Lintvaryov estate? The missing novel could change literary history, and also revitalize Ana Harding’s career and make it possible for Katya Kendall’s publishing house to survive:

Ana: “What did she really expect from the lost novel? Why did the thought of it cause a knot in her stomach, a jolt of sleep-depriving adrenaline? Because it would change her life. It would respond to yearning, fill a void.”

Katya: “She imagined the money coming in, the thrill of being not only solvent but also able to turn things around. To defy the recession and geopolitics and the received opinions of the publishing world . . . Ah, Zinaida, miracles do happen.”

There will be no literal miracle for Zinaida, who suffers from an incurable illness. The miracles that Katya and Ana discover — and I’m not giving anything away — are the magic of literature and the power of the imagination. In a discussion with the director of a Ukrainian museum devoted to Chekhov, Ana explores the meaning of fiction:

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?

In an article on Lithub, Anderson describes how her reading life inspired her to write The Summer Guest:

One of the more interesting aspects of being a lifelong reader is to discover which authors and books in one’s personal library stay the course over time, and which ones we consign to the recycle bin with the sad realization that the author no longer speaks to us as he or she once did. Then there are those whose voice was too quiet when we were young, but who now speak with such assurance and such pitch-perfect wisdom and grace that we find them all the more enthralling for having overlooked or underestimated them earlier in life.

Anton Chekhov has been just such an author for me . . .

Anderson says Chekhov’s letters, in which he describes the Lintvaryov family, were the starting point for the novel. Zinaida’s perspective allows her to present a subjective view of Chekhov, “limited by time and blindness and the constraints of society”, and Zinaida’s feelings reflect the “love, admiration and gratitude” that Anderson feels toward the writer.

Anderson estimates she went through twenty or thirty different versions of the novel, struggling most with the ending: “I won’t say that writing the diary of a sightless Ukrainian woman in the 19th century was the easy part, but it was certainly easier than coming up with an ending for the story of the beleaguered translator whose job it is to render the diary into English.” The ending, which involves a twist the reader may or may not anticipate, perfectly ties together the novel’s three storylines — Zinaida’s, Ana’s, and Katya’s.

The three characters all struggle to translate both life and language. As Zinaida loses her sight, she relies on Chekhov to interpret the world for her. Katya, a native Russian speaker, sees her language as her “greatest comfort and pride” and laments the “relative poverty” of English. Clinging to the language of her childhood is damaging her relationship with her husband and business partner. Ana finds that the Russian language has taught her something “completely unexpected and equally precious: another way of seeing the world”.

 

 

 

 

 

Read a Little Poetry

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life . . .
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As I sat staring at my screen, trying to decide which books to include in my list of summer reading recommendations, it occurred to me that I’ve never said much in Books on the Table about my love of poetry. I’ve begged readers to give short stories a try (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories), pointing out that they are perfect for anyone who needs what novelist Amber Dermont calls a “single serving” of literature. Expanding on her metaphor, I’d like to suggest that if you need a shot (espresso or liquor, take your pick!) of literature, read a poem.

eb_white_and_his_dog_minnie
E.B. White

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer . . . He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poem utterly clear is a trifle glaring.
E.B. White

E.B. White, known for the lucid and concise prose advocated in The Elements of Style, also celebrated the mysterious nature of poetry. If you know White only through his classic children’s books, I encourage you to read his essay collections, which are spectacular. You’ll never read better writing. In Here is New York, White says: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.” White wrote several books of poetry, all now out of print, although you can find some of his poems online.

I treasure my poetry books more than any others I own, but I also enjoy reading poetry on my phone or computer screen. Before watching or reading the news in the morning, I like to read a poem. It puts me in a much better frame of mind, and if I’m lucky, certain lines will resonate with me and stick with me for the rest of the day. Rereading old favorites is always a pleasure, but it’s a special treat to discover new poems. You can subscribe to Poem-a-Day, Your Daily Poem, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, or other websites that will deliver poems to your inbox every day. The Poetry Foundation has a free app with thousands of poems. If you’re stuck waiting in line for a few minutes, what better way to spend your time than reading a poem?

9780142003442Garrison Keillor has collected his favorite selections from The Writer’s Almanac public radio show in anthologies — Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times. Two other anthologies I recommend are Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them and Poems That Make Grown Women Cry: 100 Women on the Words That Move Them. The editors of these books (father and son team Anthony and Ben Holden) asked notable men and women this question: “What poem moves you to tears?” Please don’t be put off by the word “cry” in the titles; the poems are emotionally powerful, not depressing.

In grade school, I was forced to memorize poems, which was not so bad, and then to recite them to the class, which was dreadful. I don’t think that’s part of today’s curriculum, unfortunately. I probably sound like a curmudgeon, but I think rote memorization is good mental exercise, and being made to do something that makes you uncomfortable builds character. Anyway, when you can’t sleep, it’s helpful to have a little treasure trove of memorized poetry in your brain. Strangely, I’m often comforted by Macbeth’s soliloquy, delivered as he struggles with guilt and possible insanity: “Is this a dagger which I see before me/The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee . . .”

This morning’s poem, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”, by Wallace Stevens, is everything a poem should be: lovely, evocative, and a little puzzling. Please read it, let it soak in, and be glad you don’t have to analyze it for English class.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Note: I just discovered a wonderful blog called Read a Little Poetry — check it out!