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”.