Housebound Hit List, Part II

Reading is an intimate encounter that does not require social distance. In our current world of restricted movement, the book is a geography where complete freedom remains possible.
Siri Hustvedt, “Fairy Tales and Facts: How We Read in a Pandemic”

Author Siri Hustvedt asks us to consider what reading does for us in difficult times: “What could fiction with its imaginary ramblings possibly give anyone at such a time, except an escape into the unreal?” Reading forgettable page-turners for comfort and82BD0802-4499-47ED-A030-6E5AFE17D11F_4_5005_c diversion is enjoyable and therapeutic, she acknowledges (“This kind of reading is like eating chocolate in bed. I am all for it”) but reading more complex literature — books we’ll remember years from now —  can enrich our spirits.

I have to admit that my own recent reading has leaned more to the chocolate in bed variety.  Here are a baker’s dozen of my recent favorites — some of which I think will stick with me and remind me of the months I spent at home.

Fiction

All Adults Here (Emma Straub) — If you like a dysfunctional family story with a lighter touch, this one is for you. I loved that the main character is 68 years old and just discovering who she is. All Adults Here is an of-the-moment story about just about every issue that 21st century families might face, with plenty of warmth and humor.

9781643750255Afterlife (Julia Alvarez) — Antonia, a retired professor in Vermont, grieving after the sudden death of her husband, reluctantly offers shelter to an undocumented immigrant. Meanwhile, her mentally unbalanced sister has vanished and she and her other sisters are searching for her. I adored this story of healing, hope, and family love.

The Book of Lost Friends (Lisa Wingate) — The author of Before We Were Yours is back with another terrific historical novel about families ripped apart. This novel tells the stories of several enslaved families trying to reconnect after the Civil War. Actual newspaper ads for missing family members were Wingate’s inspiration, and are interspersed throughout the novel. It’s a topic I hadn’t read about before, and I found it fascinating and moving.

F79AA300-94ED-4F74-A218-752200CD4022_4_5005_cThe Fountains of Silence (Ruta Septys) — I absolutely loved this book, and applaud Ruta Septys for writing yet another historical novel that appeals to both teenagers and adults. She said in an interview, “I’m an author of young adult fiction that happens to appeal to adults.” I don’t know what it says about me that I thought The Fountains of Silence is the best book I’ve read about the Spanish Civil Wand its legacy. It’s long (512 pages), but I raced through it over one rainy weekend.

The Guest List (Lucy Foley) — The reviews all liken The Guest List, set at a destination wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland, to an Agatha Christie novel. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never actually read Agatha Christie. I’ve also never enjoyed mysteries much — I didn’t even like Nancy Drew when I was a child.  I’m generally more interested in characters and relationships than plot. But I might become a convert, because I loved The Guest List. 

25B7BF04-0DB9-4F0A-A1CB-4A96193FEDD7_4_5005_cThe Illness Lesson (Clare Beams) — I thought this was a pretty great book about feminism, the education of women, and sexual abuse, but it’s the kind of book that will probably be overlooked because it doesn’t fit into a tidy category. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? Horror? The Washington Post described it as Louisa May Alcott meets Shirley Jackson. Set at an experimental school for girls in late 19th century Massachusetts where a mysterious illness is plaguing the students, the novel reminded me of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

A Long Petal of the Sea (Isabel Allende) — Allende’s latest, which has not a trace of magical realism, is a gorgeous love story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and revolutionary Chile. Roser, a young pianist escapes fascist Spain and marries her fiancé’s brother out of desperation. Together, they travel to Chile on a ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda and build a life there — one in which they face terrible hardships.

29D45E7B-2BA3-439D-BFD2-44745FFCA3FA_4_5005_cLost Roses (Martha Hall Kelly) — Eliza Ferriday (based on a real person and the mother of Caroline Ferriday, protagonist of Kelly’s earlier Lilac Girls) travels to St. Petersburg to visit her friend Sofya, a member of the Romanov family. But when World War I breaks out, Eliza returns to the United States, while Sofya struggles to survive in Russia. Fun, fast-paced historical fiction.

Redhead By the Side of the Road (Anne Tyler) — Every Anne Tyler book is pretty much the same — Baltimore setting, quirky characters, attention to detail, and her own brand of  sympathetic humor. Her latest novel (and, I’m pretty sure, her shortest) is no different. It’s a little piece of perfection, and I found it comforting and hopeful.

The Red Lotus (Chris Bohjalian) — I was disappointed in Bohjalian’s last book, The Flight Attendant, but The Red Lotus was a happy surprise — a well-written page turner (about a pandemic, no less) that I sped through in a couple of days.  It’s more than a thriller, though, emphasizing characters and their relationships along with a diabolically clever plot. Don’t let the theme scare you off — the pandemic in this book is bacterial, not viral, and, without giving anything away, originated quite differently from Covid-19.

y648Valentine (Elizabeth Wetmore) — This debut novel is astonishing in many ways, but particularly in the way it brought West Texas, a place I’ve never visited, to life. The story Wetmore tells will grab you immediately: after an oil rig worker brutally attacks Gloria, a young Mexican girl, the fault lines in the community become apparent. The characters who lend their voices to the narrative are all memorable, from Mary Rose, the rancher’s wife who bravely testifies at the trial, to Corrine, the widowed teacher who befriends her, to D.A. the neglected little girl who sees more than the adults realize.

Nonfiction

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Robert Kolker) — This is narrative nonfiction at its best — a “truth is stranger than fiction” story packed with information. Mimi and Don Galvin of Colorado had twelve children between 1945 and 1965 — ten boys and two girls. Six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health, providing invaluable information about the role of heredity in mental illness. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Hidden Valley Road is a heartbreaking family story and an account of scientific discovery. I couldn’t put it down.

y648-1My Wife Said You Might Want to Marry Me (Jason Rosenthal) — Unabashedly sentimental, Rosenthal’s memoir of his wife (writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who published a “Modern Love” essay shortly before her death about Jason, entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband”) is a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and grief.

I’d love to know what you’ve been reading!

P.S. Check out Read in 2020, which includes almost everything I’ve read this year, the good, the bad, and the in-between.

What to Read When You Can’t Focus

“I can’t read. I can’t concentrate.”

“I’m having trouble reading.”

“All I can read are news stories.”

Nearly everyone I know is having trouble focusing. I’ve found myself reading the same sentence over and over, without remembering what I just read. Maybe now is not the time for long, plot-heavy books. Maybe now is the time to explore the world of poetry. Here’s a poem I discovered today that a friend posted on Facebook:

Here in the Time Between

Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into

the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. The pile of ashes

in the fireplace, haphazard sticks
on the paths and gardens, leaves
tangled in the ivy and periwinkle

lie in wait against our will. This
drawing near of renewal, of stems
and blossoms, the hesitant return

of the anarchy of mud and seed
says not yet to the blood’s crawl.
When the deer along the stream

look back at us, we know again
we have left them. We pull
a blanket over us when we sleep.

As if living in a prayer, we say
amen to the late arrival of red,
the stun of green, the muted yellow

at the end of every twig. We will
lift up our eyes unto the trees hoping
to discover a gnarled nest within

the branches’ negative space. And
we will watch for a fox sparrow
rustling in the dead leaves underneath.

-Jack Ridl

827F05A7-C2A6-444E-B3F5-5B4953041C70_4_5005_cLike so many others, I’m having a hard time concentrating on literary novels. I started Colum McCann’s Apeirogon last week and it’s wonderful. I’m in awe of the way, in all of his novels, he takes disparate threads and weaves them into a cohesive whole. Apeirogon (which means “generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides — got that?) tells the story of two men, one Israeli, one Palestinian, who become friends after they each lose a daughter to senseless violence. It’s a book to savor and admire — but I keep reading a few pages and putting it down, scrolling through news stories on my phone.

47375B86-7326-4819-AD8E-45AE919043D2_4_5005_cThanks to a great recommendation from my friend Di, I found a book that lured me away from the news. I flew through Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by TV comedy writer Bess Kalb in one day. I tend to take blurbs with a grain of salt, but in this case they were accurate — the book really did make me laugh and cry. Kalb has written a poignant memoir about her late grandmother, using voicemails and emails she saved over the years to recreate the story of their relationship, written in the voice of her beloved “Bobby”.  You’ll find yourself underlining your favorite parts, and there will be many.

Here in Illinois, as in many other states, bookstores are closed because they’re not considered “essential” businesses. (It’s interesting that we’re still permitted to go load our carts at liquor stores.) Nancy Bass Wyden, third generation owner of the iconic Strand Bookstore in New York, has appealed to the state for designation as an essential business so the store can begin fulfilling online orders.  Many independent bookstores, including Lake Forest Book Store, can take orders online that will be shipped directly from Ingram, their largest book distributor.

Until your new books arrive, try a book that’s been languishing on your shelf. Exchange books with friends and neighbors. Stop by the nearest Little Free Library. (I guess you have to disinfect the books you lend and borrow.) Listen to audiobooks and short story podcasts. And make sure to read a poem every day.

 

 

 

 

Housebound Hit List

 . . . These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.
Roald Dahl

We read to know that we are not alone.
C.S. Lewis

IMG_1297
Apparently my wish came true . . .

We’re all housebound now. In the past, I loved those days, few and far between, when for one reason or another (a snowstorm or a sore throat), I got to stay home and curl up on the couch with a good book. Now, faced with an endless number of days at home, I’m trying to think of this time as the perfect opportunity to read as much as possible. Read more

Just Discuss: A New Twist on Book Clubs

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

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

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

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

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

Stories performed and discussed in previous sessions include:

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

Summer Reading 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope August is a wonderful reading month for you!

Random Recommendations on a Snowy Day

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

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

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

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

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

I’d love your recommendations!

What I’ve Been Reading — Fall 2018

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

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

Nonfiction

A book for book lovers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9781328826343_hresCarnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall

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

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

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

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

Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quiet, character-driven novel about family dynamics:

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

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

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

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

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

Great historical fiction:

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

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

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

 

Seen at the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Read Next — Winter 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving the Gift of Reading

Books on the Table

The greatest gift is a passion for reading.
Elizabeth Hardwick

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

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

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

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