The View from the Cheap Seats — Book Review

I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.
Neil Gaiman, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming”

152949Confession: I’d never read anything by Neil Gaiman until last week, when I read his new collection of nonfiction pieces, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. Well, I read most of it. I admit to skimming the essays in Section II, “Some People I Have Known”, since they presupposed a certain amount of knowledge about influential science fiction and fantasy authors. The NPR reviewer calls the 550-page book a “hefty tome”, noting that Gaiman started as a journalist in the 1980s and that a complete collection of his nonfiction would “take up volumes”.

Why did I even pick up Gaiman’s book, given that I’m not a fan of the writing he’s best known for — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and graphic novels?  (Don’t ask me what the difference is between comic books and graphic novels. All I know is that they both have tiny pictures and all-caps type, which look as though they would cause this middle-aged, non-edgy reader to take to her bed with a headache.) I don’t mean to denigrate his books; they just don’t appeal to me, the same way Jane Smiley’s trilogy about an Iowa farm family probably doesn’t appeal to the people who devour Gaiman’s Sandman series. I knew that Gaiman is considered a literary giant — as well as a huge proponent of libraries and bookstores — and I wanted to learn more about him and his writing.

I’ve never really liked genre fiction — even as a child,  I didn’t care for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. I did love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (which is still on my list of favorite books), and like Gaiman, I adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. But mostly I liked, as I still do, realistic books that were more about character than plot. If the only books that were given to me as a child were set in other worlds, or populated by non-humans, I probably wouldn’t have loved reading — just the way many young readers dislike reading when they’re force-fed a diet of “relationship” novels. In an essay called “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography”, which isn’t about pornography at all (“that was just put in to make it a catchy title”), Gaiman discusses what makes something genre fiction:

If the plot exists to get you from the lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western. If those are simply things that happen on the way, and the plot encompasses them, can do without them, doesn’t actually care if they are in there or not, then it’s a novel set in the old West.

I like novels set in the old West; I don’t like Westerns. But Gaiman points out that genre offers writers “something to play to and to play against. It gives you a net and the shape of the game. Sometimes it gives you the ball.” The framework of working within a genre makes for a better story, he argues, and nothing is more important to him than a good story. The very best stories, he suggests, transcend genre.

Gaiman, who’s written many children’s books, discusses an issue I’ve often wondered about, “that most vexing of questions . .  what is a children’s book anyway?” I’d buy a copy of The View from the Cheap Seats just to read his thoughts on children and reading. Parents, he says, should not concern themselves with what children read because, first of all, children are “really good at self-censorship. They have pretty good sense of what they are ready for and what they are not, and they walk the line wisely.” They also don’t discriminate between good and bad books:

What a child takes from a book is never what an adult takes from it. Ideas that are hackneyed and dull for adults are fresh and new and world-changing for children. And besides, you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.

I’m a big underliner, but it’s been a long time since I underlined as much in a book as I did in The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s views on Moby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, C.S. Lewis, The Moth Radio Hour, libraries, the value of reading . . . all underlined in my copy of The View from the Cheap Seats. In one of my favorite passages, he reminisces about his favorite bookstores:

And writing this, all of those bookshops come back, the shelves, and the people. And most of all, the books, their covers bright, their pages filled with infinite possibilities. I wonder who I would have been, without those people and those places, without books.

If that’s the view from the cheap seats, I’ll take it.

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Remembering World War I — Part II

1280px-poppy2004See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

Yesterday, our town’s commuter train station was full of veterans selling handmade poppies. Poppies came to symbolize sacrifice and remembrance after World War I, when Canadian surgeon Colonel John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”, touched the hearts of millions:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

It’s impossible to comprehend the enormous tragedy of World War I. The statistics are shocking — for example, Germany and Russia both lost 1.7 million soldiers; France lost 1.3 million; and Great Britain lost close to 1 million. The United States, which entered the war in 1917, lost 126,000 soldiers. To learn more about America’s involvement in the 51bvmrzkf1l-_sy344_bo1204203200_First World War, I recommend Richard Rubin’s The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. (Also, don’t miss Willa Cather’s One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1923.) For the French perspective, Jeff recommends Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, a new translation of the actual wartime diaries of a French soldier.

Most of my World War I reading has been historical fiction about the British experience. I’ve mentioned several of my favorites before (A Long Long Way, The Absolutist, Birdsong) but I’ve neglected some others . . . and I’ve just finished reading a terrific new novel.

9780812993103_custom-81b6cd4fd0db5f2ea2087aa21ae510c427b8b7b7-s400-c85The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson (the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand), is a kinder, gentler World War I book than most. The story centers on Beatrice Nash, a young Latin teacher who arrives in the small village of Rye during the summer of 1914. Determined to make her own way after the death of her beloved father, Beatrice is thwarted by the sexist mores of the times. She befriends a local family, the Kents, whose nephews — each for his own complicated reasons — volunteer to serve in France soon after war is declared. Beatrice is the most endearing character I’ve come across for a long time. She always has a quick comeback, even when faced with a supercilious solicitor or an arrogant American author. I loved every page of this book, which NPR says “rivals Simonson’s first in the charm department.” Yes, it’s charming — but it’s also poignant and beautifully written. You might even shed a tear or two. (By the way, if you’re suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal, this is the book for you.)

Maisie-Dobbs-Covfin-397x600I’ve also enjoyed Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. Maisie Dobbs, the heroine, is a World War I veteran, having served as a battlefield nurse. After the war, she trains with famous private investigator Dr. Maurice Blanche, and when he retires, she sets up her own detective agency. In most of the 12 novels, Maisie solves a  complex case in which First World War events play a role. In her review of the first book in the series, New York Times book reviewer  Marilyn Stasio says: “Romantic readers sensing a story-within-a-story won’t be disappointed at the sensitivity and wisdom with which Maisie resolves her first professional assignment, an apparent case of marital infidelity that turns out to be a wrenching illustration of the sorrowful legacies of World War I.” I recommend reading Winspear’s moving essay about her first visit to the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres, where her grandfather saw action in 1916.

For more about our visit to Verdun, site of one of the largest battles in World War I, please see Remembering World War I.  And for a list of my favorite war novels, check out 10 War Novels for Memorial Day. (I recently learned that the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, in the United States is that Memorial Day honors men and women who have died while serving in the military, while Veterans Day honors all those who who have served their country.)

 

Are You a Bibliomaniac?

Bibliomania: a mild form of insanity which is obtaining wide prevalence. A bibliomaniac must be carefully distinguished from a bibliophile. The latter has not yet freed himself from the idea that books are meant to be read.
Thomas Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1892)

tumblr_m3ebpdtrdx1qd9a66o1_500
“There’s no such thing as too many books. However, there is such a thing as not enough room.”

Last week, I went to the book industry’s annual trade show, BookExpo America (BEA) at McCormick Place in Chicago. The stated purpose of this event is for booksellers, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals  to “discover new titles and authors, conduct business and network, and learn the latest trends”. What it is for many attendees is the opportunity to grab as many free books as they can carry. There’s a reason the show prohibits “carts, luggage on wheels, and empty strollers”. Publishers distribute canvas tote bags emblazoned with their logos or the cover of one of their hottest titles, and bibliophiles (or are they bibliomaniacs?) rush to fill those bags.

lat_fool050116b_17111237_8colMore than 500 authors are on hand to sign their books, and attendees queue up — sometimes for hours — to meet their favorite authors and receive personally inscribed books. I don’t have the patience to stand in line for much of anything, unless I’m forced to wait in a TSA line at the airport, so I didn’t get any signed books. If I were less antsy, I would have enjoyed meeting Candice Millard (signing Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, coming in September), Jonathan Safran Foer (signing  Here I Am, due in September and his first novel since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in 2005), Emma Cline (signing The Girls, her debut novel, which is the #1 Indie Pick for June), Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility (signing A Gentleman in Moscow, out in September), Richard Russo (signing Everybody’s Fool, his follow-up to Nobody’s Fool), and dozens of others.

On social media, BEA attendees post photos of their book “hauls” and brag about how many books they snagged. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon, with several factors influencing the rush to accumulate books. They’re free; there’s the perception of scarcity, since publishers can only bring a limited number of each title; and many of the books have a lot of marketing hype behind them. I think almost everyone ends up bringing home a “pity book” or two. I know I did.  A hopeful-looking author sat on a stool at a podium in a small press’s  booth, with a pile of books beside him and only his publisher for company. I stopped, feigned interest in his collection of “prose poems”, and added a signed copy to my bag. (I was not so polite to the friendly salespeople at two combined booths — Bridge Publications and Galaxy Press, both publishers of L. Ron Hubbard’s works on Scientology.)

I promised myself I would only gather a few carefully chosen books that I knew I would read, because I am a bibliophile, not a bibliomaniac. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, told the Wall Street Journal that she owns 2,000 books but only displays 500 at a time:

The key to a healthy book collection, Ms. Wyden says, is constant editing. When she adds a book, she tries to take something out. “If it keeps getting tweaked, what you have is more meaningful,” she says. “It keeps your library fresh, and you feel more engaged with what’s in there.”

I ended up lugging home 20 books from BEA that I just couldn’t resist. Now, in order to keep my library “fresh”, I guess I’ll have to get rid of 20 books — some of which are probably  unread books I brought home from book conferences in years past, with honorable intentions.

I googled the term “book hoarder” and learned that it is considered offensive. Jessie Sholl, author of a memoir about growing up as the daughter of a compulsive hoarder, writes in Psychology Today:

You might have packed bookcases and, yes, too many books, but that doesn’t mean you’re a book hoarder. If I skipped lunch one day, or two, or three, would that suddenly make me anorexic? If I labeled myself as such, I’d surely be accused of being insensitive to those who truly have a mental illness — and rightly so.

9781455564224OK, point taken. I’m not a book hoarder or a bibliomaniac — but I do have a hard time culling my bookshelves. (For more on my difficulties in this area, see Why My Books Are Not Clutter.)  I’ll need to make room for The Wonder (Emma Donoghue), The Book That Matters Most (Ann Hood), The Excellent Lombards (Jane Hamilton), Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South (Beth Macy) . . . or I could just get some new bookshelves!

 

 

An Evening with Fredrik Backman

13178730_10154861148128626_5560856837219276285_n-2 (1)She just smiled, said that she loved books more than anything, and started telling him excitedly what each of the ones in her lap was about. And Ove realised that he wanted to hear her talking about the things she loved for the rest of his life.
Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Swedish author Fredrik Backman (author of A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and Britt-Marie Was Here) at his very first event on his first book tour in the United States. Fredrik arrived in Chicago on the evening of Tuesday, May 10, spent the following afternoon in the Simon & Schuster booth at Book Expo of America (BEA) signing books and chatting with booksellers, librarians, and other publishing industry people, and then, with his publicist and agent, battled rush hour traffic to speak to a sold-out crowd in Lake Forest.

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115073_hrFredrik’s novels, bestsellers in Sweden, the United States, and dozens of other countries, hit the sweet spot for readers looking for fiction that’s charming, humorous, and a bit quirky — but not corny. They’re the kind of books that people fall in love with and give to all their friends. One of Fredrik’s editors told Publishers Weekly: “I think Fredrik is different from the dark crime writers and doing something different from writers in general . . . He has such a distinctive voice and point of view. He might be the herald of a larger trend in Scandinavian literature, but I think he’s doing his own thing.”

Readers all over the world respond to Fredrik’s wit and wisdom. A customer at Lake Forest Book Store showed me her dog-eared copy of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, with many favorite passages underlined.  I wonder if she underlined my favorite quotation from the book: “Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.”

Fredrik delighted the audience at our event with funny anecdotes (shopping at Ikea with his father) and with serious commentary (developing three-dimensional characters). Here are some highlights of our conversation.

a-man-called-ove-9781476738024_hrFredrik Backman on:

How to say “Ove”:
Pronounce it like “Hoover”, the vacuum cleaner.

How he develops his novels:
I start out with characters. Some writers start out with a story, and fit the characters into the story as they go along . . . I start at the other end, with characters . . . people that I find funny or interesting.

britt-marie-was-here-9781501142536_lgBritt-Marie:
My wife, when she read the manuscript, said “You’ve never written anything about a character who’s so much like you.” She’s passive-aggressive, while Ove’s active-aggressive. I wanted to write a coming -of-age story, this great adventure where someone leaves their home, but those stories are always written about 20-year-old men . . . and I wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a 63-year-old woman, because she’d never left home.

The secret to writing a bestseller:
I don’t know — I really wish I had an answer. People think I have a formula (“this is how you write a bestseller”) — I have no idea. The only thing I figure is that probably I like the same things a lot of other people like. I don’t have original taste in things. The TV shows and movies I like are things that millions of other people like. There are a lot of really, really talented, gifted brilliant writers and if you ask them, what books do you like, they say, “Oh, there’s this French drama that no one’s ever heard of”, or “Oh, there’s this monk who wrote a book, there are only three copies and I have one of them”. I’m not capable of writing anything hard for people to understand.

To become a bestseller, it doesn’t mean that this many people thought your book was the best one they ever read. It means this many people thought it was OK.

Swedish literature:
We like crime.  Probably because we don’t have a lot of it in real life. There’s, like, two people in Sweden who have guns. If you’re going to write crime you start with a very, very nice place, an idyllic place. Because then it becomes much scarier when someone does something horrible.

The movie version of A Man Called Ove:
You have to view it as an interpretation — it’s like someone making a cover of a song. My mom hasn’t said it out loud, but it’s very obvious she liked the movie more than she liked the book. From my dad’s reaction, I could see that my mom has had a long-time crush on the actor who plays Ove. She said, “Wasn’t it wonderful when he . . .” and I said, “I know, I wrote that! I made that up . . . in my head”.

snipp20snapp20snurr20and20the20gingerbread20by20maj20lindmanThe classic Swedish picture books about triplets Snipp, Snapp and Snurr and Flicka, Ricka and Dicka:
You’ve lost me.

I couldn’t believe neither Fredrik nor his agent, who was on tour with him, had heard of Maj Lindman’s charming children’s books, which were published in the United States in the 1930s and are still in print: “Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr were three little boys who lived in Sweden. They had blue eyes and yellow hair, and they looked very much alike.” I’ve just ordered a copy of one of my favorites (Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Gingerbread) and will be sending it as a thank you gift for Fredrik to share with his children — who will soon be old enough for one of the most memorable characters in children’s literature, Swedish tomboy Pippi Longstocking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bridge Ladies — Author Interview

Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.
Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem

Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
Betsy Lerner, The Bridge Ladies

The Bridge Ladies coverAs a child, I thought of bridge as a mysterious game that parents played, in the afternoons when I was at school or in the evenings when I was in bed. The most complicated card games I knew were hearts, gin rummy, and cribbage. Recently, I became intrigued by the idea of bridge as mental exercise for my aging brain. My half-hearted attempt to learn the game met with failure, when the teacher at the community center recommended that I repeat the beginning course. This course was very basic; in fact, the teacher spent some time explaining that there are four suits in cards, two black and two red, and that the clubs look just like puppy paws.

What did I learn? I learned that: 1) I have no aptitude for bridge, probably because of my non-mathematical mind; 2) I’m too lazy to learn something new that’s difficult for me; 3) I have newfound respect for friends and family members who are proficient bridge players; and 4) I’d rather read a book.

Betsy Lerner is a braver woman than I. She becomes a regular attendee at her mother’s Monday afternoon bridge club for nearly three years, strengthening her connection with her mother, building friendships with the other octogenarian “Bridge Ladies” — and falling in love with the game of bridge. Lerner, a literary agent and poet, writes beautifully. Her story will resonate with mothers and daughters, bridge players or not. Lerner was kind enough to answer some of my questions about The Bridge Ladies:

I found your book fascinating for many reasons, one being that both my mother and mother-in-law are avid bridge players. Until recently, I didn’t know anyone of my generation who played. (I think you and I are about the same age.) So I took a series of lessons and failed miserably. I just don’t get it. What do you think makes someone a good bridge player?

I think most people need some motivation to learn. Usually friends or spouses play and they don’t want to miss out. Unlike most card games, you probably should take lessons and you need to play a lot. And you’re right, there aren’t a lot of people out there. But there are bridge clubs in almost every city. I’m terrible at math, logic and have memory issues, but I love the game. People who are “naturals’ have an abundance of these skills. The rest of us plod along.

At first, you were bewildered by what you perceived the bridge ladies’ lack of warmth. As you got to know them better, you understood the reasons for their reticence to share personal information. Your idea of friendship and theirs seemed very different. Do you think they are typical of their generation — and if so, why?

I’m not sure I can make generalizations about women of their generation. I only know what I saw with the Bridge Ladies. That said, their generation is called “The Silent Generation.” They didn’t have a culture of therapy, confession, Oprah, openness. Children were supposed to be seen and not heard, you were meant to suffer in silence and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Bridge really did become a “bridge” between you and your mother, helping you to empathize with her. If you hadn’t had bridge to bring you together, is there anything else that you think would have done the job as well?

My daughter. They love each other so much and my mom is enormously generous and supportive of my daughter. That melts me.

I think most women of our mothers’ generation learned to play bridge in college. Thinking back on my college experience — and those of my children — I can’t imagine bridge being part of it. I’m curious — in your exploration of the game, have you found that the game is starting to appeal to young people (college age and 20-somethings)? I’ve found it interesting that knitting seems newly popular among that age group.

My mom actually learned as a newlywed. She saw it as a way to enter social life. I now know quite a few people my age who learned in college or at home. There are even high school players and they’re good.

Many of my contemporaries are now taking up bridge. You were attracted to the game, I think, because it was a way to deepen your relationship with your mother. What kind of people are interested in learning bridge as midlife adults?

Mostly people who have always been curious about it for one reason or another and decided to take the plunge. Also, I think it attracts people with new found time on their hands: divorce, unemployment, widowhood, empty nest, all kinds of life transitions might be responsible for some people taking the plunge.

You mentioned on your blog that you recently participated in the National Bridge Championships in Reno. Wow! What led you to do that — and would you do it again?

I was really curious to see what it would be like and my mom quickly agreed to be my partner so we braved it. It was terrifying and fun in equal measures.

You also mentioned that you brought copies of the book to the Bridge Ladies, and as expected, the reaction was muted. Have you had any more feedback? What does your mother think?

The ladies gave me the greatest compliment by saying that I “got them.” Parts of the book are certainly painful for my mom, but she didn’t ask me to change a word. She has always been my biggest booster for the book.

One thing that occurred to me as I read your book was this: Women of our generation seem obsessed with staying young. Women of our mothers’ age seem comfortable with who they are and aren’t interested in youth culture, although they aren’t crazy about the aging process. (As you say, “Old age is nothing if not managing losses . . .) They don’t care about keeping up with pop culture or technology. I see the merits of both attitudes — why should I care who the latest 20-something pop singer is, for example? But I feel like older people could really enrich their lives by embracing the wonders of modern technology. What do you think?

I think it’s crucial to stay current with technology and the world unless you an artist or a hermit. You don’t need to know Justin Bieber songs, but once you let the world pass you by you lose some vitality, and then more. Some of my octogenarian friends use their computers, and iphones and stay up on things and stay involved, and they are my role models. Others are retreating.

What do you think is the audience for your book? I’m sure as an agent, you always envision who would be the buyers/readers of a particular book. Do you imagine women of the “Greatest Generation” reading it?

It’s mostly for mothers and daughters, especially boomer daughters. One friend called it “The Jew Luck Club.”

One of the many things I really appreciated about The Bridge Ladies was the structure. I like how each chapter has an appropriate title and is almost an essay unto itself. Did you start out writing the book this way, or did you begin with a more linear narrative?

THANK YOU. I restructured the book over and over. It was a huge challenge to manage the four strands of the story (the stories of the ladies, the Monday bridge games, my relationship with my mother, and learning how to play). I’ve always loved coming up with chapter titles — I think of them like poem titles and hope they signal the theme or spirit of the chapter.

I recommend listening to Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Bridge Ladies on NPR, and also visiting Betsy Lerner’s terrific blog.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

What to Read Next — May 2016

Long stormy spring-time, wet contentious April, winter chilling the lap of very May; but at length the season of summer does come.
Thomas Carlyle

The bad news is that April was a slow reading month for me. My major projects were caring for a new puppy and battling a bronchial infection. As I stood coughing under an umbrella, pelted by hailstones and waiting for said puppy to take care of business so I could put him to bed, I thought longingly of reading on my porch on a sunny May day. The good news is that that’s exactly where I am now — and that I did manage to read some terrific books in April, all by debut authors and all published today. Happy book birthday to Pamela Wechsler, Elizabeth J. Church, and Maria Toorpakai (and her co-author, Katherine Holstein)!

9781466887138Pamela Wechsler, an attorney who spent many years as a criminal prosecutor in Boston and later became a consultant and writer for several TV shows, met the actor Billy Bob Thornton while she was a legal advisor on his movie, The Judge. Thornton — who won an Academy Award for writing the Sling Blade script — encouraged Wechsler to write a novel. The result is the page-turner Mission Hill, first in a planned series about Abby Endicott, a blue-blooded Boston prosecutor whose family expects her to join a white-shoe law firm but opts for the gritty world of criminal law. Thornton’s blurb is better than any description I could come up with: “Pam Wechsler delivers a thrill ride, crackling with suspense, wit and style. The story is rich, the characters are complex, and the writing is deft. I can’t wait for the next one.” I’m with Billy Bob! Watch for an interview with Wechsler on Books on the Table — but I warn you, the interview I just read on a website called The Thrill Begins will be a tough act to follow. I love Shannon Kirk’s “Worst Questions for a Debut Author”. Now I have to think of some creative questions of my own!

Church_AtomicWeight_HC_FINAL_PRNT.inddElizabeth J. Church, author of The Atomic Weight of Love, is also an attorney. Church, who’s published scholarly articles in legal and scientific journals as well as short stories, left the law after practicing for 30 years. She grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the daughter of a research chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Church’s debut novel was inspired by the lives of her parents and their contemporaries. Meridian (Meri), a young biology student at the University of Chicago, marries her much older professor, Alden, and gives up her own dreams of becoming an ornithologist when her husband is sent to Los Alamos to help develop the atomic bomb. This lovely novel of love, sacrifice, and societal change spans 30 years in Meri and Alden’s flawed marriage. This would be a perfect book club selection — beautiful writing and plenty of issues to discuss. (Meri’s own experiences with women’s discussion groups are not very successful!)

f76c11fc5e15e2c9f36f5d66b81617c6Squash champion Maria Toorpakai, author of the stunning memoir A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight, risked her life to become a professional athlete.  For over two years, death threats forced her to practice squash in her cement-walled bedroom. Born in Waziristan, the Taliban-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Area of northwest Pakistan, Toorpakai lived as a boy until she was sixteen. Her loving and liberal family supports her dream of athletic success, eventually allowing her to flee Pakistan and train with Jonathon Power, the world champion squash player who now runs the Power Squash Academy in Toronto. The human rights abuses that the Toorpakai vividly describes are numerous and shocking — as a young girl, is beaten by a mullah for showing an interest and athletics, and she sees a woman stoned to death. Don’t miss this powerful and inspiring memoir. I can’t wait to see Power’s documentary about Toorpakai’s s The War to Be Her, scheduled for release in September. (Special thanks to Aidan Harrison, squash pro at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois and friend of Jonathon Power, who alerted me to Toorpakai’s amazing story.)

I just realized that I neglected to mention two fabulous March debuts that you should add to your reading list. The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, is a perfect book for your next vacation, or just a lazy Sunday afternoon. Four siblings — who are all in their forties but often behave like spoiled children — have put their lives on hold until they inherit their share of the family trust (“The Nest”). This clever, insightful, and often very funny novel had me turning the pages late into the night. If you liked Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements or Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, you’ll love The Nest. I’m adding it to my list of novels about WASPS behaving badly.

Our YA book group at Lake Forest Book Store loved The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Zentner is a successful singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Nashville who also works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp. His insight into young people — particularly those from isolated Southern towns — shines through in his first novel, about three friends  growing up in Forrestville, Tennessee (named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan). “The Serpent King” refers to the religious background of the main character,  Dill Early, whose father is a disgraced snake-handling preacher. Zentner writes sentences you’ll want to underline and fills his coming-of-age story with plenty of surprising twists.

I also need to mention one March release that probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that I read in two days. The North Water, by Ian McGuire, was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, so I can’t be the only person who willingly reads about violence aboard a 19th century whaling expedition — gruesome murders, polar bear attacks, animal slaughter, and violence galore. I haven’t been brave enough to watch The Revenant yet, but I couldn’t stop reading this book. The Times reviewer says:

The North Water, Ian McGuire’s savage new novel about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition, is a great white shark of a book — swift, terrifying, relentless and unstoppable. It is also as epically bloody as a Jacobean drama or a Cormac McCarthy novel . . . Mr. McGuire is such a natural storyteller — and recounts his tale here with such authority and verve — that The North Water swiftly immerses the reader in a fully imagined world.

What’s on your reading list for May? I’m overwhelmed with all the new releases — and looking forward to attending BEA (BookExpo America) in Chicago next week. Send me a message if you’ll be there and we can try to meet up!

 

 

Books for Dog Lovers

Two years ago, when my daughter and son-in-law brought home a mischievous, roly-poly yellow Labrador puppy named Stanley, I posted a list of 10 Dog Books That Won’t Make You Cry.  Now that my husband and I have a new puppy, Frosty, dogs are on my mind again. I’ve recently read several wonderful new books about dogs. Here’s the 2014 post, updated with a few more great books for dog lovers. 

Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.
John Grogan, Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog

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Stanley and Frosty

Marley and Me, like so many dog books, ends with the dog’s death. Even children’s books about dogs — Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Sounder — need to be read with a box of tissues nearby. And anyone who doesn’t get choked up at the end of The Art of Racing in the Rain must have a cold heart.

So here are some terrific books about dogs that probably won’t make you cry:

y648The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love by Melissa Fay Greene
Melissa Fay Greene ( author of Praying for Sheetrock and  There Is No Me Without You, among others) is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. The Underdogs tells the story of Karen Shirk, founder of the service dog academy 4 Paws for Ability. Karen trained her own service dog after she became profoundly disabled and was rejected by every service dog agency she approached. I was riveted by Karen’s story, and the stories of the amazing dogs she trains who are able to help people in ways that humans cannot.  (The publication date is 5/17/16.)

y6482Following Atticus: Forty-eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan
I bought this book at a little bookstore while on vacation in New Hampshire last summer, even though I had brought plenty of reading material with me. I ended up reading the entire book the next day, ignoring the other books vying for my attention. Tom Ryan is a Massachusetts newspaper editor who, despite being out of shape and inexperienced at climbing, decides to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot mountains twice in one winter, with his miniature schnauzer, Atticus.

y6481Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun
Until I read this book last year, I had never heard of Garden & Gun magazine — not surprising, since I’m not much of a gardener and I don’t own a gun. The magazine runs a monthly column called “Good Dog” — beautifully written essays by well-known authors about the kinship between humans and their canine companions. The best of these essays are collected in this book, which is a real treat for any dog lover. Contributors include Jon Meacham, Dominique Browning, and Roy Blount, Jr.

9781250014573Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park by Matthew Gilbert
Matthew Gilbert, TV critic for the Boston Globe, didn’t think he was a dog lover — and he knew he was an introvert. But after he brought home an exuberant, sociable puppy, he began spending time at his neighborhood dog park with a quirky cast of characters, human and canine. I enjoyed every page of this humorous and insightful “dog-oir”(a term coined by the Los Angeles Times.)

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Wroblewski’s debut novel (and to date, only novel) is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Edgar Sawtelle, who is mute, helps his family raise and train a fictional breed of very intelligent and intuitive dogs on their farm on Wisconsin. When a family tragedy occurs, Edgar embarks on an odyssey with three loyal dogs. Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy the many parallels to Hamlet. (My mother — and a few others — said this book did make them cry.)

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
I’ve never forgotten this quirky novel, which came out about 12 years ago. After his wife dies in a fall from a tree — witnessed only by the family dog, Lorelei — a linguistics professor attempts to teach his dog to talk so he can find out if her death was a suicide.

James Herriot’s Dog Stories: Warm and Wonderful Stories About the Animals Herriot Loves Best by James Herriot
There was no “YA” when I was a teenager. So I read all James Herriot’s books, starting with All Creatures Great and Small. (That’s when I wasn’t reading Flowers in the Attic , The Thorn Birds, or The Flame and the Flower — remember those?) His very best dog stories are all now compiled in one book.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
This lovely little book, according to the New York Times, “transcends its dogginess. It’s also about love, impermanence, and the tears in things . . . Her poems, with their charity and lyric clarity, can provide the kind of solace that dogs give”.

Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp
Knapp’s memoir explores both her relationship with her own rescue dog, who helped her through grief and recovery from addiction, and animal-human relationships in general.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
One evening, Thomas’s husband, Richard, took their dog, Harry, out for a walk — and Harry returned alone. Richard had been hit by a car and was permanently brain-damaged. Thomas reinvents her life and her marriage — with the help of Harry and two more dogs.

The Good Boy by Theresa Schwegel
The “good boy” of the title refers not only to 11-year-old Joel Murphy (son of Chicago K9 police officer Pete Murphy), but to Butchie, Pete’s police dog. The New York Times says, “For all the dog books currently in vogue, it’s hard to beat this one for canine verisimilitude or talent. Butchie is a fully credible character . . . The dog elevates a fairly conventional detective story into something much more lovable”.

Sweetwater Creek by Anne River Siddons
What a great combination — a “beach book” about dogs! It’s the coming-of-age story about a young girl whose family breeds Boykin spaniels on their plantation in South Carolina. After reading this novel, I thought (briefly) about adopting a Boykin, the state dog of South Carolina. (Does Illinois have a state dog?)

 

What to Read Next — April 2016

“Snow in April is abominable,” said Anne. “Like a slap in the face when you expected a kiss.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Ingleside

It was April in Minneapolis and snowing, the flakes coming down in thick swirls enchanting the city”
Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

As I write this post, snowflakes are swirling outside my window. Even though I’ve spent 34 springs in Chicago, I’m still surprised when April brings cold winds, sleet, hail, and snow instead of sunny days with warm breezes. I won’t be reading on my porch anytime soon; I’m glad we still have plenty of firewood because I anticipate quite a few more cozy evenings reading by the fire.

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Coming in paperback April 26

Right now, as usual, I’m reading two books, switching between them according to my mood. The first, Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, covers territory familiar to Tyler’s readers: the complicated relationships between the members of a middle-class Baltimore family. I love Anne Tyler’s writing, which I find comforting and wise at the same time. Critics seem to have a hard time classifying Tyler. Is she a (God forbid) women’s writer?  Is she really a literary author? One New York Times reviewer snidely dismissed her books as “middling” and “middlebrow”.  The Atlantic Monthly says: “In the eyes of many longtime readers, Tyler is especially gifted in her ability to deliver graceful, touching tales of the ordinary'” I agree — and evidently the Booker Prize judges did as well, since it was one of only two American novels shortlisted for last year’s award.

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Our new family member, Frosty

The second book I’m working my way through is one I can only recommend to new dog owners: The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete. If you’re as crazy as my husband and I are, and have decided to disrupt your life with a puppy, I suggest this book. It’s been many years since we brought home our last puppy, so a friend passed along her copy of The Art of Raising a Puppy. I’m finding it very helpful, and it’s fascinating reading . I guess when we had puppies before, we also had human children, leaving no time for reading about the monks’ thoughts on canine behavior!

I’ve just finished two recent releases that I can highly recommend:

9781101883075I stayed up way too late reading Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel. Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find this book both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis.  Three narrators — a Polish teenager, a German doctor, and an American humanitarian, all based on real women, lend their distinctive voices to this meticulously researched story of heartbreak and courage.

While touring  the actress and socialite Caroline Ferriday’s estate in Connecticut, Martha Hall Kelly noticed a black and white photo of a group of Polish women.  “They are the Lapins–the rabbits,” the guide said. “Caroline took up their cause after they were experimented upon by the Nazis at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.” Hall says:

I looked for a book about Caroline, but there wasn’t one. . .  Somehow bewitched by the house and Caroline’s story, I thought of nothing else on the ride home . . . I set out to learn everything I could about Caroline Ferriday and the story of how she rallied America around The Rabbits. How she dedicated her life to making sure these women were not forgotten.

I’m already thinking about my top 10 books of 2016 — after all, the year is 25% over — and Lilac Girls will definitely make the list. Even if you think you’ve overdosed on World War II literature, don’t miss this one.

the-books-that-changed-my-life-9781941393659_hrLike most book lovers, I adore books about books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Bethanne Patrick’s The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People. It’s a perfect book for your nightstand, because each of the essays is no more than three pages long. Each essay writer starts with a selection of a a life-altering book and a quotation from that book. They run the gamut from Gillian Flynn, who chose The Westing Game, to Rosanne Cash, who picked The Little House on the Prairie, to Tim Gunn, who selected Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Bethanne Patrick says:

One of the parts of the project that makes me happiest is that although no one interviewed was given a list from which to choose and although none of them were told others’ choices in advance, there is only one duplicate title on the list . . . There are children’s books, poetry collections, biographies, classic novels, modern favorites, and even a comic book included.

The Books That Changed My Life is pure pleasure. It will make you think about which book — or books, because it’s hard to narrow it down to one — have had the greatest impact on you. It will also provide you with a list of books to add to your to-be-read list, since some of the contributors’ choices will intrigue you. I think book club members would enjoy discussing this book and the books that have influenced their own lives.

What’s next for me? I’m looking forward to reading Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, Miller’s Valley, and Bill Beverly’s debut, Dodgers,  literary crime fiction about a Los Angeles gang member sent to kill a witness hiding in Wisconsin. I’ve been hearing great things about both of them.

Happy Spring!

Terrible Virtue — Book Review

Terrible Virtue coverMargaret Sanger — nurse, birth control pioneer, social activist, free love advocate — led a big life. Too big to be contained in the pages of Ellen Feldman’s slim, fast-paced biographical novel, Terrible Virtue. I read Terrible Virtue in one afternoon, and although the book held me captive, it left me wanting more. Feldman races through Sanger’s long and eventful life, starting with her childhood as one of eleven siblings in a poor Irish Catholic family in upstate New York.

Determined not to become like her mother, “a wife who never had a chance to recover from the last childbirth before taking to her bed for the next; a girl who sped from youth to old age with no stop between”, the young Margaret Higgins enters a nurses’ training program. She elopes with a young architect, Bill Sanger, who convinces her to have children, and for a time they lead a conventional family life. They become involved in the radical politics of the time, “gliding among men and women who believed that love was too precious ever to be denied.”  Margaret sheds her “bourgeois camouflage” while Bill remains “obsessed with fidelity”. Eventually, Margaret’s pursuit of legalized birth control sends her first to prison and then overseas, forcing her to abandon her family:

All my life, people have been asking me the same question . . . What made you do it, they ask. What made you sacrifice everything, husband, children, a normal life — whatever that’s supposed to be — for the cause?

My mother, hunched over a washtub full of husband-and-child soiled shirts and socks and underwear; mu mother, bent over a pot of soup stretched thin as water to feed thirteen greedy mouths; my mother, kneeling on a mud-streaked floor that no amount of elbow grease would ever get clean. My gaunt, God-whipped, digger-of-her-own-grave mother made me do it . . .

margaret_sanger_at_her_brownsville_clinic_trial_-_1917Feldman presents Margaret Sanger not as a saint or a sinner, but as a complex, flawed visionary, driven not only by her passion for social justice and her vision of a better world, but by her own egotism. The reader feels both sympathy for the personal tragedy she endures and anger at her treatment of her family. Feldman, who tells most of the story from Margaret’s perspective, successfully uses short, straightforward sentences and an urgent tone to capture her voice. When Feldman breaks up Margaret’s narrative to include asides from other characters, addressed to Margaret, she is less successful. These sections, which don’t sound as though they are based on actual correspondence, are intended to add depth to Margaret’s portrayal, but they ring false to me.

Terrible Virtue takes a panoramic view of Margaret Sanger’s life, often skimming the surface. For example, her contributions to the development of the birth control pill take up only a couple of pages. Also, I’ve read that Sanger has been criticized for her support of eugenics and I was curious to see how the novel would address that issue. However, only one page of the novel discusses eugenics, with Sanger defending herself by saying, “Isn’t hindsight wonderful? Doesn’t it make us wise? . . . Eugenics was in the air. Everyone was intoxicated by it. We were going to wipe out illness and eliminate defects by engineering reproduction.”  The reader wants details — who was “intoxicated” by eugenics? How were these innovators going to create a brave new world with no illness or “defects”? But, as happens so often in this book, Feldman moves on to another subject.

Often I find biographies and biographical novels bloated, full of minutiae that don’t add to my understanding of the book’s subject. This book is just the opposite, leaving me hungry for more details and more depth. Perhaps Terrible Virtue would have been a better novel if the author had focused on one aspect or time period of Sanger’s life. That said, it’s thought-provoking and absorbing book that’s very much worth reading.

 

Click here to listen to a fascinating interview with Ellen Feldman (“Planned Parenthood Founder Gets Novel Treatment”).

 

 

 

Favorite Irish Authors — Tellers of Tales

Here’s an updated version of my 2014 post celebrating Irish authors. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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William Butler Yeats

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart longs for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.

William Butler Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore

Forget the green beer, McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes, and buttons that say, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”. Let’s celebrate one of Ireland’s greatest contributions to the world: its authors. Yeats, of course (my favorite poet of all time), James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett . . . all giants of literature, studied by every English major. I have to admit that although I loved Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I struggled with Ulysses. I’m pretty sure I skulked into the college bookstore, looking for the CliffsNotes on the revolving wire rack tucked into the back corner.

thewindingstair001Several years ago, Jeff and I visited Dublin for a few days. It was a perfect trip for a history buff (Jeff) and a literature lover (me). We explored the Dublin Writers’ Museum, saw the Joyce statue on O’Connell Street, waited in line to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College, toured Kilmainham Gaol (Jeff’s idea, not mine), went to several plays, and stopped by more than our share of pubs. (We didn’t, however, retrace Leopold Bloom’s route through the city on the guided walk offered by the Joyce Cultural Centre. ) As someone who relied on the CliffsNotes to get through Ulysses, I didn’t feel entitled to take that tour!) We did have dinner at the Winding Stair on the River Liffey. Downstairs is one of the oldest independent bookshops in Dublin and upstairs is a restaurant serving “good, old-fashioned home cooking”.

Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.
William Butler Yeats

inthewoods001I always like to read something about the place I’m visiting, so on the flight to Dublin I read In the Woods by Tana French. It’s a murder mystery/psychological thriller, featuring two detectives from the Dublin Murder Squad trying to solve two murders that have taken place 20 years apart. I’m not usually much of a mystery reader, but this one captivated me because of the gorgeous writing and the evocation of modern Ireland, in addition to the complex puzzle of two parallel crimes. One of those crimes is never solved; this is not a formulaic mystery. In an interview, Tana French describes her favorite mystery novels:

. . . the ones that experiment with the boundaries of the genre: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which is both my favorite literary novel and my favorite crime novel), where you find out on the first page who killed whom; Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair, a deeply unsettling study of a psychopath, where the villain is obvious almost from the start and the most serious crime is basically wasting police time; Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, where the guilty go free and the innocent pay for others’ crimes.

French has written four other Dublin Murder Squad novels, all excellent: The Likeness, Faithful Place,  Broken Harbor, and The Secret Place. Each touches on Irish themes, from the “Celtic Tiger” and the recession that followed to the country’s folklore and medieval history. They are, according to the New York Times, “brilliant and satisfying novels about memory, identity, loss, and what defines us as humans.” If you’re lucky enough to take a trip to Dublin, I highly recommend taking a Tana French novel or two along.

51bvmrzkf1l-_sy344_bo1204203200_If I had to choose a favorite Irish author, it would be a tie between Colm Toíbín and Sebastian Barry. When you read one of Barry’s novels, you know you are reading the work of a poet. (Barry is in fact the author of two collections of poetry and numerous plays, in addition to eight novels.) The New York Times says, “Mr. Barry has said that his novels and plays often begin as poems . . . but his language never clots the flow of his story; it never gives off a whiff of labor and strain. It is like a song, with all the pulse of the Irish language, a song sung liltingly and plaintively from the top of Ben Bulben into the airy night.” You can choose at random almost any passage from any one of his novels and be struck by the beauty of the language, but here’s one of my favorites, from A Long Long Way:

Such a singing voice he had. His mother, who was a blunt woman enough, one of the Cullens herself, daughter of the coppicer on the Humewood estate in Wicklow, got only good from it. She set him on a chair to sing like any woman might, and he threw his small head back and sang some song of the Wicklow districts, as might be, and she saw in her mind a hundred things, of childhood, rivers, woods, and felt herself in those minutes to be a girl again, living, breathing, complete. And wondered in her private mind at the power of mere words, the mere things you rolled round in your mouth, the power of them strung together on the penny string of a song, how they seemed to call up a hundred vanished scenes, gone faces, lost instances of human love.

Willie Dunne, the protagonist of A Long Long Way, who has such a beautiful singing voice as a child, ends up going to France when World War I breaks out in 1914, and fighting against his own people in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The Dunne family appears again and again in Barry’s novels. Willie is the brother of Annie Dunne, who is the title character of an earlier novel, and of Lily Bere, who is the main character in On Canaan’s Side. Similarly, The Trial of Eneas McNulty, The Secret Scripture, and the The Temporary Gentleman all focus on members of the McNulty family. Read as a whole, Barry’s novels cover the Irish experience of the entire 20th century. In interview with the Guardian, Barry says, “I am trying to rescue my characters from the cold hand of history, and from the silences that surround certain turbulent periods in our own history.”

The Irish tradition of oral storytelling continues to influence today’s Irish writers. The Guardian says, “Language remains, for Barry, something heard or spoken rather than black marks on a page, and he vividly remembers being read to as a child.”

“Storytelling pre-dates homo sapiens and the technique of writing,” Barry says. “I can’t actually do anything until I can hear it singing. I’m praised – or maybe blamed – for poetic writing, but it’s really just how I take it down. It’s not a conscious effort, it’s the language of how I hear and see those things.” In Angela’s Ashes, his wonderful memoir of growing up poor in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s, Frank McCourt describes discovering Shakespeare while quarantined in the hospital with typhoid fever: “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words. If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year.”

9781743540107Colm Toíbín, like Sebastian Barry, is a versatile wordsmith — he’s written novels, short stories, essays, plays, poems, criticism, and nonfiction. I haven’t read all his books, but I loved The Master, The Testament of Mary, and Brooklyn. Although Toíbín’s work has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize several times and has received plenty of critical acclaim, he hit the jackpot recently when his 2009 novel, Brooklyn, was made into a successful movie that received three Academy Award nominations — Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  ToíbÍn’s deceptively simple story of a young Irish immigrant, Eilis, who comes to the United States in the 1950s is a powerful meditation on love and belonging. Horribly homesick at first, Eilis falls in love and begins to make a life for herself in New York.  A tragedy calls her home to Ireland and she is torn between her two lives. Toíbín’s description of Eilis’s loneliness as a new immigrant will resonate with anyone who has ever felt friendless and alone:

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything… . Nothing here was part of her. It was false and empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday.

The spotlight also shone recently on Irish-born author Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 novel Room as well as many other novels, short story collections, plays, screenplays, and works of literary criticism. The film version was nominated for four Academy Awards this year –Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Brie Larson, who won for Best Actress, was gracious enough to thank Emma Donoghue in her acceptance speech. (Donoghue also wrote the screenplay.) Have you ever noticed how rarely actors remember to acknowledge writers — the people whose creativity started the whole project?

Here’s to all the Irish storytellers and their gift of gab!