What to Read Next — July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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The Summer Guest — Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was that not the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it and, above all, felt it? Was there a finer way to honor friendship, and love, and being in the world?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Read a Little Poetry

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

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

eb_white_and_his_dog_minnie
E.B. White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

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

IMG_1947
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?)