A Piece of the World — Book Review

a-piece-of-the-world-coverThis is a girl who has lived through broken dreams and promises. Still  lives. Will always live on that hillside, at the center of a world that unfolds all the way to the edges of the canvas.
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World

Born just before the dawn of the twentieth century, middle-aged Christina Olson has spent her life on a remote and primitive farm on the coast of Maine. Time stands still for Christina, who suffers from a mysterious degenerative disease, and her bachelor brother, Al. They live as their ancestors did, hauling water from a nearby spring, making soap, chopping firewood, growing vegetables, and tending animals.

Christina’s father forces her to leave school after eighth grade, despite her quick and curious mind. “The wider world is no place for her,” he declares.  When Christina takes refuge in a book of poems by Emily Dickinson, her mother “dumps a basket of air-dried sheets” in her lap, admonishing that there’s “no time for lollygagging.” Throughout the novel, the reclusive poet’s puzzling lines resonate with the lonely Christina.

One summer afternoon, a young painter named Andrew Wyeth asks her for a glass of water. Summer after summer he returns, setting up his studio in an empty room in the farmhouse. “Andy” is fascinated with Christina and Al’s circumscribed life, asking questions not only about their habits and routines, but about the reasons they live as they do: “. . . Over time his inquiries became more personal. Why do Al and I live here alone, with all these empty rooms? What was it like when it was full of people, before most of the fields went to flower? . . . Did you or Al ever want to live somewhere, anywhere, else?”

6198741820_ebb42d5f9c_bOver the years, the artist and his subject develop a close and trusting relationship. Christina, a bitter woman whose life has brought her many disappointments, is difficult for most people to like. She rejects the kind, if awkward, attempts of neighbors to befriend and help her. But she and Andy are kindred spirits, in a way:

Later I reflect on the things we have in common and the things we don’t. Our stubbornness and our infirmities. Our circumscribed childhoods. His father kept him out of school; we’re alike that way. But N.C. trained him to be a painter and Papa trained me to take care of the house, and there’s a world of difference in that.

one_more_step_mr-_handsWhen Christina first meets Andrew Wyeth, he’s introduced as N.C. Wyeth’s son: “‘You know N.C. Wyeth. The famous illustrator? Treasure Island?'” Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel stands in contrast to the story of Christina’s life, in which a trip to Boston is an exciting experience. Al, who longed to make a living on the sea and whose forebears traveled the world on sailing ships, read Treasure Island a dozen times — “Might be the only book I ever actually finished, now that I think about it,” he says.

“Treasure” is a motif that recurs throughout A Piece of the World. As children, Christina and Al are fascinated with the legend of nearby Mystery Tunnel, where pirates hid their treasure. Christina’s summertime boyfriend, Walton, refers to her as a treasure. Christina’s nephew, John, visits “Treasure Island” in the Pacific on his way home from naval duty in World War II. The real treasure in the novel is Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World”, which shows “what no one else can see”.  Art — Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels, Emily Dickinson’s poetry — is valuable beyond measure. It brings us the world, and it endures.

Christina Baker Kline’s lovely novel is not a page-turner, but I didn’t want to put it down. The narrative drive comes not from plot but from the portrait Kline paints of Christina Olson and her friendship with Andrew Wyeth. Kline’s decision to tell the story entirely from Christina’s point of view gives the novel a sense of intimacy and helps the reader connect with a character who may inspire sympathy but not affection. Kline says she that Wyeth “managed to get at the core of Christina’s self”. The novel imagines the details and background that make up that essence, giving a face to a woman whose face we’ve never seen.

Seen at the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Books to Read in Honor of Lincoln’s Birthday

a26tlincolnAll I have learned, I learned from books.
Abraham Lincoln

There will never be anything more interesting than that American Civil War.
Gertrude Stein

My husband is a Civil War buff. In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, I just went through Jeff’s extensive collection of Civil War books, in search of a few that I’d also read and could recommend. This is what I learned:

  • He owns about 75 books on the Civil War, and most of them would be of interest only to other diehard Civil War/Lincoln enthusiasts. For example: A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant’s Overlooked Genius; Terrible Swift Sword: The Life of General Philip H. Sheridan; and River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War. I will not be reading these books.
  • All serious Civil War history books have explanatory subtitles.
  • These books are scattered throughout our house, not stored neatly together in a Civil War section. Our house is not a library.
  • Wherever they are found, they are dusty. So are all the books surrounding them, and in fact, all of our bookshelves. I regret to say that I found not only dust but petrified bugs behind some of the books on the highest shelves.
  • We should spend a few hours on a ladder and remove all the books from the shelves, dusting each book and cleaning the shelves. It’s unlikely that we will ever do that, unless some even more onerous task arises that makes bookshelf cleaning appear to be a better alternative.

I don’t want anyone to think that Jeff is some kind of Civil War nut — although he did name all his childhood cats (both male and female) after Civil War generals. He doesn’t dress in a Union Army uniform and participate in battle re-enactments — although we attended one of those many years ago, at the Lake County Forest Preserve in Wauconda, Illinois. I think it was an attempt to entertain our children on a Sunday afternoon. As I recall, one of our sons was fascinated with the surgical tools used in Civil War field hospitals. On family road trips, he’s forced us to stop at various battlefields (Chickamauga . . . Antietam . . . Bull Run), but we’ve never gone on a trip dedicated to touring Civil War sites. He’s never visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

And until recently, he had never been to the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. That’s right — there is an independent book store dedicated to Abraham Lincoln books and memorabilia. The shop, which was founded in 1938, “specializes in books, autographs, photos, artwork and memorabilia of U.S. political and military history, particularly Lincoln, the Civil War and the U.S. presidency.” Owner Daniel Weinberg told the Chicago Tribune that his favorite Lincoln biography is  A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White. (For the complete interview, click here.)

According to Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre, more than 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln, “more than have been written about any person in world history, with the exception of Jesus Christ.” In 2011, Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership unveiled a 34-foot (three-story) tower of books about Abraham Lincoln, “symbolizing that the last word about this great man will never be written”.

cvr9780684824901_9780684824901_lgIn 2012, when Daniel Day-Lewis astonished us with his performance in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, readers rediscovered Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (the book on which the movie was partially based.) Unlike my husband, I don’t usually take my history straight up — I prefer a little fiction mixed in — but I thoroughly enjoyed Team of Rivals.

If you’re in a Civil War mood, here are my favorite recommendations — both fiction and nonfiction.

img_1136The Second Mrs. Hockaday (Epistolary novel about a young wife accused of infanticide while her Confederate Army officer husband leaves her to run the family farm) by Susan Rivers

Slaves in the Family (The author explores his family’s slave-owning past) by Edward Ball

The March (Novel about Sherman’s March) by E.L. Doctorow — not to be confused with

March (Fiction about the wartime experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Little Women) by Geraldine Brooks — who is married to the author of

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Ex-war correspondent Horwitz joins a band of Civil War reenactors — fascinating and hilarious) by Tony Horwitz

The Widow of the South (Novel based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, whose home became a field hospital) by Robert Hicks

I Shall Be Near to You (In this beautiful story of love and war, a headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle) by Erin Lindsay McCabe

18679391Liar Temptress Soldier Spy (Nonfiction that reads like fiction; a rollicking chronicle of the exploits of four female spies –two Union, two Confederate –during the Civil War) by Karen Abbott

My Name is Mary Sutter (Fiction about a midwife who passes herself off as a man to serve as a surgeon in a military hospital) by Robin Oliveira

Cold Mountain (National Book Award winner in 1997; a Confederate deserter walks through the war-torn South to reunite with his beloved) by Charles Frazier

And for children: Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, which started it all for Jeff.

97808129953431I haven’t read either The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (winner of the 2016 National Book Award for fiction) or Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, although both are universally acclaimed. For a glowing review of Lincoln in the Bardo, check out today’s New York Times Book Review.) One of my coworkers, whose opinions I always trust and whose taste I almost always share, loved Lincoln in the Bardo, and says it “will haunt me for some time (pun entirely intended) . . . It is not a straight forward narrative. It is a complex (yet, very entertaining) discussion of the manner in which we live and how that life will affect the manner in which we die and our afterlife.” (By the way, “bardo” is the Tibetan term for purgatory.) I’m sure both of these books are superb and well worth reading, but I have a problem with abe_3books that mix reality and fantasy. Usually, the minute a ghost appears in a novel I lose interest. Or, for that matter, when the “underground railroad” turns into an actual train. Does anyone else have that problem, or am I just lacking in imagination?

Happy birthday, Abe!

 

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day from Books on the Table!

valentines_day_m26ms_in_the_shape_of_a_heart_8418026760All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.
Charles M. Schulz

I think . . . if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there as many kinds of love as there are hearts.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I’ve never had strong feelings about Valentine’s Day. I always thought it was a nice little holiday, reminding people to take a little time to celebrate the loving relationships in their lives. Who doesn’t enjoy candy, heart-shaped cookies, flowers, special dinners, and cards (sweet, mushy, or funny . . . carefully chosen, or homemade)?

Apparently many people find Valentine’s Day offensive, and possibly even painful. Cara Paiuk wrote a long letter (reprinted in the Washington Post) detailing her many objections to school-mandated Valentine’s Day activities:

To my husband and I, Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday: a fabricated, hyper-commercialized event designed for retailers to peddle their wares and restaurants to fill seats. I also feel that it pressures couples to conform to a saccharine social norm while deprecating singledom, and I’ve seen people both in and out of relationships struggle with living up to the romantic expectations conjured by this collective cultural fantasy . . .Valentine’s Day is a cute and fun celebration of love to some, but it is a searing reminder of rejection, loneliness, and unrequited affection for many others.

If Paiuk had done a little research, she’d have learned that Valentine’s Day is far from a “Hallmark holiday”. The modern holiday is rooted in both ancient Roman traditions and early Christian history, and has been celebrated as St. Valentine’s Day since the 5th century A.D. Americans have been exchanging handmade valentines since the 18th century, and the first commercial valentines became available in the mid-19th century when Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts founded the New England Valentine Company.

livre-histoire-damour-coeurPaiuk has come up with an alternative to making valentines out of construction paper, glitter, and lace doilies — she and her family will be making “gratitude bookmarks”. Bookmarks can’t possibly offend anyone, although I have to admit I’m one of those terrible people who usually ends up dog-earing the pages of my books.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to stop criticizing Cara Paiuk’s campaign for “change, one heart at a time”, and start talking about books. My original intention was to update the list of great love stories I posted three years ago, but I realized I didn’t have many love stories to add. Here are a few of my favorites from 2016 — I haven’t read anything in 2017 that could be described as a love story, although I am devouring The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry, a YA novel about friendship and religious belief that takes place in 13th century Provence.

9781101971727Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Downton Abbey fans will love this book, which NPR says “is one of those deceptively spare tales (like The Sense of an Ending) that punch well above their weight.” Jane Fairchild, now a successful author in her nineties, was a housemaid to an upper-class British family after World War I — and was involved in an affair with one of the family’s wealthy neighbors. How can you resist a novel that opens with this sentence: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid . . .”?

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
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.

When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins
Lauren Collins decides to learn French to deepen her relationship with her French husband and his family. Along the way, she gains insight into herself, her marriage, linguistics, and cultural differences. This is a charming memoir, but more than that, it’s an examination of how language defines who we are.

if-i-forget-youIf 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.

An amazing number of books have the word “heart” in the title. According to Edelweiss (a website for booksellers and librarians that aggregates publishers’ catalogs), more than 3,000 books with the word “heart” in the title were published last year. These included such gems as Cold-Hearted Rake, Depraved Heart, and Montana Hearts: Her Weekend Wrangler, as well as dozens of books about heart-healthy diets and lifestyles and countless books about journeys into the “heart” of nearly any locale you could imagine. Edelweiss doesn’t include the gazillion self-published books now available, such as A Thug Stole My Heart and Cupid Has a Heart-On.

16130440I recently enjoyed Jennifer Weiner’s collection of personal essays, Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. Weiner has a big chip on her shoulder, so she would hate to hear me say that I don’t love her novels because they are “chick lit”. However, I really liked her book of essays, and found myself underlining passages and turning down pages.

Looking at my own bookshelves, I saw many favorites, old and new, that you might not think of as Valentine’s Day books, but that have earned a special place in my heart:

9780062364845_p0_v2_s192x300Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
A precocious 10-year-old orphan is evacuated from London during the Blitz — and is placed with a couple of marginally successful con artists. Darkly humorous yet touching, this book is Roald Dahl for grownups. An American edition of one of the author’s earlier books, Their Finest (about wartime propaganda) comes out on February 14, probably because the movie version releases in April.

Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott
I love everything Anne Lamott has ever written. Most people are more familiar with her nonfiction, but she’s written several terrific novels. Crooked Little Heart is a coming-of-age story about a young girl playing on the junior tennis circuit.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I’ve reread Heartburn several times, and it’s as funny and poignant today as it was when I first read it back in 1983. Nora Ephron exacted sweet revenge on her ex-husband, journalist Carl Bernstein, with this roman á clef about a pregnant cookbook writer and her philandering husband.

37380The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Another book I’ve read multiple times, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a Southern Gothic masterpiece. Published in 1940 when Carson McCullers was only 23, the novel hasn’t exactly been forgotten (it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2004), it’s been eclipsed by a similar book — To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000, Philbrick’s account of the survivors of the Essex shipwreck in 1820 is absolutely enthralling. I guess I like books about maritime disasters (and cannibalism) more than I like love stories.

Heart and Soul in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin
I like to cook, but I love reading cookbooks. This one is particularly fun to read, packed with anecdotes, essays, and cooking tips. The recipes are geared towards home cooks, not professional chefs, and there are great illustrations. Another favorite cookbook is John Besh’s Cooking From the Heart and Susan Branch’s The Heart of the Home (which is unfortunately out of print but available used.)

9780312427825Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth D. Samet
Elizabeth Samet has been an English professor at West Point since 1997, responsible for directing the introductory literature class for 1,100 freshmen (or “plebes”). Part memoir, part meditation on literature and its place in both civilian and military society, the book is a fascinating glimpse at West Point life and a powerful argument for literature as a way to understand the world.

775089650_a604d8de8b_bOld Heart by Peter Ferry
When Peter Ferry taught high school English in Lake Forest, Illinois, one of his students was Dave Eggers. Eggers has high praise for his former teacher’s second novel:

Old Heart manages to weave together an astonishing array of themes and layers – the perils and freedoms of old age, the complexity of family ties, the liberation of travel, and finally, Ferry presents and proves the bold and needed idea that it’s never too late to re-open the past to recast the present.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the bottom of my heart!

8 Short Novels Your Book Club Will Actually Finish

Very few very long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil.
Ian McEwan

I’ve never met a reader who doesn’t like short novels . . .What a short novel asks is that you commit, in one sitting, the same amount of time to reading as you frequently commit to a film or a football match. Make that commitment and, in many cases, the payoff outweighs the investment.
Cynan Jones

img_2656-2

Three books, 2,208 pages

Let’s face it: Most books are too long. If I’m going to read a book that’s 400 pages or more, it had better be spectacular. It seems to me that books, like people, have been getting heavier over the past 20 years — and recent studies confirm my suspicion. The Guardian says:

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

Even children’s books are getting longer; one study states that the average length of a middle-grade book published in 1996 was 137 pages, while in 2016 the average length was 290 pages.

img_2658

11 books, 1,825 pages

Peirene Press, a boutique publishing company based in London, specializes in short books. They “only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.”  What if book clubs, especially those whose members aren’t showing up or aren’t finishing (or even starting) the assigned reading, took a leaf out of Peirene’s book, so to speak, and only chose books that are 200 pages or shorter? Length does not necessarily correspond with complexity or quality. The Great Gatsby, the quintessential Great American Novel and required reading for almost every high school student, is only 180 pages long.

Book clubs are often too ambitious with their selections, choosing books that they think they should read, not books they really want to read, AND picking books that are very long.  One book club with which I’m intimately acquainted chose Barkskins by Annie Proulx (736 pages), with less than stellar results: no one finished the book. They still managed to have a great discussion, and everyone agreed the book was worth finishing. This group, all great readers, had much better luck with News of the World (224 pages), Homegoing (320 pages), and The Book of Unknown Americans (304 pages), which everyone in the group read and loved. (However, another favorite was A Little Life, 720 pages long.)

The average reading speed is about 300 words per minute. A trade paperback has roughly 300 words per page, depending on variables such as font size and amount of dialogue. So a 200-page book takes the average reader a little over three hours to read. I think anyone who’s committed to a book group can devote three hours to the monthly selection, unless it’s truly dreadful. Here are thumbnail reviews of ten books, both old and new, that you can polish off on a Saturday afternoon. The New York Times describes The Sense of an Ending as “a short book, but not a slight one”, which actually characterizes all these books.

9780307947727The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (163 pages)
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, this novel is much more accessible and plot-driven than the typical Booker Prize novel. Tony Webster, a retired historian in his sixties, receives an unusual bequest that causes him to reflect on his past. This was a favorite of my coed book group.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (184 pages)
Based on the author’s experience with “re-education” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, this is the tale of two city boys sent to the countryside for manual labor. They discover a hidden suitcase full of Western literature and begin their own program of re-education, introducing the village seamstress to Balzac, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and other forbidden writers.

9781101971727Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (177 pages)
Downton Abbey fans will love this book, which NPR says “is one of those deceptively spare tales (like The Sense of an Ending) that punch well above their weight.” Jane Fairchild, now a successful author in her nineties, was a housemaid to an upper-class British family after World War I — and was involved in an affair with one of the family’s wealthy neighbors. How can you resist a novel that opens with this sentence: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid . . .”?

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (159 pages)
When a Parisian bookseller comes upon a lost handbag containing a red notebook and no identification, he tries to track down the owner. This lovely little book about the power of kindness is just right for readers who find many contemporary novels “depressing”, and it has more depth than you might first imagine. (Two of Laurain’s other books are available in English translation as well — The President’s Hat and French Rhapsody. They’re both delightful, and barely above the 200-page cutoff.)

5497435-_uy200_Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (146 pages)
Manny DeLeon, manager of a failing Red Lobster, has just learned that his restaurant is closing and he’s been demoted to assistant manager at a nearby Olive Garden. Despite a blizzard that keeps customers and employees away on the restaurant’s final night, Manny won’t close early. It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but O’Nan (one of my favorite authors) has written an emotionally resonant reflection on the American Dream.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (192 pages)
Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length.

another-brooklyn-393x600Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (170 pages)
A runner-up for last year’s National Book Award, Another Brooklyn is a poetic coming-of-age story set in 1970s Brooklyn. I was tempted to race through, but forced myself to slow down and savor the spare and beautiful language.

The Common Reader by Alan Bennett (120 pages)
Queen Elizabeth II stumbles upon a bookmobile parked by Buckingham Palace and discovers a love of reading, with amusing and unexpected consequences. It’s a perfect book for any bookworm — I l love that the Queen keeps a reading journal.

Which do you prefer — a big fat book you can get lost in for days or weeks, or a short novel you can read in a couple of hours?

What to Read Next — Winter 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secrets From the Eating Lab — Book Review

secrets-from-the-eating-lab-cover-1I urge you to get to your leanest livable weight and then, whatever it is, decide that it’s okay. Because your weight is not the point. You were not put on this earth to mold yourself into a perfect physical specimen.
Traci Mann, Secrets From the Eating Lab

I’ve never reviewed a diet book before. In fact, I’ve always thought that diet books were a waste of time and money. If you want to lose weight, there’s no quick fix. Eat less and exercise more. Honestly, on the cold and gray January day I picked up Traci Mann’s Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, The Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, I didn’t expect to be entertained or to learn much. I thought I’d skim the book so I could convince myself that a diet was a really bad idea.

Traci Mann, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Minnesota, where she founded the Health and Eating Lab.  Her area of expertise is the psychology of eating, dieting, and self-control. She has compiled research from dozens of psychological and medical studies to argue two major points: first, that weight is largely controlled by genetics, and second, that obesity is “not a death sentence”.

Secrets From the Eating Lab is not the only book to claim that diets don’t work for long-term weight loss, but according to psychotherapist Jean Fain, author of another “no diet” diet book, The Self-Compassion Diet, it’s the “most persuasive and entertaining”.  To whet your appetite, so to speak, here are a few examples of Mann’s wit and wisdom:

On willpower and self-control:

Sometimes it may look like people are doing an impressive job of resisting something when really they simply aren’t tempted by it. Maybe your friends who are so good at resisting cookies are just not that into cookies. People like that, are, after all, alleged to exist.

On dieting and shame:

There is no cause for guilt or shame about things you eat. Eating is not a moral act. Perhaps there are certain circumstances in which eating can be immoral, such as the occasional act of cannibalism, taking candy from a baby, or finishing your husband’s carton of salted caramel ice cream before he gets home from work.

On how people’s eating is influenced by their culture and other people:

Sometimes our family members have an unspoken influence on our eating. When I am sneaking thin slice after thin slice of Rice Krispie treats from a pan on my counter, I eat a precisely calibrated amount. I eat until right before so much is gone that the people in my household will kill me if I eat any more.

On the increase in portion sizes:

My favorite piece of evidence about the increase in portion sizes comes from a study comparing the size of the foods in different paintings of the Last Supper from over the centuries. To control for the different-sized paintings, the researchers did their comparisons by calculating a food-to-head ratio. Presumably heads have not gotten larger in that time. Over the years, however, the bread, entrees, and plates all did.

Yes, this is an entertaining diet book. Mann’s tone is chatty and humorous, making Secrets From the Eating Lab as fun to read as any novel you’d take to the beach. I particularly enjoyed reading about the studies conducted in Mann’s eating lab. Deception, Mann says, is necessary in eating research because if people know their eating habits are being studied, they will change their behavior. “We have to be a little sneaky,” Mann says.

As fascinating as I found Mann’s descriptions of research on eating, dieting, and willpower, I wasn’t entirely convinced by her arguments. I found myself wondering what studies weren’t included in the book. It’s hard to believe that people are genetically programmed to be obese, or that it’s truly healthy to be obese. Mann cites studies that claim that weight distribution (belly fat) is more unhealthy than extra weight. “It is the apple pattern that is problematic, not the pear pattern,” she says, adding that she knows “only one apple-shaped woman.” Really ??? Also, I wish she had addressed the issue of the increase in childhood obesity.

You won’t find any “secrets” in this book, but you will find some great commonsense tips for healthy eating. One of my favorites is to “get alone with a vegetable”. Don’t eat anything until you have eaten some vegetables, Mann says, because “there is only one contest that a healthy food has a fighting chance at winning: a contest between a healthy food and no food at all.”

Please excuse me while I go feast on some cucumber slices . . . there aren’t any Rice Krispie treats or salted caramel ice cream in my house!