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!

Books for Living

Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.
Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

9780385353540“Attention Book-Lovers: Take the 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge”; “Around the Year in 52 Books”; “11 Tips to Read More in 2017, Because 2017 Is the Year You Conquer Your TBR
List” . . .

Along with dieting, exercising, and generally becoming better people, we’re also supposed to revamp our reading lives this year. It’s not enough to read what we enjoy — we’re supposed to “read harder”, which apparently means reading a “superhero comic with a female lead” and an “LGBTQ+ romance novel”. We’re advised to schedule reading time, the same way we’re supposed to squeeze in workouts.

I appreciate the message behind the articles offering advice for readers. Making time for reading is important, and so is reading outside our comfort zones. Many of them have great ideas; the Miami Herald recently published a terrific story, 9 Ways to Read More Books in 2017, which suggests, among other things, putting down your phone, reading audiobooks, and abandoning books you don’t enjoy:

If a book doesn’t grab you, give up. I have been told my 25-page rule is too hasty, so let’s make it 50 pages. If a book hasn’t grabbed you 50 pages in, move along and feel no guilt. It’s the author’s responsibility to reel you in, not yours to finish something you don’t like. I’m still bitter about the time I wasted on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch only to abandon it 200 pages in.

17370-men-and-women-performing-aerobic-exercises-pvHowever, I don’t see how reading a book “with a red spine” or one with “a cat on the cover” will enrich my reading life, and I have mixed feelings about what some of these articles seem to imply. They unfortunately convey the impression that reading is just another activity for self-improvement, akin to running on the treadmill. Put in your hour a day with a book by an author “with a different ethnicity than you” and you will be a better reader and a better person. I never liked the reading logs my children were required to keep in grade school. The well-intentioned logs implied that reading was a dreary task that had to be documented, conflicting with my view that reading was a pleasurable activity very different from memorizing multiplication tables. Flashlight under the covers, anyone?

Some of the “reading challenges” online do include inspiring suggestions for readers looking to expand their reading horizons. I particularly like the list posted on The Modern Mrs. Darcy, Reading for Fun: Put the Oomph Back in Your Reading Life. This challenge includes my favorite kind of book —  a “book about books or reading”.

Enter Will Schwalbe, who has written an entire book, Books for Living, about how books of all kinds can  help us “engage with the world, become better people, and understand life’s questions, big and small”. Some of the books that have changed his life, he says, “are undoubtedly among the great works of our time. Others almost certainly are not.” No book is a waste of time according to Schwalbe: “There is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest . . even “just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.”

9780804172707Books for Living contains 26 chapters, each focusing on a particular book that resonated with Schwalbe at a particular time in his life — and that continues to resonate with him. He discusses what led him to each book , the people in his life he associates with the book, and why it is important to him. The books range from children’s books (Stuart Little, Wonder) to classics (The Odyssey, David Copperfield) to contemporary fiction (A Little Life, The Girl on the Train).

How did he choose to read these books? Through trial and error, mostly:

I’m not a particularly disciplined or systematic seeker. I don’t give a great deal of thought to the books I choose—I’ll read anything that catches my eye. Most of the time, when I choose what I’m going to read, it has absolutely nothing to do with improving myself. Especially when I’m at my happiest, I’m unlikely to search for a book to make me happier. But it’s often during these periods of non-seeking that I’ve stumbled across a book that has changed my life.

I can’t imagine a better way to start your reading year than by picking up a copy of Books for Living. When I started the book, I began underlining. And underlining, and underlining — until I realized that I needed to stop, because I was underlining almost everything. (The first passage I underlined was in the first page of the introduction, when Schwalbe describes a terrifying recurring dream, in which he’s in an airport, about to miss his flight, when he realizes has nothing to read on the plane.)

Best wishes for a happy year of reading!

Schwalbe published an essay in the Wall Street Journal, The Need To Read, which is a wonderful distillation of Books for Living

My New Year’s Resolution

Maybe our favorite quotations say more about us than about the stories and people we’re quoting.
John Green

You may want to keep a commonplace book which is a notebook where you can copy parts of books you think are in code, or take notes on a series of events you may have observed that are suspicious, unfortunate, or very dull. Keep your commonplace book in a safe place, such as underneath your bed, or at a nearby dairy.
Lemony Snicket

81mlx7kp13l-_sx355_

One of the literary quote mugs my son gave me for Christmas

At the end of the year, how do I know which books were my favorites? All I have to do is go through my books to see which ones have the most dog-eared pages.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce, once reprimanded me for turning down the page of my book. She informed me that this was called “dog-earing” and it was very, very bad, on a par with wasting food at lunchtime and talking in the halls — two other crimes I had committed. Now I’m almost as old as Mrs. Pierce was then, and I can dog-ear my books anytime I want. If you borrow a book from me and there are lots of pages turned down, you know that this is a really good book filled with passages worth rereading and remembering.

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to transcribe my favorite quotes and passages into a notebook. I already do this with poems, and have found that the act of copying lines of poetry by hand helps me understand and remember them.  I have a brand new “commonplace book” ready to fill, along with a box of my favorite Bic fine point roller pens. (I also plan to lose ten pounds . . . )

commonplace_book_mid_17th_century

17th century commonplace book

In high school, one of my favorite English teachers, Mr. Regan, told us that “quote” is a verb and “quotation” is a noun. Mr. Regan, the co-author of our textbook, the English Competence Handbook, devoted an entire chapter to the proper use of “Quotations”. To the chagrin of English teachers everywhere, the word “quote” has become commonly used as a noun. Even the people in charge of websites devoted to cataloging quotes seem confused. One website calls itself The Quote Garden (tagline: “I dig old books”) but lists quotations in hundreds of categories, from “curmudgeonesque” to “ladybugs”.

Ever since I left Mrs. Pierce’s classroom, I’ve dog-eared quite a few pages. Here are some of my favorite quotes (sorry, Mr. Regan!) from some of the best novels I read in 2016:

9780812979527My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.
Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton

And then he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information. And he, like a runner, immobile in his smeared printing apron bringing it to them. Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.
Paulette Jiles, News of the World

When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains), probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such of cups of tea and friendly chats) had actually deserved their immediate attention.
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

cover-mischlingBooks had never led me in the wrong direction. It seemed foolish to try to endure without such counsel by my side.
Affinity Konar, Mischling

Franny  on the other hand was just now opening the hardback copy of A Tree Grows inBrooklyn from her grandmother. Even from the first sentence, from the look of the words on the page, she could tell that was what she would be reading over Christmas vacation, not an LSAT prep book.
Ann Patchett, Commonwealth

Besides, could children ever be considered quite of sound mind? Seven was counted the age of reason, but Lib’s sense of seven-year-olds was that they still brimmed over with imagination. Children lived to play. Of course they could be put to work, but in spare moments they took their games as seriously as lunatics did their delusions. Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.
Emma Donoghue, The Wonder

9780393241655_300They had been raised, Charlotte and Beatrice, on books. When they had a question, literature answered it. If they complained about being bored, their mother — a melancholy Parisian who used laudanum to assuage the pains of homesickness and her husband’s infidelities — would hand them a book. “No one who reads can ever be bored,” she’d tell them . . .
Ann Hood, The Book That Matters Most

Forgiveness, they shouted, all the while committing their wrongs. When he was younger, Yaw wondered why they did not preach that the people should avoid wrongdoing altogether.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

wolf-hollow-by-lauren-wolkAt times, I was so confused that I felt like the stem of a pinwheel surrounded by whir and clatter, but through that whole unsettling time I knew that it simply would not do to hide in the barn with a book and an apple and let events plunge forward without me.
Lauren Wolk, Wolf Hollow

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?
Alison Anderson, The Summer Guest

Her boxes and crates of books were stacked alongside, and Beatrice had to still a quiver of anxiety that she was to live, for the first time, in a place without a single bookshelf.
Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

Church_AtomicWeight_HC_FINAL_PRNT.inddHis years on earth had taught him that good things happen to those who honor the kindheartedness of others.
Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers

I thought about how lives bump up against each other, whether for moments of superficial conversation in line at the post office or a deeper enmeshment, such as that I had with Jerry for those few months. How much meaning should I ascribe to knowing a stranger for the moments it took for me to donate to a V-book campaign? What are the evolutionary implications of kindness?
Elizabeth Church, The Atomic Weight of Love

Happy New Year! What are your reading resolutions for 2017?

Books for Men

man_reading_by_john_singer_sargent_reading_public_museumAt a recent get-together, a (male) friend told me all about a great book he’d just read, prefacing his comments by saying, “I’m sure you haven’t read it.” The book? Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides, published about ten years ago. Obviously, he couldn’t imagine that Blood and Thunder would appeal to women, and he doesn’t know me well enough to know that I’ve loved books about the American West ever since I was a child, both fiction and nonfiction. (And yes, I have read Blood and Thunder. It’s great, as is anything by Hampton Sides; my favorite is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible  Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette).

cb6702a0ceab927360bf8e23f45ccefbThe same evening, I got involved in a nostalgic conversation about favorite childhood books. When I mentioned The Little House on the Prairie series, someone said wistfully that she’d loved those books as a child but couldn’t share them with her children because she has only boys. I told her that I’d read the whole series — not just Farmer Boy — to one of my boys, and he’d enjoyed them almost as much as I did. “But they’re about girls!” she said. Well, no. They’re about people, and the settling of the American West. We give boys books featuring animals, aliens, and wizards, but we balk at suggesting they read about girls?

Male and female reading tastes often differ, to be sure. It’s a safe bet that most readers of a new account of an obscure Civil War battle will be male, just as most readers of the latest novel about a young woman coming of age will be female. (It’s interesting to me that so many literary novelists are male, when their audience seems to be predominantly female.)

news-of-the-world-coverSeveral of my favorite books this year have been truly “unisex”. A Gentleman in Moscow, News of the World, When Breath Becomes Air, Salt to the Sea — all would appeal to almost any reader, male or female. Still, I need to oblige a friend who asked me to recommend books for men. I know she’s not alone in her quest to find books suitable for husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons — so here are some ideas for last-minute shoppers.

The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
Fans of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand will love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.

9780812992731Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich
“Patient H.M.” was Henry Molaison, a young man who was lobotomized in the 1950s in attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The twist in this book is that the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery was Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the author’s grandfather. Dittrich provides a fascinating and personal viewpoint about the medical ethics involved with his grandfather’s career, as well as the changing attitudes towards mental illness during the 20th century.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy has been receiving a lot of praise and publicity since it was published in June. It’s two books in one — a very personal story of growing up poor in southern Ohio (reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’) and an exploration of the economic and social problems facing “hillbilly culture”.

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
The (male) Seinfeld fans in my family enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the creative partnership between Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

a4f0f87eaa1b738dbb6a5f0923733ecdIndestructible: One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John R. Bruning
When naval aviator Pappy Gunn’s wife and four children are  taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines, he devotes the next three years to rescuing them — and developing new weapons that would have a major effect on the war in the Pacific. I think male readers would find this story as riveting as I did.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, is one of my favorite authors of narrative nonfiction.  The Wall Street Journal says that Millard “has developed a distinctive approach to writing about historical giants. She focuses tightly on a forgotten yet riveting episode in an extremely well-documented life . . .  for her latest book, Ms. Millard tackles one of modern history’s most chronicled figures, Winston Churchill. By one count, there are more than 12,000 books written about Churchill. Ms. Millard’s Hero of the Empire recounts an episode in a near-forgotten conflict: young Winston Churchill’s capture and dramatic escape during the Boer War.” One of my most discriminating male readers says this is his top book of 2016.

9781622795944_JKTmech.inddThe North Water by Ian McGuire
This adventure story probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I read it in two days. The North Water was chosen by  the New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s ten best books, 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 think my friend who couldn’t believe I read Blood and Thunder would be even more shocked I enjoyed The North Water.

Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith
In the spring of 1788, seven years after the British surrendered at Yorktown, three desperate men, all fleeing unbearable situations, join forces for a few days in the thick woods of what is now southern Alabama. They rob and murder a group of white traders  and their Indian guides. One of the guides escapes and reports the crime to his chief, Seloatka. Le Clerc, a French “gentleman adventurer” who is married to a Creek Indian woman, volunteers to hunt down the three murderers. Perfect for fans of literary historical fiction who liked The Good Lord Bird (James McBride) or The Known World (Edward P. Jones).

14358879245_d675382279_bA few more manly suggestions:

For music fans, Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen), Testimony (Robbie Robertson); for golfers, A Life Well Played: My Stories (Arnold Palmer);  for business guys, Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Phil Knight);  for Civil War buffs, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (Ronald C. White); and for mystery readers, Manitou Canyon (William Kent Krueger).

Happy Holidays!

Top Books of 2016 — Booksellers Share Their Favorites

Our favorite book is always the book that speaks most directly to us at a particular stage in our lives. And our lives change. We have other favorites that give us what we most need at that particular time. But we never lose the old favorites. They’re always with us
Lloyd Alexander

news-of-the-world-coverThe booksellers at Lake Forest Book Store are not, on the surface, a diverse group. For one thing, we are all female. We are also all middle-aged, which is a horrible term, but one for which I can’t think of an appropriate euphemism. This doesn’t mean that we all like the same books. All of us are committed to reading widely, always mindful that our job is to recommend books to all kinds of readers. We have individual reading tastes, but we are all the same in that no one wants to squander time on a poorly written or boring book.

Often, holiday shoppers ask for very specific recommendations — a sports novel for an eight-year-old boy, a picture book for a toddler, a Civil War history book for a grandfather, a cookbook for a newlywed couple. But often, customers just want to give a friend, relative, or business associate a really good book.

I emailed our booksellers, asking them to name their favorite book(s) of 2016.  “This is so tough. DON’T MAKE ME PICK,” said one. She’s right; it’s hard to choose just a few titles from all the memorable books published this year. So here’s a list of books that our booksellers mentioned again and again as their favorites. These are books, fiction and nonfiction,  that almost any reader who appreciates a well-written story will enjoy.

Molly says that “our fiction wall is, and has been this fall, packed with goodness . . . I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows is one of my top choices. It’s a sparse telling of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl family and their struggles. It reminded me of Steinbeck and Cather. And new to our paperback table is a mystery that a customer turned me onto, I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. I could not put it down, and think it beats the pants off The Girl on the Train.”

9780670026197Our buyer, Laura, said: “My favorite literary reads are The Nix (Nathan Hill), News of the World (Paulette Jiles)Mothering Sunday (Graham Swift) and Mischling (Affinity Konar). They are each so different (a sprawling contemporary story; a beautiful piece of historical fiction; a compact, compelling personal narrative and and a haunting World War II novel). My favorite heartwarming, simply lovely book is A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles).” (Mine too!)

Almost every staff member listed News of the World as a favorite. Beth mentioned the “heartwarming relationship between an older man and the young girl he is commissioned to return to her home”, and Kathy remarked that she was “drawn into the adventure immediately.” I thought the writing was dazzling, and it was a joy to encounter a protagonist who is a kind and honorable person with unwavering morals. We’re all jealous that Max, our store manager and early champion of the book, got to sit next to the author at an industry dinner. (For my complete review, click here.)

Laura went on to say that “2016 was an amazing year for children’s fiction: Salt to the Sea (Ruta Septys), Wolf Hollow (Lauren Wolk), and The Inquisitor’s Tale (Adam Gidwitz) are sure to become classics!” I agree — and I think that the definition of a classic book for children is one that has timeless and universal appeal. As C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

9781101947135Diane  commented that “This was such a strong year for fiction! I read so many fantastic books– these are not in a particular order but two of them may be in my top-ten lifetime list. For all of them, the characters were so strong and the writing drove these books even more than plot/pace: Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue), The Mothers (Brit Bennett), News of the WorldWolf Hollow. Diane and I lead a YA book group for adults, and Wolf Hollow was one of our group’s favorites.

Susan R. loved Homegoing, saying that “reading it felt like unwinding a beautiful braid.” NPR’s Maureen Corrigan listed Homegoing as her favorite debut novel of the year, and I’m with her. Along with A Gentleman in Moscow, it’s the book I’ve given most often as a gift. Susan also picked The Nix as a favorite, “probably because I could relate to every time period in the story, and it kept me reading way past my bedtime”.

Kathy paired Mischling (fiction) and Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 25,000 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto (Tilar J. Mazzeo; nonfiction): “They were fantastic reads and I couldn’t put either book down. Important books to read to remember the suffering of children at the hands of the Nazis but both offering hope and heroism.” Kathy  also mentioned Trevor Noah’s terrific memoir about growing up in South Africa, Born a Crime.

9780345544803Eleanor chose Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel, which I adored as well. Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find this book both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis.

Eleanor also enjoyed The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis, by Elizabeth Letts. If you’re a fan of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.

Nancy’s favorite was The Summer Guest, by Alison Anderson. The “summer guest” in this elegantly constructed novel is Anton Chekhov, who develops a close friendship with Zinaida, a member of his host family. When Zinaida’s chronicle of their relationship surfaces more than 100 years later, it’s possible that literary history may be radically changed. (Read my complete review here.)

162224Susan P.’s pick was Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance: “It is the poignant, inspiring, and eminently readable story of a young man overcoming the many drawbacks and disadvantages of his youth. Incisive and articulate, a very thoughtful examination of the issues of systemic poverty.”

Ann P. chose The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson (author of the beloved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.) It’s a kinder, gentler World War I book than most, focusing on a young woman who comes to an English village to teach Latin just as the war is breaking out. Charming and poignant, it’s perfect for anyone suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal.

Beth picked Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore: “Intriguing, fast-reading historical fiction with ingenious yet familiar characters – Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and J.P. Morgan. This book details the competition among the men to be the true inventor of the light bulb and amass the fortunes that follow.”

What are your favorite books from the past year?

 

 

Giving the Gift of Reading

Books on the Table

The greatest gift is a passion for reading.
Elizabeth Hardwick

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

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

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

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