Favorite Irish Authors — Tellers of Tales

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

William Butler Yeats

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

William Butler Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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










What to Read Next — March 2016

Betsy returned to her chair, took off her coat and hat, opened her book and forgot the world again.
Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

Mother used to say escape is never further than the nearest book.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

DCF 1.0As soon as March arrives, customers start asking for spring break reading recommendations for themselves and their families. You’d think it would be easy to come up with a list of fun “beach reads”, but every year that request flummoxes me. I understand that lots of people want to read lightweight books while on vacation, but far too many books pegged as “escape” reading are too predictable to be entertaining. I don’t think I’m a book snob, but if I’m going to spend six or more hours reading a book, I want to feel I’ve been enlightened as well as entertained. I want to gain something, whether it’s a little better understanding of human nature or concrete knowledge.

“Escape” reading to me means a book that will absorb and surprise me. Readers all have different ideas of what it means to lose themselves in a book, which is why it’s so difficult to recommend all-purpose vacation reading. My husband’s preferred beach reading often includes books about obscure aspects of Civil War history, while my older son likes sports biographies. Neither one of them would be interested in the latest Harlan Coben or David Baldacci. A few books have managed to intrigue nearly everyone in the family; I recall one vacation when we read The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. I don’t know what that says about our family, but I do know that nonfiction is often the best vacation reading.

Several of my favorite nonfiction books from 2015 are out in paperback this month, just in time to take on vacation:

9780802124739H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
H is for Hawk was on almost every “Best Books of the Year” list and won several major literary prizes. As the New Yorker pointed out, it “defies every genre”. On the surface, it’s about poet, naturalist, and  falconer Macdonald’s grief after losing her father and her experience training Mabel, a goshawk. The writing is simply gorgeous; I savored every word. The Telegraph says:

This book is a soaring triumph. It is a joy to follow Mabel and Macdonald’s flight out of such disconsolate scenes as one settles into a new roost and the other gradually comes to realise that “hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”

Macdonald will be on tour in the United States in April, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak at Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville, Illinois.

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness by Sasha Martin
The author set out to cook a recipe from every country in the world and blog about it — along the way, she made peace with her past and connected with the world around her. It’s a heartfelt, plainspoken chronicle of how food and cooking can heal damaged souls. Think The Glass Castle with recipes. (Click here for my complete review.)

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson
Two expert wreck divers (including John Chatterton, of Kurson’s terrific Shadow Divers) risk their safety and life savings to find a pirate ship off the coast of the Dominican Republic. It’s a fascinating page-turner, and I loved learning more about the Golden Age of piracy.

y648The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower
Pure fun for trivia buffs, this well-researched and detail-packed insider’s glimpse of the inner workings of the White House focuses on the staff members behind the scenes at what Harry S. Truman called the “great white jail”. According to the Wall Street Journal, Brower was inspired by “the class-bound and obligation-ruled prison represented by a fictitious country manor, the one in television’s “Downton Abbey'”. What better time to read The Residence than when we are all wondering who will be living in the White House a year from now?

If you’re willing to take a hardcover on vacation, I have four eclectic recommendations. Not one is a doorstop — they’re all packable:

wfes345528698-2The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
The surprise in this delightful book is not that Melanie Benjamin paints a complete portrait of Truman Capote, which I expected, but that she brings Babe Paley to life as a lonely and wounded woman. All of Benjamin’s books are entertaining, informative, and well worth reading, but this is my favorite. And if I had to pick the quintessential spring break book, this would be it. It’s a great book club choice — there’s plenty to discuss, plus lots of options for fun cocktails, snacks, and even costumes.

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
Before I read this collection of longish short stories, I couldn’t understand how it could have won the 2015 National Book Award instead of A Little Life. I still think A Little Life should have won, but I can see why the judges awarded the prize to Fortune Smiles. Each story is brilliant and memorable. My husband and I discussed it over dinner with another couple, and we ran out of time before we ran out of material.

181307609d7413058f0f6a7067009c85This Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger
Charlie Goldwyn didn’t plan on becoming a widower responsible for a high-maintenance five-year-old. Nor did he plan on losing his job at a high-powered Manhattan law firm. Charlie’s mother is dead, and he’s never had a relationship with his father. Alone and adrift, he finally learns what it means to be a parent — and a son. I loved this witty and poignant story about family and friendship. Alger’s first novel, The Darlings, about a family much like the Madoffs,is terrific as well.

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma
It’s a formula we’ve read many times before: a group of 20-something friends grapple with adulthood in the big city. But Jansma invigorates this scenario in his new novel, which is very different from his much less conventional first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. His writing is lovely, and his characters are as real and believable as any I’ve encountered recently. A couple of years ago, I organized an event for Jansma at our store. Events with debut authors are always a gamble. Unfortunately we didn’t draw much of a crowd that evening. But he was gracious and enthusiastic. I hope his readings are standing room only now!

If you have a vacation planned this spring, what will you be reading?




Girl Through Glass –Author Interview

Girl Through Glass coverDancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful. We’re like flowers. A flower doesn’t tell you a story. It’s in itself a beautiful thing.
George Balanchine

The other girls, and their imperfections, fade away as Mira runs ahead on a stream of energy and light. Her body tells her what to do and she just goes along with it . . . Something great is growing in her, unrolling its tendrils, sprouting buds in all directions. Sometimes the song in her body is almost too loud; it fills her eyes, makes them tear up in something like gratitude.
Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

The first thing you need to know about Sari Wilson’s debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is that it’s much more than a “ballet book”. Like every memorable book, it transcends its surface subject matter and explores universal themes; in this case, art, obsession, sexuality, and family relationships. “I really wanted to write a book that wasn’t just about ballet,” Wilson said at an event at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. “The idioms and milieu of ballet make for compelling human drama.”

The world of ballet in late 20th century New York provides a fascinating backdrop for the novel’s two narratives. Mira is a young girl with a difficult family life who finds refuge in the art and discipline of ballet. Kate is an ex-dancer and college dance history professor who can’t seem to move forward and is forced to revisit her buried past. For both, George Balanchine’s ideal of feminine beauty looms large. “Ballet is woman,” Balanchine famously said. The subject of Kate’s Ph.D. dissertation was “Corporeality Subverted: The (Dis)embodied Feminine in the Aesthetic of George Balanchine, 1958-1982”.

b7160f981f4922d5ab7bf9eababa9085Doesn’t almost every little girl dream of becoming a ballerina? My dream died quickly, after several months of patient instruction from Mrs. Goneconto at the local YMCA. I was disappointed to learn at the first class that I was not immediately issued a tutu and toe shoes, and things went downhill from there. Mira and her fellow “bunheads” exist on a different level, pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits in what Wilson calls “pure devotion to an ideal”.

Wilson, whose own dance career was cut short by an injury, called herself a “recovering ballerina” in a recent New York Times piece, “My Nutcracker Recovery”. When her daughter is cast in a production of “The Nutcracker”, Wilson has mixed feelings — but as she watches her little girl rehearse, Wilson remembers her childhood passion for dance: “My own early swooning love for ballet — for the pure motion and expression of dance — floods back to me, confusing, powerful, bittersweet, and it finds me a little bit healed.”

Girl Through Glass is at its heart a coming of age story, focusing on a girl and a woman at inflection points in their lives. Wilson spent years crafting the novel, which was a creative endeavor, she points out, not unlike choreographing a dance.

How would you compare the art of writing to the art of dance?

In a lot of ways they seem inverse: dance is an art that is performance-based, completely dependent on the body as instrument for communication; writing is a cerebral art and employs written language as an instrument for art. But underneath, they share a lot: the need for discipline, repetition, and a strong desire to communicate. In the age-old days, dance and poetry were integrated, I think, but they split off from each other and became their own disciplines. But in their roots, they are very related.

Like many fiction writers, you started out by writing short stories. You mentioned that Girl Through Glass had its origins in a short story about a young ballet dancer. How would you compare the process of writing short stories with the process of writing a novel?

Writing short stories is sustainable in sprints, whereas writing novels is a marathon undertaking. For me, the novel demanded a wider range of skills—analytic and associative. Novels are aptly named—each adheres to its own rules, its own logic, they are very elastic. I enjoy the form because it can accommodate multiple dialectics and tensions.

Have you made any particular effort to connect with the ballet community? How do you think members of that community will view the novel?

One of the things that I have been really gratified about is that the ballet community has been so accepting of the novel. I have had dancers and former dancers and “recovering” dancers (my term) tell me that the novel describes their own experience. It’s not a glowing portrait of the ballet world, but it is a one told with love and passion—maybe the passion of a child who can love and be hurt deeply. I think dancers understand that the novel is full of admiration for what they do, as well as what the costs can be.

You very deftly weave the two narratives — Mira’s and Kate’s — together. Was one of them more difficult to write than the other? Did you know where the story was going when you began?

I actually didn’t know where the story was going. I first wrote Mira’s storyline. When I had finished, I realized that the novel wasn’t complete—around the same time, I started writing from this other voice, a 1st person voice, a much older voice, a bit bitter, even angry. I didn’t know who it was at the time. As I wrote her story I realized who she was and how she was connected to Mira. I realized I could use Kate’s story as a frame for ordering Mira’s story; it was only then that I felt I had a book, a novel.

You paint a vivid and accurate picture of 1970s New York City. New York has changed a great deal in the past few decades. What, if anything, has been lost? 

It’s trendy, I guess, to be nostalgic for 1970s New York, but for me it is very specific nostalgia: the nostalgia of the world through a child’s eyes that has been transformed. So it’s a journey into personal memory of a lost childhood world, a New York City of the past—a very frayed urban landscape. But what has been lost? Well, there is a great Edmund White piece about this in The New York Times ; in it he basically says it has to do with the economy and real estate. What is largely lost is the sense of freedom to fail abundantly that the city allowed people at that time—that ecosystem benefited creativity and allowed a certain kind of romanticism around art-making, but at the cost of safety.

How has ballet changed since MIra’s and Kate’s years as young dancers?

Mira’s era was a very specific era, when Balanchine aesthetic was at its very height. I think the playing field is much wider now—there are so many more different types of companies with modern and ballet cross-over. And the conversation about body image and race that is happening around Misty Copeland’s terrific rise is all very exciting and overdue.

Kate finds that the world of academia is, in its own way, as cutthroat and competitive as the world of dance. Can you comment on that?

Yes, that actually surprised me. I’m not in academia, but as I did my research I came to realize that there was an incredible amount of cutthroat competition in that world—especially at Kate’s level. Kate has made it into a pool of very talented and ambitious candidates for which there are not enough permanent positions, which makes her situation very tenuous. Not unlike the hierarchies of the dance world, in which there are very few coveted spots for soloists and principals.

Sari Wilson AP Photo credit Elena SeibertFor generations, little girls have dreamed of becoming ballerinas — and some of them have suffered, physically and emotionally, as they’ve pursued their ambitions. Certain parents (and not just ballet parents) are willing to sacrifice and also to let their children experience physical and emotional harm in the hopes of raising superstars. Adults, like Maurice, can become obsessed with the beauty of ballet. What is it about ballet that inspires such passion?

Maybe it is the kind of innocence that it requires, a kind of passionate innocence and a ungovernable belief in beauty (in the broader Romantic sense, Beauty as in Truth)? There probably will always be something captivating about noble suffering in pursuit of some truth? So much art is about this theme. Ballet displays it in the vernacular of the body and in a kind of nobility of form that can be as hypnotizing as well as destructive. It can contain, I suppose, our best and worst impulses as humans. It holds a mirror up to our inner selves, perhaps.

Thank you, Sari, for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully!

The Most (and Least) Popular Books on the Table Posts of 2015

Happy New Year! I’m writing this blog to keep track of my reading and to encourage me to think more critically about what I read — but also to help bring readers and books together. I love sharing my enthusiasm for books that have found a place in my heart. I thought that looking at my 2015 year-end blog statistics would help me plan informative and engaging posts for 2016.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgWhen I checked to see which posts received the most views, I was surprised. The #1 post for 2015 is my review of All the Light We Cannot See  (originally posted in March 2014, six weeks before the book came out)– also the #1 post for 2014. Book reviews don’t usually get as much readership as other posts, but I guess that when the book being reviewed is a much-loved Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s a different story.

Just a few page views behind the All the Light We Cannot See review was 10 Spring Paperback Picks, which had double the page views of the #3 post (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories.) I wondered why that post was so popular, with triple the readership of similar posts — 10 Summer Paperback Picks, 10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking — and five times the readership of 10 Summer Paperback Picks –Nonfiction? I thought there had to be some reason that the 10 Spring Paperback Picks post has been so popular throughout the summer, fall, and winter.

I discovered the reason inadvertently when I googled “Girl on the Train paperback” a few days ago. I didn’t find the paperback release date — but I did learn that Books on the Table’s 10 Spring Paperback Picks shows up as one of the first Google hits when those search terms are used. Which should be a good thing, except that readers who click on that link will not find out when The Girl on the Train will come out in paperback. What they will learn is a little bit about how the book industry decides when to release books in paperback and what my favorite summer 2015 paperback recommendations were.

Here are the top 10 posts from 2015, along with my theories about why they were the most popular.

#1: All the Light We Cannot See — Book Review (2014)
Searches for “discussion questions for All the Light We Cannot See”  led hundreds of readers to my book review — I hope they weren’t too unhappy when they found my post didn’t include any questions. I’ve considered including discussion questions in book reviews, but I never have because good discussion guides are usually available on publishers’ websites. Maybe I should include links to those, along with a few extra questions?

Those who wanted to know “what happened to the diamond in All the Light We Cannot See” were definitely disappointed, as was the reader interested in “the best food to serve at All the Light We Cannot See book club meeting”. (I suggest either French or German.)

By the way – if your book club is one of those that only discusses paperbacks, keep in mind that the paperback edition of All the Light We Cannot See is due in October 2016.

9781594633669M#2: 10 Spring Paperback Picks
Everyone is dying to know when The Girl on the Train is coming out in paperback. Keep in mind that the paperback edition of Gone Girl didn’t come out until nearly two years after the hardcover publication — but several months before the movie release. The movie version of The Girl on the Train is scheduled to hit theaters in October 2016.

#3: 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories (2014)
In what may be an age of limited attention spans, are short stories making a comeback? Over the past few years, many top-notch short story collections have been published, and the last two National Book Award winners for fiction have been collections of stories (Redeployment and Fortune Smiles). Or maybe people are bewildered by short stories; Books on the Table statistics show lots of readers wondering “why are short stories worth reading?” and “why do people read short stories?”.

#4: 10 Summer Paperback Picks
People like reading paperbacks in the summer!

9780062359940#5: An Uncomplicated Life — Book Review
One reason this post was so popular is that Paul Daugherty,  the author of An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter, is a columnist at the Cincinnati Inquirer and he mentioned the review in his blog.  Another reason is that An Uncomplicated Life is a wonderful, inspiring book — don’t miss it! (It’s now out in paperback.) Daugherty’s daughter, Jillian, was married last June; in a letter he wrote to her, published on the website The Mighty, Daugherty said: ” I don’t know what the odds are of a woman born with Down syndrome marrying the love of her life. I only know you’ve beaten them.”

#6: Where They Found Her — Book Review
I’m not sure why this review got the attention it did, except that Where They Found Her is a popular book club selection. Many readers were searching for “Where They Found Her spoilers” — does this mean they hadn’t read the book and their book club meeting was starting in an hour?

Orphan #8#7: Orphan #8 — Author Interview
Kim van Alkemade’s  terrific debut novel, a paperback original, was an Indie Next pick. She provided detailed and thoughtful answers to my questions — but so did Elizabeth Berg, a much better-known author, in a discussion of The Dream Lover a few months earlier, and that interview had very low readership.  Could it be that people were looking for information about Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train (another paperback original), which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years?

#8: 10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking
Clearly, people are always looking for “discussable” books. A glance at search terms shows that they are also trying to find “book club books that are fun not depressing”, “great book club books for couples”, and, surprisingly often, “book club cocktail napkins”.

9780062259301#9: The Story Hour — Book Review (2014)
I loved this book, but I’m surprised the review made it into the top 10 because The Story Hour seems like one of those quiet and lovely books that hasn’t received the acclaim it deserves. All of Thrity Umrigar’s books are well worth reading, but my favorite is The Space Between Us.

#10: Nonfiction November : 10 Favorite Survival Books (2014)
When I’m warm and comfortable on my couch at home, usually with a blanket and a cup of hot tea, I like nothing better than to read about people trapped in the polar ice cap or shivering in a lifeboat. I must not be alone in my reading tastes because I see many searches for ” best nonfiction adventure books”  and “true survival stories”.

And here are three of my favorite posts from 2015 — which, according to the statistics, almost no one read:

Nonrequired Reading
I feel strongly about not forcing children to read books they don’t like. Maybe people disagree and don’t want to tell me? Did the Garfield photo turn people off? Or maybe the title is bad?

Books on the Table Goes to the Movies
Maybe I should stick to writing about books. I recently went to see the Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of Bel Canto (based on Ann Patchett’s book) and considered writing a post called Books on the Table Goes to the 24de28664bdf1f004be5425016536035Opera. It’s probably best I didn’t.

Jazz Age January: West of Sunset & So We Read On
Something has to be in last place — this post ranks #71 out of 71 posts published in 2015 — but this was one of my favorites! Am I the only one who cares about F. Scott Fitzgerald?

I’m interested in what you’d like to see more (or less) of in Books on the Table in 2016. Suggestions, please!









Read in 2016

The Wonder (Emma Donoghue) — This is my favorite kind of historical fiction — it takes a little-known incident/phenomenon and spins a page-turner from it. The Wonder is about a young girl in 19th century Ireland who claims not to have eaten for four months. Is she a saint, or a hoax? The author says that the book was inspired by almost fifty cases of “Fasting Girls” between the 16th and 20th centuries.

Sweetgirl (Travis Mulhauser) — Although Sweetgirl  takes place in northern Michigan, it reminded me of Daniel Woodrell’s crime novels set in the Missouri Ozarks. Woodrell refers to his work as “country noir”, and that seems like a good term for Sweetgirl as well. (These kinds of novels are often called “gritty”.) A teenage girl ventures into a blizzard to find her drug-addicted mother, and finds a neglected infant instead. I stayed up late to find out what would happen next.

Born a Crime (Trevor Noah) — I loved this book, and so did one of my coworkers — here’s her review: “It would appeal to anyone who like The Tender Bar (and who didn’t?). Born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by 5 years in prison, Trevor recounts stories of his childhood that are funny and dramatic at the same time. Coming of age during the end of apartheid, Trevor Noah gives the reader a deeper look into the complexities of race, gender and class. Highly recommended. He’s very funny!”

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (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”.

Enter Title Here (Rahul Kanakia) — This was our YA book group’s selection for November, and I’m sorry to say it was a bit of a dud — especially since I was the one who selected it.  The story concerns an overachieving senior in high school who plagiarizes a YA novel in order to beef up her college applications. It’s based on a true story about a Harvard student who did just that (Kaavya Viswanathan, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life).  Clever idea for a novel, but the protagonist was too unrealistically reprehensible for the book to work for me.

Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream  (Karen Stabiner) —
Stabiner, a journalist and cookbook author, follows ambitious young chef Jonah Miller as he opens his own restaurant in New York. The risks and stress are overwhelming, and readers will find themselves emotionally invested in Jonah’s venture.

This Old Man (Roger Angell) — Angell, now 96 years old, was fiction editor of the New Yorker for many years. This Old Man is a collection of his writings, including essays, jingles, letters, and literary criticism– in his words, “a mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.” It’s terrific bedside reading.

The Nix (Nathan Hill) — If Tom Wolfe and John Irving had a baby — it would be The Nix. 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.

Small Great Things (Jodi Picoult) — I liked this much more than Picoult’s last few books — actually, I think it’s one of her best. What I liked: the plot and its surprising ending, and the courtroom scenes. What I didn’t like: the overall preachy tone of the book.

Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing (Jennifer Weiner) — 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 enjoyed her book of essays, and found myself underlining passages and turning down pages.

The Good Good-Bye (Carla Buckley) — Terrific page-turner that will keep you guessing — and reading way past bedtime. When two college freshmen (roommates and cousins) end up in the ICU after a mysterious fire in their dorm, their parents start to wonder just how well they really know their daughters.

Beneath Wandering Stars (Ashlee Cowles) — This debut novel explores a topic that has been largely ignored in YA fiction: growing up as a “military brat”. Our YA book group, all adults, had a great discussion about the book, which has spiritual overtones.

Commonwealth (Ann Patchett) — Bert Cousins can’t bear to stay home with his pregnant wife and three children, so he crashes Franny Keating’s christening party, where he kisses Franny’s beautiful mother, Beverly — and causes the breakup of two families. Ann Patchett’s novel,  brilliantly structured as a series of nine linked stories that supply bits and pieces of the Keating and Cousins families’ complicated history, spans fifty years in their lives.

A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles) — A Gentleman in Moscow is absolutely wonderful — one of the rare books I read slowly towards the end, because I just didn’t want to finish.  It contains all the elements that make me fall in love with a book: a beautifully constructed story connected to historical events, an appealing and multidimensional protagonist, and a sharp and engaging writing style that inspired me to underline dozens of passages.

Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue) — Just before the financial crisis of 2008, Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon who hopes for a better life for his family in the United States, begins working for a top Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. This is an insightful story about immigration and the American Dream, but also about marriage.

When in French: Love in a Second Language (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.

Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) — One of my favorites of 2016, Homegoing begins with the story of two half-sisters born in 18th century Ghana and unknown to each other, one sold into slavery and one married to a British slavery. The succeeding chapters (each one a self-contained story) follow their descendants in Africa and the United Sates.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (Jeffrey Toobin) — The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is the first news story I remember following. Toobin masterfully sifts through all the craziness of Hearst’s kidnapping and time as a fugitive to create a portrait of an era, and of a very young and malleable woman.

Shelter (Jung Yun) — This is a literary page-turner extraordinaire — it totally absorbed me during a long plane trip. It reminded me of The House of Sand and Fog. A young couple is forced to take in the husband’s parents after a violent incident in the older couple’s home. Things don’t go too well, since the son was estranged from his abusive parents.

Mischling (Affinity Konar) — Reminiscent of The Book Thief, Mischling is the horrifying story of real-life identical twins who were subjects of Dr. Josef Mengele’s medical experiments at Auschwitz.

The Book That Matters Most (Ann Hood) — After her husband walks out on her, Ava North joins a book club that holds a monthly discussion about “the book that matters most” to a particular member. The other members all choose classics, but Ava picks an obscure, out of print book that turns out to have greater significance than she could have known. The Book That Matters Most is a book lover’s delight, full of surprising plot developments. It’s also a moving story of friendship and the connections between mothers and daughters.

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets (Luke Dittrich) — If you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is the book for you. “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.

You Will Know Me (Megan Abbott) — Set in the world of competitive gymnastics, Abbott’s eighth novel is a page-turner by anyone’s definition. Sixteen-year-old Devon Knox — and her parents — have their hearts set on the Olympics when a crime in their tight-knit community of gymnasts, parents, and coaches threatens to destroy their dream. Perfect crossover book for older teens.

All Is Not Forgotten (Wendy Walker) — After fifteen-year-old Jenny Kramer is attacked at a party in her Connecticut suburb, she’s given a drug that obliterates her memory of the crime. I can’t say more without revealing key plot points, but if you like your fiction really dark (think Herman Koch), this is the book for you. Jenny’s psychiatrist, who narrates the book, reminded me of Koch’s vaguely sinister narrators.

We Could Be Beautiful (Swan Huntley) — When Catherine West, the veteran of two broken engagements, meets William Stockton, the handsome son of old family friends, she thinks he’s the answer to her prayers. But is he? This debut novel — a very entertaining “beach read” — is fun to read not so much because of its plot (which veers between predictability and ludicrousness), but because of Catherine’s voice, which is singularly funny.

Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home (Pauls Toutonghi) — The title makes this book sound awful, I know — sort of like a hokey Reader’s Digest article. But trust me — it’s a lovely book, about much more than a lost dog. Virginia Marshall, brought up in an abusive home, wants to be the kind of mother she never had. After her adult son, Fielding, loses his dog Gonker on the Appalachian Trail, Ginny and her husband, John, devote every waking minute to helping Fielding find his beloved dog.

Cruel Beautiful World (Caroline Leavitt) — One of those “train wreck” books you can’t stop reading, even though you know something awful is about to happen, Cruel Beautiful World is the story of a young, impressionable girl who runs off with her high school teacher. Things don’t end well, as any reader will suspect from the beginning.

The Lost Girls (Heather Young) — In 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans disappears from her family’s lake house in northern Minnesota, and the mystery is never solved. Two generations later, Justine inherits the decrepit house from her great-aunt Lucy, Emily’s older sister, and brings her two daughters there to escape her controlling boyfriend. Young does a masterful job connecting the present-day story and the story of the summer of 1935, building suspense that kept me reading late into the night.

Harmony (Carolyn Parkhurst) — In a last-ditch effort to help their special needs daughter, Tilly, the Hammond family follows child development expert Scott Bean to rural New Hampshire, where they help him set up a family retreat called “Camp Harmony”. Tilly’s younger sister, Iris, and mother, Alexandra, take turns narrating the story of the Hammonds’ decidedly unharmonious attempt to begin a new life.

Siracusa (Delia Ephron) — Two couples — one with an odd 10-year-old daughter, Snow — decide to vacation together on the Sicilian coast. This turns out to be, for many reasons, a really bad decision.

Be Frank With Me (Julia Claiborne Johnson) — Delightful, original, and just plain fun! M.M. (Mimi) Banning, a quirky and reclusive author (sort of a mashup of J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee) is struggling to complete a novel. She needs help with her equally quirky son, Frank, so her publisher sends a young woman to be Frank’s nanny and Mimi’s gal Friday.

The After Party (Anton Disclafani) — I enjoyed Anton DiSclafani’s debut, The Yonahlosee Riding Camp for Girls, and The After Party is just as good — it’s what I’d call a smart beach read. Both books focus on wealthy young women constrained by the mores of their times — Yonahlosee is set in the 1930s, while The After Party takes place in 1the 1950s.

Rich and Pretty (Rumaan Alam) — Two friends (guess what, one is rich and one is pretty) struggle to maintain a friendship as their adult lives diverge. Not much else happens.

Modern Lovers (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.

If I Forget You (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.

The Excellent Lombards  (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’”.

Free Men (Katy Simpson Smith) — Katy Simpson Smith’s second historical novel takes a hard look at one of the values our country holds dear: personal freedom. The American South in the late 18th century was a “landscape of merciless individual pursuit”, but people still longed for human connection. If you’re looking for a page-turner, this is not the book for you. But if you want to read a novel of ideas with gorgeous language, you’ll find Free Men rewarding and thought-provoking.

Before the Fall (Noah Hawley) — The older I get, the more likely I am to fall asleep while reading in bed at night. This smart and very suspenseful thriller kept me reading well past my bedtime. A plane crashes minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, leaving only two survivors. Was one of the people aboard responsible for the crash? Told in alternating perspectives, the story is a puzzle that most readers won’t be able to solve until the very end.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty (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.

The Summer Guest (Alison Anderson) — 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 View from the Cheap Seats (Neil Gaiman) — How can you not love a book whose author says in the very first essay: “I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do”? Gaiman’s book of nonfiction (essays, book introductions, speeches, etc.) is a joy for any bibliophile.

Wolf Hollow (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.

The Summer Before the War (Helen Simonson) — Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, brings us 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. Warning: you may shed a tear or two at the end of this lovely, charming book, which is a perfect choice for fans of Downton Abbey.

The Girls (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. Emma Cline’s writing is extraordinary, but the story strays a little too far for my taste from the actual events of the Manson murders in 1969.

Mission Hill (Pamela Wechsler) — Mission Hill has all the characteristics of a great legal thriller — a smart, likable, yet imperfect protagonist (in this case, a female DA); a setting that functions almost as a character (the city of Boston); and an original plot with plenty of twists and turns. It’s the first in a planned series, and I’m looking forward to reading more about Abby Endicott.

The Atomic Weight of Love (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.

Britt-Marie Was Here (Fredrik Backman) — Not as good as A Man Called Ove — but what could be?

The North Water (Ian McGuire) — This literary adventure story probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I read it in two days. The North Water 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.

A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight (Maria Toorpakai) — Don’t miss this powerful and inspiring memoir, written by the #1 female squash player in Pakistan — who risked her life to become a professional athlete. The human rights abuses thatToorpakai vividly describes are numerous and shocking — as a young girl, she is beaten by a mullah for showing an interest and athletics, and she sees a woman stoned to death.

Mosquitoland (David Arnold) — The high quality of the writing, the originality of the story, and the memorable protagonist make this a terrific novel, not just a terrific YA novel.

The Bridge Ladies (Betsy Lerner) — The author became 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.

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France (Thad Carhart) — If Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Neither Here Nor There had a baby, the result would be Finding Fontainebleau. Thad Carhart’s narrative is a captivating blend of memoir and history, filled with the author’s appreciation and understanding of French culture.

A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler) — Anne Tyler’s 20th novel covers territory familiar to Tyler’s readers: the complicated relationships between the members of a middle-class Baltimore family. I love Tyler’s writing, which I find comforting and wise at the same time.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Vendela Vida) — Narrated in the second person, Vida’s surprising and offbeat novel starts with the mysterious theft of a backpack in Casablanca. My  book group found the book to be a page-turner, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Lilac Girls (Martha Hall Kelly) — 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 han

The Serpent King (Jeff Zentner) — Zentner, a musician and songwriter, is also a talented YA novelist. This story of three friends growing up in a Tennessee backwater (Forrestville, named after Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest) is original and authentic.

Boys in the Trees (Carly Simon) — I’m not usually a fan of celebrity biographies/memoirs, but this one was a pleasant surprise. It’s well-written and perceptive, filled with just the right number of juicy tidbits.

Terrible Virtue (Ellen Feldman) — This biographical novel about Margaret Sanger — nurse, birth control pioneer,social activist, free love advocate — was too broad in scope, leaving me wanting more detail and depth, but still very much worth reading.

Fortune Smiles (Adam Johnson) — Before I read this collection of longish short stories, I couldn’t understand how it could have won the 2015 National Book Award instead of  A Little Life. I still think A Little Life should have won, but I can see why the judges awarded the prize to Fortune Smiles. Each story is brilliant and memorable.

This Was Not the Plan (Cristina Alger) — Charlie Goldwyn didn’t plan on becoming a widower responsible for a high-maintenance five-year-old. Nor did he plan on losing his job at a high-powered Manhattan law firm. Charlie’s mother is dead, and he’s never had a relationship with his father. Alone and adrift, he finally learns what it means to be a parent — and a son. I loved this witty and poignant story about family and friendship.

Why We Came to the City (Kristopher Jansma) — It’s a formula we’ve read many times before: a group of 20-something friends grapple with adulthood in the big city. But Jansma makes this formula fresh in his new novel, which is very different from his much less conventional first novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. His writing is lovely, and his characters are as real and believable as any I’ve encountered recently.

Under the Influence (Joyce Maynard) — The “influence” in this novel refers not only to the DUI that the unfortunate protagonist, Helen, receives early in the novel, resulting in the loss of custody of her son, but in the mesmerizing power that a wealthy couple, the Havillands, wields over her. (Late in the novel, another character’s conduct under the influence results in tragedy.) The book makes for fairly compelling reading, but I found that it became more unconvincing the more I read — the Havillands were patently manipulative and dishonest.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (Sue Klebold) — The question that everyone asked after the Columbine tragedy, Where were their parents?, is partially answered in this painfully honest memoir by the mother of one of the two killers.

Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives (David Denby) — Denby, film critic for the New Yorker for many years, wanted to learn how schools can foster the love of reading in screen-addicted teenagers. His account of the time he spent observing dedicated teachers fighting this uphill battle kept me reading late at night.

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (Nancy Jo Sales) — Truly the most depressing book I’ve read in a long time, American Girls is not just about girls — it’s about the degrading culture of pornography that’s permeated and poisoned the lives of today’s young people. Do I sound like a crotchety nut? You’ll be right there with me if you read this book.

Girl Through Glass (Sari Wilson) — If you liked Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me, you’ll love Sari Wilson’s debut novel. It’s much more than a ballet book — like every memorable book, it transcends its surface subject matter and explores universal themes; in this case, art, obsession, sexuality, and family relationships.

When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi) — Everyone should read this powerful and heartbreaking — yet inspirational book. It’s a meditation on what it means to lead a worthwhile life, written by a young neurosurgeon dying of lung cancer.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue (Melanie Benjamin) — The surprise in this delightful book is not that Melanie Benjamin paints a complete portrait of Truman Capote, which I expected, but that she brings Babe Paley to life as a lonely and wounded woman. All of Benjamin’s books are entertaining, informative, and well worth reading, but this is my favorite.

The Golden Son (Shilpi Somaya Gowda) — Anil Patel, the “golden son” in Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s insightful new novel, is torn between his desire to pursue an independent life and career in the United States and his obligations to his family and community in India. The story of an immigrant feeling untethered both in his adopted country and his native land is a familiar one, but The Golden Son offers a fresh perspective.

The Lightkeepers (Abby Geni) — Abby Geni’s debut novel is a literary page-turner, perfectly blending evocative writing and deft characterization with a tension-filled — and creepy — plot. The novel is worth reading just for its setting, the isolated and dangerous Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. I can’t wait to see what Geni writes next.

Challenger Deep (Neil Shusterman) — The 2015 National Book Award winner in the YA category, this novel was a selection of the Lake Forest Book Store YA book club. If you’re confused when you start reading, please stick with it — you will be rewarded! The novel helped me understand mental illness better than anything I’ve ever read.

Salt to the Sea (Ruta Sepetys) — Four teenage narrators, each with a unique and memorable voice, tell the story of the events leading to the worst maritime disaster you’ve never heard of: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea during the final days of World War II. Nearly 10,000 people died, most of them refugees fleeing from the Soviets. Author Ruta Sepetys brilliantly constructs an addictive historical narrative that will appeal not only to a young adult audience, but also to adult readers who have enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Katarina Bivald) — I really, really wanted to love this book. It’s about a small town bookstore, after all . . . but something about it just rang false to me. I liked the love story well enough, but it was predictable in a rom-com sort of way

The Expatriates (Janice Y.K. Lee) — I hate the term “women’s fiction” — but when you have a novel about three women, all expatriates in Hong Kong, who are grappling with their roles as mothers/caretakers and daughters, that’s what it is. But it’s women’s fiction at its very best — tautly written, with well-developed characters and a surprising storyline.

My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout) –I’ve loved everything Elizabeth Strout has written, including this new novel, but it left me a bit puzzled — and wanting more. My Name is Lucy Barton is the story of a young woman from an abusive and impoverished background who (perhaps, she suggests, because she is “ruthless”) becomes a functioning adult and successful writer. The book is very short, with no wasted words; it’s a book that raises many questions and that I won’t soon forge

The Road to Little Dribbling (Bill Bryson) — Some of Bryson’s books are funnier than others, but they’re all amusing, informative, and worth reading. His latest is a follow-up to Notes from a Small Island, a view of Britain from an American expatriate’s perspective, which came out 20 years ago.

The Book of Unknown Americans (Cristina Henriquez) — This deeply affecting story of a family of Mexican immigrants and their neighbors, told from multiple viewpoints, is the best novel about the American Dream I’ve read in a long time.

The Sound of Gravel (Ruth Wariner) — I read this memoir about growing up in a polygamist Mormon doomsday cult in one day. The author is her mother’s fourth child and her father’s 39th. If you liked The Glass Castle, The Sound of Gravel is for you.

The Guest Room (Chris Bohjalian) — I’m adding this to my list of books that made me cringe, but that I couldn’t put down. Does that make sense? As always, Chris Bohjalian knows how to tell a story. In his latest novel, he sheds light on white slavery and prostitution. Think of the movie Taken — but imagine those horrific events taking place in the United States, with the involvement of upper-middle class suburbanites.


A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

512bpnaxg3rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“We’re living in this terrible world with wars and broken hearts and starvation, but some of us are compelled to make art, like that’s supposed to help anything.”
The narrator in Rebecca Makkai’s short story, “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart”

Rebecca Makkai’s short story collection, Music for Wartime, was originally scheduled for publication on July 14, 2015 — the same day, her publisher learned, that Go Set a Watchman would hit the shelves. Short story collections, regardless of their literary merit, have a tough enough time attracting  readers’ attention without competing with the year’s most talked-about book. So Music for Wartime came out on June 23, and Makkai’s job as a salesperson for her book — which was 13 years in the making — began.

Makkai, the author of two acclaimed novels (The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House), is one of today’s most accomplished writers of short fiction. The Kansas City Star says: “If any short story writer can be considered a rock star of the genre, it’s Rebecca Makkai. She has had a story selected for the annual Best American Short Stories anthology in four consecutive years.” Music for Wartime includes those four stories, along with 13 others. Divergent in tone, style, and subject matter, the stories all address the same question — “what it means to be an artist in a brutal world,” as Makkai put it.

Rock stars don’t have any trouble filling arenas with screaming fans. Literary stars, on the other hand, are relieved when a bookstore has to set up extra chairs to accommodate readers who have come to hear a favorite author. Makkai’s appearance last week at Lake Forest Book Store (her hometown store) was her last bookstore event promoting Music for Wartime. On Thanksgiving, I’m sure she’ll be feeling gratitude that she can now turn her full attention to writing! She graciously took time out from a residency at Ragdale (a writers’ retreat), where she is working on her third novel, to discuss her short story collection.

10738849Here are some edited highlights of my 45-minute conversation with Rebecca Makkai.

I though we could start out by talking about short stories in general. I have to say, having been a bookseller for a long time, short stories can be a hard sell. I absolutely love them — I’ve always loved them. But the minute you tell a customer about a book of short stories, you can see the look on their face — “Oh no, not short stories!”

They always get critically recognized — it’s a matter of the commercial sales. My first experience a couple of years ago — which is proof of this — was when I was working on Small Business Saturday. Sherman Alexie started this initiative to get authors in bookstores the Saturday after Thanksgiving, to handsell books. I’ve done it here, and last year I did it at City Lit in Logan Square, and this year I’m going to Women and Children First down in the city.  I started to realize, selling here and selling in Logan Square, that I could not move a story collection to save my life.

You should have gotten a bonus if you did.

There was one guy, who came in shopping for his girlfriend who wanted to be a writer. That was the one person, who bought three story collections.

You’ll notice, they didn’t put “stories” on the cover (of Music for Wartime) — sneaky move!

I think part of the reason is there’s no hook for people the way there is with a novel. If someone wants to pitch a book to their book club, if it’s a novel, they can say “It’s the story of a woman who buys a bookstore, and this happens to her, and this happens to her”, and people get involved, and they want to hear more about it. With a story collection, you can’t pitch the plot that way.

And I have to add — tonight is the National Book Awards, and good news for the short story: two collections are on the short list: Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Karen Bender’s Refund.

And last year, the one that won was a book of short stories — Redeployment, by Phil Klay.

You always hear about how people’s attention spans are shorter today, in the Internet Age . . . you can read a story in 15 minutes, versus investing all that time in a novel.

I don’t think that’s true. Look at what people watch on TV. The age of the little 30-minute sitcom is over. People want epics. They want to binge-watch seven hour-long episodes of something. I get it, I write novels too. But I feel that people are missing out if they don’t read short stories. They’re missing out on what can be done — the avant-garde of literature.

You can take so many more risks with a short story.

Yes, think of something like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. You cannot maintain that for 300 pages. No one wants to read a 300-page novel about a cockroach. But you can do it for 15 pages. You can be experimental with form, with language in a short story in a way that would be unsustainable or unbearable in a 300-page novel. So when people miss that, they’re missing, I think, what literature can do.

I’ve made my peace with it because every year I watch the Oscars, and when they start with the awards for short films, I go make popcorn.

Getting back to Kafka, you have a couple of stories that sort of remind me of his. This collection is so great because of that — the stories are all different in terms of tone, subject matter, and style. There’s magical realism, there’s humor, there are family legends — there’s so much variety here, but there’s something binding them all together. Every story is about somebody who’s creating something. Can you talk about how you assembled this group of stories and how you chose which ones to include?

Part of the reason this wasn’t my first book  and that I focused on my novels first is that I couldn’t understand how to put the stories I’d written into a collection. I feel like a story collection should be more than just a pile of stories and more than just a sum of its parts — it should be like an album, that adds up to something more.

Very early on, before I’d published my first novel, I sent out a really incomplete collection — someone had gotten me an introduction to a publisher — and they very wisely passed on the collection, because it didn’t come together at all. But the editor who wrote back took the time to say, “I could see these stories eventually coalescing around a theme. I notice the themes of both music and war are really prominent in these stories.” I was thinking about that letter years later, and the title, Music for Wartime, came to me. I liked that it sounded like an album, like an old LP of World War I songs.

The idea that those themes could coexist, and the themes I was already writing about, the stories I was already writing about artists and music, and the stories I was already writing about refugees and dissidents and interrogations and war, that they were really speaking to the same question. I think of it as a question rather than a theme, the question being, “What does it mean to try to make beauty, to make art or order in the midst of a brutal and chaotic world?”

auth-ph-13-cropped-jpeg1-300x400There are some stories interspersed that are almost like memoir snippets — I assume they’re fictionalized family history?

Overtly fictionalized nonfiction . . . It’s already  in many ways a collection about the line between fiction and reality — there’s a story about a reality TV show, for instance. So it felt right that these stories went in there — I was taking the story I’d been told, acknowledging that I don’t really know what happened, and then working with my uncertainty to create a piece of fiction. But it’s very clear that that’s what I’m doing, rather than passing them off as fiction, or passing them off as nonfiction, kind of laying bare the process a little bit.

Can you share a little about your family history? 

My father was a refugee in 1956 following the failed Hungarian revolution. There are three stories in here that are about his parents. These are the pieces that I thought fit into a collection of fiction rather than a nonfiction account. Her mother was a really well-known Hungarian novelist. She wrote something like 40 novels — which I haven’t read because they’re written in Hungarian. My grandfather — and they were only married for a few years — was a member of Parliament and was in many ways, at least for a while, on the wrong side of history and was the author of the second set of anti-Jewish laws in Hungary. Later, he did other things that sort of contradicted that, but it’s not entirely clear to me why and what the pivot point was for him. So they’re fascinating people . . . ultimately, I’m going to be writing something longer about them — a sort of nonfiction investigation.

What do you think makes a great short story? I know you teach writing — if a student were to ask you what makes a story successful, what would you say?

What literary fiction is trying to do in the contemporary age is really different from what it was trying to do, say, 200 years ago. The contemporary project is largely concerned with how much people can change over the course of a narrative — over the course of a novel, over the course of 20 pages. Our question is really one of character development — which is where literary fiction tends to differ from certain genre fiction, which is much more about the conventions of plot, or establishing an alternate world. So when short stories fail, it’s almost always because the character doesn’t change, or only changes once. You need a change to set the story in motion, but you also need a change at the climactic scene of the story, you need an ultimate change for that character, a reason that the story has been told. It can happen in three pages, it can happen in 25 pages, it can happen in 320 pages.












10 Fall Paperback Picks

Last month, the New York Times published an article called “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print is Far From Dead”.  The article’s main point was that the predicted “digital apocalypse” hasn’t occurred — sales of e-books are declining and independent bookstores are more robust than ever. Some industry “experts” have taken issue with the article, noting that the e-books referred to in the story are only those published by major publishers, not the gazillions of very cheap e-books available online. Fortune magazine says: “What’s really been happening is that the market share of established publishers has been declining, while sales of independently published e-books have been growing. In particular, sales of books that don’t even have industry standard ISBN numbers have increased.”

A number of authors have been very successful selling their own e-books. John Locke (the 21st century self-published author, not the 18th century philosopher) has published dozens of books since 2010, including How I Sold 1 Million Ebooks in 5 Months, and receives rave reviews from his fans. In fact, 83% of Amazon reviewers gave Locke’s The Love You Crave 4 or 5 stars; in contrast, 62% of reviewers awarded Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch 4 or 5 stars. Are readers deciding to buy The Love You Crave instead of The Goldfinch? No, but as traditional publishers have raised the prices of e-books, more readers are buying the paperback version of The Goldfinch instead of the e-book.

The Association of American Publishers reported that paperback sales increased by 8.4% in the first half of 2015. In many cases, the price of a paperback is nearly the same as the price of an e-book. The Strand Bookstore in New York City has a large table stacked with paperbacks, strategically located by the store’s entrance, with a sign reading “Cheaper than the E-Book”.

Here are 10 recent paperback releases (five fiction, five nonfiction) to pick up this fall:

9781555977207-1On Immunity by Eula Biss
At first glance, On Immunity is an examination of the anti-vaccination movement, but this fascinating book can’t be easily categorized. The online magazine Salon describes it well:  “Part memoir, part cultural criticism and part science journalism . . . an elegant reflection on a very contemporary flavor of fear.” Book clubs will find plenty to discuss.

9780547939414_hres 2The Best American Short Stories 2015 edited by T.C. Boyle and Heidi Pitlor
Every year, I look forward to the new edition of The Best American Short Stories — along with its companions, The Best American EssaysThe Best American Food Writing, The Best American Travel Writing, and more. They are perfect for keeping on your nightstand  or in your car and picking up when you have 15 minutes or so to read.

9780143108399The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
Ebershoff is executive editor and vice president of Penguin Random House, where he’s edited dozens of well-known books, including several Pulitzer Prize winners. He’s also written several three novels and a book of short stories. I loved The 19th Wife, a  bestselling double narrative about the Mormon Church in the 19th century and today. Now I’m reading The Danish Girl, Ebershoff’s first novel, which is based on the true story of the first transgendered woman. The movie version, starring Eddie Remayne, will be released next month and I want to read the book first — I’m really enjoying it so far.

9780062359940An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter by Paul Daugherty
Daugherty, career sports writer and father of an adult daughter with Down’s Syndrome, has written a wonderful book for any parent. Through the story of the first 25 years of his daughter Jillian’s life, Daugherty reminds us of the precious gifts our children are, “exceptional” or not. That sounds hokey, but the book isn’t. For my full review, click here.

9780143127314Last Night’s Reading: Illustrated Encounters with Extraordinary Authors by Kate Gavino
The author, like me, loves to attend author readings. Unlike me, every time she goes to a reading she draws a portrait of the author and writes down her favorite quote. She’s been to more than 100 readings in the New York area, and she keeps a map of all the events, adding a pin every time she goes to a reading. Everything about this book, from the drawings to the hand-lettered quotes, is absolutely charming.

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister
Macallister’s debut is a historical novel about a young, female magician (the “Amazing Arden”) at the turn of the 20th century, who is accused of murder. She is captured and interrogated by a country sheriff who has problems of his own, and during the course of one long night in a rural police station, we learn about the magician’s past. How did an aspiring dancer, born into a wealthy family, end up running a successful traveling magic show — and running for her life? It’s a terrific period piece, with a murder mystery and just a touch of the supernatural. If you enjoyed Water for Elephants, you’ll love this book.

9780544570405_hresWhen Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning
Between 1943 and 1947, the government distributed 120 million paperback books (called Armed Services Editions, or ASEs) to millions of United States servicemen. Special favorites were A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Great Gatsby. Manning’s stirring book illustrates the power these books had to combat Nazi propaganda,  “soothe an aching heart, renew hope for the future, and provide a respite when there was no escape” and to “build a new literate middle class” after the war.

9780143127789The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books by Azar Nafisi
In this insightful follow-up to Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi explores three seminal American novels — Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. These novels, and others, “link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present, and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become.” Interwoven with Nafisi’s literary analysis is the story of her journey to become an American citizen. The book “is a priceless gift to readers who revel in literary fiction”, according to the Chicago Tribune. (Interestingly, the original subtitle of the book was America in Three Books.)

white-collar-girl_brown_Page_1-copyWhite Collar Girl by Renee Rosen (due November 3)
Rosen is carving out a nice niche for herself — historical page-turners set in Chicago. She’s written about Al Capone and organized crime (Dollface) and Marshall Field and the Gilded Age (What the Lady Wants); her new book, a paperback original, focuses on a young woman trying to break into journalism in the 1950s at the Chicago Tribune. (The newspaper column she writes is called “White Collar Girl”.) Like her other books, Rosen’s latest is full of well-known figures — from Mayor Daley to Mike Royko to Ernest Hemingway.

9780142426296Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
One of my favorite authors ventures into YA literature with this  imaginative novel about a   traumatized young girl who is sent to a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” After she and several other students are hand-picked for a special English class (based on Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar), they find that writing in their journals enables them to re-experience life before their traumas occurred. I’m looking forward to talking about the book with our store’s YA book group.

What paperbacks are you planning on reading this fall?

Mendocino Fire — Book Review

Mendocino-Fire-394x600-197x300She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth — at least, she’s seen one or two who were, in their spellbound moment, the incarnation of extremest human beauty. They were not themselves. Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure they ought not to have understood at their age.

Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness”

Heidi Pitlor, series editor of The Best American Short Stories, estimates she reads between 3,500 and 4,500 stories a year — yet even she cannot explain exactly what makes short story succeed. “It’s easier, in the end, to say what doesn’t work than to pinpoint exactly what does, as a successful short story does not expose its mechanics”, she says in an article entitled “What Makes a Good Short Story‘, adding that “a good story tells you something interesting about someone. Things happen in a good story. People reveal who they are.”

The stories in Elizabeth Tallent’s brilliant collection, Mendocino Fire, unveil the inner lives of a diverse cast of characters. The stories are peopled with men and women who face turning points in their relationships with others and emotional crises within themselves. The twenty-something son of a fisherman comes to term with his father’s rejection (“The Wrong Son”); an aging political activist blames a scavenged Persian rug for the demise of his hasty marriage (“Tabriz’); a wronged woman drives across the country to track down her ex-husband and his new wife, with surprising repercussions (“Nobody You Know”); a working-class couple pressure their teenage son into a shotgun marriage and become entwined with his troubled wife (“Never Come Back”); a young woman embarks on an impulsive affair with a famous writer (“Narrator”). These five stories, and the five more that comprise Mendocino Fire, exemplify short story writing at its best.

As every writing instructor I’ve ever had has emphasized, short stories depend on scenes. Pitlor emphasizes the importance of scenes:

Sometimes, story writers seem to forget to write scenes . . . Too often, we as readers enter a story via a small action (a door opening, a phone ringing) and then are held captive while the author utilizes a disproportionate amount of space introducing a character, his marriage, his children, his divorce, his parents and his emotional limitations before we return to the room he just entered or the phone call that just begun. In a 17-page story, each page matters. Each sentence matters. Pacing matters.

With one exception, the stories in Mendocino Fire are built on scenes. In “Narrator”, the protagonist describes the first hours she spent with her soon-to-be lover — a writer who understands very well the importance of detail:

We spent the night over coffee in a cafe on Telegraph Avenue, breaking story-length pieces off from our lives, making a slice of torte disappear in alternating forkfuls. Our waitress’s forgetfulness he explained as distraction: she had a sick child at home. How can you tell? Unicorn stamp on her left hand. How a local pediatrician commemorates non-crying visits.

Tallent, who has been an English professor at Stanford since 1994, is the author of three previous short story collections (In Constant Flight, Time with Children, and Honey), along with a novel (Museum Pieces) and a work of critical analysis (Married Men and Magic Tricks: John Updike’s Erotic Heroes). When Time with Children was published in 1987, the New York Times review commented that “Like John Updike . . . Ms. Tallent is interested in the ways in which the institution of marriage affects our contradictory yearnings for freedom and safety, independence and domesticity.” And like Updike, Tallent constructs beautiful sentences — some very short, some almost a full page in length. One sentence, in particular from “Briar Switch”, a story about a woman facing the impending death of her estranged father (and fittingly, the final story in the collection) is really a prose poem. Both physical and emotional coldness figure into “Briar Switch”, as this sentence excerpt illustrates:

At the other end of the closet is her father’s overcoat, and it stops her, his overcoat simply hanging there, not an overcoat she has any special associations with except that by virtue of being his it evokes the first overcoat she knew him in, no cold like the winter cold borne in with her father’s overcoat, coldest in its folds, but also, all over, distinctly cold, and as if the cryptic eyes your father turns on you were not mystery enough, this ghostly cold comes as a sly erotic assault, a little squall for your child’s senses when that coat shrugs its way down to you . .

Talent’s stories have been published in many magazines and anthologies (The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s,The Paris Review, The Best of Tin House, The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Short Stories) and have received many awards. Pitlor selected my favorite  story in Mendocino Fire, “The Wilderness”, for the 2013 edition of The Best American Short Stories.  This story breaks the rules — it’s a “sceneless” (to use Pitlor’s word) meditation. The story begins with an English professor contemplating her students’ dependence on electronic devices and their desire for constant connectivity, and ends with the professor ruminating on her great-great-grandfather’s experiences as a Civil War soldier in the Battle of the Wilderness and her own need for connection — with him and with other people. It’s a beautiful, poetic story that demands to be read again and again. The professor recalls a childhood visit to a museum, when she encountered mummies and “for the first time comprehended death”:

Her heart has always been the same size as it was that long-ago Sunday when she first saw those eyes pointed at both ends, and she has always felt the same to herself. Secretly, because people are supposed to go through enormous changes, to mature, she wonders if there is something wrong with her, to feel such consistency between who she is now and who she was then when she looked down into those alive-dead eyes.

The professor, like Tallent’s other characters —  Finn, the tree-sitter in “Mendocino Fire”; Clio in “Eros 101”;  the ex-wife in “Mystery Caller” — wants what we all want: intimate connection with other people, to know and be known. That universal longing links the ten stories of Mendocino Fire. The collection is Tallent’s first book in 20 years, but fortunately we won’t have to wait that long for her next book — she has a memoir,  Perfectionism, due for publication in 2016.

Don’t think you’re a short story fan? Check out Five Reasons to Read Short Stories

Books on the Table in New York

Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies.
Nora Ephron (from You’ve Got Mail, the best bookstore movie ever)

If I ever get rich, I’m going to come here and buy all the books I want.
Overheard at the Strand Bookstore

3782319053_344f405b95_bMy husband and I just spent a gorgeous fall weekend in New York with our son, and actually did buy some school supplies — at the famous Strand Bookstore, which claims to have 18 miles of books. That’s the length of the New Hampshire coastline. The books (new and used) at the Strand are not only crammed into hundreds of shelves, but piled on table after table.

The Strand has more tables than I’ve ever seen in a bookstore, and they aren’t your usual “new fiction” and “new nonfiction”.  Here are just a few of the Strand’s tables:

IMG_1787Award-winning books
My favorite: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (also on the Read the Book First table of books adapted into movies)

Culinary literature
My favorite: Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Must-own short stories (What a pleasure to see a whole table devoted to short stories!)
My favorite: The Collected Stories by Grace Paley

Books everybody loves
My favorite: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Most curious selection: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

IMG_1794Expand your horizons
I must really need to expand my horizons, because I hadn’t read much of anything on this table. Maybe I’ll start with Oliver Sacks, whose books are currently featured?

YA bestsellers
My favorite: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

One table in particular attracted a large crowd — the “erotica” table, which surprisingly is located right next to the children’s section. Maybe the staff has found that parents of young children are the store’s biggest erotica customers? I quickly moved away from that table, imagining how embarrassing it would be if my son found me browsing there. I couldn’t even say I was doing “research”, because Lake Forest Book Store definitely does not carry erotica. We don’t even have a romance section.

Just to prove that no bookstore can stock everything, the Strand didn’t have a book I wanted to take a look at — Symphony for City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson. I always feel a little bad, even though I shouldn’t, when customers come into our store with a book review ripped out of a magazine or newspaper and we don’t have the book — even though I know we can’t have everything in our little store, and that we do a really good job stocking the books that appeal to our customer base. So I felt better when a huge bookstore like the Strand didn’t have a book that had received a great review in that day’s New York Times.

9781857593280_p0_v1_s192x300I took a lot of photos in the Strand, although I was a little worried someone would confront me, thinking I was one of those awful people who take photos and then order the book elsewhere. Actually, I became one of those people later that day when we were in the gift shop at the Frick Collection. We bought a copy of the Frick’s Handbook of Paintings, along with Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America by Les Standiford, and then on the way out Jeff saw something that intrigued him called The Curious Map Book, which was large and heavy. So I snapped a photo (sorry, Frick Collection gift shop) and e-mailed an order to Lake Forest Book Store.

It’s nearly impossible to leave the Strand without buying something. Jeff and I each bought a blank book (our “school supplies”) and I bought a journal called Literary Listography: My Reading Life in Lists. I can’t resist that kind of thing, and this one is filled with hand-drawn illustrations. I successfully resisted buying more reading material to lug home, but Jeff and Charlie filled a  couple of shopping bags with books. (None of their selections came from the erotica section.)

9781400031702I tossed in a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for Charlie’s roommate. At brunch, he had asked me whether I thought The Goldfinch was worth reading. I said it absolutely was, but recommended that he read The Secret History first. “If it involves a bitchy female protagonist, I’m in,” he said. I said that it did, which isn’t exactly true, but I’m pretty sure he’ll love the book anyway.

We had brunch at Pete’s Tavern, which says it’s the oldest bar in New York and bills itself as “the tavern O. Henry made famous.” Supposedly, O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi” there. Of greater interest to me is the fact that Ludwig Bemelmans created Madeline in a booth at Pete’s. According to a 1999 article in the New York Times:

Petes-tavern-2007_crop-1Madeline must be the only famous French orphan born in a tavern near Gramercy Park. It was there, 60 years ago, that Ludwig Bemelmans, her creator, jotted on the back of a menu the famous phrases, ”In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived 12 little girls in two straight lines.”

A plaque honoring Bemelmans, who died in 1962, was dedicated at that bar, Pete’s Tavern, in late September. The small crowd that gathered for the occasion included his widow, Madeleine (known as Mimi), and his daughter, Barbara, who were inspirations for Madeline.

9781101911617Because it’s a requirement to go to the theater during a New York weekend, we saw this year’s Tony Award winner —  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The performances and the staging in the play, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel, were superb. You don’t so much watch the play as become immersed in the mind of the main character, a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. To the critic who sniffed,  “I’m sorry to tell you a winsome puppy figures in (the play’s) denouement”, I’d like to say that we really liked the puppy. Haddon published a fascinating piece in the Guardian about the process of adapting his novel into a play, noting that “Just as the novel was a novel about novels and how we read them, so the play is a play about plays and how we watch them.”

I’m already looking forward to planning our next trip, which I’m hoping will include tickets to the hit play Hamilton (inspired by Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton). And how about staying at the Library Hotel, in which “each of the 10 guestroom floors honor one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and each of our 60 rooms are uniquely adorned with books and art exploring a distinctive topic within the category it belongs to.)?

10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking

What makes a good book club book? I discussed this at length in another post (How to Choose Great Book Club Books) over a year ago, but on rereading that post I realize I didn’t clearly state one of the most important criteria: the best book club books are the ones your club is enthusiastic about reading. Yes, one of the best things about being part of a book club is reading books you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up — but that can be one of the worst things too. I would probably never have read Station Eleven — which is one of my all-time favorites — if it hadn’t been a book club selection, but I also would never have suffered through Interview With a Vampire, and I’m never getting back the hours of my life I wasted on Anne Rice. (In fairness to the long-defunct book club that picked Interview With a Vampire, I should mention that the club also selected Crossing to Safety, which remains one of my top recommendations for book groups.)

So, the first step is choosing books that the group looks forward to reading, rather than books that your members view as homework assignments. Keep in mind that you can’t please everyone, and almost every book club has at least one naysayer. The next challenge is making sure that your selections will inspire the kinds of discussions your book club is interested in having. Groups of friends (“private” clubs) often are more likely to talk about personal issues, while groups that meet in libraries, bookstores, community centers, etc. (“public” clubs) are more likely to concentrate on literary criticism. And although almost any book, in the right hands, can stimulate conversation, some books that are enormously fun to read are clunkers when it comes to discussion. Some books are too polarizing and may provoke arguments rather than civil discourse.

Here are 10 recent books that I think would get your book club talking.

9780062268679Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green
Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history.
Something to talk about: Green feels ashamed of her family’s actions both before she was born and during her childhood. Why do people feel guilty for past actions of family members?

did-you-ever-have-a-family-9781476798172_lgDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
One of four American novels longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this gorgeously written novel will keep you up late at night and it will break your heart.
Something to talk about: The book was reviewed twice in the New York Times  — in the Sunday book review section and then on Monday, by a different reviewer. The first review was positive and respectful, calling the novel “masterly” and “thoughtful”; the second was not just negative, but unkind and snarky: “Critics have arranged warm reviews around it like tea candles . . .  But the pocket where I generally put the nice things I want to say about a book is, in this instance, pretty empty.” Why do you think two reviews would vary to that degree? And is there ever any reason for a mean-spirited review?

55970100767930LStill Time by Jean Hegland
John Wilson, an English professor with Alzheimer’s disease, finds that his extensive knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare helps him make sense of an increasingly bewildering world. Like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Still Time is about a professor suffering from dementia — but it’s an entirely different, and I’d argue, a more subtle and thought-provoking novel.
Something to talk about: John named his estranged daughter Miranda, after the heroine of one of his favorite Shakespeare plays. How do the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in The Tempest connect to John’s efforts to make amends at the end of his life?

9780804170154The Painter by Peter Heller
If these first lines don’t grab you, I don’t know what will: “I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.”  Jim Stegner is a painter of “outsider art” and fly fisherman with a propensity for violence who gets himself involved with some very bad people. Is it any coincidence that this character and Wallace Stegner (“the dean of Western writers”) share a last name?
Something to talk about: What caused Jim to become a violent man? What causes anyone to become violent?

02dde0b11247a412ef5ab2d18f7ba165Hold Still by Sally Mann
One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read — it doesn’t seem fair that Sally Mann is a talented writer and photographer! This is a book that must be read in print form — the photographs are integral to the story, and an e-book doesn’t do them justice. And if you discuss this book, someone must bring a book of Mann’s photographs to the meeting.
Something to talk about: What is art? (Now there’s a question you can never get tired of!)

9781250012579Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
What a jewel of a book! It’s classified as YA, but the story of two lonely teenagers who become friends and later fall in love will appeal to anyone who has a heart. It’s hard to believe that Rowell’s characters aren’t real people; their voices are original and true. It’s the kind of book you want to buy multiple copies of and give to everyone you know.
Something to talk about: What makes this novel a YA novel? Yes, it’s told from the perspective of two teenagers — but so are many adult books.

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scott
Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his wise veterinarian grandfather in Medgar, Kentucky. Pops, whose life has brought him wisdom and an unwavering moral compass, will remind readers of Atticus Finch. Medgar is a depressed coal town facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult. Read this one instead of Go Set a Watchman!
Something to talk about: Each of the short chapters has a poetic title that was obviously chosen with care: “The Occasional Shifting of Boot Sole on Pine”; “The Price of Future Memories”; “Under the Protection of Red Cloud”. What does this add to the novel? Why do some authors number their chapters instead of giving them titles?

MSY_paperbackMy Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
A delightful memoir about Rakoff’s stint as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent, this book is, according to the Chicago Tribune, “a beautifully written tribute to the way things were at the edge of the digital revolution, and also to the evergreen power of literature to guide us through all of life’s transitions.” The book provides plenty of fodder for discussion on its own, but it would be fun to read in conjunction with a Salinger book or short story. It’s perfect for fans of Marjorie Hart’s Summer at Tiffany.
Something to talk about: What was your first “real” job, and what part did it play in your eventual career?

9780525427209Bettyville by George Hodgman
When George Hodgman lost his editorial job in New York, he returned to his hometown of Paris, Missouri (“population 1,246 and falling”) to care for his 91-year-old mother. Hodgman’s honest and affecting portrait of their relationship moved me both to laughter and tears. This memoir is a terrific companion to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal — which I believe everyone should read, but may be too painful and intense to talk about in a group setting. Ann Patchett has this to say about Being Mortal: “I’m all for people having different tastes, liking different books, but everyone needs to read this book because at some point everyone is going to die, and it’s possible that someone we love is going to die before us.”
Something to talk about: George, of course, does a lot for Betty — he moves in with her and becomes her caretaker. But what does Betty do for George?

0395843677The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison
I absolutely love short stories, and I can’t understand why they aren’t more popular — especially with book groups. They’re perfect for all those people who say they don’t have time to read. (For more on my thoughts on short stories, read 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories.) I recently joined a group that discusses short stories, and we spent a fascinating 90 minutes talking about “Bright and Morning Star”, written by Richard Wright in 1939. The group spends several months discussing stories from a particular decade in the 20th century. A group could choose any anthology of short stories or essays; the Best American Series (“the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction”)published by Mariner Books, will come out in early October. There are collections of travel writing, science and nature writing, sports writing, and more.

For further reading on choosing “discussable” books, please check out Is Your Book Club in a Rut? Here Are 10 Helpful Hints, by a librarian who’s experienced at working with book groups. “Steer clear of plot driven novels,” she advises, and I couldn’t agree more. The Girl on the Train is a terrific page-turner, but I’m not sure it would lend itself to an in-depth discussion. It would be fun to serve gin and tonics in honor of Rachel, although I don’t think the canned variety is available in the United States.

I’d love to know what your book club is reading this fall — and if you discussed any terrific books over the summer. I’m planning on compiling reading lists for different kinds of book clubs, and welcome your suggestions.