Novel Destinations — Author Interview

Novel Destinations cover. . . In our travels near and far, we’ve not only looked to novels to provide a new dimension to our travel experiences, but equally, we’ve sought out the literary places in our travels that will give us a deeper perspective on the books we cherish.
Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, Novel Destinations

If you love to read and to travel (and to read while you travel!) you will feel as though the authors of Novel Destinations wrote their informative and delightful book just for you. Subtitled A Travel Guide to Literary Landmarks From Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, this comprehensive handbook, including 500 literary sites,  is a dream come true for traveling bibliophiles. I think I used a whole pad of Post-it notes marking all the bookish places I want to visit. Like the authors (“two lifelong voracious readers who share an equally passionate appetite for exploration”), I prepare for a trip by reading novels about the area I’m preparing to visit.

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The authors at Washington Irving’s estate in Tarrytown, NY

Part of the appeal of Novel Destinations is its creative organization and beautiful design. The book is divided into two sections, “Travel by the Book”, which covers literary experiences (author houses and museums, writers at home and abroad, literary festivals and tours, and book-related lodgings, restaurants, and bars), and “Journeys Between the Pages”, which describes in depth eleven locales immortalized by famed novelists. The two authors spent years traveling the world collecting information — from locations, dates, and hours to reading suggestions and fun literary trivia and gossip.

Shannon was kind enough to answer, in detail, my questions about her top tdestinations and her favorite books, authors, and characters. She even shared a few packing tips!

Of all the “novel destinations” you’ve visited, was there one that a) surprised you the most and b) disappointed (or underwhelmed you) the most? Can you pick your very favorite literary destination — one that you’d return to again and again?

A place that surprised me is Alexandre Dumas’ Château de Monte Cristo near Paris for how completely imaginative it is. First you walk along a wooded path and through man-made grottos, then past a waterfall and a moat-encircled pavilion Dumas used as his office. Finally, you reach the castle, which looks like a confection made of stone. One of the highlights inside is the ornate and colorful Moorish Room, designed by Tunisian craftsmen Dumas brought back with him after visiting the African nation. The Château de Monte Cristo is a domain worthy of an adventure writer.

Honestly, I haven’t been disappointed in any of the literary sites I’ve visited. Moderating expectations is a good idea, though, depending on the place because each one really is unique. Some are lavish like Sir Walter Scott’s castle in the Scottish border country, whereas Edgar Allan Poe’s tiny cottage in New York City reflects his hardscrabble circumstances. Mark Twain’s richly designed and decorated house in Connecticut incorporates his love of travel, while W.B. Yeats’ stone tower in the Irish countryside contains no furnishings but plenty of atmosphere.

Hemingway Home in Key WestA literary landmark that I have returned to again and again is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. I’ve been there three times, taking the excellent and entertaining tour on each visit. Although I confess it’s not only the literary aspect that draws me to the Hemingway Home. There are 50 or so cats that live on the property and have the run of the house and grounds, even sleeping in Hemingway’s bedroom. A ship’s captain gave Hemingway a six-toed cat named Snow White, and some of the felines that live there today are its descendants. With the combination of a literary connection and cats, the Hemingway Home is pretty much my version of heaven.

What would your five “desert island” books be? I find it impossible to choose just one, but if you can — go for it!

71ptfhgn4clIt doesn’t seem fair to select a novel by just one Brontë sister, so I would have to go with Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne). Plus while reading the books I could reminisce about visiting Brontë Country, the atmospheric moors in West Yorkshire, England.

Rounding out my picks would be two of my favorite travel books: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (gossipy and lyrical) and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the ultimate road trip memoir.

Do you read electronically when you travel, or do you carry paper books with you? What’s your favorite reading location — on a plane, a beach, a cafe, your hotel room . . .? Have you ever been stranded anywhere without anything to read?

I was slow coming around to the idea of an e-reader, but now I wouldn’t travel without one. It means you have a current read plus a choice of back-up books at the ready; it has built-in lighting, which is handy when sharing a hotel room with another person who wants to turn in earlier than you do; and it saves space. I spent the last three years trekking around the globe with a 40-litre backpack as my main piece of luggage, and there wasn’t much room to spare. And since I’ve been using an e-reader while traveling, I’ve never been caught without anything to read (every bibliophile’s nightmare!). Even if I’m somewhere with no shops around or finish a book late at night in a hotel room, I can download something .

I read printed books, too, especially when I’m in a fixed location for a while and don’t need to tote them along. On a book exchange shelf at a ferry terminal along Alaska’s Inside Passage, I found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and devoured it during the ride instead of admiring the scenery.

My favorite place to read is at the beach, with sitting in front of a roaring fire a close second—the latter is more of a fantasy, though, since it rarely happens.

Can you share any special packing tips for travelers? Anything you can’t leave home without?

m_56df5ef73c6f9f87d700d6c4Mostly my packing tips are about saving space, honed during years of living from a backpack. Some of my favorites: exfoliating soap bars (no need to carry both bath gel and a mesh scrubby; Etsy.com has a ton of varieties), a sun hat that can be rolled up (ones made of grosgrain ribbon are attractively detailed and sturdy enough to keep their shape), and Butterfly Twists folding ballet flats. And I always have a pashmina or other large scarf with me. It can double as a blanket on an airplane and comes in handy as a cover-up when visiting churches or temples.

What were your favorite books as a child?

I trace my wanderlust back to a book I read as a kid: an illustrated children’s version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The thrilling story was like a siren’s song with its depictions of distant ports of call. I was also partial to biographies about women like Clara Barton and Marie Curie. And Nancy Drew mysteries.

If you could meet a fictional character (or two), who would you pick?

Sleuthing with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson would be a great adventure. We would then cap off a day of detecting with a stop at the Museum Tavern, a London pub across from the British Museum where Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular.

1934If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?

I once took an online quiz, “Which Classic Literary Character Are You?”, and it came up with Jo March. Which seems appropriate because Novel Destinations was partly inspired by a trip I took to Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, with my mother, sister, and niece. Visiting Orchard House is like stepping into the pages of Little Women.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you want to know?

I would love an invitation to visit Edith Wharton at The Mount, her grand Berkshires estate. (She designed the 42-room house and elaborate gardens herself.) We would sit on the terrace and reminisce about our travels, including her journeys to Malta, the Italian Alps, and other destinations. Joining us would be Henry James, Wharton’s close friend and a regular guest at The Mount. The two once traveled together through France and toured the home of French feminist writer George Sand, whom they both admired. True literary travelers, the duo even nicknamed their car “George” in her honor.

9780345516541And finally — what’s the best book you’ve read recently (in the past year or so)?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan has adventure and romance, lovely writing and a literary angle. It’s a novel featuring Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Osbourne, how they met and their remarkable life together, which took them from an art colony in France to the South Seas. The story made me cry at the end, which I consider the sign of a good book.

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The Women in the Castle — Book Review

The Women in the Castle coverAlbrecht had not approved at first. Assassination. Murder. It was not the culmination he wanted for the resistance movement. In his estimation, injustice could be fought only with justice — he was a lawyer to the core. Murder was evil. This was an absolute. But if it would end the war and prevent the murder of thousands? Even millions? They had debated this often deep into the night with him probing his own convictions and Marianne playing devil’s advocate. Although in fact, she was not the devil’s advocate. She believed Connie and von Stauffenberg and the others were right. Hitler must be killed.
Jessica Shattuck, The Women in the Castle

The “women in the castle” are widows of three of the men who participated in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. In the aftermath of the war, they and their children take refuge in Burg Lingenfels, an ancient, crumbling castle in Bavaria. Their only common bond is that their husbands sacrificed their lives in a futile effort to save their country from Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels, the moral center of the novel and “the product of an oppressively proper Prussian upbringing”, shelters her fellow war widows and their children in the safest place she knows, a fortress once famous for parties that celebrated “liberal, bohemian culture.”

The novel opens on November 9, 1938, the date that Nazis carried out pogroms against German Jews in the infamous attacks that would later be known as Kristallnacht.  That night, at a party at Burg Lingenfels, the news reaches Marianne, her husband, Albrecht, her close childhood friend, Martin Constantine (Connie) Fledermann, and others who oppose Hitler. Shocked and saddened, they “commit to active resistance from this day forward”. Although she is insulted by the men’s chauvinism, Marianne agrees to be “the commander of wives and children”, a role she takes seriously, “long after Connie was dead, Albrecht was dead, Germany itself was dead, and half the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two . . .”.

The novel jumps to June 1945, when Marianne rescues Connie’s widow, Benita Fledermann, a young and uneducated woman from a small village, who has been held captive by the Russians in Berlin, along with her young son, who spent the war in a “Children’s Home” run by the Gestapo. Later, Marianne tracks down Ania Grabarek, widow of Pietre Grabarek, a Polish resister, in a displaced persons camp and brings her and her two sons to the castle.

The rest of the novel is devoted to the women’s experiences during and after the war, as Jessica Shattuck skillfully shifts points of view and time periods. The story, which both begins and ends at Burg Lingenfels, is not a traditional plot, but the unfolding of the women’s lives as they grapple with the guilt they feel for their wartime actions. In this way, they are emblematic of the German people, faced with their complicity in Nazi war crimes. But each of the women emerges as a believable, full recognized character. Readers may not agree with some of their choices, but they will understand.

In an interview, the author describes the origins of her novel: her German mother and Nazi grandparents. She spent a summer during college interviewing her grandmother, who was remarkably open about Nazism. (Shattuck’s grandfather, a “difficult and intimidating figure” was not as forthcoming.) Shattuck realized that many, if not most, members of her grandparents’ generation (“ordinary Germans”) were enthusiastic Nazis. Her grandmother wanted to talk about how this could have happened:

And she wanted to explain how it was possible that she could have been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. She did not want to be forgiven. She wanted to be understood. This is, I think, an important and often confused distinction. And in some ways, it formed the foundation of my novel.

Another source of inspiration for The Women in the Castle was a reunion of the wives and children of resisters that Shattuck attended:

One of my mother’s best friends was the daughter of a man executed for his role in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The summer after my mother died, I accompanied this friend to her mother’s eightieth birthday party . . . Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had a wholly different connection to their German past: their loved ones had been heroes rather than villains.

647492Shattuck says that although “The Women in the Castle centers on three widows of resisters, it is as much a book about complicity as it is one about resistance.”  Franz Muller, with whom Benita falls in love, is tortured by his complicity in atrocities. I wasn’t surprised to read in Shattuck’s Acknowledgments that Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning was one of her sources. One of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, Ordinary Men describes how a group of middle-aged men willingly murdered thousands of innocent Jews, even though they would suffer no negative repercussions if they refused to participate.

We’d all like to think that if we were Germans in 1938, we would have seen Hitler’s evil as clearly Marianne von Lingenfels and her fellow resisters did. But would we?

Readers who appreciate character-driven novels and want to understand World War II from a different perspective will love The Women in the Castle. I’m adding to my list of favorite World War II fiction, along with All the Light We Cannot See (still my #1!), Lilac Girls, Salt to the Sea, and The Invisible Bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

Time for Spring Break

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March 31
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April 1

According to the saying, March goes out like a lamb. I don’t know about that, because yesterday as I looked out the window on the 18th floor of a Chicago high-rise I saw low-lying gray clouds obscuring the tops of skyscrapers, cold waves crashing dangerously close to Lake Shore Drive, and rain blowing sideways. Today, on April 1, the sun is shining and runners are once again crowding the sidewalks and paths, so maybe spring is on its way. I’m going to take a “spring break” from blogging for a few weeks, but here are a few books I enjoyed that have just hit the shelves.

You’ve probably heard about two of this spring’s “big books”, The Women in the Castle and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

25150798I loved Lisa See’s breakout novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but didn’t think her subsequent books were quite as good. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is on a par with Snow Flower. The story, centered on a Chinese peasant woman and the daughter she’s forced to abandon, who is adopted by an American family, is terrific — and the novel is packed with interesting information about Chinese hill tribes and the tea industry. When I started the book I assumed it was set in the past, and was shocked when I realized the tribal culture See describes so well has only recently faded away as modernization has entered the most remote areas of China.  (By the way,  On Gold Mountain, the chronicle of the See family’s history in the United States, reads like a novel and might be my favorite of all See’s books.)

y648Jessica Shattuck’s debut novel, The Women in the Castle, has received a lot of pre-publication hype — deservedly so. If you think you’ve read more than your share of World War II novels, think again, because The Women in the Castle provides a fascinating perspective unfamiliar to most readers. The “women” of the title are the widows of three conspirators who plotted to assassinate Hitler. I’ll post a full review on April 20.

5d1367e3f15a78dddf64c5f28d93d06eI’d like to recommend a smaller novel you may not have heard about — The Devil and Webster by Jean Hanff Korelitz. (For those who are wondering, the author is a cousin of Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road.) I read this book almost without stopping, and when I reached the very satisfying ending, I actually wished the book were longer. Often, when I finish a book, I think, Didn’t anyone edit this book? I could have cut out a third of it.

Not only is Korelitz a marvelous writer, whose sentences inspire admiration, she’s spun a clever tale about a topic of great interest to me: political correctness and dissent on college campuses. Readers of The Sabbathday River, a thriller Korelitz published almost twenty years ago, may remember the character of Naomi Roth — I actually did, which says a lot about the strength of Korelitz’s writing. Naomi Roth reappears in The Devil and Webster, this time as the president of a prestigious liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, struggling with a student protest that threatens both her career and her relationship with her daughter.

The student protestors are irate that a popular professor, whose field of study is “folklore” and is known for his entertaining lectures and easy A’s, has been denied tenure. What they don’t know, and the college administration can’t legally share with them, is that he is guilty of academic dishonesty:

Plagiarism, plagiarism, Naomi thought, scanning the printout from the website, which Kinikini had brought for her. It was an ugly word, ugly to anyone who’d ever attempted the delicate but gut-wrenching task of setting words onto paper (or its technological equivalents). Words might feel universal, but they were not, because when they were put together they made patterns, and those patterns were as personally composed as any line of music or labored-over pigment on a canvas.

Anyone who’s a fan of campus novels or social satire will love The Devil and Webster. I’ve enjoyed all of Korelitz’s earlier books (unlike her famous cousin, Helene Hanff, whose response to Korelitz’s first effort was “Why would you write this?”), particularly Admission and You Should Have Known (read my review here). Please let me know what’s on your reading list this spring!

10 Spring Paperbacks — 2017

Happy first day of spring! Today is the vernal equinox (or the autumnal equinox, if you’re in the southern hemisphere). I was a little fuzzy on the term “equinox”, so I turned to Google and found that the London Telegraph explained it very clearly:

The March equinox marks the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from south to north. This happens on March 19, 20 or 21 every year . . . Since night and day are nearly exactly the same length – 12 hours – all over the world the event is called the equinox, which in Latin, literally means ‘equal night’ (equi – equal, and nox – night).

I also didn’t know that certain rituals are associated with the spring equinox. According to the Elephant Journal, picnics, kite-flying, and special cleansing baths accompanied by candles and incense are good ways to celebrate spring. The article’s author also suggests an activity that, despite my enthusiasm for the coming season, I will not be engaging in:  “Gather a circle of sisters around a fire, to share stories, laughter and music. I’m usually naked dancing by my first bonfire if the neighbors are not up for the weekend, or indoors by the wood stove.”

9780544954618_hresI’m all for sharing stories, laughter, and music, but I like to keep my clothes on. And even though it’s supposed to be spring, I still like a cozy blanket over me when I read on the couch in the evening. Right now, I’m reading Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Irish author Sara Baume, just out in paperback. Told in poetic language, it’s the story of  two outcasts, a lonely 57-year-old man and his one-eyed dog. If you liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this will appeal to you.

Here are nine other terrific books, just out in paperback, that you may have missed in hardcover:

9781101883082Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find Hall’s debut novel both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis. Three narrators — a Polish teenager, a German doctor, and an American humanitarian, all based on real women, lend their distinctive voices to this meticulously researched story of heartbreak and courage.

The North Water by Ian McGuire
This adventure story certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I read it in two days. The North Water was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s ten best books, so I can’t be the only person who willingly reads about violence aboard a 19th century whaling expedition — gruesome murders, polar bear attacks, animal slaughter, and violence galore.

Church_AtomicWt_pbk_REV_rgb_HR_2MB (1)The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
Meridian (Meri), a young biology student at the University of Chicago, marries her much older professor, Alden, and gives up her own dreams of becoming an ornithologist when her husband is sent to Los Alamos to help develop the atomic bomb. This lovely novel of love, sacrifice, and societal change spans 30 years in Meri and Alden’s flawed marriage. This would be a perfect book club selection — beautiful writing and plenty of issues to discuss.

The Summer Before the War by 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.

1b1ceb0507bb9dd5c5166e1f00d0c6a0The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton (coming in paperback on April 4)
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’”.

A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by 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.

9780553447453Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Desmond, a sociologist, has written a work of nonfiction that reads like the most compelling novel you can imagine. Evicted is reminiscent of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Random Family, and There Are No Children Here. He follows eight Milwaukee families struggling to find and keep safe and affordable housing, along with the property owners who control their fates.

Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books Tht Can Change Lives by 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.

y6481The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love by Melissa Faye Greene
Melissa Fay Greene ( author of Praying for Sheetrock and There Is No Me Without You, among others) is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. The Underdogs tells the story of Karen Shirk, founder of the service dog academy 4 Paws for Ability. Karen trained her own service dog after she became profoundly disabled and was rejected by every service dog agency she approached. I was riveted by Karen’s story, and the stories of the amazing dogs she trains who are able to help people in ways that humans cannot.

Novels for Art Lovers

After finishing  A Piece of the World, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World” (reviewed earlier this week), I started thinking about novels inspired by paintings. Many favorites came to mind, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. Ever since I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I’ve loved books that take place in the art world. (Today’s children can enjoy Blue Balliett’s wonderful art mysteries, starting with Chasing Vermeer, and Marianne Malone’s Sixty-Eight Rooms series, set in one of the most enchanting places I know — the Thorne Miniature Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago.)

meisje_met_de_parelIn a TED talk called “Finding the Story Inside the Painting”  , Chevalier describes the affliction of “gallery fatigue” that many museumgoers experience when overwhelmed by galleries full of dazzling art. Her solution is to be selective and to concentrate on one painting:

When I go into a gallery, first of all, I go quite fast, and I look at everything, and I pinpoint the ones that make me slow down for some reason or other. I don’t even know why they make me slow down, but something pulls me like a magnet and then I ignore all the others, and I just go to that painting. So it’s the first thing I do is, I do my own curation. I choose a painting. It might just be one painting in 50. And then the second thing I do is I stand in front of that painting, and I tell myself a story about it.

Chevalier found inspiration in art for two of her other novels — Burning Bright (the paintings and poetry of William Blake) and The Lady and the Unicorn (the medieval tapestries hanging in the Cluny Museum in Paris). So have many other authors — here are a few of my favorites:

y648The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky
The boy in the painting was not pretty. He was too skinny in his red uniform, his face pasty and elongated. The paint was thick, thrown on; it looked as if the painter couldn’t be bothered to slow down and pay attention. Rose didn’t understand why her mother loved it so.
Rose Zimmer’s parents save her life by sending her on a Kindertransport from Austria to England in 1939. After the war, she desperately searches for her family’s Chaim Soutine painting, stolen by the Nazis. The search leads her to Lizzie Goldstein, whose father was the last owner of the painting — which has been stolen again, on Lizzie’s watch.

the_goldfinch_by_donna_tartThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2014)
. . .  If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.
I know it’s probably longer than it should be, but if you haven’t read The Goldfinch , which is all about the enduring power of art, you’re missing out on a real treasure. For a complete list (with illustrations) of the many paintings referred to in The Goldfinch, check out Beyond the Bird: Art in The Goldfinch.

madame_x_madame_pierre_gautreau_john_singer_sargent_1884_unfree_frame_cropI Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto
I had thought photography could reflect the truth of a woman’s beauty. But after seeing these horrible prints, I decided it was an imperfect art, impossible for the photographer and sitter to control. Painting, on the other hand, I began to believe, could reveal something greater than reality. In the right hands with the right chemistry between artist and sitter, painting could illuminate a higher truth. More to the point, it had the power to immortalize.
John Singer Sargent’s portrait of American beauty Virginie Gautreau shocked audiences at the 1884 Paris Salon, damaging the reputations of both artist and subject.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
She thought of all the people in all the paintings she had seen that day, not just Father’s, in all the paintings of the world, in fact. Their eyes, the particular turn of a head, their loneliness or suffering or grief was borrowed by an artist to be seen by other people throughout the years who would never see them face to face. People who would be that close to her, she thought, a matter of a few arms’ lengths, looking, looking, and they would never know her.
Based on a fictional painting by Vermeer, Vreeland’s novel moves through several centuries as the painting passes from owner to owner. Vreeland has built her career on fiction set in the world of art — Lisette’s List (Chagall), The Passion of Artemisia (Artemisia Gentileschi), Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Louis Tiffany), Luncheon of the Boating Party (Renoir) . . .

painted-girls_ffThe Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
We are the daughters of sewing maids and fruit peddlers, charwomen and laundresses, dressed up and painted to look like something we are not. All the years of practicing, the sweat and toil, the muscles aching at the end of the day, it comes down to learning trickery—to leap with the lightness that lets the theatergoers think of us as queens of the Opéra stage instead of scamps with cracking knees and heaving ribs and ever-bleeding toes.
Buchanan imagines the lives of ballet dancer Marie van Goethem, the model for Edgar Degas’ sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen”, and her sisters.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Without light nothing can be seen. And with it, still so much is unobserved.
In 1990, thirteen paintings and drawings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  The crime has never been solved, and if you visit the museum today, you’ll see blank spaces on the walls where the works of art should hang. In Shapiro’s entertaining and enlightening novel, one of the paintings apparently resurfaces.

One Willy H. Smith, commenter on the Washington Post‘s book blog, is not a fan of novels based on paintings:

This is a terrible trend. You can’t see the paintings in the National Gallery for all the novelists trying to find a source for their next romance novel. You’d think the review somewhere would mention that this has been done to death. And speaking of death, I think I’ll write a lad’s adventure story about the guys who are getting shot in Goya’s “The Third of May”. Anybody got any purple prose to spare?

I think maybe Willy hasn’t read the female-written “romance” novels he disparages. The only purple prose I’ve encountered in an art-related novel can be found in a novel written by a man — Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

stolen-beauty-9781501131981_hrI’ve just started reading Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese, about Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer, the “woman in gold” who is the subject of two of his most famous paintings. So far, so good — and my husband highly recommends Anne-Marie O’Connor’s nonfiction account, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

An exhibit based on “Whistler’s Mother” has just opened at  the Art Institute of Chicago. Whistler actually titled the portrait “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and said, “Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” I’m willing to bet there’s a story in there . . .

A Piece of the World — Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seen at the Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Books to Read in Honor of Lincoln’s Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Abe!

 

 

 

Happy Valentine’s Day from Books on the Table!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
Church’s debut novel was inspired by the lives of her parents and their contemporaries. Meridian (Meri), a young biology student at the University of Chicago, marries her much older professor, Alden, and gives up her own dreams of becoming an ornithologist when her husband is sent to Los Alamos to help develop the atomic bomb. This lovely novel of love, sacrifice, and societal change spans 30 years in Meri and Alden’s flawed marriage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Short Novels Your Book Club Will Actually Finish

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

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

img_2656-2
Three books, 2,208 pages

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

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

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

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

img_2658
11 books, 1,825 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more suggestions, check out 8 More Short Books for Your Book Club.