Book Thieves on the Loose

There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.
Irving Stone

Like many book clubs, mine celebrates the holidays with a book exchange. This event always draws record attendance — last night, a dozen of us showed up with beautifully wrapped books in hand, ready to steal from one another. We’ve done this so many times we don’t need any instructions, but we received a friendly reminder from our book club “secretary”:

Bring a wrapped book for our annual book exchange (aka STEALING Game) . . . I love the food , drink and camaraderie, but LIVE for the stealing event!

We added a new twist to our traditional “Yankee swap” rules this year: the hostess is allowed to steal any book she wants at the end of the game. We thought that was the least we could do for our hardworking hostess.

I drew a bad number (#3) but still hit the jackpot — I went home with three terrific books, because one generous member of our group bundled three short story collections together. Actually, there were no dud books to be had last night. Everyone left with a great book (or two, or three), excited to begin reading — or coloring.

The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest (Johanna Bamford) with a set of colored pencils — Adult coloring books have become hugely popular, and devotees say they induce a Zenlike state of relaxation. So when the rest of us are running around doing last-minute holiday errands, one of our group will be calmly coloring the beautiful designs in these books.

51bqo1nszfl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Almost Famous Women autographed copy (Megan Mayhew Bergman) — This collection of “off-the-radar” female historical characters is going to the top of my pile.

We Never Asked for Wings autographed copy (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) — Diffenbaugh’s first book, The Language of Flowers, was a surprise bestseller; I thought We Never Asked for Wings was even better. The author visited Lake Forest in the fall; here’s the link to my interview with her: We Never Asked for Wings: Author Interview.

The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff) — We’re all looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation — when is it coming to Chicago? We’re tired of watching the previews!

Fortune Smiles (Adam Johnson) — Three members brought this year’s National Book Award winner for fiction. I can’t wait to read it — I loved Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son.

23507478Villa America (Liza Klaussmann) — Historical fiction about Sara and Gerald Murphy, contemporaries of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their adventures with fellow expatriates on the French Riviera. Our hostess adored Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins — I think Villa America will be perfect for her.

Pretty Baby (Mary Kubica) — One member just received it as a birthday gift, and said it’s a great page-turner: “I can’t put it down!” Someone else in the group pointed out that she had, in fact, put it down to come to the book exchange.

51tn9o6ht5l-_sx258_bo1204203200_The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness (Frances Schultz) — The member who ended up with this book hasn’t made a muddle of things, but she is in the middle of building and decorating a new house, so it’s perfect for her.

Some Luck (Jane Smiley) — The first in Smiley’s ambitious trilogy covering 100 years in the life of an Iowa farm family. A little tidbit of Book Thieves trivia: One of our members grew up in the same house (and same bedroom) in St. Louis where Jane Smiley spent her childhood.

M Train (Patti Smith) — The New York Times Book Review says “Smith’s  achingly beautiful new book is a kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance.”

Brooklyn (Colm ToíbÍn) — One of those unusual cases when the book and the movie are both outstanding.

Tales of Accidental Genius autographed copy (Simon Van Booy) — The member who brought this short story collection bought it at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. She left little notes in the book, quoting the bookseller who recommended it. The author is “cute, with a great accent” and “compassionate towards his fellow humans”. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which qualities are more important.)

cover-1A Little Life (Hanya Yanigihara) — Two members brought copies of this devastating and powerful book, and both were stolen three times, rendering them dead.

New Yorker magazine subscription — Magazine subscriptions are always a hit — and the New Yorker comes every week! (Plus, who doesn’t love the cartoons?)

We’ve been enjoying books and friendship for 22 years, but record-keeping has been . . . spotty. Here are links to the lists of books we exchanged in 2013 and 2014: Book Club Spotlight: The Book Thieves and The Book Thieves Strike Again.

As Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Happy Holidays!




10+ Books to Read This Spring (Or Later)

9780374171339Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Only three more days until the official first day of spring. I actually went outside without a coat yesterday. Winter was a great reading season, but there are so many wonderful books to read this spring I can hardly keep track of them all.

Yes, there is one book written by an Irish author on my list of 10 books to read this spring — A History of Loneliness, by John Boyne. I’m sorry I didn’t include Boyne in my post on Irish authors last March, because he’s a spectacular writer whose books run the gamut from a children’s book about the Holocaust (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) to a ghost story for adults (This House is Haunted). In A History of Loneliness, Boyne explores the life of an aging Irish priest confronting his past and the scandals rocking his beloved church.9780062333001

If you’re in the mood for something lighter, The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson, might fit the bill. I can never resist any book about bookselling, and Swanson’s debut novel — which is on the March Indie Next list — sounds enchanting. It’s about Kitty, a struggling,single bookstore owner who dreams every night about being Katharyn, a married woman with a house and a loving family. Eventually she begins to wonder which of her lives is real. One of my colleagues read this book and enjoyed it, but thought the ending was a little “sappy”. So consider yourself warned — but sometimes I’m in the mood for a sentimental book. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry could certainly be described that way, but I think you’d have to be a real cynic not to love that book!

Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s first novel, is certainly not sappy. Sue Boucher of the Cottage Book Shop says it’s “creepy . . . but kind of perfect.” Essbaum is not your everyday writer of psychological thrillers — she’s published four collections of poetry. The “hausfrau” of the title is Anna Benz, a modern-day Anna Karenina and expatriate housewife in Zurich who “will provoke strong feelings in readers well after the final page”, according to the starred Publishers Weekly review.

9780812993158I’m reading The Dream Lover, by Elizabeth Berg, and absolutely loving it. The novel is an exploration of new territory for Berg, who has never written historical fiction before. She delves into the heart and mind of writer George Sand, born Aurore Dupin, who was the first female bestselling author in France. In an interview with Nancy Horan, which appears at the end of the book, Berg says that “George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream like her; then I thought, to dream like her . . . I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.” I am similarly captivated by Berg’s marvelous book, which will be out on April 7.

inside-the-obriens-9781476717777_lgAlso due on April 7 — Inside the O’Briens, by Lisa Genova, which I think is her best book yet. Genova is enjoying newfound popularity because of the success of the movie based on her first book, Still Alice. The story of a loving family in crisis, Inside the O’Briens focuses on Joe O’Brien, a tough Boston cop who is devastated when he learns that he is suffering from Huntington’s disease — and that his four children may have inherited the disease from him. I would like to ask readers a provocative question, though: when is a novel literature and when is it propaganda? I don’t mean propaganda in the negative sense of the word, but in the sense that the purpose of the book is to promote a cause.

I don’t read many self-help books, but every so often one really resonates with me. Usually the ones that do are books that combine self-help with business or psychology. (Greg McKeown’s Essentialism is a perfect example.) Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin, was entertaining to read and also packed with helpful tips for developing good habits — and breaking bad ones. (Just don’t ask me how successful I’ve been in putting those tips into practice.)

9780062273475The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer, by Roseanne Montillo, is reminiscent of The Devil in the White City. It’s the true story of a 14-year-old Boston boy who preyed on children in the late 19th century. The criminal investigation raised legal and medical questions that are still being debated today. The  book is particularly fascinating in light of the current trial of the Boston marathon bomber.

Mary Norris, author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (due April 6), is much more than a copy editor; she’s a delightfully wicked and witty writer. Norris has been on staff at the New Yorker since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. The New Republic describes “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” as “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.” I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides. By the way, a truly awful article in the Wall Street Journal on March 13, entitled “There is No ‘Proper English'”, says “. . . you may use ‘they’ as a singular generic pronoun; you may say ‘between you and I.’ The pedants’ prohibitions on constructions like these are not supported by the evidence of general usage.” What would Mary Norris say? Or my grandmother, for that matter?

9780525427209When 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, Bettyville,  moved me both to laughter and tears. As Hodgman told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, “a good part of my role is to just do little things that make her as happy as possible all along the way – every day.”

I have been hearing amazing things, including lots of comparisons to The Goldfinch, about A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. Publishers Weekly says that the 700-page “epic American tragedy”, which covers 30 years in the lives of four college friends, is:

. . . a novel that values the everyday over the extraordinary, the push and pull of human relationships—and the book’s effect is cumulative. There is real pleasure in following characters over such a long period, as they react to setbacks and successes, and, in some cases, change. By the time the characters reach their 50s and the story arrives at its moving conclusion, readers will be attached and find them very hard to forget.

And because it’s too hard to stop at 10, please indulge me while I mention three more new spring books I’m excited about: What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas, a lovely collection of essays that follows  A Three Dog Life; At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen (author of Water for Elephants), historical fiction that takes place in the Scottish highlands during World War II; and The Children’s Crusade, by Ann Packer (author of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier), the chronicle of a California family, spanning five decades.

For more lists of great books to read this spring, check out the lists at The Broke and the Bookish.