The Bridge Ladies — Author Interview

Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.
Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem

Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
Betsy Lerner, The Bridge Ladies

The Bridge Ladies coverAs a child, I thought of bridge as a mysterious game that parents played, in the afternoons when I was at school or in the evenings when I was in bed. The most complicated card games I knew were hearts, gin rummy, and cribbage. Recently, I became intrigued by the idea of bridge as mental exercise for my aging brain. My half-hearted attempt to learn the game met with failure, when the teacher at the community center recommended that I repeat the beginning course. This course was very basic; in fact, the teacher spent some time explaining that there are four suits in cards, two black and two red, and that the clubs look just like puppy paws.

What did I learn? I learned that: 1) I have no aptitude for bridge, probably because of my non-mathematical mind; 2) I’m too lazy to learn something new that’s difficult for me; 3) I have newfound respect for friends and family members who are proficient bridge players; and 4) I’d rather read a book.

Betsy Lerner is a braver woman than I. She becomes 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. Lerner was kind enough to answer some of my questions about The Bridge Ladies:

I found your book fascinating for many reasons, one being that both my mother and mother-in-law are avid bridge players. Until recently, I didn’t know anyone of my generation who played. (I think you and I are about the same age.) So I took a series of lessons and failed miserably. I just don’t get it. What do you think makes someone a good bridge player?

I think most people need some motivation to learn. Usually friends or spouses play and they don’t want to miss out. Unlike most card games, you probably should take lessons and you need to play a lot. And you’re right, there aren’t a lot of people out there. But there are bridge clubs in almost every city. I’m terrible at math, logic and have memory issues, but I love the game. People who are “naturals’ have an abundance of these skills. The rest of us plod along.

At first, you were bewildered by what you perceived the bridge ladies’ lack of warmth. As you got to know them better, you understood the reasons for their reticence to share personal information. Your idea of friendship and theirs seemed very different. Do you think they are typical of their generation — and if so, why?

I’m not sure I can make generalizations about women of their generation. I only know what I saw with the Bridge Ladies. That said, their generation is called “The Silent Generation.” They didn’t have a culture of therapy, confession, Oprah, openness. Children were supposed to be seen and not heard, you were meant to suffer in silence and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Bridge really did become a “bridge” between you and your mother, helping you to empathize with her. If you hadn’t had bridge to bring you together, is there anything else that you think would have done the job as well?

My daughter. They love each other so much and my mom is enormously generous and supportive of my daughter. That melts me.

I think most women of our mothers’ generation learned to play bridge in college. Thinking back on my college experience — and those of my children — I can’t imagine bridge being part of it. I’m curious — in your exploration of the game, have you found that the game is starting to appeal to young people (college age and 20-somethings)? I’ve found it interesting that knitting seems newly popular among that age group.

My mom actually learned as a newlywed. She saw it as a way to enter social life. I now know quite a few people my age who learned in college or at home. There are even high school players and they’re good.

Many of my contemporaries are now taking up bridge. You were attracted to the game, I think, because it was a way to deepen your relationship with your mother. What kind of people are interested in learning bridge as midlife adults?

Mostly people who have always been curious about it for one reason or another and decided to take the plunge. Also, I think it attracts people with new found time on their hands: divorce, unemployment, widowhood, empty nest, all kinds of life transitions might be responsible for some people taking the plunge.

You mentioned on your blog that you recently participated in the National Bridge Championships in Reno. Wow! What led you to do that — and would you do it again?

I was really curious to see what it would be like and my mom quickly agreed to be my partner so we braved it. It was terrifying and fun in equal measures.

You also mentioned that you brought copies of the book to the Bridge Ladies, and as expected, the reaction was muted. Have you had any more feedback? What does your mother think?

The ladies gave me the greatest compliment by saying that I “got them.” Parts of the book are certainly painful for my mom, but she didn’t ask me to change a word. She has always been my biggest booster for the book.

One thing that occurred to me as I read your book was this: Women of our generation seem obsessed with staying young. Women of our mothers’ age seem comfortable with who they are and aren’t interested in youth culture, although they aren’t crazy about the aging process. (As you say, “Old age is nothing if not managing losses . . .) They don’t care about keeping up with pop culture or technology. I see the merits of both attitudes — why should I care who the latest 20-something pop singer is, for example? But I feel like older people could really enrich their lives by embracing the wonders of modern technology. What do you think?

I think it’s crucial to stay current with technology and the world unless you an artist or a hermit. You don’t need to know Justin Bieber songs, but once you let the world pass you by you lose some vitality, and then more. Some of my octogenarian friends use their computers, and iphones and stay up on things and stay involved, and they are my role models. Others are retreating.

What do you think is the audience for your book? I’m sure as an agent, you always envision who would be the buyers/readers of a particular book. Do you imagine women of the “Greatest Generation” reading it?

It’s mostly for mothers and daughters, especially boomer daughters. One friend called it “The Jew Luck Club.”

One of the many things I really appreciated about The Bridge Ladies was the structure. I like how each chapter has an appropriate title and is almost an essay unto itself. Did you start out writing the book this way, or did you begin with a more linear narrative?

THANK YOU. I restructured the book over and over. It was a huge challenge to manage the four strands of the story (the stories of the ladies, the Monday bridge games, my relationship with my mother, and learning how to play). I’ve always loved coming up with chapter titles — I think of them like poem titles and hope they signal the theme or spirit of the chapter.

I recommend listening to Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Bridge Ladies on NPR, and also visiting Betsy Lerner’s terrific blog.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

What to Read Next — April 2016

“Snow in April is abominable,” said Anne. “Like a slap in the face when you expected a kiss.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Ingleside

It was April in Minneapolis and snowing, the flakes coming down in thick swirls enchanting the city”
Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

As I write this post, snowflakes are swirling outside my window. Even though I’ve spent 34 springs in Chicago, I’m still surprised when April brings cold winds, sleet, hail, and snow instead of sunny days with warm breezes. I won’t be reading on my porch anytime soon; I’m glad we still have plenty of firewood because I anticipate quite a few more cozy evenings reading by the fire.

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Coming in paperback April 26

Right now, as usual, I’m reading two books, switching between them according to my mood. The first, Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, covers territory familiar to Tyler’s readers: the complicated relationships between the members of a middle-class Baltimore family. I love Anne Tyler’s writing, which I find comforting and wise at the same time. Critics seem to have a hard time classifying Tyler. Is she a (God forbid) women’s writer?  Is she really a literary author? One New York Times reviewer snidely dismissed her books as “middling” and “middlebrow”.  The Atlantic Monthly says: “In the eyes of many longtime readers, Tyler is especially gifted in her ability to deliver graceful, touching tales of the ordinary'” I agree — and evidently the Booker Prize judges did as well, since it was one of only two American novels shortlisted for last year’s award.

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Our new family member, Frosty

The second book I’m working my way through is one I can only recommend to new dog owners: The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete. If you’re as crazy as my husband and I are, and have decided to disrupt your life with a puppy, I suggest this book. It’s been many years since we brought home our last puppy, so a friend passed along her copy of The Art of Raising a Puppy. I’m finding it very helpful, and it’s fascinating reading . I guess when we had puppies before, we also had human children, leaving no time for reading about the monks’ thoughts on canine behavior!

I’ve just finished two recent releases that I can highly recommend:

9781101883075I stayed up way too late reading Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel. Anyone who loved The Nightingale, Salt to the Sea, The Invisible Bridge, or All the Light We Cannot See will find this book both unforgettable and hard to put down. Historical fiction at its best, the novel tells the powerful story of female prisoners subjected to medical experimentation at the hands of the Nazis.  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.

While touring  the actress and socialite Caroline Ferriday’s estate in Connecticut, Martha Hall Kelly noticed a black and white photo of a group of Polish women.  “They are the Lapins–the rabbits,” the guide said. “Caroline took up their cause after they were experimented upon by the Nazis at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.” Hall says:

I looked for a book about Caroline, but there wasn’t one. . .  Somehow bewitched by the house and Caroline’s story, I thought of nothing else on the ride home . . . I set out to learn everything I could about Caroline Ferriday and the story of how she rallied America around The Rabbits. How she dedicated her life to making sure these women were not forgotten.

I’m already thinking about my top 10 books of 2016 — after all, the year is 25% over — and Lilac Girls will definitely make the list. Even if you think you’ve overdosed on World War II literature, don’t miss this one.

the-books-that-changed-my-life-9781941393659_hrLike most book lovers, I adore books about books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Bethanne Patrick’s The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People. It’s a perfect book for your nightstand, because each of the essays is no more than three pages long. Each essay writer starts with a selection of a a life-altering book and a quotation from that book. They run the gamut from Gillian Flynn, who chose The Westing Game, to Rosanne Cash, who picked The Little House on the Prairie, to Tim Gunn, who selected Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Bethanne Patrick says:

One of the parts of the project that makes me happiest is that although no one interviewed was given a list from which to choose and although none of them were told others’ choices in advance, there is only one duplicate title on the list . . . There are children’s books, poetry collections, biographies, classic novels, modern favorites, and even a comic book included.

The Books That Changed My Life is pure pleasure. It will make you think about which book — or books, because it’s hard to narrow it down to one — have had the greatest impact on you. It will also provide you with a list of books to add to your to-be-read list, since some of the contributors’ choices will intrigue you. I think book club members would enjoy discussing this book and the books that have influenced their own lives.

What’s next for me? I’m looking forward to reading Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, Miller’s Valley, and Bill Beverly’s debut, Dodgers,  literary crime fiction about a Los Angeles gang member sent to kill a witness hiding in Wisconsin. I’ve been hearing great things about both of them.

Happy Spring!

Free Men — Book Review

Free Men cover

What is a free man except a man with money?
Bob, an escaped slave

My life was not my own, but my clan’s.
Istillicha, a Creek Indian

I have been in this country for twelve years, and from every angle I can only see that Americans have made a religion of the individual — it’s seeping already into the discontent slaves and the Indian factions . . .
Louis Le Clerc Milfort, French “tracker and deputy of justice”

Katy Simpson Smith’s second historical novel, Free Men, 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.

In  the spring of 1788, seven years after the British surrendered at Yorktown, three desperate men, all fleeing unbearable situations, join forces for a few days in the thick woods of what is now southern Alabama. They rob and murder a group of white traders (“American loyalists”) and their Indian guides. One of the guides escapes and reports the crime to his chief, Seloatka. Le Clerc, a French “gentleman adventurer” who is married to a Creek Indian woman, volunteers to hunt down the three murderers.

Le Clerc himself is on the run, having left behind a wife and a comfortable life in France: “I sought out the new, the republican, the individual,” he says. He cares more about the motives and characters of the three criminals than he does about actually bringing them to justice.  Justice, he says, “became secondary to wisdom.” More interested in the “burgeoning science” of psychology than history or philosophy, Le Clerc wants to hold a “fresh mirror up to the machinations of humanity”.

Each of the “ruthless highway robbers” that Le Clerc  pursues– Bob, an escaped slave, Istillicha, a Creek Indian, and Cat, a broken-hearted widower and farmer — has his own reasons for seeking freedom by heading west through unfamiliar and unsettled territory. They make an unlikely group of comrades; Le Clerc notes that:

In any country in the world they could not subsist together, yet here they were, wandering in a polite clump through woods that belonged apparently to no one, ignoring all the reasons to strike out on their own, to take the money and fall back into their segregated homes, because even America has rules.

The reader learns the basic facts of the story in the first two pages of the book. This is not a plot-driven novel; it’s a novel concerned with why things happened, not what happened. The four major characters — Le Clerc, Bob, Istillicha, and Cat — each, in their own distinctive voices, tell the stories of what brought them to the banks of what is now known as “Murder Creek”. Winna, the wife Bob leaves behind at the plantation, has her own short chapter in the middle of the book, reminding us that not only men sought freedom in the 18th century.

In an interview with Catherine Bock at Parnassus Books in Nashville (which picked Free Men for its First Editions Club in February), Smith said that as a reader, what she loves in a book are “sentences that are startling or playful or lush”. Free Men is full of sentences I’d describe using just those words; in fact, I stopped underlining them after the first couple of chapters because there were so many. Here are a few examples of sentences that stopped me in my tracks:

My brother Primus was dark and shiny, like someone had wrapped an old brown sheet around a boy of gold. (Bob)

There were soft apple spots in my father. (Cat)

I loved my mother’s brother as a boy will love a bear he sees through spaces in the forest. (Istillicha)

Smith, a history Ph.D. and the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, told an interviewer on WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina that the exciting aspect of writing historical fiction is examining the “emotions and motivations behind people’s actions, which very often in history is something one can only speculate about, especially with the kinds of people who didn’t leave behind written records — the enslaved, women, marginal members of society.” Perhaps she has something in common with Le Clerc, who also wants to understand why people behave as they do.

y6481Smith said “trying to get in the heads of 18th century men was a thrill for me.” While I thought the men’s voices were authentic for the most part, in some instances the characters slip into the mindsets of modern-day Americans. For example, would an 18th century slave say, “. . . this was not a life but a system, and for the first time my boyish grief took on the color of rage”?

If you enjoy literary historical fiction set in America — The Good Lord Bird (James McBride), Middle Passage (Charles Johnson),  The Known World (Edward P. Jones) — you’ll love Free Men. I’ve just started reading Smith’s previous novel, The Story of Land and Sea, which is set during the Revolutionary War on the North Carolina coast, and it’s terrific.

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

Book Club Spotlight — Celebrity Book Clubs

 

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The first selection of Oprah’s book club

It all started with Oprah Winfrey. In 1996, she launched a book club that made an enormous impact on readers, authors, and publishers. For 15 years, Oprah’s choices became worldwide bestsellers. During the heyday of her club,  Oprah’s power as a recommender, often called the “Oprah Effect” in the publishing world, was unparalleled. Michael Pietsch, currently CEO of Hachette Book Group and past publisher of Little, Brown & Co., said in a USA Today article that Oprah “didn’t originate the idea of book clubs, but more than anyone, she has spread the idea of reading a book as a shared community.” Nora Rawlinson, who’s been the editor of Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and now EarlyWord, citing surveys showing that “friends’ recommendations are the top reasons people buy a book” says that “Oprah is the ultimate friend to her audience.”

A lot of readers must think they’re friends with actress Emma Watson, because as of today, 84,000 people had signed up for her new feminist book club, “Our Shared Shelf”. Watson, who became famous through her portrayal of brave and brilliant  Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, is a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador with a special interest in gender equality and its benefits for both men and women. UN Goodwill Ambassadors are celebrity advocates, drawn from the “worlds of art, music, film, sport and literature to highlight key issues.”

Watson has ambitious plans for her book club. In her announcement on Goodreads, she says:

The plan is to select and read a book every month, then discuss the work during the month’s last week (to give everyone time to read it!). I will post some questions/quotes to get things started, but I would love for this to grow into an open discussion with and between you all. Whenever possible I hope to have the author, or another prominent voice on the subject, join the conversation.

9780679456209Watson has selected Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, for the first online discussion, scheduled to begin in  a couple of weeks. (The exact date isn’t clear.) I’m not sure how the logistics of an online discussion with thousands of people will work, but kudos to Emma Watson for launching the club on January 6, choosing the first book on January 8, and attracting 84,000 enthusiastic participants less than a week later. I’m just glad I don’t have to supply the wine and cheese.

Mark Zuckerberg made a reading resolution last year, announcing on January 2, 2015 that he planned to read a book every other week and post discussions on Facebook. His Facebook page for “A Year of Books” says: “We will read a new book every two weeks and discuss it here. Our books will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” As of December 28, the “community” (Zuckerberg never refers to it as a “book club”) had read 23 books, just short of the stated goal of 26 books. Many recent commenters wondered if “A Year of Books” would continue in 2016; one commenter replied, “I believe that Mark has a new challenge for 2016”. He does — and it doesn’t involve books. Zuckerberg posted this update on Facebook:

Every year, I take on a personal challenge to learn new things and grow outside my work at Facebook. My challenges in recent years have been to read two books every month, learn Mandarin and meet a new person every day. My personal challenge for 2016 is to build a simple AI to run my home and help me with my work.

On Immunity.JPGI guess that building a robot would take away from my reading time, so I’ll stick with books. Zuckerberg’s reading list, with a few exceptions, looks pretty dreary to me — I’m not reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (a history of science published in 1970) anytime soon. Maybe Zuckerberg got burned out on reading because he didn’t include any fiction in the mix, except a work of science translated from the Chinese (The Three-Body Problem) whose title refers to the “three-body problem in orbital mechanics.” I did enjoy, and highly recommend, one of Zuckerberg’s picks — On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss. This fascinating book, which defies categorization (science? sociology? memoir?) would be a great choice for real-life book clubs.

16071736Vogue magazine calls actress and producer Reese Witherspoon the “new patron saint of literature”.  Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, produced film adaptations of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; current projects include movie versions of The Engagements (J. Courtney Sullivan) and Luckiest Girl Alive (Jessica Knoll) and a TV miniseries based on Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty). According to Vogue:

As if bringing these stories to the big screen weren’t enough, Witherspoon constantly promotes the many books on her nightstand on her Instagram account. Her posts, which have included snaps of Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, and many others, have become the equivalent of an Oprah’s Book Club stamp for the social media generation.

I’ve come across many references to Reese Witherspoon’s “book club”, but all I could find was her Instagram feed with photos of book she’s reading followed by thousands of brief comments from her adoring fans — “She always reads awesome books!”; “Follow Reese for book recommendations!”; “Have to get this one!” This seems like a far cry from Oprah’s hour-long, in-depth televised interviews with authors. But more power to Witherspoon for getting on her celebrity soapbox to support books she loves. The cynic in me needs to add that some of these are books she’s bought the film rights to — so not only does she love them, she has a financial stake in their success.

rosie-project-9781476729091_lgBill Gates doesn’t have a book club, but he frequently posts reviews on his blog, Gates Notes. He told the New York Times he reads about 50 books a year, mostly nonfiction with a few novels interspersed. He’s a book blogger after my own heart, telling the Times that “he rarely posts negative reviews of books, explaining that he sees no need to waste anyone’s time telling them why they shouldn’t bother reading something.” He recommends one of his fellow billionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s choices, On Immunity:  “When I stumbled across the book on the Internet, I thought it might be a worthwhile read. I had no idea what a pleasure reading it would be. ” Gates also enjoyed Graeme Stimson’s The Rosie Project, a charming novel about a professor on the autism spectrum trying to find love: “It’s an extraordinarily clever, funny, and moving book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends . . . This is one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time.”

Do celebrities influence your book choices? And what do you think of online book clubs in general?

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Club Spotlight — The Breakfast Club (YA for Grownups)

imgresA children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.
C.S. Lewis

Last year, journalist Ruth Graham published a provocative article (“Against YA”) in Slate that inspired a tedious debate about whether adults should waste their time reading books written for young people. This isn’t a new dispute — 15 years ago,  in a New York Times essay called “Besotted With Potter”, William Safire said:

The trouble is that grown-ups are buying these books ostensibly to read to kids, but actually to read for themselves. As Philip Hensher warns in the Independent newspaper, this leads to ‘the infantilization of adult culture . . .’

It seems to me that a greater concern is prematurely exposing children to adult culture.

You can waste hours of your life googling “adults reading YA” — you’ll find countless impassioned responses to Graham’s piece. Or you can spend that time actually reading a YA novel and decide for yourself. Make sure you choose one that’s critically acclaimed, not the latest dystopian vampire thriller (unless that’s your thing). Read a recent award winner, or reread a favorite from your teenage years, and then decide if young adult literature is worth your time. I’ve reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Wrinkle in Time many times, gaining new insights with each reading.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, is a member of “Kidlit”, a book club that reads children’s and young adult fiction. Paul says of the group: ” . . . none of it feels like homework. The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun.” Author Gretchen Rubin started the group when she found that many of her friends and colleagues in the publishing industry shared her passion for children’s literature. Similar groups have sprung up all over the country — I’ve heard of groups called “Young at Heart”, “Forever Young”, and “Never Too Old”.

9781631060229In homage to movie director John Hughes, who understood adolescents so well, we at Lake Forest Book Store named our YA book group “The Breakfast Club”. (We meet in the morning, before the store opens.) After his retirement, Hughes lived in Lake Forest and was a frequent visitor to the bookstore. Always impeccably dressed in a beautiful sport coat with a pocket square, he was an avid reader and fascinating conversationalist. I highly recommend Kirk Honeycutt’s recent book,  John Hughes: A Life In Film: The Genius Behind The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone and More.

We’ve meet three times (September, October, and November). The books we read this fall, all award winners, inspired interesting discussions and would be good choices for any book club, whatever the focus of the club.

51VH2IQT8AL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

High school senior Hayley, daughter of an emotionally damaged Iraqi war veteran, struggles to live a “normal” life when she and her father, Andy, settle into his childhood home. Anderson’s father, who was stationed at Dachau during World War II, inspired her to write the story of a family affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Odysseus had twenty years to shed his battle skin. My grandfather left the battlefield in France and rode home in a ship that crawled across the ocean slowly so he could catch his breath. I get on a plane in hell and get off, hours later, at home.

A good companion adult book would be Phil Klay’s short story collection, Redeployment, which won the National Book Award for fiction last year. 

51LOhJFau8LBelzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Jam’s parents don’t know what to do with her when she can’t seem to recover from her grief, so they send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers”. In a very unusual English class, she and her classmates begin to heal. Wolitzer skillfully incorporates fantasy into a novel that at first seems like a straightforward prep school story.

But it’s never just been the journals that have made the difference, I don’t think. It’s also the way the students are with one another . . . the way they talk about books and authors and themselves. Not just their problems, but their passions too. The way they form a little society and discuss whatever matters to them. Books light the fire—whether it’s a book that’s already written, or an empty journal that needs to be filled in.

Belzhar isn’t a retelling of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, but The Bell Jar plays an important part in the story. Wolitzer’s adult novels are excellent — particularly The Interestings, which follows a group of friends from adolescence through middle age. 

515e3HFpceLI’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Teenage twins Noah and Jude, both artists, are as close as two people can be, but they compete for the love of their parents and the attention of a new friend. Nelson, a poet and literary agent turned YA author, gives us each twin’s perspective in this thoughtful, but well-plotted exploration of art and love.

Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.

Irving Stone’s classic biographical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, is a perfect companion book, since sculpting out of stone plays an important role in I’ll Give You the Sun — and the twins’ mother has written her own book on Michelangelo.

We’re deciding now what to read for the first quarter of 2016. The 2015 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, Challenger Deep, by Neil Shusterman, seems like an obvious choice. (I’m also intrigued by one of the finalists, Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby.) My co-leader Diane, who reads lots of YA, just read and loved the historical novel Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys (due February 2), recommended to us by our Penguin children’s book rep, Sheila Hennessey. Sheila also suggested Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, which has been on my list for a long time. We’d love other suggestions of YA books that grownups can learn from and enjoy!