10 Books Recommended to Me (Thanks, Readers!)

When I interview an author, or attend an author event and have the opportunity to ask a question, I always ask the author to recommend his or her favorite books. I’m always collecting book recommendations — from friends, family members, colleagues, blog commenters, customers, bloggers and reviewers, even strangers at airports. Of course, I can’t read all the books that are recommended to me, but certain titles come up again and again. And certain people have built tremendous credibility over the years.

Thank you, everyone, for the recommendations. Here are 10 that are on my to-read list; some have even made it to the to-read shelf in my bedroom:

9780307455925Americanah (Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie) — Several friends who are terrific readers told me I HAVE to read this book. One was “shocked” I haven’t read it and another told me it is “extremely thought-provoking”.

Amsterdam (Ian McEwan) — Thomas Christopher Greene, author of The Headmaster’s Wife, says Amsterdam was the last truly wonderful book he read — “Not new, but . . . very smart and lovely novel. Wish I had written it.” I think I’ve read almost all of McEwan’s books, but somehow I missed this one.

1000H-9780805095159Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) — Recommended by several thoughtful friends, and also by Ann Patchett (who I wish was my friend). On her bookstore’s blog, Ann says:

I’m all for people having different tastes, liking different books, but everyone needs to read this book because at some point everyone is going to die, and it’s possible that someone we love is going to die before us. Being Mortal is about having that conversation and thinking the hard things through. It’s not a depressing book, instead it’s thoughtful, probing, and smart.

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro) — Bridget, our Penguin Random House sales rep, always has the best recommendations, and The Buried Giant is one of her 2015 favorites. I’ve loved Ishiguro’s other books and have been waiting a long time for this one.

Dark Rooms (Lili Anolik) — Several blog readers told me I absolutely must read this debut novel (which takes place at a boarding school, a setting I can never resist) — one said it’s a “perfect beach read”.

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute (Zac Bissonnette) — Daniel, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, always has interesting book recommendations. He says “What a fun and fascinating read this is! On top of a great story and larger-than-life characters, there are actually some marketing lessons embedded in the narrative.”

9780802123411H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald) — Highly recommended by several trusted sources, including Perseus sales rep Johanna. The quotation she posted is enough to make me want to read the book, which has already won major literary prizes in Great Britain:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you will realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and in between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where the things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan) — It won the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but I’m more impressed by my friend Kathy’s recommendation. She and I share similar taste in books and are both fascinated by World War II.

9781908313867The Red Notebook (Antoine Lauren) — Sue, from the Cottage Book Shop, just texted me from her vacation to tell me to read Laurain’s latest: “You should pick up The Red Notebook — wonderful. I liked it more than The President’s Hat. Actually, I loved it.” Well, of course — it’s about a Parisian bookseller.

A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler) — Recommended by several great readers, including two of my favorite librarians. Andrea Larson at Cook Memorial Public Library says: “Her knack for capturing characters and making them not just real, but recognizable, is phenomenal. And she absolutely nails dialogue.”

Please keep your suggestions coming! What else should I add to my ever-growing list?

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The Half Brother — Book Review

9780385531955The Half Brother tells a familiar story: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher.  In the beginning of the book, Charlie Garrett is not much older than his students:

Teaching English at Abbott was my first job, right out of college . . . for me the idea of being employed at all, at a job that entailed skill and responsibility, was unreal, ludicrous. The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hand.

Many novels are set at schools, but I’ve read few that capture the essence of what goes in on the classroom as well as The Half Brother. Charlie has received no formal training as a teacher, and is initially terrified of his students. He develops a persona, “a tweedy, knowledgeable, unflappable self”, and discovers that he actually has a gift for teaching:

At the window of my classroom, looking out, I was in the prow of a landship, forging ahead with my new self, built on the scaffolding of these names; then I turned around and my own energy went forth, joined theirs, became something new and larger. I had not expected to feel my own self slowly emerging as I tried to draw out theirs. I had not expected to love anyone, is what I’m saying. Sometimes they looked at me in amazement at what came out of their mouths.

As a new teacher, Charlie is drawn to one of his students, May Bankhead, who is a “faculty brat” — the daughter of the school chaplain. They correspond with each other after May’s graduation, and when she returns to campus several years later to care for her dying father, May and Charlie finally admit to themselves what they’ve always felt for each other.

Later, May becomes a teacher at Abbott herself — and so does Charlie’s younger half-brother, Nicky. Charlie has always been protective of Nicky, who is brilliant, handsome, and popular, yet strangely vulnerable. The inevitable triangle follows– and that’s all that I can tell you about the plot of The Half Brother, because the plot twists — which do not rely on unreliable narrators — are truly surprising. Read more

The Book Thieves Strike Again

UF7302Last week, my book club (a.k.a. “The Book Thieves”) met for our annual holiday book exchange. (For a full account of last year’s book exchange, as well as anecdotes about the club, click here!) Although we have a lot of rules regarding the mechanics of the exchange, we are loosey-goosey when it comes to the books we bring. Hardcover, paperback, new, old, fiction, nonfiction . . . all are welcome. This year, for the first time I can remember, there were no duplicates.

The award for the most-stolen book went to Alice Munro’s Family Furnishings, but I’m not sure if that was because our members love short stories or because the book was packaged with an adorable ornament. The ornament was a stack of books — I’ve tried to find it online, without success, but I found a similar one in the Bas Bleu catalog.

We had a wonderful evening at a local wine bar, complete with delicious appetizers and a chocolate cake for the December birthday girls. Of course, the friendship and camaraderie among book lovers was the best part. Here are the books we exchanged . . . or stole:

boston-girl-9781439199350_lgThe Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
The new novel by Diamant (author of The Red Tent) just released this month, which is unusual — very few books are published in December. Maybe it’s because The Red Tent miniseries aired on Lifetime on December 7 and 8? In The Boston Girl, 85-year-old Addie Baum, born in the North End of Boston to immigrant parents, tells the story of her life to her granddaughter.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
I adored Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, but was disappointed with her second fiction effort, The Mermaid Chair. So I wasn’t sure I wanted to try The Invention of Wings — but everyone I’ve talked to who’s read it has loved it, and it’s received excellent reviews. Kidd has written what she calls a “thickly imagined story” based on the life of Sarah Grimke, a Southern slave owner turned abolitionist.

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The Forest Feast by Erin Gleeson
I wasn’t familiar with this cookbook (or Gleeson’s blog) before our get-together, but the book is absolutely lovely, a combination of a cookbook and an art book. The recipes sound terrific, too.

My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories by David Lebovitz
I love reading cookbooks (truth be told, I prefer reading them to cooking from them) and this book is part cookbook, part memoir — perfect! It’s on my wish list.

9781101874103Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro
People say they don’t like short stories, and then they read Alice Munro and they’re converts. I think we all need to have a story collection (or two) on our bedside tables! For more on that topic, please read Five Reasons to Read Short Stories.

What Would Jane Do? Quips and Wisdom from Jane Austen by the editors at Potter Style
“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”  (From Northanger Abbey)

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
One of my favorites of 2014, this moving and thought-provoking examination of race, class, and education is the kind of book you want to discuss with someone as soon as you’ve finished it.

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl
I was thrilled to receive a signed copy of this book (which has received much acclaim, including selection as one of the New York Times Book Review’s Notable Books) — I’ve enjoyed Ruhl’s plays, and I love essays. However, I felt a little bad that I had to steal it from a friend.9781627791458

Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten
Who doesn’t love Ina Garten? I bought a copy as soon as the book came out, so I was glad I didn’t get it in the exchange. (The herbed pork tenderloin with apple chutney is very good, by the way.)

By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the New York Times Book Review by Pamela Paul
I brought this book because I enjoyed it so much. It’s a collection of columns from the “By the Book” column that appears in the Book Review every Sunday. Authors are asked a series of questions, such as “What book is on your nightstand right now?”, “What was the last book that made you cry?”, and “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” About 70 authors are included — everyone from David Sedaris to Carl Hiaasen to J.K. Rowling.

Happy Holidays to readers and book clubs everywhere!

 

WWW Wednesday — Mother-Daughter Version 2.0

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Too cold to sit outside . . .

It’s WWW Wednesday, where I answer three questions:

What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?

I’m visiting my mother in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so I’ll answer those questions for both of us. And no, we are not reading outside on lounge chairs. The temperature is 44 degrees — not outdoor reading weather, although it’s balmy compared to Chicago’s current 19 degrees.

Here’s what we are currently reading:

9781594205712MI’m in the middle of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. My book group is discussing it tomorrow night, so you might say I’m cutting it a little close, but I like to read my book group books as close to the meetings as possible so they’re fresh in my mind.  I’m impressed with Ng’s assured, precise writing style and her careful, well-paced narrative structure. It’s the kind of book you want to read in one sitting. All the reviews I’ve read, including this one from the New York Times, have been excellent:

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is a literary thriller that begins with some stock elements: a missing girl, a lake, a local bad boy who was one of the last to see her and won’t say what he knows. The year is 1977, the setting, a quiet all-American town in Ohio, where everyone knows one another and nothing like this has ever happened before.

This is familiar territory, but Ng returns to it to spin an unfamiliar tale, with a very different kind of girl from the ones we’ve been asked to follow before. If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now.

One of our members emailed today to say she wouldn’t be able to make it to the meeting (it’s her daughter’s birthday — I guess that’s a decent excuse): “I loved the book even though I thought it was heart-wrenching. Can’t wait to hear about the discussion. Two great books in a row. We are on a roll.” (Last month we discussed All the Light We Cannot See.)

My mother is reading What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, for her next book club meeting. It’s about a 39-year-old woman who loses her memory and thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child. She thinks it might be a little lightweight for a book club discussion. I am embarrassed to admit that I keep confusing this book with Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which is a moving novel about a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who has written several novels about families dealing with brain disorders. (Still Alice, by the way, has just been made into a movie starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, with a wide release scheduled for 9780062325143January 2015.)

Here’s what we just finished reading:

The last book I finished was The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless. McCandless is the sister of Chris McCandless, the young man whose journey of self-discovery and eventual starvation in the Alaskan wilderness was told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. I don’t really know what to think about this book. Into the Wild raised more questions than it answered, and The Wild Truth answers some of those questions. But it was disconcerting to learn that Krakauer (and also Sean Penn, who directed the movie version) were in possession of key missing information and agreed with the McCandless family not to reveal it. The conclusion I reached as a reader about McCandless’s reasons for severing ties with his family and disappearing “into the wild” turned out to be faulty. I feel a bit cheated knowing that Krakauer didn’t present the whole story in his book, although I understand why he couldn’t reveal family secrets.

coverMy mother recently read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, about a London family court judge who must make a decision about whether to order a lifesaving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. My mother highly recommends The Children Act, although her favorite McEwan novel remains Atonement. The London Independent echoes her thoughts, saying, “In short: this novel is not as good as Atonement, but what modern novel is?”

What’s next?

I’m going to return to Us by David Nicholls, which I was finding absolutely delightful, but had to set aside to read my book club book. I got a text from a friend last week who asked me if I’d read Us yet, saying, “Loved Us, read it next if you can . . . it’s a perfect book.” So of course I had to pick it up right away! It was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I also just picked up a copy of Maureen Corrigan’s And So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, which I can’t wait to read. (See Ann Patchett’s thoughts on the book here.)

I see that my mother has a big stack of books to be read. Right on top is A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith, the story of a group of Gold Star mothers (women whose sons were killed in World War I) who make a government-sponsored pilgrimage to Europe to visit their sons’ graves.

I’d love to know what you’re reading and what you’re thinking of reading next. I’m especially interested in book club selections, since I’m planning a book club roundup of great discussion books.

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WWW Wednesday

What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

short-and-tragic-life-of-robert-peace-9781476731902_lgLast night, I finished The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. It was a miserable,rainy day in Chicago, and I was lucky enough to spend most of the day reading. Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers. I can’t imagine a better book for book club discussions. To learn more, read the excellent review in the New York Times.

I’m reading two other books right now — An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award) and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I always like to have at least two books in progress, one paper book and one e-book. I much prefer reading “real” books, but I love reading in bed, and in the interest of marital harmony, I stick to e-books late at night.

9780802122940An Unnecessary Woman is about Aaliyah, a 72-year-old retired bookseller living alone in Beirut, translating her favorite books into Arabic:

I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books.

In an NPR interview, the author says the book asks this question:, “How do we balance an inner life with an outer life and how important is each?” I’m really savoring this book — although I’m still rooting for All the Light We Cannot See to win the National Book Award.

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to 9780385535373helping people who have been denied fair treatment in the justice system.  One early review refers to Stevenson as a modern-day “Atticus Finch” — which is ironic, because Stevenson reminds us that Atticus Finch actually lost his case in To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve just read the first couple of chapters, but I’m finding the book fascinating and eye-opening.

What’s up next? My book club will be discussing Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng at our November meeting, and I can’t wait to start In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. Jeff and I will both be reading that, because we have plans to get together with another couple and talk about it over dinner. What about you? What’s on your list?

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Book Club Spotlight — The Breakfast Club

9780143124726MMany years ago, some friends and I started meeting for breakfast whenever one of our birthdays rolled around. We were all busy mothers of grade school children, with jobs and volunteer commitments, and breakfast fit nicely into our schedules. We crowded into booths at our local version of a diner, Egg Harbor, and exchanged funny cards and little gifts. As our children got older and our homes became neater, we started getting together at each other’s houses, serving bacon, eggs, and pancakes along with endless cups of coffee. We also started meeting when it wasn’t even anyone’s birthday. We even went out for dinner a few times — but never lunch. The Breakfast Club does not do lunch.

At one of these get-togethers, we talked about starting a book club. Along with families, work, vacation plans, community goings-on, and home renovations, we always end up talking about books and movies. So we decided our club would not be an ordinary book club; it would have a twist. We would read books that were related to movies, and then we’d watch the movies together.  Here’s my original email sales pitch to the group:

A friend in Winnetka belongs to a movie/book club. They choose a movie that’s based on a book, and everyone has a choice: either read the book and see the movie, just read the book, or just see the movie. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes they go to the movie as a group (as many of them as possible) or watch the movie together at someone’s house, or sometimes they all end up going separately. Their recent choice was The Book Thief. We could do Philomena or Monuments Men — both based on books. Or we could read a book that is related to the movie — for example, Dallas Buyers Club isn’t based on a book, but it would pair with Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country (about treating AIDS patients). I just checked the movie releases for this month and there’s one due out at the end of the month called Nymphomaniac Part I. Not sure if it’s based on a book (?!)the-lost-child-of-philomena-lee-978033051836902

As anyone knows who’s tried to organize a book club, choosing the book is the most difficult task. I won’t bore you with the details of the decision-making process, but I will tell you that the email chain was very long. (That might be because the discussion also involved choosing a date for our inaugural meeting.) There are seven of us, all with full schedules and strong opinions.

Finally, we chose a book/movie AND a date/willing hostess. Despite one member’s wish to avoid anything sad or depressing, we picked Philomena. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but somehow we convinced her it wasn’t that sad.  Philomena is the true story of an Irish girl whose family abandons her to cruel nuns when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock.  The nuns force her to give her child up for adoption and prevent her from ever seeing him again, or even knowing if he is all right. (Honestly, you couldn’t come up with a more sad story than that.) It was a great choice and inspired an interesting discussion (and a few tears).  Our discussion centered on the completely different perspectives of the book and the film. The book focuses on the life of Philomena’s son, Michael Hess — as an adoptee, closeted gay man, and Republican political advisor. Philomena herself is peripheral to the book (originally titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), which was written by a British journalist, Martin Sixsmith. The movie, on the other hand, is Philomena’s story — and Martin Sixsmith’s.

9780142424179MBuoyed by the success of our first meeting, we chose another book/movie combination — The Fault In Our Stars. If anything is more tragic than a young woman forced to relinquish her beloved son, it’s two teenagers with terminal cancer. Our group loved John Green’s beautiful novel, and was anxious to see the screen adaptation. One of my favorite aspects of the book is Hazel’s obsession with a novel:

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

In the case of The Fault In Our Stars, the screenplay remains almost completely faithful to the book. It didn’t occur to most of us that we would be the only “mature” women in the theater, surrounded by groups of lovesick teenage girls, alternately giggling and crying. (One girl behind us said, “He’s so cute! He’s so cute!” almost every time teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort appeared on screen.) The youthful audience applauded when Hazel and Gus exchanged their first kiss, and got out of their seats many, many times for trips to the snack bar and restroom. I was so distracted that I did not need the Kleenex that my friends thoughtfully passed my way.

One of the things we discussed over dinner, after the movie, was whether movie versions of books are ever better than the books. I said I thought there were quite a few, but I could only come up with one example on the spot — Sarah’s Key. Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on it, I’ve thought of some more: The Devil Wears Prada . . . The Shawshank Redemption . . . Mystic River.  I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones that came to mind. We are looking forward to seeing the movie Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, this fall. I liked the book, but wasn’t wild about it (sorry! couldn’t resist); will the movie, starring Reese Witherspoon, be superior? Now, we need to make a choice for our summer get-together. Two that sound good to me are Tracks and The Hundred-Foot Journey.  Suggestions are welcome!

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All the Light We Cannot See — Book Review

One day earlier this month, I was frantically getting ready for an author brunch (with the amazing Carol Cassella — more on that in another post!), trying to fit all my warm weather clothes in a carry-on suitcase, and negotiating slushy sidewalks in boots and a down coat as I ran last-minute errands. The next day, I was lounging by the Caribbean with a book in hand,  deciding whether to order a cocktail or Diet Coke with lunch. (The choice was easy: cocktail.) What could be better than a few days of sun and relaxation after a brutal Chicago winter? During the winter of 2013-14, Chicago had 26 days when the low temperature was zero or below, setting a record. On March 3, the low was -2 degrees.

The resort offered yoga and spinning classes, tennis, and a workout facility. I intended to take advantage of all of these and brought the required clothing and equipment, but the lounge chairs were just too comfortable . . . and the books I brought were too tempting. I don’t usually like to recommend books that aren’t published yet, but All the Light We Cannot See is an exception — it’s extraordinary! If you’re in a book club, this would be a wonderful choice for a discussion this summer or fall.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (releases 5/6/14)
I know it’s trite to say “I didn’t want the book to end”, but it’s true — I really didn’t want this book to end. I read the last 50 pages very slowly. Anthony Doerr spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, the story of two young people struggling to survive during World War II.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind since early childhood, flees Paris with her father and takes refuge with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo. With Marie-Laure and her father is what may or may not be an enormously valuable diamond from the Museum of Natural History, where Monsieur LeBlanc is the locksmith. The Germans are searching throughout France for the diamond, becoming increasingly desperate after the Allies invade Normandy.

While Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, learning Braille and how to navigate the city with her cane, Werner Pfennig is growing up in a German orphanage. A precocious child with a gift for electronics, Werner is saved from a life in the coal mines when a Nazi official identifies his talent and sends him to a paramilitary academy for Hitler Youth. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure converge in August 1944, when the city of Saint-Malo was almost completely destroyed by fire.

In a Youtube video, Doerr says that he was inspired to write the book to illustrate the power of radio — for good and for evil. In the book’s epigraph, he quotes Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio”. The sound waves of radio are “the light we cannot see”:

Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.

But radio is also the voice of the French resistance:

He waits until dark. Marie-Laure sits in the mouth of the wardrobe, the false back open, and listens to her uncle switch on the microphone and the transmitter in the attic. His mild voice speaks numbers into the garret. Then music plays, soft and low, full of cellos tonight . . .

“The light we cannot see” refers to many other things besides sound waves. “Light we cannot see” is different from darkness, or absence of light; it’s there, we just can’t see it. Having gone blind as a child, Marie-Laure vaguely remembers being able to see light. Werner is trapped in darkness after the bombing of Saint-Malo, but he knows there is light above him.

Sometimes, in the darkness, Werner thinks the cellar may have its own faint light, perhaps emanating from the rubble, the space going a bit redder as the August day above them progresses toward dusk. After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.

The English major in me wants to go on and on about the metaphors of light and darkness in the novel, but I’ll spare you. The writing in All the Light We Cannot See is magnificent. Each beautifully crafted chapter is short — no more than a few pages, and some chapters are only one page — and perfectly titled: “Time of the Ostriches”; “The Arrest of the Locksmith”; “The Blade and the Whelk”. The parallel strands within the book — Marie-Laure’s story and Werner’s story — appear in alternating chapters, coming together towards the end. The surprise isn’t that they meet, but what happens during the next 60 years. Are people, as Anne Frank famously said, “really good at heart”? All the Light We Cannot See makes us consider that question again.

 

 

Tips for Choosing Book Club Books

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There’s plenty to discuss in The Deepest Secret.

“What’s our next book?” — the dreaded question facing every book club. Here are some suggestions to help increase your chances of choosing a book that will inspire a fun and enlightening discussion:

  1. Decide if you’re a democracy or a dictatorship. Will your group vote on the books, or will each member be given the chance to make an executive decision on your monthly selection?
  2. Don’t worry about whether everyone will like the book. Some of the best book club discussions happen when not everyone likes the book. And sometimes a member who came into the meeting with a negative opinion of the book goes home with a new appreciation for it.
  3. And don’t worry about liking fictional characters. You’re not befriending them, you’re discussing why they behave as they do.
  4. Don’t be afraid of nonfiction. I think nonfiction books often provide the best material for discussion.
  5. cover-2Unless you’re a very literary group, choose books that focus on interesting issues. Your book club meeting most likely isn’t going to resemble a college English seminar. You’ll  probably have more fun talking about the ethical problems presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks than the imagery in The Age of Innocence.
  6. Pick a book that is the right length for the amount of time your group has to read it. Don’t choose The Luminaries if your group is meeting in three weeks.
  7. Don’t choose The Luminaries (or anything of similar density) if your group is the type that discusses the book for 15 minutes and then moves on to more important things — like where you should meet next month.
  8. 9780547554839_hresBeware of books that one of your members describes as “uplifting” or “feel-good”. There won’t be much to talk about.
  9. Take advantage of all the resources that are available online and in your community. There are countless websites devoted to book clubs, including lists of suggested books. Your local library and bookstore will be happy to make recommendations for you, and to let you know what other groups are reading.
  10. Ask your friends (especially out-of-town friends) what their book clubs have read and how successful their choices were. Post “Any great book club books you can recommend?” as your Facebook status.
  11. Consider organizing a book exchange.  Have everyone bring a book he or she has recently read and trade books. At the next meeting, briefly review all the books and if one stands out, choose it for an in-depth discussion.
  12. Leave some flexibility in your schedule; don’t choose books for the whole year.
  13.  If your group is having a hard time finishing books — or agreeing on book choices — read a short story or an essay. You could even spend the year reading The Best American Short Stories 2013 or The Best American Essays 2013.
  14. Think about choosing books that have won major prizes (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker) or have received good reviews in publications you trust.

cover-1I always look to Publishers Weekly for book recommendations; if a book gets a starred review in PW, I pay attention. Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret got a starred review, which doesn’t surprise me; the reviewer called it “superb”, and I agree! I read the book last fall, because I was going to meet Carla at a dinner hosted by Random House to introduce authors and editors to Chicago-area booksellers. The Deepest Secret is the story of Eve Lattimore, a parent who makes a terrible error in judgment — and then compounds that mistake by keeping it secret, in an effort to protect her chronically ill son. Much more than a page-turner, The Deepest Secret is a morally complex exploration of parental love. It’s a rare and wonderful treat to read a suspenseful novel that is also character-driven. Book clubs will argue about the choices that Eve, her family, and friends make; there are no easy answers.

I started reading the book the day before I was due to meet Carla. I arrived at the dinner nearly 30 minutes early (very unusual for me) and sat in my car reading the book until the appointed time. When I saw people starting to enter the restaurant, I stashed the book in my purse and joined them. I introduced myself to the first person I saw — who turned out to be Carla Buckley! I told her that her new book was truly “unputdownable” and that I hated to tear myself away from it; I’m not sure she believed me until I showed her my book, with a page dog-eared about halfway through. Carla (along with another terrific author, Jenny Milchman) will be coming back to the Chicago area on May 8 — please join us (with or without your book club) for a great discussion. No need to choose the books — they are already chosen for you! Jenny is the author of two suspense novels: Cover of Snow, a psychological thriller about a young wife in upstate New York investigating her husband’s mysterious suicide, and Ruin Falls (due in April)  about a mother desperately searching for her missing children. (Cover of Snow, Jenny’s debut novel, also received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.)