Summer 2016 Paperback Picks

9781594634024 (1)The number one search term that’s led readers to Books on the Table over the past eighteen months is “Girl on the Train paperback release date”. That query led thousands of readers to a post from April 2015, 10 Spring Paperback Picks. In that post, I tried to identify the elusive quality that makes some books sell like crazy in hardcover while others — just as appealing — languish on the shelves. I mean, The Girl on the Train — supposedly one of the fastest-selling hardcover novels for adults in publishing history –was fun to read, but I’ve read plenty of similar books that disappeared from bookstore shelves in no time at all.

Hardcover books have a very short shelf life. Publishers accept returns from bookstores after three months, and if a book hasn’t sold in that time, it’s taking up valuable space and it’s sent back. Most unsold hardcovers will go to purgatory in a warehouse while their fates (a remainder store? the dreaded shredder?) are decided. If the authors of those books are lucky, their books will be released in paperback and reach a much wider audience.

Some terrific books you may have missed in hardcover are out in paperback this summer, just in time to read during the dog days of August.

a-window-opens-9781501105456_hrA Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
This book touched my bookselling heart — it’s sort of a mashup of Goodnight June (Sarah Jio) and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It’s the clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture. Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books, the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time. (See full review here.)

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Our Souls at Night is a beautiful and sad story, made sadder by the fact that Kent Haruf died shortly after completing his final edits on the novel. Haruf’s books are all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado and focus on everyday people and their need for connection with each other. The New York Times says: “His great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length. I read the book in one afternoon and had to slow myself down so I could appreciate the plain yet poetic language.

9780544715264Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos
I read this book last summer and thought it was absolutely wonderful, but I feel like no one else read it in hardcover. Language Arts explores many of the same themes as Our Souls at Night, especially the themes of loss and human connection. How do you connect with someone you love who doesn’t have language? Charles Marlow, an English teacher and a lover of the written word, is the divorced father of an adult autistic son. His daughter has just left for college, and Charles is desperately lonely. I don’t want to say too much about his book, because it’s full of surprises.

The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart
If you’re in the mood for a well-written page-turner, don’t miss this novel about two lonely women in the isolated college town of Sewanee, Tennessee who are both hiding painful secrets. Jennifer Young and her 4-year-old son move in near 91-year-old retired nurse Margaret Riley, and Margaret soon becomes obsessed with digging into Jennifer’s past. The New York Times says “Both women, whom we come to know in great depth, are guarding secrets and neither can afford to make friends . . . Stewart never relaxes her tight focus on these complex characters.” Stewart based the novel in part on her grandmother’s experiences as a World War II battlefield nurse.

y648Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Yet another book that deserves a second chance in paperback, Crooked Heart is “a wonderfully old-fashioned, Dickensian novel, with satisfying plot twists that invoke the flavor (and scams) of wartime London” (New York Times Book Review). A precocious 10-year-old orphan is evacuated during the Blitz — and is placed with a couple of marginally successful con artists. Darkly humorous yet poignant, this book is Roald Dahl for grownups.

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alex Kershaw
I am fascinated by the French Resistance, and Alex Kershaw’s Avenue of Spies is a worthy addition to my collection of World War II books. It’s not on a par with In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, but it’s still a riveting story: an American family, living in occupied Paris, shows unusual courage in the direst of circumstances. American physician Sumner Jackson, his Swiss wife, Toquette, and their son, Phillip, are given the opportunity to leave France when the French surrender is imminent, but they elect to stay and join the Resistance — while living almost next door to the Parisian headquarters of the Gestapo.

y648-1The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
One of my favorites of 2015, The Hummingbird deserves to be widely read. The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, this novel is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring. I loved the multiple story lines (including a book within a book) and it’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity. (For a full review, click here.)

All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell
Caroline Angell’s debut novel, a paperback original, is a coming-of-age story about Charlotte, a gifted musician who takes refuge in a babysitting job with a prominent family on New York’s Upper East Side, after she is betrayed by a fellow composer. Tragedy strikes her employers, and Charlotte must make difficult decisions about her future. I loved this novel’s authentic portrayal of young children, as well as its glimpse into the world of musical composition.

The sequel to the tearjerker Me Before You, After You, came out in paperback last week. I haven’t read it yet, but my mother just finished it, and says it’s a worthy follow-up. What paperbacks are you packing in your beach bag?

 

 

The View from the Cheap Seats — Book Review

I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.
Neil Gaiman, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming”

152949Confession: I’d never read anything by Neil Gaiman until last week, when I read his new collection of nonfiction pieces, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. Well, I read most of it. I admit to skimming the essays in Section II, “Some People I Have Known”, since they presupposed a certain amount of knowledge about influential science fiction and fantasy authors. The NPR reviewer calls the 550-page book a “hefty tome”, noting that Gaiman started as a journalist in the 1980s and that a complete collection of his nonfiction would “take up volumes”.

Why did I even pick up Gaiman’s book, given that I’m not a fan of the writing he’s best known for — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and graphic novels?  (Don’t ask me what the difference is between comic books and graphic novels. All I know is that they both have tiny pictures and all-caps type, which look as though they would cause this middle-aged, non-edgy reader to take to her bed with a headache.) I don’t mean to denigrate his books; they just don’t appeal to me, the same way Jane Smiley’s trilogy about an Iowa farm family probably doesn’t appeal to the people who devour Gaiman’s Sandman series. I knew that Gaiman is considered a literary giant — as well as a huge proponent of libraries and bookstores — and I wanted to learn more about him and his writing.

I’ve never really liked genre fiction — even as a child,  I didn’t care for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. I did love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (which is still on my list of favorite books), and like Gaiman, I adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. But mostly I liked, as I still do, realistic books that were more about character than plot. If the only books that were given to me as a child were set in other worlds, or populated by non-humans, I probably wouldn’t have loved reading — just the way many young readers dislike reading when they’re force-fed a diet of “relationship” novels. In an essay called “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography”, which isn’t about pornography at all (“that was just put in to make it a catchy title”), Gaiman discusses what makes something genre fiction:

If the plot exists to get you from the lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western. If those are simply things that happen on the way, and the plot encompasses them, can do without them, doesn’t actually care if they are in there or not, then it’s a novel set in the old West.

I like novels set in the old West; I don’t like Westerns. But Gaiman points out that genre offers writers “something to play to and to play against. It gives you a net and the shape of the game. Sometimes it gives you the ball.” The framework of working within a genre makes for a better story, he argues, and nothing is more important to him than a good story. The very best stories, he suggests, transcend genre.

Gaiman, who’s written many children’s books, discusses an issue I’ve often wondered about, “that most vexing of questions . .  what is a children’s book anyway?” I’d buy a copy of The View from the Cheap Seats just to read his thoughts on children and reading. Parents, he says, should not concern themselves with what children read because, first of all, children are “really good at self-censorship. They have pretty good sense of what they are ready for and what they are not, and they walk the line wisely.” They also don’t discriminate between good and bad books:

What a child takes from a book is never what an adult takes from it. Ideas that are hackneyed and dull for adults are fresh and new and world-changing for children. And besides, you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.

I’m a big underliner, but it’s been a long time since I underlined as much in a book as I did in The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s views on Moby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, C.S. Lewis, The Moth Radio Hour, libraries, the value of reading . . . all underlined in my copy of The View from the Cheap Seats. In one of my favorite passages, he reminisces about his favorite bookstores:

And writing this, all of those bookshops come back, the shelves, and the people. And most of all, the books, their covers bright, their pages filled with infinite possibilities. I wonder who I would have been, without those people and those places, without books.

If that’s the view from the cheap seats, I’ll take it.

An Evening with Fredrik Backman

13178730_10154861148128626_5560856837219276285_n-2 (1)She just smiled, said that she loved books more than anything, and started telling him excitedly what each of the ones in her lap was about. And Ove realised that he wanted to hear her talking about the things she loved for the rest of his life.
Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Swedish author Fredrik Backman (author of A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and Britt-Marie Was Here) at his very first event on his first book tour in the United States. Fredrik arrived in Chicago on the evening of Tuesday, May 10, spent the following afternoon in the Simon & Schuster booth at Book Expo of America (BEA) signing books and chatting with booksellers, librarians, and other publishing industry people, and then, with his publicist and agent, battled rush hour traffic to speak to a sold-out crowd in Lake Forest.

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115073_hrFredrik’s novels, bestsellers in Sweden, the United States, and dozens of other countries, hit the sweet spot for readers looking for fiction that’s charming, humorous, and a bit quirky — but not corny. They’re the kind of books that people fall in love with and give to all their friends. One of Fredrik’s editors told Publishers Weekly: “I think Fredrik is different from the dark crime writers and doing something different from writers in general . . . He has such a distinctive voice and point of view. He might be the herald of a larger trend in Scandinavian literature, but I think he’s doing his own thing.”

Readers all over the world respond to Fredrik’s wit and wisdom. A customer at Lake Forest Book Store showed me her dog-eared copy of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, with many favorite passages underlined.  I wonder if she underlined my favorite quotation from the book: “Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.”

Fredrik delighted the audience at our event with funny anecdotes (shopping at Ikea with his father) and with serious commentary (developing three-dimensional characters). Here are some highlights of our conversation.

a-man-called-ove-9781476738024_hrFredrik Backman on:

How to say “Ove”:
Pronounce it like “Hoover”, the vacuum cleaner.

How he develops his novels:
I start out with characters. Some writers start out with a story, and fit the characters into the story as they go along . . . I start at the other end, with characters . . . people that I find funny or interesting.

britt-marie-was-here-9781501142536_lgBritt-Marie:
My wife, when she read the manuscript, said “You’ve never written anything about a character who’s so much like you.” She’s passive-aggressive, while Ove’s active-aggressive. I wanted to write a coming -of-age story, this great adventure where someone leaves their home, but those stories are always written about 20-year-old men . . . and I wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a 63-year-old woman, because she’d never left home.

The secret to writing a bestseller:
I don’t know — I really wish I had an answer. People think I have a formula (“this is how you write a bestseller”) — I have no idea. The only thing I figure is that probably I like the same things a lot of other people like. I don’t have original taste in things. The TV shows and movies I like are things that millions of other people like. There are a lot of really, really talented, gifted brilliant writers and if you ask them, what books do you like, they say, “Oh, there’s this French drama that no one’s ever heard of”, or “Oh, there’s this monk who wrote a book, there are only three copies and I have one of them”. I’m not capable of writing anything hard for people to understand.

To become a bestseller, it doesn’t mean that this many people thought your book was the best one they ever read. It means this many people thought it was OK.

Swedish literature:
We like crime.  Probably because we don’t have a lot of it in real life. There’s, like, two people in Sweden who have guns. If you’re going to write crime you start with a very, very nice place, an idyllic place. Because then it becomes much scarier when someone does something horrible.

The movie version of A Man Called Ove:
You have to view it as an interpretation — it’s like someone making a cover of a song. My mom hasn’t said it out loud, but it’s very obvious she liked the movie more than she liked the book. From my dad’s reaction, I could see that my mom has had a long-time crush on the actor who plays Ove. She said, “Wasn’t it wonderful when he . . .” and I said, “I know, I wrote that! I made that up . . . in my head”.

snipp20snapp20snurr20and20the20gingerbread20by20maj20lindmanThe classic Swedish picture books about triplets Snipp, Snapp and Snurr and Flicka, Ricka and Dicka:
You’ve lost me.

I couldn’t believe neither Fredrik nor his agent, who was on tour with him, had heard of Maj Lindman’s charming children’s books, which were published in the United States in the 1930s and are still in print: “Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr were three little boys who lived in Sweden. They had blue eyes and yellow hair, and they looked very much alike.” I’ve just ordered a copy of one of my favorites (Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Gingerbread) and will be sending it as a thank you gift for Fredrik to share with his children — who will soon be old enough for one of the most memorable characters in children’s literature, Swedish tomboy Pippi Longstocking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to Read Next — May 2016

Long stormy spring-time, wet contentious April, winter chilling the lap of very May; but at length the season of summer does come.
Thomas Carlyle

The bad news is that April was a slow reading month for me. My major projects were caring for a new puppy and battling a bronchial infection. As I stood coughing under an umbrella, pelted by hailstones and waiting for said puppy to take care of business so I could put him to bed, I thought longingly of reading on my porch on a sunny May day. The good news is that that’s exactly where I am now — and that I did manage to read some terrific books in April, all by debut authors and all published today. Happy book birthday to Pamela Wechsler, Elizabeth J. Church, and Maria Toorpakai (and her co-author, Katherine Holstein)!

9781466887138Pamela Wechsler, an attorney who spent many years as a criminal prosecutor in Boston and later became a consultant and writer for several TV shows, met the actor Billy Bob Thornton while she was a legal advisor on his movie, The Judge. Thornton — who won an Academy Award for writing the Sling Blade script — encouraged Wechsler to write a novel. The result is the page-turner Mission Hill, first in a planned series about Abby Endicott, a blue-blooded Boston prosecutor whose family expects her to join a white-shoe law firm but opts for the gritty world of criminal law. Thornton’s blurb is better than any description I could come up with: “Pam Wechsler delivers a thrill ride, crackling with suspense, wit and style. The story is rich, the characters are complex, and the writing is deft. I can’t wait for the next one.” I’m with Billy Bob! Watch for an interview with Wechsler on Books on the Table — but I warn you, the interview I just read on a website called The Thrill Begins will be a tough act to follow. I love Shannon Kirk’s “Worst Questions for a Debut Author”. Now I have to think of some creative questions of my own!

Church_AtomicWeight_HC_FINAL_PRNT.inddElizabeth J. Church, author of The Atomic Weight of Love, is also an attorney. Church, who’s published scholarly articles in legal and scientific journals as well as short stories, left the law after practicing for 30 years. She grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the daughter of a research chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. Church’s debut novel was inspired by the lives of her parents and their contemporaries. Meridian (Meri), a young biology student at the University of Chicago, marries her much older professor, Alden, and gives up her own dreams of becoming an ornithologist when her husband is sent to Los Alamos to help develop the atomic bomb. This lovely novel of love, sacrifice, and societal change spans 30 years in Meri and Alden’s flawed marriage. This would be a perfect book club selection — beautiful writing and plenty of issues to discuss. (Meri’s own experiences with women’s discussion groups are not very successful!)

f76c11fc5e15e2c9f36f5d66b81617c6Squash champion Maria Toorpakai, author of the stunning memoir A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From the Taliban in Plain Sight, risked her life to become a professional athlete.  For over two years, death threats forced her to practice squash in her cement-walled bedroom. Born in Waziristan, the Taliban-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Area of northwest Pakistan, Toorpakai lived as a boy until she was sixteen. Her loving and liberal family supports her dream of athletic success, eventually allowing her to flee Pakistan and train with Jonathon Power, the world champion squash player who now runs the Power Squash Academy in Toronto. The human rights abuses that the Toorpakai vividly describes are numerous and shocking — as a young girl, is beaten by a mullah for showing an interest and athletics, and she sees a woman stoned to death. Don’t miss this powerful and inspiring memoir. I can’t wait to see Power’s documentary about Toorpakai’s s The War to Be Her, scheduled for release in September. (Special thanks to Aidan Harrison, squash pro at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois and friend of Jonathon Power, who alerted me to Toorpakai’s amazing story.)

I just realized that I neglected to mention two fabulous March debuts that you should add to your reading list. The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, is a perfect book for your next vacation, or just a lazy Sunday afternoon. Four siblings — who are all in their forties but often behave like spoiled children — have put their lives on hold until they inherit their share of the family trust (“The Nest”). This clever, insightful, and often very funny novel had me turning the pages late into the night. If you liked Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements or Emma Straub’s The Vacationers, you’ll love The Nest. I’m adding it to my list of novels about WASPS behaving badly.

Our YA book group at Lake Forest Book Store loved The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Zentner is a successful singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Nashville who also works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp. His insight into young people — particularly those from isolated Southern towns — shines through in his first novel, about three friends  growing up in Forrestville, Tennessee (named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan). “The Serpent King” refers to the religious background of the main character,  Dill Early, whose father is a disgraced snake-handling preacher. Zentner writes sentences you’ll want to underline and fills his coming-of-age story with plenty of surprising twists.

I also need to mention one March release that probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that I read in two days. The North Water, by Ian McGuire, was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, so I can’t be the only person who willingly reads about violence aboard a 19th century whaling expedition — gruesome murders, polar bear attacks, animal slaughter, and violence galore. I haven’t been brave enough to watch The Revenant yet, but I couldn’t stop reading this book. The Times reviewer says:

The North Water, Ian McGuire’s savage new novel about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition, is a great white shark of a book — swift, terrifying, relentless and unstoppable. It is also as epically bloody as a Jacobean drama or a Cormac McCarthy novel . . . Mr. McGuire is such a natural storyteller — and recounts his tale here with such authority and verve — that The North Water swiftly immerses the reader in a fully imagined world.

What’s on your reading list for May? I’m overwhelmed with all the new releases — and looking forward to attending BEA (BookExpo America) in Chicago next week. Send me a message if you’ll be there and we can try to meet up!

 

 

Spring Paperback Picks — April 2016

No, I still don’t know when The Girl on the Train will be released in paperback. That’s the #1 query that leads readers to Books on the Table, and as I mentioned in 10 Spring Paperback Picks last April, publishers often delay a paperback release when the hardcover is still selling well. The Girl on the Train (currently #6 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list) has been on the list for 62 weeks.

All the Light We Cannot See has been on the hardcover list for 98 weeks; curiously, I haven’t noticed much interest in when the paperback will come out. I wonder if this is because readers view All the Light We Cannot See as the kind of book they’re willing to buy and want to own in hardcover, while they see The Girl on the Train as the type of book they  read on the beach and then pass along? In any case, All the Light still has a long way to go before it catches up with some bestselling novels of the past — The Da Vinci Code, The Bridges of Madison County, The Caine Mutiny, Auntie Mame, and Advise and Consent all stayed on the list for more than 100 weeks.

Some of my favorite books from 2015 are arriving in paperback this April. Some did well in hardcover (Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Sally Mann’s Hold Still, and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread come to mind) but some are underappreciated gems; maybe now they’ll find the audience they deserve.

Fiction

9780553392333We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (April 5)
I liked Diffenbaugh’s second novel even more than her first, The Language of Flowers. It’s the coming-of-age story of two people: 16-year-old Alex, who’s devastated when his beloved grandparents return to their native Mexico, and his mother, Letty, who must finally learn to be a parent. It’s one of the best contemporary novels about immigration I’ve read, up there with The Book of Unknown Americans. You can read my interview with the author here.

9780425278109My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (April 5)
During the summer of 1989, the narrator of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel is fourteen years old and in love with his neighbor on Piney Creek Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lindy Simpson. When Lindy becomes the victim of a rape, everything changes. Although My Sunshine Away is suspenseful — sometimes almost unbearably so — it’s really a coming of age story. It’s about an immature, self-centered boy becoming an adult with integrity. As he recounts the pivotal events of his youth, the narrator’s voice is authentic and compelling. At one point, he reflects on the nature of nature of memory:

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

Although I’ve never been to Baton Rouge, I felt as if I had after reading Walsh’s lyrical descriptions of this singular place. Walsh, who is the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, clearly heeds every creative writing teacher’s advice: “Show, don’t tell.” He shows us a setting and characters that are as vivid as any I’ve encountered on the page. The novel reminded me in some ways of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones — but without the murder and the accompanying trip to heaven, and with a great deal more wisdom.

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710464_lgThe Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (April 5)
I savored every page of this beautiful novel, which explores the complicated relationships among four siblings raised by an attentive, loving father and a neglectful mother. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan (whose reviews are almost always spot-on) loved the book, saying Packer’s “splintered narrative style and the richness of her characters and language illuminate the unexpected depths of the commonplace.” Rebecca, one of the siblings, grows up to be a successful psychiatrist, and like all of us, she wonders if her childhood memories are accurate:

I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.

y6483Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight (April 19)
If you’re in the mood for smart, character-driven psychological suspense, Where They Found Her is the book for you. It’s the kind of book you read in one day, or at least consumer in big chunks. The book opens with an unnamed narrator disposing of a bag of evidence in a dumpster behind a suburban tanning salon. What has happened, and who is telling the story? Readers won’t find out for almost 300 pages, with plenty of detours along the way. It’s revealed in the first couple of chapters that the body of a newborn baby has been found in the woods near the college campus in an upscale New Jersey suburb. Molly Sanderson, wife of a Ridgedale University professor and new to the staff of the local newspaper, investigates the story — which turns out to be much more complicated than she originally anticipated, leading back to unsavory secrets in Ridgedale’s past. For my complete review, click here.

Nonfiction

9780307742223Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (April 5)
MacDougall, author of Born to Run, is a terrific writer and he has a great story to tell in Natural Born Heroes — actually, two stories. He deftly juxtaposes the story of the audacious kidnapping of a Nazi general on the island of Crete with his personal quest to emulate the physical and mental endurance of classical Greek heroes. The subtitle makes the book sound as if it’s a physical fitness manual, which in a way it is. It’s interesting that the subtitle for the hardcover was How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, emphasizing the historical aspect of the book. The London Independent says:

One of the most daring, madcap episodes of the Second World War was the kidnapping by Patrick Leigh Fermor, dirty trickster supreme, and his band of British eccentrics and Cretan hard men, of the German general Heinrich Kreipe.

Seventy years later, youngsters in inner-city London and the suburbs of Paris were becoming experts in parkour, using the urban landscape as an obstacle course to be negotiated with joyful freedom and intense physical discipline.

Christopher McDougall connects these two points, and many in between, in a heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life.

My idea of exercise is a leisurely bike ride or a brisk walk (and preferably on a warm, sunny day), but I found this book absolutely riveting.

9780393352146_300-1Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (April 4)
I have recommended this book to quite a few people, and I stuck a shelf talker under the hardcover version, which remained in the unsold book for a long time. I’m not sure anyone took my advice, and I want you to know you’re missing out on a really good book. I wrote a mini-review about it last fall, and a reader commented: “I quite enjoyed Between You and Me. I think it didn’t get a ton of love because you have to be a very specific sort of person to want to read about words.” That’s true, but the book is about much more than words. The author, Mary Norris, has been the New Yorker‘s copy editor since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. Her wicked and witty memoir is sprinkled with grammar advice, as well as plenty of gossipy tidbits. I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides.The New Republic review says: “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” is “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.”

y6482Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green (April 26)
I really can’t champion this book enough, and I hope it finds a big audience in paperback. Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history. The New York Times review commented that “It is this personal story that makes her mix of memoir and history . . . so absorbing as she returns home to interview family and friends about a past that many would rather leave there.”

Happy spring and happy reading!

 

Terrible Virtue — Book Review

Terrible Virtue coverMargaret Sanger — nurse, birth control pioneer, social activist, free love advocate — led a big life. Too big to be contained in the pages of Ellen Feldman’s slim, fast-paced biographical novel, Terrible Virtue. I read Terrible Virtue in one afternoon, and although the book held me captive, it left me wanting more. Feldman races through Sanger’s long and eventful life, starting with her childhood as one of eleven siblings in a poor Irish Catholic family in upstate New York.

Determined not to become like her mother, “a wife who never had a chance to recover from the last childbirth before taking to her bed for the next; a girl who sped from youth to old age with no stop between”, the young Margaret Higgins enters a nurses’ training program. She elopes with a young architect, Bill Sanger, who convinces her to have children, and for a time they lead a conventional family life. They become involved in the radical politics of the time, “gliding among men and women who believed that love was too precious ever to be denied.”  Margaret sheds her “bourgeois camouflage” while Bill remains “obsessed with fidelity”. Eventually, Margaret’s pursuit of legalized birth control sends her first to prison and then overseas, forcing her to abandon her family:

All my life, people have been asking me the same question . . . What made you do it, they ask. What made you sacrifice everything, husband, children, a normal life — whatever that’s supposed to be — for the cause?

My mother, hunched over a washtub full of husband-and-child soiled shirts and socks and underwear; mu mother, bent over a pot of soup stretched thin as water to feed thirteen greedy mouths; my mother, kneeling on a mud-streaked floor that no amount of elbow grease would ever get clean. My gaunt, God-whipped, digger-of-her-own-grave mother made me do it . . .

margaret_sanger_at_her_brownsville_clinic_trial_-_1917Feldman presents Margaret Sanger not as a saint or a sinner, but as a complex, flawed visionary, driven not only by her passion for social justice and her vision of a better world, but by her own egotism. The reader feels both sympathy for the personal tragedy she endures and anger at her treatment of her family. Feldman, who tells most of the story from Margaret’s perspective, successfully uses short, straightforward sentences and an urgent tone to capture her voice. When Feldman breaks up Margaret’s narrative to include asides from other characters, addressed to Margaret, she is less successful. These sections, which don’t sound as though they are based on actual correspondence, are intended to add depth to Margaret’s portrayal, but they ring false to me.

Terrible Virtue takes a panoramic view of Margaret Sanger’s life, often skimming the surface. For example, her contributions to the development of the birth control pill take up only a couple of pages. Also, I’ve read that Sanger has been criticized for her support of eugenics and I was curious to see how the novel would address that issue. However, only one page of the novel discusses eugenics, with Sanger defending herself by saying, “Isn’t hindsight wonderful? Doesn’t it make us wise? . . . Eugenics was in the air. Everyone was intoxicated by it. We were going to wipe out illness and eliminate defects by engineering reproduction.”  The reader wants details — who was “intoxicated” by eugenics? How were these innovators going to create a brave new world with no illness or “defects”? But, as happens so often in this book, Feldman moves on to another subject.

Often I find biographies and biographical novels bloated, full of minutiae that don’t add to my understanding of the book’s subject. This book is just the opposite, leaving me hungry for more details and more depth. Perhaps Terrible Virtue would have been a better novel if the author had focused on one aspect or time period of Sanger’s life. That said, it’s thought-provoking and absorbing book that’s very much worth reading.

 

Click here to listen to a fascinating interview with Ellen Feldman (“Planned Parenthood Founder Gets Novel Treatment”).

 

 

 

Lit Up — Thoughts on Teenagers and Reading

Together and alone, we need literature as California valleys need rain.
David Denby, Lit Up

9780805095852_LitUp_JK.inddBack in the 1980s, film critic David Denby wondered “how anyone could be hurt by reading a good book”. The controversy at the time, which continues to this day, was how we define a “good book” and whether the traditional Western classics are relevant in our multicultural society.  The 48-year-old Denby returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, and spent a full academic year studying the Western canon. He wrote a book, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and the Indestructible Writers of the Western World, about how the experience reinvigorated his intellectual life.

Denby describes his new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives, as a “prequel” to Great Books. He spent an academic year (2011-12) in sophomore English classrooms at the Beacon School, a  magnet school in Manhattan, and another year (2013-14) in English classrooms at two other public schools — Mamaroneck High School, in a wealthy New York suburb, and James Hillhouse High School, in inner-city New Haven, Connecticut. He wanted to learn:

How do you establish reading pleasure in busy, screen-loving teenagers — and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?

Denby’s time in the classroom with some unusually gifted and devoted teachers — who are passionate readers themselves — shows that it is possible to transform reluctant or even hostile readers into engaged and curious readers. But it’s an uphill battle, and even more difficult for students who lack the context or vocabulary to understand what they’re attempting to read. If students don’t know when or why the Civil War was fought, they’re not going to connect to The Red Badge of Courage. If they don’t know what the Holocaust was, they’re not going to make any sense of Elie Wiesel’s Night.

The teachers Denby introduces in Lit Up have the difficult, nearly impossible job of getting students to read the assigned texts and of helping students find books outside of the required reading that they will enjoy and relate to on a personal level. Both Denby and the teachers acknowledge that the way to get kids to read is to get them first to read anything they like: “Get them started as readers by giving them books they could easily enjoy, including young adult novels; get them caught up in narratives, stories, outcomes.”

As a bookseller, I agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly. As Ann Patchett said, “I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.” I’ve always been a bit mystified by parents who are overly concerned about the content in their children’s reading material. If your third grader who struggles with reading loves Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones, who cares? They’re developing a habit of reading and enjoyment of the written word. And anyway, do you want the reading police ticketing you for reading Us Weekly?

The problem is that these teachers know, just as all avid readers know, that one of the greatest benefits of reading is to develop an understanding of the wider world and the people in it. Reading isn’t just about holding a mirror up to ourselves and validating what we already think and feel. The teachers we come to know and admire in Lit Up work hard, with more success than I would have anticipated, to get kids to read challenging books that open their eyes to people and experiences far beyond the limited scope of their lives.

Jessica Zelinski, who teaches sophomore English at Hillhouse High School, the worst-performing public school in New Haven, regularly organizes a classroom event called a “Read Around”. She chooses several books she thinks will interest her students, and brings multiple copies to class, encouraging every student to sample each book.  One of the students, who initially looked at Ishmael Beah’s devastating memoir of his years as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, and said, “This doesn’t interest me,” ends up reading the book with great interest — and, through the efforts of Miss Zelinski, meeting the author at a nearby college. Miss Zelinski, who feels that the Hillhouse curriculum often condescends to the students by not expecting much from them, says to the author, “Maybe they’ll enjoy life more, if I can get them reading. I would like to nurture in them the idea that there are other worlds.”

I was so fascinated by Denby’s stories about the students and teachers he came to know that I read this book in just one day. It’s a very personal account, not a sociological treatise. Denby says of the students he observed:

I decided not to suppress my feelings about them. I would describe them physically (or they would never come alive on the page) and commit the sin of ‘judging’, always bearing in mind that they were very young. Fifteen-year-olds, through an academic year, develop stems and roots, their cells divide. In particular, I wanted to see if readers could be born — what happens when a non-reader becomes a reader? — which meant necessarily recording the students’ mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggled into life.

americangirlsimageI read this book just after I finished another book about American teenagers, American Girls: The Secret Lives of American Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales, which is truly one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. If Sales is to be believed — and I hope with all my heart she’s not — the lives of most teenage girls revolve around taking pictures of themselves and posting them online, hoping for validation. In this book, physical appearance is everything, the search for male approval is paramount, and feminism is completely dead. A recent Wall Street Journal review said: “The secret life of teenagers sometimes seems entirely a response to nude pictures and requests for them—a response, that is, to male adolescent desire, as it shows up digitally. But female vanity is also at play.”

I wish the teenagers (both boys and girls) in American Girls had teachers like Sean Leon, Mary Beth Jordan, Jessica Zelinski, Mary Whittemore, and Daniel Guralnik, who would introduce them to inspiring books that would help them develop into empathetic people.  At the very least, they should consider the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, one novel I’m certain every high school student is required to read:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.