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!

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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!

 

Annoying Things People Do on Airplanes

I know from experience that traveling with small children is no picnic. I sympathize with parents trapped with children at airports and on planes, remembering very well how difficult it is to entertain squirmy, fussy, tired children in an enclosed space. In the pre-iPad era, we relied on books, travel games, and snacks to keep the kids happy.

At an airport gate recently, I made the mistake of sitting near a parent who had a  different, but highly creative, solution to her children’s boredom. When they started to whine, she reached into her big Mary Poppins bag and voila! She pulled out two harmonicas, and the little cherubs’ pouts turned into smiles as they competed to see who could play his harmonica more loudly.

Untitled-5Since I was at the gate, not strapped into an airplane seat, I was able to move out of earshot of the impromptu concert, crossing my fingers that the young musicians would not be seated near me on the plane. I was really looking forward to finishing my book, Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees.

If you like to read, a plane trip can be a little piece of heaven. Several hours of peaceful, uninterrupted reading time, out of touch with the world below. I know many planes offer wifi now, but why pay for that? The best thing about flying — besides getting to your destination — is the sense of being disconnected from the world, immersed in a book.

Sometimes, though, it seems that my fellow passengers have conspired to make sure that doesn’t happen. I can deal with crying babies — it’s not their fault their ears hurt, and almost always, their poor parents are trying hard to soothe them. It’s the adult behavior that drives me nuts.

I’m a sociable person, but  don’t want to talk to anyone on a plane, and that includes family members. My husband’s solution is headphones — he immediately puts them on, whether he is listening to something or not, assuming that most people will not strike up a conversation with someone wearing headphones. The last time I tried this, Chatty Cathy in the next seat wanted to know what I was listening to. Nothing, I wanted to say. They’re just a prop to keep nice people like you from talking to me. I think one reason people leave my husband alone on planes is because he’s male. Women are sitting ducks; we’re supposed to be friendly and accommodating. I’d like to go on about men taking up more than more share of the space and hogging the armrests, but I don’t want to alienate my male readers, so I’ll stop.

“What are you reading? What’s that about?” I dread those questions.I love talking with people about books, but not on planes. Disturbing a reader on a plane is like approaching a marathon runner in the middle of a race — “How’s it going? How much longer? Where did you get those sneakers? How much did they cost?”  Sometimes I just hold up the book, showing the cover, and smile. A couple of years ago, I was reading a book about World War II on a four-hour flight, and I made the mistake of being overly polite to the man next to me when he asked me about the book. I was treated to a monologue about his father’s experience in the war, which involved working on a farm in Nebraska because he was unfit for service.

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You can order this T-shirt from spreadshirt.com.

I am always interested in what other people are reading, and one of the worst things about e-readers is that snoopy people like me can’t tell if someone is reading Fifty Shades of Gray or Anna Karenina. I once broke my own rule about talking to people on planes when I noticed my male seatmate was reading Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. I asked him how he liked it, and he told me it was his wife’s book club selection, so he thought he’d give it a try, even though it was a “chick book”.  I asked him why a book about a woman is a “chick book”, while a book about a man is just a book. That was the end of our conversation.

I should have kept my thoughts to myself the way I do when I see the following:

• People who fidget restlessly throughout the flight, flipping through the in-flight magazine.  They are wasting a golden opportunity; why didn’t they just bring a book?

• People who allow loud music to escape from their headphones.

• People who send their young children on a plane as “unaccompanied minors” and provide them with no form of amusement. I was once seated next to a seven-year-old boy who came aboard with nothing but a jacket and a pack of gum. Guess who entertained him for two hours?

• People who travel with small, yapping dogs. One time, my son and I sat across from a woman with a dog who yelped during the entire flight. She kept telling the dog that if he would be quiet, he’d get a treat when we landed.

• People who bring hot food on the plane — well, food that was once hot. I’ve seen people sit at the gate for an hour or more, clutching a bag of greasy McDonald’s food or a pizza box, and then decide, when the plane is airborne, that the time is right to treat everyone nearby to the aroma of fast food.

rosie-project-9781476729091_lgI did not have to sit near the harmonica-playing duo on the plane. Instead, I sat across from a young mother who had an infant in a front carrier and a two-year-old in the seat beside her. Both children fell asleep within 20 minutes of takeoff. (This never once happened to me, I want you know.) She ordered a Bloody Mary, settled back in her seat, opened her book (The Rosie Project, I couldn’t help but notice) and smiled at me. “Pure bliss, right?” I said to her.

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”).

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

My Reading Life with Pat Conroy

I was saddened to learn that Pat Conroy died yesterday (March 4, 2016), at the age of 70. In his obituary, the New York Times says that Conroy’s “legion of admirers . . . hung on his every word, entranced by the naked emotionalism of his male characters, the Lowcountry atmosphere and the page-turning Southern yarns.” Two years ago, I wrote about Conroy’s last book, The Death of Santini (published in 2013) and my long nearly 30-year membership in the Pat Conroy fan club.

15537-1How many aspiring writers have been told to “write what you know”? If Pat Conroy was given that timeworn advice, he’s certainly taken it to heart. Both his novels and his memoirs are about what he knows — growing up as the son of an abusive Marine Corps fighter pilot, attending the Citadel as a basketball player and budding writer, losing a brother to suicide, coping with a sister’s mental illness. In his latest memoir, The Death of Santini, Conroy says, ” My books have always been disguised voyages into that archipelago of souls known as the Conroy family.”

I discovered Pat Conroy in 1987, with a paperback copy of The Prince of Tides. My first baby was born that year, and when he was asleep, I was reading Pat Conroy. As tired as I was, I stayed up late, immersed in the drama of the Wingo family — a violent and cruel father . . . a suicidal poet sister . . . escaped convicts on the loose . . . and a ferocious pet tiger. When I finished all 664 pages, I couldn’t wait to read more of Conroy’s writing. I quickly went through The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline — and then I was finished. The books went on the shelf, and my love affair with big, fat books continued when Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities grabbed my attention.

51sqjyeth2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Conroy disappeared for years, and finally published Beach Music in 1995. I wanted to love the book, but found I couldn’t get past the flowery prose and stilted dialogue. So it was with trepidation that I picked up My Losing Season several years later. On the surface, this memoir recounts Conroy’s senior year playing basketball at the Citadel, but it’s really about his relationship with his father, his coach, and his teammates, and finding his voice as a writer.

Do you think that Hemingway knew he was a writer at twenty years old? No, he did not. Or Fitzgerald, or Wolfe. This is a difficult concept to grasp. Hemingway didn’t know he was Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man. Faulkner didn’t know he was William Faulkner. But they had to take the first step. They had to call themselves writers. That is the first revolutionary act a writer has to make. It takes courage. But it’s necessary.

Even though I’m not interested in college basketball, I was captivated by Conroy’s story of failure and how it shaped him into the person and writer he became. It remains one of my favorite memoirs . . . along with My Reading Life, which Conroy published in 2010. (I wasn’t enamored with South of Broad, Conroy’s 2009 novel.) My Reading Life isn’t exactly a memoir; it’s a collection of essays about the powerful role of reading in Conroy’s difficult life. A person can’t be a writer without first being a reader, and Conroy tells us how he became a reader:

My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always. She wanted me to read everything of value, and she taught me to out-read my entire generation, as she had done hers. . . I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children. I collected those long, melancholy lists of the great books that high school English teachers passed out to college-bound students, and I relied on having consumed those serious litanies of books as a way to ease my way into the literary life.

Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.

17857644The Death of Santini covers some familiar ground — the relationship between Conroy and his terrifyingly abusive father, Don Conroy (a.k.a. “The Great Santini”). But this is a story of redemption — Don Conroy has transformed himself from a monster into a loving father and grandfather. At the end of The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo (Pat Conroy’s alter ego), says, “I learned that I needed to love my mother and father in all their flawed, outrageous humanity. And in families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness. But it is the mystery of life that sustains me now.” Fact reflects fiction in The Death of Santini, for Conroy shows us how he is able to forgive Don Conroy for his vicious cruelty towards his family. The writing of the book was a necessary part of Conroy’s healing; he says in the prologue:

Mom and Dad, I need to go back there once again. I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time . . . Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Don Conroy was, according to his son, far more cruel and abusive than Bull Meecham, the”Great Santini” of the novel. When Conroy sent his editor a first draft of the novel, she told him she was troubled by his potrayal of the Colonel — “no reader could expect to believe that such an unsavory man could exist without a single virtue to recommend him. To make him credible, I had to include scenes that displayed a softer and kinder man.” This softer and kinder man eventually came to life, in the person of the elderly Don Conroy. Throughout his life, he enjoyed attending his son’s book signings; in fact, father and son made a pact that no customer would ever leave without a book signed by them both. (Of course, he often bragged that his line for autographs was longer.) He was enormously proud of Conroy’s success, and, in fact, wrote a letter to his entire extended family defending The Great Santini:

Pat is a very clever storyteller and I was totally absorbed and encountered every emotion, as reading very slowly, life with father unfolded in this work of fiction. It was as though I knew some of the characters personally . . . Pat did a superb job in developing the character Mary Ann . . . with all modesty, fell far short on Santini — which is quite understandable with such a dashing and complex character.

Yes, Don Conroy is a complex character — and Conroy does an extraordinary job of portraying that complexity in The Death of Santini. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Conroy describes his father’s grief after his youngest son’s funeral: “Forgiven at last, my father sat in a chair in the living room, not even trying to control his crying. His kids surrounded him, because his love of Tom provided us an understanding of his own love for all of us. It was a day of surreal, uncommon beauty.”

Conroy closes the book with the eulogy he wrote for his father’s funeral. Is this really the last time Conroy will “examine the wreckage” of his tumultuous family? In an interview in BookPage, he claims it is: “I’m going to try to leave the family in peace. There are other things to write about.” We’ll see.

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.

 

 

 

Girl Through Glass –Author Interview

Girl Through Glass coverDancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful. We’re like flowers. A flower doesn’t tell you a story. It’s in itself a beautiful thing.
George Balanchine

The other girls, and their imperfections, fade away as Mira runs ahead on a stream of energy and light. Her body tells her what to do and she just goes along with it . . . Something great is growing in her, unrolling its tendrils, sprouting buds in all directions. Sometimes the song in her body is almost too loud; it fills her eyes, makes them tear up in something like gratitude.
Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

The first thing you need to know about Sari Wilson’s debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is that it’s much more than a “ballet book”. Like every memorable book, it transcends its surface subject matter and explores universal themes; in this case, art, obsession, sexuality, and family relationships. “I really wanted to write a book that wasn’t just about ballet,” Wilson said at an event at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. “The idioms and milieu of ballet make for compelling human drama.”

The world of ballet in late 20th century New York provides a fascinating backdrop for the novel’s two narratives. Mira is a young girl with a difficult family life who finds refuge in the art and discipline of ballet. Kate is an ex-dancer and college dance history professor who can’t seem to move forward and is forced to revisit her buried past. For both, George Balanchine’s ideal of feminine beauty looms large. “Ballet is woman,” Balanchine famously said. The subject of Kate’s Ph.D. dissertation was “Corporeality Subverted: The (Dis)embodied Feminine in the Aesthetic of George Balanchine, 1958-1982”.

b7160f981f4922d5ab7bf9eababa9085Doesn’t almost every little girl dream of becoming a ballerina? My dream died quickly, after several months of patient instruction from Mrs. Goneconto at the local YMCA. I was disappointed to learn at the first class that I was not immediately issued a tutu and toe shoes, and things went downhill from there. Mira and her fellow “bunheads” exist on a different level, pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits in what Wilson calls “pure devotion to an ideal”.

Wilson, whose own dance career was cut short by an injury, called herself a “recovering ballerina” in a recent New York Times piece, “My Nutcracker Recovery”. When her daughter is cast in a production of “The Nutcracker”, Wilson has mixed feelings — but as she watches her little girl rehearse, Wilson remembers her childhood passion for dance: “My own early swooning love for ballet — for the pure motion and expression of dance — floods back to me, confusing, powerful, bittersweet, and it finds me a little bit healed.”

Girl Through Glass is at its heart a coming of age story, focusing on a girl and a woman at inflection points in their lives. Wilson spent years crafting the novel, which was a creative endeavor, she points out, not unlike choreographing a dance.

How would you compare the art of writing to the art of dance?

In a lot of ways they seem inverse: dance is an art that is performance-based, completely dependent on the body as instrument for communication; writing is a cerebral art and employs written language as an instrument for art. But underneath, they share a lot: the need for discipline, repetition, and a strong desire to communicate. In the age-old days, dance and poetry were integrated, I think, but they split off from each other and became their own disciplines. But in their roots, they are very related.

Like many fiction writers, you started out by writing short stories. You mentioned that Girl Through Glass had its origins in a short story about a young ballet dancer. How would you compare the process of writing short stories with the process of writing a novel?

Writing short stories is sustainable in sprints, whereas writing novels is a marathon undertaking. For me, the novel demanded a wider range of skills—analytic and associative. Novels are aptly named—each adheres to its own rules, its own logic, they are very elastic. I enjoy the form because it can accommodate multiple dialectics and tensions.

Have you made any particular effort to connect with the ballet community? How do you think members of that community will view the novel?

One of the things that I have been really gratified about is that the ballet community has been so accepting of the novel. I have had dancers and former dancers and “recovering” dancers (my term) tell me that the novel describes their own experience. It’s not a glowing portrait of the ballet world, but it is a one told with love and passion—maybe the passion of a child who can love and be hurt deeply. I think dancers understand that the novel is full of admiration for what they do, as well as what the costs can be.

You very deftly weave the two narratives — Mira’s and Kate’s — together. Was one of them more difficult to write than the other? Did you know where the story was going when you began?

I actually didn’t know where the story was going. I first wrote Mira’s storyline. When I had finished, I realized that the novel wasn’t complete—around the same time, I started writing from this other voice, a 1st person voice, a much older voice, a bit bitter, even angry. I didn’t know who it was at the time. As I wrote her story I realized who she was and how she was connected to Mira. I realized I could use Kate’s story as a frame for ordering Mira’s story; it was only then that I felt I had a book, a novel.

You paint a vivid and accurate picture of 1970s New York City. New York has changed a great deal in the past few decades. What, if anything, has been lost? 

It’s trendy, I guess, to be nostalgic for 1970s New York, but for me it is very specific nostalgia: the nostalgia of the world through a child’s eyes that has been transformed. So it’s a journey into personal memory of a lost childhood world, a New York City of the past—a very frayed urban landscape. But what has been lost? Well, there is a great Edmund White piece about this in The New York Times ; in it he basically says it has to do with the economy and real estate. What is largely lost is the sense of freedom to fail abundantly that the city allowed people at that time—that ecosystem benefited creativity and allowed a certain kind of romanticism around art-making, but at the cost of safety.

How has ballet changed since MIra’s and Kate’s years as young dancers?

Mira’s era was a very specific era, when Balanchine aesthetic was at its very height. I think the playing field is much wider now—there are so many more different types of companies with modern and ballet cross-over. And the conversation about body image and race that is happening around Misty Copeland’s terrific rise is all very exciting and overdue.

Kate finds that the world of academia is, in its own way, as cutthroat and competitive as the world of dance. Can you comment on that?

Yes, that actually surprised me. I’m not in academia, but as I did my research I came to realize that there was an incredible amount of cutthroat competition in that world—especially at Kate’s level. Kate has made it into a pool of very talented and ambitious candidates for which there are not enough permanent positions, which makes her situation very tenuous. Not unlike the hierarchies of the dance world, in which there are very few coveted spots for soloists and principals.

Sari Wilson AP Photo credit Elena SeibertFor generations, little girls have dreamed of becoming ballerinas — and some of them have suffered, physically and emotionally, as they’ve pursued their ambitions. Certain parents (and not just ballet parents) are willing to sacrifice and also to let their children experience physical and emotional harm in the hopes of raising superstars. Adults, like Maurice, can become obsessed with the beauty of ballet. What is it about ballet that inspires such passion?

Maybe it is the kind of innocence that it requires, a kind of passionate innocence and a ungovernable belief in beauty (in the broader Romantic sense, Beauty as in Truth)? There probably will always be something captivating about noble suffering in pursuit of some truth? So much art is about this theme. Ballet displays it in the vernacular of the body and in a kind of nobility of form that can be as hypnotizing as well as destructive. It can contain, I suppose, our best and worst impulses as humans. It holds a mirror up to our inner selves, perhaps.

Thank you, Sari, for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully!

What to Read Next — February 2016

I do so hate finishing books. I would like to go on with them for years.
Beatrix Potter

Every reader knows the feeling. As you turn the final pages of a book, you start to think, But what will I read next? You look at the stack of unread books on your nightstand, or you search your computer for that list of must-read books you saved. You hunt for that little scrap of paper with the title of a book that a friend said you absolutely have to read. You plan a trip to the library or bookstore to pick up more books to add to your pile.

Of course, you can always hedge your bets by reading several books at a time. When you finish one, you just move on to the middle of the next one. Sooner or later, though, you have to choose a new book. Sometimes the choice is made for you — you need to read your next book club book, whether it’s something you’re in the mood for or not. Many of my favorite books have been books I’ve read out of obligation.

January was a terrific reading month for me, leaving me with several books I highly recommend and only a couple of disappointments. If you’re looking for your next great book, here are my most recent favorites:

9780399160301Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Four teenage narrators, each with a unique and memorable voice, tell the story of the events leading to the worst maritime disaster you’ve never heard of: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea during the final days of World War II. Nearly 10,000 people died, most of them refugees fleeing from the Soviets. Author Ruta Sepetys brilliantly constructs an addictive historical narrative that will appeal to readers who enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See or The Nightingale. (And isn’t that almost everyone?) Don’t be put off by the YA categorization — Salt to the Sea, like The Book Thief, is perfect for both teenagers and adults.

The Wall Street Journal calls Salt to the Sea “masterfully crafted”, noting that “Ruta Sepetys seizes on this tragic and forgotten episode to create a superlative novel.”

Sepetys is now on a national publicity tour — I’m looking forward to meeting her on Monday, February 8 at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. For her event schedule, check out her website.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
9780812988406When Breath Comes Air is one of those books you want to give to everyone you love. If you  start reading the book with a pen in hand, ready to underline your favorite passages, you’ll find yourself underlining almost the whole book. Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 37-year-old neurosurgeon, wrote the book after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He didn’t quite finish, but the memoir he left behind — with a beautiful foreword from Abraham Verghese and an equally lovely epilogue written by his widow, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi — is a masterpiece.

Ann Patchett says: “It’s a brilliant piece of writing and a singular and profound piece of thinking, but it’s also more than that: When Breath Becomes Air makes us stop and think about how gorgeous life is, how heart-wrenching and brief and amazing.”

y648Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Our YA book group at Lake Forest Book Store chose Challenger Deep because it was the 2015 National Book Award winner in the YA category. After I read the first 30 or 40 pages, I had no idea what was going on. I considered calling my co-leader and suggesting we apologize for our selection and pick another book. However, I decided to trust the National Book Award judges, and I persevered. I ended up loving this novel, which vividly recreates a teenage boy’s struggle with mental illness. The narrative switches between straightforward accounts and hallucinations, dreams, and distorted versions of reality. I don’t know if it’s ever really possible to comprehend mental illness, but Challenger Deep, more than anything I’ve ever read, helped me gain a bit of understanding.

51rc2b8fvkbl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s debut novel is a literary page-turner, perfectly blending evocative writing and deft characterization with a tension-filled — and creepy — plot. The novel is worth reading just for its setting, the isolated and dangerous Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. Miranda, a nature photographer, accepts a one-year assignment there, with only a few odd and unfriendly scientists for company. Not long after her arrival, one of them is found dead. Accidents happen all the time on the “islands of the dead”, but was this an accident?

The Chicago Tribune says:

Part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, part ode to one of the western world’s wildest landscapes, this dark, compelling tale is an astonishingly ambitious debut . . . In this, her first work of long-form fiction, Geni shuns predictable protocols of plot, character and setting. Taking a leap off the literary cliff is not for wimps. It’s a testament to Geni’s skills that she takes her readers with her.

My next two books will be While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent into Madness by Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Sanders,to scratch my true crime itch, and The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, because a page-turner about parental love and reincarnation sounds irresistible.  How about you?