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?

 

 

 

10 Books Recommended to Me (Thanks, Readers!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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