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?





WWW Wednesday — Summer Reading Version 1.0

My favorite reading spot, rain or shine.

It’s WWW Wednesday, when I answer three questions: What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?

Although it’s officially summer, I have yet to enjoy that quintessential summer pleasure: reading at the beach or the pool. It’s been cool and wet, so I’ve logged quite a few blissful reading hours on my screened porch, listening to the rain on the roof. Who needs those damaging UV rays, anyway, along with screaming children and biting flies?

16087465710_cf0a2d0c1e_o-500x500I’m reading, as usual, several books at once. Yes, I understand it’s not really physically possible to read more than one book at a time. I like to have a novel, a nonfiction book, and an e-book (either fiction of nonfiction) going. A recent topic on one of my favorite podcasts, Books on the Nightstand, was how to squeeze more reading into the day. A suggestion, which I think is terrific, was to read nonfiction in the morning and fiction in the evening. Another idea — even better —  is to change the screen saver on your phone to say “Read a book instead”. (Click here for a great screen saver you can download.)

9781400063369I just started reading Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, the follow-up to Kurson’s terrific Shadow Divers (2004) — and I’m already hooked. Shadow Divers is one of my all-time favorite narrative nonfiction books; Kurson’s second book, Crashing Through, about a man who regains his sight after nearly a lifetime of blindness is a must-read as well.  My friend and colleague Diane recommended Pirate Hunters to me, noting that one of the daring wreck divers in search of famous pirate Joseph Bannister’s ship. Golden Fleece, is John Chatterton — hero of Shadow Divers. The book is not as much about the actual diving as it is about the history of piracy and how Chatterton and his partner, John Mattera, needed to understand Bannister’s psychology in order to find his ship.

9780062367556My current novel is Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry, historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century New York City —  mostly Coney Island and the Lower East Side. The stories of an abandoned infant,  sideshow performers, a beautiful mute, and a young woman trapped in a mental hospital all converge (I’m not sure how, yet!) in this vivid and imaginative debut novel. A Chicago resident, debut novelist Parry recently appeared at the Printers Row Lit Fest with Matthew Thomas (We Are Not Ourselves). I wish I had been able to go — but I’ll be interviewing Parry later this summer.

I just finished two wonderful novels — Language Arts, by Stephanie Kallos, and Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. They are two very different books — Language Arts is over 400 pages, with a complicated plot, and Our Souls at Night (described by several reviewers as “spare”), is a short novel, focusing on just two characters.

9781101875896Our 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. Addie says:

I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

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. My book group will be discussing Our Souls at Night next month, and I’m disappointed to miss the meeting.

9780547939742Language 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. He reflects on his unhappy childhood, particularly his traumatic fourth-grade year; his broken marriage, and his relationship with his son, Cody:

Language left him gradually, a bit at a time. One would expect words to depart predictably, in reverse order — the way a row of knitting disappears, stitch by stitch, when the strand of working yarn is tugged off the needle — but that was not to be . . . God was the last holdout . . .

I absolutely loved this book, but I don’t want to say too much about it because the plot is full of surprising twists. As a review in Paste magazine says, “Kallos can spin a reveal like nobody’s business. At her best, she compels you to recalibrate everything you thought you knew about the book.” The review goes on to point out that while Kallos is a talented storyteller, her real gift is her deep understanding of her characters:

One thing that separates a good novel from a great one is when empathy accompanies insight. The novels of Stephanie Kallos are filled with the sort of empathy that elevates not just the books but their readers. They convey the overarching sense that repairing the world is a real possibility, however remote—more than one absorbing read away, to be sure, but certainly closer at the last line than the first.

What’s next? I’m looking forward to reading The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet — it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, several people whose opinions I trust have raved about it, and I’ve loved Ishiguro’s other books. After that . . . I can’t decide. Too many choices!