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!

 

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Book Thieves on the Loose

There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.
Irving Stone

Like many book clubs, mine celebrates the holidays with a book exchange. This event always draws record attendance — last night, a dozen of us showed up with beautifully wrapped books in hand, ready to steal from one another. We’ve done this so many times we don’t need any instructions, but we received a friendly reminder from our book club “secretary”:

Bring a wrapped book for our annual book exchange (aka STEALING Game) . . . I love the food , drink and camaraderie, but LIVE for the stealing event!

We added a new twist to our traditional “Yankee swap” rules this year: the hostess is allowed to steal any book she wants at the end of the game. We thought that was the least we could do for our hardworking hostess.

I drew a bad number (#3) but still hit the jackpot — I went home with three terrific books, because one generous member of our group bundled three short story collections together. Actually, there were no dud books to be had last night. Everyone left with a great book (or two, or three), excited to begin reading — or coloring.

The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest (Johanna Bamford) with a set of colored pencils — Adult coloring books have become hugely popular, and devotees say they induce a Zenlike state of relaxation. So when the rest of us are running around doing last-minute holiday errands, one of our group will be calmly coloring the beautiful designs in these books.

51bqo1nszfl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Almost Famous Women autographed copy (Megan Mayhew Bergman) — This collection of “off-the-radar” female historical characters is going to the top of my pile.

We Never Asked for Wings autographed copy (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) — Diffenbaugh’s first book, The Language of Flowers, was a surprise bestseller; I thought We Never Asked for Wings was even better. The author visited Lake Forest in the fall; here’s the link to my interview with her: We Never Asked for Wings: Author Interview.

The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff) — We’re all looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation — when is it coming to Chicago? We’re tired of watching the previews!

Fortune Smiles (Adam Johnson) — Three members brought this year’s National Book Award winner for fiction. I can’t wait to read it — I loved Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son.

23507478Villa America (Liza Klaussmann) — Historical fiction about Sara and Gerald Murphy, contemporaries of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their adventures with fellow expatriates on the French Riviera. Our hostess adored Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins — I think Villa America will be perfect for her.

Pretty Baby (Mary Kubica) — One member just received it as a birthday gift, and said it’s a great page-turner: “I can’t put it down!” Someone else in the group pointed out that she had, in fact, put it down to come to the book exchange.

51tn9o6ht5l-_sx258_bo1204203200_The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness (Frances Schultz) — The member who ended up with this book hasn’t made a muddle of things, but she is in the middle of building and decorating a new house, so it’s perfect for her.

Some Luck (Jane Smiley) — The first in Smiley’s ambitious trilogy covering 100 years in the life of an Iowa farm family. A little tidbit of Book Thieves trivia: One of our members grew up in the same house (and same bedroom) in St. Louis where Jane Smiley spent her childhood.

M Train (Patti Smith) — The New York Times Book Review says “Smith’s  achingly beautiful new book is a kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance.”

Brooklyn (Colm ToíbÍn) — One of those unusual cases when the book and the movie are both outstanding.

Tales of Accidental Genius autographed copy (Simon Van Booy) — The member who brought this short story collection bought it at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. She left little notes in the book, quoting the bookseller who recommended it. The author is “cute, with a great accent” and “compassionate towards his fellow humans”. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which qualities are more important.)

cover-1A Little Life (Hanya Yanigihara) — Two members brought copies of this devastating and powerful book, and both were stolen three times, rendering them dead.

New Yorker magazine subscription — Magazine subscriptions are always a hit — and the New Yorker comes every week! (Plus, who doesn’t love the cartoons?)

We’ve been enjoying books and friendship for 22 years, but record-keeping has been . . . spotty. Here are links to the lists of books we exchanged in 2013 and 2014: Book Club Spotlight: The Book Thieves and The Book Thieves Strike Again.

As Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Happy Holidays!

 

 

 

We Never Asked for Wings — Author Interview

9780553392319

Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight, just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction correct their flight paths all at once.

Four years ago, Vanessa Diffenbaugh published her first novel, The Language of Flowers, which became a surprise bestseller — and a staff and customer favorite at Lake Forest Book Store. It’s rare that a new author builds an audience so quickly. Kathryn Stockett  comes to mind — but it’s been more than six years since The Help was published and there’s no new book on the horizon.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s much-anticipated second novel, We Never Asked for Wings, has just arrived in stores. Her whirlwind publicity tour included two events in the Chicago suburbs: an evening reading and discussion at Highland Park Public Library and a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon. Quite a few of the attendees had met Vanessa when she visited Lake Forest for a luncheon in September 2011, just a couple of weeks after The Language of Flowers was published. That event — one of Vanessa’s very first —  was a benefit for the Allendale Association, a local organization serving troubled children and adolescents.

Few authors are lucky enough to be sent on publisher-sponsored publicity tours. As author Justin Taylor points out in an article entitled “On the Total Weirdness of the Book Tour”, both reading and writing (“these two vast solitudes”) are fundamentally private activities, yet book tours attempt to transform them into social events:

Every art form has its peculiarities but the strangest thing about writing . . . is that its fundamental attribute is solitude. Plays, concerts, operas, movies take dozens if not hundreds to make, and are seen by thousands (or millions) in their turn. Even the painter, who might work alone or with assistants, eventually sees his work on a wall in a room in the company of that of his colleagues.

I’m sure authors get tired of answering the same questions at event after event, but in my experience they are all unfailingly gracious, even with inane queries — “Do you write in longhand or on a computer?” “How can I get my book published?”. Most attendees ask more insightful questions, often about the story behind the book. I’m always interested in what the author is currently reading; the “what’s on your nightstand?” question always asked in the New York Times Book Review “By the Book” column. When I interview authors, I try my best to ask them a few questions they haven’t been asked multiple times.  Last week, Vanessa was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule to chat with me.

I asked Vanessa what readers ask her most frequently. She said, without any hesitation, that readers are most curious about how her personal life ties in with her fiction. Vanessa has spent her adult life working with disadvantaged youth, as a mentor, teacher, and foster parent. Her experiences have inspired her characters — Victoria, the young woman aging out of foster care and facing life alone in The Language of Flowers and Alex, the bright and precocious teenager trying to get to know his parents, and himself in We Never Asked for Wings  and her motifs: flowers, birds, and feathers.

Vanessa mentioned that the natural world plays an important role in how her characters make sense of their lives. Alex’s knowledge of bird migration, for example, draws him closer to his grandparents and helps him understand why they returned to Mexico. Vanessa’s brother-in-law is a climate scientist at Stanford whose help was invaluable as Vanessa planned Alex’s science project inspired by his grandfather’s feather collection. In the Q and A session after Vanessa’s reading, she mentioned that she’s always been a nature lover, having grown up in a small farming community.

When Vanessa began writing We Never Asked for Wings (a long and difficult process that took more than three years and involved a complete rewrite) she intended the book to focus on the dichotomy between educational opportunities for wealthy and poor children, not on illegal immigration. In an interview on MomAdvice/Sundays with Writers, she says:

For me, it is especially interesting that I wrote a book about immigration because I had no intention of doing so! I was thinking about economic and educational inequality, and themes of motherhood and family. But as I got deeper and deeper into this novel, it struck me that I had created a community of characters in which immigration status would be an issue. It would be disingenuous to write about a low-income community in California and pretend that every citizen in the book would be documented. That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live in these communities.

I was particularly curious about the abandoned housing project by the ocean where Alex and his family live. I could visualize the muddy expanses and decrepit buildings of Eden’s Landing, but I couldn’t find any information about the Landing on the Internet. Actually, Vanessa told me, the setting of We Never Asked for Wings was based on Columbia Point, a housing project on a peninsula in Boston that was razed in the 1980s. She initially planned on setting the novel in Boston, but as a native Californian, her heart was in the area she knows best.

The other question I was especially interested in was why she decided to write We Never Asked for Wings as a purely realistic novel, with none of the magical realism that characterized The Language of Flowers. Her answer, which surprised me, was that she thought the book was entirely realistic. What I, and other readers, saw as fantastical events were not, according to Vanessa — they were caused by the power of suggestion.

Vanessa pointed out that her book contains two coming of age stories — Alex’s, of course, but also his mother’s, as Letty learns to become an adult and a parent. The flashbacks to Letty’s troubled teenage years and Alex’s first experience with love will appeal to teenage readers who are ready for adult books. One of my colleagues mentioned that her son, a high school student, was enjoying We Never Asked for Wings, finding himself interested not only in Alex’s story but the immigration issues raised in the novel.

And guess what? Vanessa was called to the podium before I got a chance to ask her what’s on her nightstand. I recommend, though, that you add We Never Asked for Wings to the stack on your nightstand.

WWW Wednesday — Family Version

IMG_1705Yesterday we had friends visit for lunch who had never been to our lake house before. The first thing one of them said after admiring the view was, “Wow! What a great place for reading.” She’s absolutely right — there’s no better place for reading than sitting outside on a beautiful summer day with the lake and mountains in the background. There are always plenty of other things to do, especially when the sun is shining, but we all treasure our reading time.

the-new-neighbor-9781501103513_lgI just finished reading several books that are perfect for summer reading. My colleague Di recommended Leah Stewart’s The New Neighbor, a terrific page-turner about two lonely women in 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.

9780553392319We Never Asked for Wings, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (out in hardcover yesterday) is, like Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, the story of a young woman in crisis.  When Letty Espinosa’s parents return to their native Mexico, Letty must finally grow up and become a parent to her teenage son, Alex, and six-year-old daughter, Luna.  Diffenbaugh does a wonderful job creating vivid and sympathetic characters. I was particularly drawn to Alex, who has always regarded his mother as more of an older sister than as an authority figure.  I passed the novel along to my mother, who enjoyed it as much as I did. I liked The Language of Flowers very much, so I was nervous when I started reading her sophomore book. Surprisingly, I liked We Never Asked for Wings even more — it’s more true-to-life, with none of the magical realism that made The Language of Flowers a less-than-perfect book for me. Vanessa Diffenbaugh will be visiting Lake Forest for an author luncheon next week, and I’m looking forward to meeting her and asking her a few questions.

9780804140034Maybe some people don’t find nonfiction books about war appropriate summer reading, but Jeff and I do! I am fascinated by the French Resistance, and Alex Kershaw’s Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris 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 a similar 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.

51ZVQ8T7JKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Jeff is delving deeply into World War I, thoroughly absorbed in Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by British military historian Max Hastings. We heard the author speak at an event last year, and Jeff is finally getting to the book, which the New York Times calls “a highly readable narrative that should — but won’t — be the last word on the subject.” He also recently read Testament of Youth, which is author Vera Brittain’s memoir of her experiences as a nurse during World War I that led her to pacifism, political activism, and a writing career. It’s a little embarrassing that Jeff has finished the book and I have just started it, because it’s my book group’s August selection.

IMG_1697My mother wins the award for most prolific reader. (Also, most prolific crossword puzzle solver . . . actually, the only crossword puzzle solver.) She’s thrilled that our little town recently rebuilt and expanded its public library, and regularly comes home with big stacks of library books.  She’s read some excellent books, and particularly recommends You Are  One of Them, by Elliott Holt. One of my favorite authors, Maggie Shipstead, gave Holt’s debut novel a rave review:

Inspired by the story of Samantha Smith, the American schoolgirl who wrote to the Soviet premier Yuri Andropov in 1982, and asked if he intended to start a nuclear war, has the momentum of a mystery but is, more essentially, a consideration of how we are haunted by loss . . . The main thing, though, is that You Are One of Them is a hugely absorbing first novel from a writer with a fluid, vivid style and a rare knack for balancing the pleasure of entertainment with the deeper gratification of insight. More, please.

I just emailed the bookstore to order a paperback copy of You Are One of Them — I find that library books and lakeside reading don’t mix well I’ve already managed to drop one book in the water and spill coffee an another. Some of my mother’s books go back to the library unfinished. My mother feels, and I agree, that you can usually tell after a few pages if a book is worth reading.  Isn’t that the best thing about libraries? You haven’t invested anything in the book so there’s no pressure to finish. And the worst thing is that you have to take care of the books . . .

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