What are you reading right now? Here are thirteen books I’ve recently loved …
The Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship by Anjan Sundaram
From the publisher/Penquin Random House:
With Bad News, Sundaram offers an incredible firsthand look at the rise of dictatorship and the fall of free speech, one that’s important to understand not just for its implications in Rwanda, but for any country threatened by demands to adopt a single way of thinking.
Loulou de la Falaise by Ariel de Ravenel and Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni
A beautiful coffee-table book, inspiring, colorful, and glamorous just like the woman herself. She was Yves Saint Laurent’s muse and soul mate. Her wardrobe are what fashion dreams are made of.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
This book stayed with me long after I finished it.
Science fiction classic. Part time-travel tale and part slave narrative, it was first published in 1979 and is still very popular.
Dana, a black woman, and her husband Kevin, a white man, have just moved into their home in 20th century California. Suddenly, Dana, is plunged back in time to 1819 Maryland. Over many visits to the past, Dana realizes that the son of the plantation owner is her ancestor and that she must protect his life to ensure her own existence.
** The graphic novel adaptation is SO cool.
That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor by Anne Sebba
The author presents information that has not been available to previous biographers e.g. recently declassified British government files stored in The National Archives of the United Kingdom. She also accesses source material not previously used. And yet, it all just seems like a regurgitation of information. There is no storytelling here when you so badly want some and often I felt Sebba offered a more sympathetic portrayal than was needed. The relationship that has been widely considered a great love story of modern times appears to be nothing of the sort. The king, in Sebba’s telling, emerges as a man who today might be looked on as something of a stalker. There are also somewhat shocking revelations – assumptions – regarding Wallis’s medical issues. What may be most interesting is a description of what it meant to be divorced in the 1930s/40s.
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
This is the kind of book you’ll want to dig into and not leave the house till you have turned the last page.
The story is told through the eyes of a writer for a high-end travel magazine, who’s recently received the assignment of a lifetime – covering a glamorous cruise ship’s landmark trip in the North Sea.
Her first night aboard she witnesses a passenger going overboard- or did she? When she begins to try and find out about the woman, she risks everything – including her life.
An Agatha Christie inspired thriller if ever there was one. (Ware is a self-admitted Christie fan)
I could not walk away from after the first thirty pages, the plot was that good, the characters that terrific.
If you like this, you might like: Girl on a Train, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, and anything by Agatha Christie or Tana French or Dorothy L. Sayers.
Human Acts by Han Kang
Devastating, gorgeous, horrifying. Painful.
In 1980, in Gwangju, South Korea, government forces massacre pro-democracy demonstrators. The bodies are stowed in the hall of the complaints department of the Provincial Office. When the bodies — the complaints — grow too many, they are moved to the school gymnasium, and there, a boy named Dong-ho looks for the corpse of his best friend. His is the first section, followed by six more stories of the victims of Gwangju — including a spirit tethered to a stack of rotting corpses, the mother of a dead boy, an editor trapped under censorship, a torture victim remembering her captivity, and, finally, a writer.
Kang wrote the 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian.
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
From the publisher/Hachette Book Group – A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world’s densest jungle.
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Thought-provoking. A renowned sociologist from Berkeley, California travels deep into Louisiana bayou country—a stronghold of the conservative right.
One of “6 Books to Understand Trump’s Win” according to the New York Times the day after the election. For the record, I have also read Hillbilly Elegy and skimmed part of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and discussed these with a few savvy folk and we all strongly agree Strangers by a mile offers the most solid insight into why we are where we are politically and socially. (Other books one might consider are Evicted and Dark Money).
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays + Arguments by David Foster Wallace
I did not understand how much we had lost in 2008 when Wallace, at only forty-six-years of age killed himself. A well-read friend introduced this book to me when I told him I had been unable to read Infinite Jest. This book, a collection of essays, has made me devout admirer of Wallace. I want to read every single thing he has written. You could say I am “training” to read Infinite Jest (a book that takes some months to read with a dictionary and two bookmarks). LOVED “Tornado Alley” and the title essay about his experiences aboard a seven night luxury Caribbean cruise (an assignment for Harper’s magazine). BRILLIANT!!!!!
I recommend checking out his now famous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College on You Tube.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Winner of the 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award
Winner of the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry
Winner of the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection
Winner of the 2015 PEN Open Book Award
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry
One of the Guardian’s Best Politics Books of 2015
One of the Guardian’s Readers’ Books of the Year for 2015
Finalist for 2014 National Book Award in Poetry
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism
“Marrying prose, poetry, and the visual image, Citizen investigates the ways in which racism pervades daily American social and cultural life, rendering certain of its citizens politically invisible. Rankine’s formally inventive book challenges our notion that citizenship is only a legal designation that the state determines by expanding that definition to include a larger understanding of civic belonging and identity, built out of cross-racial empathy, communal responsibility, and a deeply shared commitment to equality.”—National Book Award Judges’ Citation
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
A beautiful, realistic portrayal of grief.
Penguin/Random House: From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage–and a life, in good times and bad–that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Exceptional, marvelous. LOVED. William Shakespeare’s The Tempest retold as Hag-Seed.
The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories
In the mists and shadows, on the lonely roads, in dreary estates, and on wild moorlands we meet a variety of ghostly protagonists. The stand outs:
The Red Room (1896) H.G. Wells
The Phantom Coach (1864) Amelia Edwards
The Judge’s House (1891) Bram Stoker GOOD, EERIE
The Empty House (1906) Algernon Blackwood LOVED!!! A young man and his elderly aunt get keys to a haunted mansion. Blackwood’s prose, his power of suggestion are fantastic. One is “suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin, and a chilling of the blood.”
The Taipan (1922) W. Somerset Maugham – too brief, didn’t care about character. Englishman living in China.
Mr. Jones (1930) Edith Wharton
Man-Size in Marble (1893) E. Nesbit EXCELLENT
Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, by David Oshinsky (2016 release)
To many Manhattan’s most famous hospital is notorious for its psychiatric ward. The nuthouse – a scary place to avoid.
It is and has been so much more, something I might never have known had I not read Oshinsky’s well-written and thoroughly researched book on the place.
In the 18th century Bellevue was a foul smelling filthy hospital, and the only place millions of immigrants without money or resources could get any help. Since then it has become known as THE hospital that responded to the AIDS crisis not by turning people away, but by treating them -treating all regardless of their disease, regardless of their social standing.
A hospital sometimes at the forefront of technological and humane advances – e.g. use of ambulances (a way to remove the wounded from the battlefields of the Civil War became a way to treat people in crowded city streets), organized nurse training, and as ever a place for people who fell through the cracks elsewhere.
**As a sideway I recommend reading this NYT article written in 1983 and as relevant today regarding the mental healthy crisis in this country.
A fascinating read not only about this important institution, but also an engaging look at the evolution of professional medical care in New York.
Oshinsky is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Polio: An American Story.
Evicted by Matthew Desmond (2016 release)
One of The New York Times top ten books of the year.
Desmond, a prominent Harvard sociologist, spent over a year living in two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods to tell the story of eight families and two landlords.
From the publisher: “In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.”
Without a home everything else falls apart.
I strongly recommend reading this book and checking out this insightful article and devastating photographs in The Atlantic.
Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab
In 2005 a veteran crime reporter who has spent decades chronicling the mafia wrote what I would consider the best historical document of New York City’s organized crime, from the days of Dutch Schultz to John Gotti. All packed in 765 pages. Ok, it’s long – but there is so much information and it is so well organized!
In addition to the history of New York’s infamous five crime families- the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese – we get a bit of history on Las Vegas and how regional (smaller) families work. From the Mario Puzo like evolution of the gangs into corporate entities under the leadership of Lucky Luciano to the mob’s decline in the 1980s with the government’s increased use of antiracketeering (RICO) laws as a prosecutorial tactic and the abandonment of the old code of omertà with the embrace of the drug trade.
Since 2005, but really since 2001, the mafia has faded into the background.
Note, if you scan Google for what the mafia is up to you will find headlines as recent as April 2016 “46 Charged in Mafia Racketeering Conspiracy”…and certainly organized crime looms large, but the days of bodies piled in the streets and dapper dons in bathrobes smoking cigars on a borough street corner are in the past.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016 release)
It began and ended well enough with his grandmother’s shenanigans, but while I wanted to know her (“Mamaw”) better I cared little for him by the end. Vance seemed to have embraced a pompousness an “I’m better than you” attitude directed at the very people he blamed for that blasé attitude toward “his” people.
A self-described “hillbilly from a hard-hit Ohio steel town, Vance’s family struggled with poverty and domestic violence as jobs evaporated and alcoholism took its toll.
A college professor, with whom I was having a conversation about the number of books on poor white people, suggested I observe Vance’s media campaign. I slowly started to take note – and while this should neither add to nor take away from the book – found Vance a poster child for Trump. He has said he is not a Trump supporter, and yet during the campaign he popped up on dozens of outlets continually explaining why blue-collar white folks love Trump. Note, I have since found out the Silicon Valley venture capital firm he works for is owned by prominent Trump supporter Peter Thiel (who has since announced his bid for California governor).
The college professor I spoke with believes Vance is being groomed for a political position.
Well, read the book don’t read the book….certainly it lends to today’s political discussions.
*I strongly encourage reading this article in The Washington Post on the life and slow death of a former Pennsylvania steel town.
How to Survive a Plague by David France
From the publisher:
A riveting, powerful telling of the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of them in a life-or-death struggle, who seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. Ignored by public officials, religious leaders, and the nation at large, and confronted with shame and hatred, this small group of men and women chose to fight for their right to live by educating themselves and demanding to become full partners in the race for effective treatments. Around the globe, 16 million people are alive today thanks to their efforts.
Not since the publication of Randy Shilts’s classic And the Band Played On has a book measured the AIDS plague in such brutally human, intimate, and soaring terms.
In dramatic fashion, we witness the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and the rise of an underground drug market in opposition to the prohibitively expensive (and sometimes toxic) AZT. We watch as these activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the nation’s disease-fighting agencies.
With his unparalleled access to this community David France illuminates the lives of extraordinary characters, including the closeted Wall Street trader-turned-activist, the high school dropout who found purpose battling pharmaceutical giants in New York, the South African physician who helped establish the first officially recognized buyers’ club at the height of the epidemic, and the public relations executive fighting to save his own life for the sake of his young daughter.
Expansive yet richly detailed, this is an insider’s account of a pivotal moment in the history of American civil rights.
Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith
In 1949, Smith kept up her personal assault on racism with Killers of the Dream, a collection of essays that attempted to identify, challenge and dismantle the Old South’s racist traditions, customs and beliefs, warning that segregation corrupted the soul. She also emphasized the negative implications on the minds of women and children. Written in a confessional and autobiographical style that was highly critical of southern moderates, it met with something of a cruel silence from book critics and the literary community.
I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba
The former Reuters foreign correspondent, pored over memoirs, diaries, and letters, read books, watched films, handled artifacts, and interviewed women who lived through the events to understand how the war changed the lives of Parisiennes and how they adjusted to loss, fear, and hunger under occupation.
From the publisher:
Paris in the 1940s was a place of fear, power, aggression, courage, deprivation, and secrets. During the occupation, the swastika flew from the Eiffel Tower and danger lurked on every corner. While Parisian men were either fighting at the front or captured and forced to work in German factories, the women of Paris were left behind where they would come face to face with the German conquerors on a daily basis, as waitresses, shop assistants, or wives and mothers, increasingly desperate to find food to feed their families as hunger became part of everyday life.
When the Nazis and the puppet Vichy regime began rounding up Jews to ship east to concentration camps, the full horror of the war was brought home and the choice between collaboration and resistance became unavoidable. Sebba focuses on the role of women, many of whom faced life and death decisions every day. After the war ended, there would be a fierce settling of accounts between those who made peace with or, worse, helped the occupiers and those who fought the Nazis in any way they could.
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
Won the National Book Award in 2012.
An engaging literary detective story by noted Harvard Shakespeare scholar.
I recommend reading this review in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
An Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
One of The New York Times top ten books of the year and a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.
The story focuses on two families transformed by a 1996 explosion in a crowded Delhi market. The Khuranas, who are Hindu, lost two young sons in the blast, while the neighboring Ahmeds, who are Muslim, nearly lost their son, Mansoor.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
If you are looking for one of those books where you begin skipping lines accidentally because you want to know what happens next, then this book is for you. Heck, it could keep you up all night.
The story takes place in a picturesque small-town near Sydney (Australia) and begins at an elementary school trivia night where there is a death – or was it murder??
Quickly jumping back six months to kindergarten orientation, we get to meet the Moms, all of whom have kindergarteners. There is tightly-wound, remarried Madeline with a fondness for impractical designer footwear who has to endure sharing a school year with her ex-husband and his new age wife and their 5-year-old. Gorgeous rich Celeste, who is a kind “mum” harboring a dark secret. And their new friend – shy, young single mom Jane who is new to town and harbors secret doubts about her son.
A random act of schoolyard bullying, sets the story in motion and pretty soon it becomes apparent that you have no idea what is really going on behind closed doors and that the big little lies told to survive may prove lethal one day. Moriarty takes a powerful stand against domestic violence and bullying, but don’t worry interwoven into the book are plenty of funny moments.
This dark comedic portrait of the kind of well-intentioned parents who might just be a little crazy at times is being adapted by HBO for miniseries starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Alexander Skarsgard!!
Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James
These classic nineteenth-century ghost stories reach out from beyond the grave and wreak peril (sometimes supernatural) in seaside towns and on country estates
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction.
A quality read!
The story is inspired by the life of Watson’s own great-aunt.
The heroine, (the fictional) Miss Jane Chisolm, was born in rural, early-twentieth-century Mississippi with a genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place: sex and marriage.
Watson succeeds in bringing to life the sadness and cruelty of Chisolm’s life and a woman whose inner strength and generous spirit cannot be limited by her physical self.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The debut novel of an immensely talented 25-year-old.
The coming-of-age story of three young people growing up in a tight-knit African-American Christian community in Southern California.
Nadia Turner is finishing up high school when she falls for the pastor’s son – handsome Luke Sheppard, a former football star whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables at a local restaurant. The trio is rounded out by Aubrey, Nadia’s conservative best friend. The two girls are slowly drawn to each other by the fact that they’re both motherless. Nadia’s mother recently committed suicide, and Aubrey’s long ago abandoned her.
At 17, Nadia gets pregnant and decides to abort the baby, a decision she hides from everyone for as long as she can. **I highly recommend checking out her very popular essay on race!!!
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Pulitzer prize-winning author and part-time Maine resident Elizabeth Strout has crafted an honest if not heartbreaking story told in fewer than 200 pages.
The novel begins with its protagonist Lucy Barton telling a story about what happened to her many years earlier.
A young mother of two, she was recovering from surgery complications, when her own mother to whom she had not spoken in many years, came to sit at the foot of her bed and keep her company for five days.
Her mother tells fun, gossipy stories about neighbors in her hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and everything seems to be ticking along well, until Lucy reveals to us in small ways the poverty of her upbringing, her hunger for her mother’s love and their difficult, at times abusive relationship.
The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke (1987)
The first of twenty Dave Robicheaux novels.
A seriously good detective novel with the perfect balance of suspense, intelligence and grit.
Robicheaux is a New Orleans homicide detective haunted by his infantry days in the Vietnam War who struggles with alcoholism and depression.
When he becomes involved in the case of a young prostitute whose body is found in a bayou he is thrust into the world of drug lords and arms-smugglers.
I recommend getting to know the fascinating Burke a bit more in this Garden & Gun magazine interview.
Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE DESCRIPTION:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.
The People in the Castle, Selected Strange Stories by Joan Aiken
(1924–2004) was born in Rye, Sussex, England
An anthology of fantasy stories by a 20th-century master of the ghost story. My favorites:
Bumblepuppy – The endearing story of a puppy’s ghost found trapped in an old storage box.
Listening – After hearing a lecture on the connection between music and everyday noise, a professor discovers strange connections in his ordinary life.
The People in the Castle A non-traditional fairytale between a small town doctor and a princess. There is no moral to be learned here, only a story to be told.
The Spy by Paulo Coelho (2016)
The book brings to life one of history’s most enigmatic women: Mata Hari. From a penniless young woman to a popular exotic dancer who shocked and delighted audiences with her powerful performances. As an independent woman in the first decades of the 20th century she defied convention and risked everything to live the lifestyle she aspired to – and she paid the ultimate price.
Mata Hari was the stage name Dutch-born Margaretha Zelle took when she became one of Paris’ most popular exotic dancers on the eve of World War I.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (2016)
Truman Capote’s swans are all here – Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, C. Z. Guest, Pamela Churchill, and Marella Agnelli.
During the 1950s and 60s these were the most beautiful, stylish, wealthy and envied women in all of New York. When a photograph of Babe with a scarf tied to her handbag ran, it created a trendy tidal wave that millions of women emulated.
For years Capote had been the confidant of high society women – primarily Babe Paley – but that all changed with the publication of his nasty article “La Côte Basque ” in Esquire magazine in1975. The main characters were thinly veiled characterizations of the main women in his life and after reading the article they never spoke to him again. The story takes place after Babe Paley died of lung cancer and after Capote had been ostracized from New York society. The former swans look back on how it all began.
Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert
35 tales of haunted houses, vengeful spirits, spectral warnings, invisible antagonists, and motiveless malignity from beyond the grave, every one guaranteed to generate the pleasurable shudder.
The Last House in C — Street (1856) Dinah Mulock, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868) by Henry James, and The Kit-bag (1908) Algernon Blackwood
Ghost stories were something at which the Victorians excelled. In an age of scientific progress the idea of a vindictive past able to reach out and violate present held an especial potential for terror, and throughout the nineteenth century fictional ghost stories developed in parallel with the more general Victorian fascination for death and what lay beyond it.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
I swallowed in one gulp.
How far will you go to achieve a dream? That’s the question a celebrated coach poses to Katie and Eric Knox after he sees their daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy, compete.
And thus we enter the highly structured world – the sacrifices, the obsession – of an Olympic hopeful.
Then a mysterious death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community and everything they Knoxes have worked so hard for is suddenly at risk.
While trying to navigate the next few months, Katie is forced to consider whether there’s any price she isn’t willing to pay to achieve Devon’s dream.
NON-FICTION will publish next weekend. ox
*Photo of Babe Paley by John Rawling for Vogue Magazine (1946)
Is there anything better than a morning in bed with a cup of cocoa and a good book? Possibly, but I don’t think so. And as it gets chillier out there and we get less daylight than darkness and as I pile on the white comforters – reading in bed is truly one of life’s great pleasures.
What makes a great read? There are no rules. But as someone who reads a lot I can only say quality of writing and storytelling. Dialogue may not be great, but the characters must be developed and the story must flow. It must be believable – I don’t care if you are writing about lizard people from Saturn invading Middle Earth – I want to feel the book. The truly great ones, those stay with you maybe change you or your reading habits.
I read all types of books – memoirs, biographies, graphic stories, detective novels, legal thrillers, generational dramas, romance, and coming-of-age.
Here’s a list of titles I read recently and my thoughts.
Crossover by poet Kwame Alexander (2014)
2015 Newbery Medal Winner
Read this out loud and feel free to GROOVE and MOVE and SWOOP and Swooooooosh. The book is a young adult novel that follows 12-year-old basketball playing twins.
Check out this PBS video about the book here.
Mary Oliver’s exquisite poetry connects readers to the natural world in a way that is both beautiful and instructive.
American Primitive (1983), her fifth book, won the Pulitzer Prize. In her seventh book, House of Light (1990), won the Christopher Award.
After You by JoJo Moyes
The story picks up where the blockbuster Me Before You lets off.
Moyes’s heroine Lou works at an Irish-themed airport bar in a tacky emerald green uniform upselling bar snacks and cleaning up vomit in the toilets. Without giving away any spoilers the only other things I can tell you are – she is living through the consequences of the choices made in Me Before You and that the story has super funny moments and ones where you feel the despair and pure loss of hope Lou has accepted.
The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (2015)
When a young librarian comes into possession of the diary of a traveling circus from more than 200 years ago, he decides the book may hold clues to a family mystery he needs to solve to save his sister’s life.
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (2014)
The story of a Jewish woman finding her place in Boston in the early twentieth century.
One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina (2011)
MAGNIFICENT (!) coming-of-age memoir by a brilliant Kenyan writer.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)
Eileen Dunlop, a lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston in the early 60s, is pulled into a very strange crime. Beautifully written, and laced with dark humor, Eileen is much more than a twisty crime novel, it is literary and complex. Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. By far one of the best books I have read this year.
The Fishermen: A Novel by Chigozie Obioma (2016)
Debut novel by Nigerian writer about four brothers who disobey their elders and go fishing. At the river, they meet a dangerous local madman who persuades the oldest of the boys that he is destined to be killed by one of his siblings. A dark, but beautiful book. Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.
Faithful Place (2010), Broken Harbor (2012) The Secret Place (2014), and Trespasser (October 2016) by Tana French.
The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth installments in French’s acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series. It is not essential you read the series in order (In the Woods #1, The Likeness #2), but I think it will be a far more gratifying experience if you do. The first two novels feature the same detective in the series, the third and fourth involve different investigators. All the detectives are connected, and you get to see that connection and see different aspects of their personalities (professional and otherwise).
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
Sentenced to house arrest in a luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity. Through the windows of the hotel the aristocrat watches life change in Moscow from the Revolution to the Cold War — 30 years of tumultuous history taking place on the doorstep of the hotel. Excellent.
The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden (2016)
Beautiful!! The story begins in rural Georgia in 1917 where Harlan’s parents grow up. Then through Harlan Elliott’s young eyes we are taken to 1930s Harlem and with him as a young musician Paris which is shortly thereafter invaded by the Germans in 1940 and on to an ugly up close view of the Bitch of Buchenwald and back to Brooklyn.
An evocative and captivating narrative that presents a historical fiction of the African-American past and some of the contemporary dilemmas of the relatively present.
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers (2016)
A troubled dentist pulls up stakes and moves herself and her two children to southern Alaska.
After enduring The Circle (2013) I found this a welcome return to the Eggers I love.
Night Music by John Connolly – I listened to on CD
13 magnificent tales of the supernatural. “The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository” is now one of my all-time favorite stories.
Mr. Berger spent 34 years as a closed accounts registrar, keeping his life as quiet and empty as possible. He prefers the company of books to that of people, and when the opportunity for early retirement presents itself, he is happy to spend the rest of his years in the countryside, with only books for company.
Mr. Berger’s quiet life is interrupted one evening when he sees a woman fling herself before a train, in the manner of Anna Karenina. When he rushes to help, however, the woman is gone—and thus Mr. Berger is even more shocked when he sees the same woman do exactly the same thing again, a few nights later. His investigation leads him to the Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository, a place beyond all his imaginings.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975)
Author Ben Mears returns to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book about a house that has haunted him since childhood only to find his isolated hometown infested with vampires. While the vampires claim more victims, Mears convinces a small group of believers to combat the undead. From SK site.
Smile by Raina Telgemeier (2010)
Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir based on her childhood. Or more specifically, what it was like to be teased by other children face after losing two front teeth in sixth grade and wearing “embarrassing headgear,” braces. Middle school would have been SO much easier with this woman and her graphic novels about what it is like to be a normal pre-teen.
Ghosts also by Raina Telgemeier (September, 2016)
Graphic novel for children (or adults!). Middle-schooler Catrina narrates the story of her mixed-race (Latino/white) family’s move from Southern California to Bahía de la Luna on the Northern California coast.
Dad has a new job, but it’s little sister Maya who has incurable lung disease cystic fibrosis that is dictates the move. Turns out, in addition to the nice cool sea air that helps Maya breathe easier, the town is full of friendly ghosts.
Surrender, New York: A Novel by Caleb Carr (2016)
From Penguin Random House – In the small town of Surrender in upstate New York, Dr. Jones, a psychological profiler, and Dr. Michael Li, a trace evidence expert, teach online courses in profiling and forensic science from Jones’s family farm. Once famed advisors to the New York City Police Department, Trajan and Li now work in exile, having made enemies of those in power. Protected only by farmhands and Jones’s unusual “pet,” the outcast pair is unexpectedly called in to consult on a disturbing case.
My personal opinion – it could have been at least 50 pages shorter with a LOT less run around. I felt dizzy with all the plot turns and twists!
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)
I feel about this book the way I do about The Princess Bride and mac and cheese. That I am the only person I know who does not like it (note all the glowing reviews and features). I really did not enjoy this book after the first 15 or so pages. Pick up Blood, Bones, and Butter by her fan Gabrielle Hamilton or Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Those books go beyond the superficial world of Danler’s average small-town gal in the big city all a gaga about the bright lights and urban streets. Hamilton and Bourdain are not wimps and neither are their stories.
Danler’s debut novel. Told from the perspective of Tess, a 22-year-old who leaves a mundane past in flyover country for a fuller life in New York City as a server in one of Manhattan’s hottest eateries. The book closely mirrors the experience of the author.
The Trees by Ali Shaw (2016)
I really enjoyed this book.
From Bloomsbury – There is no warning. No chance to prepare. The trees arrive in the night: thundering up through the ground, transforming streets and towns into shadowy forest.
Adrien Thomas has never been much of a hero. But when he realises that no help is coming, he ventures into this unrecognisable world. Alongside green-fingered Hannah and her teenage son Seb, Adrien sets out to find his wife and to discover just how deep the forest goes. Their journey will take them to a place of terrible beauty and violence, to the dark heart of nature and the darkness inside themselves.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (2013)
A fantastical collection of stories. My favorites: a community of girls held captive in a Japanese silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms and plot revolution AND two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try to slake their thirst for blood try helplessly to quench their thirst for blood. Russell is one of my favorite writers. I loved Swamplandia (2012 finalist for the Pulitzer). Her short stories regularly appear in the annual collections of Best American Short Stories (available at the library).
The Vacationers by Emma Straub (2014)
Realistic contemporary fiction.
From Penguin Random House – For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated.
Note, I just checked her book Modern Lovers out of the library.
In the Bleak Midwinter (2003)
A Fountain Filled with Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2004)
Books 1 and 2 in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries series, of which I am a big fan.
The series in a nutshell: Clare Fergusson is the priest at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Miller’s Kill, New York (based on a church in Portland, Maine!). Untraditional in every sense, she’s not just a “lady,” she’s a tough ex-Army chopper pilot, and nobody’s fool. When a mystery appears at her church door, she meets the town’s police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who’s also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. As they start investigating, they discover a world of trouble, an attraction to each other…
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (September, 2016)
I’ve been on a tear reading dark novels. This isn’t like me. I love biographies (ok those can get dark) and historic and modern romances…but here I go again reading and falling for a psychological thriller.
Donoghue’s last novel was Room, which became an Academy Award-nominated film in 2015.
Set in the 1850s in central Ireland, in the wake of the Potato Famine, Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by THE Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is called upon to observe an 11-year-old girl who say’s she has been fasting for four months and living off nothing but her belief in God. Ultimately, Lib finds herself at the heart of a religious conspiracy.
The Whistler by John Grisham (October, 2016)
Good solid legal thriller. Granted, the first thirty pages are a bit wooden, but stick with it! By page forty the story is moving steadily along.
We get that great Grisham working class protagonist that Grisham develops so well – only this time it’s a female! Lacy Stoltz – a lawyer who investigates judicial misconduct for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. She’s the real deal!
Greg Myers – our whistleblower – is a lawyer with a shady past. He approaches Lacy and tells her about a corrupt judge who has secretly been in business with the mob. Early on in their relationship, the wiseguys framed a man for murder who had stolen money from them and had her send him to jail to rot for the rest of his life (he’s old and sick and Myers wants to set him free). All the while she has been steadily growing an impeccable reputation – she wins her reelections by landslides. What will Lacy do?
The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker (Classic)
Like Dracula the tale was loosely based on folklore, a fable from north-east of England featuring a serpentine dragon named the Lambton Worm. Stoker’s monster lives in a lair and terrorizes the characters in the novel, and the plot is ultimately a classic tale of good versus evil.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani (2013)
I would have liked Disclafani’s debut novel a lot more if not for the marketing campaign. Whatever you do try to ignore any and all quotes and descriptions of the book and just dig into the story.
I loved her second oh so fun The After Party so much. This woman knows how to tell a story involving secrets, scandal, troubled women (who happen to come from wealthy families), and female friendships.
After the Tall Timber by Renata Adler (2015)
A collection of essays addressing some of the major American events of recent decades, such as the Watergate scandal, the “preposterous” Kenneth Starr report on Bill Clinton, the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v Gore, and the decline of serious journalism. I did not read them all, but thoroughly appreciated her coverage of peace march in Selma, Alabama.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan (2015)
Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography
An old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art. Brilliantly written for those who surf and those who have not.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (September, 2016)
In his memoir, Springsteen tells the story of his life with the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs. Loved it.
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne (2010)
The book tells the tragic and very bloody forty-year story of one of the ugliest parts of American history – the control of the American West. The sheer arrogance and ignorance of white settlers is matched only by the extraordinary violent tactics of the Comanche Indians.
I subsequently read Gwynne’s
The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football (September, 2016) Not so great even for a football lover like me.
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (2014)
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the epic account of how Civil War general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson became a great and tragic national hero. I knew little about Jackson going into the book and came away understanding why he was one of the most famous men in America’s history.
Everyone Behaves Badly by Lesley M. M. Blume (2016)
The Lost Generation – in all its depression and excess – was immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. Now, cultural critic Blue pens the true story of that infamous 1925 trip to Pamploma from which Hemingway drew his inspiration, delving into the salacious travails of the group that would define an era of modern literature.
The Future of Ice: A Journey Into the Cold by Gretel Ehrlich (2004)
Ehrlich was living in a tent in Wyoming when her publisher suggested that she write a book about winter, climate change, and global warming. For a year, she travels to extreme points (from Tierra del Fuego to the top of the world) in her quest to understand the complex, primal nature of cold; the forces that are destroying the season of winter; and why the chaotic rhythms of weather are becoming even more disruptive.
Jackson 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting Race in America by Calvin Trillin
From bestselling author and beloved New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, a deeply resonant, career-spanning collection of articles on race and racism, from the 1960s to the present. MUST READ.
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller (2015)
This book was just a bummer.
I consider myself a huge Alexandra Fuller fan – two of my favorite books are Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2002) and her second memoir Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness (2011). I had stayed away from this – her third memoir – about the disintegration of her marriage – having heard not so great reviews and just not being as interested on the focus. The book just didn’t hold me the way her other two did.
Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia by Andrew Harding (releases in US November 29, 2016)
From the UK publisher – An unsparing and revealing portrayal of Somalia, from the Siad Barre decades to Al-Shabaab, seen through the eyes of ‘Tarzan’, a formidable Mogadishu politician.
Harding has worked as a foreign correspondent for the past twenty-five years in Russia, Asia and Africa. He has been visiting Somalia since 2000.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2004)
From the publisher – An oddly compelling, often hilarious exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers—some willingly, some unwittingly—have been involved in science’s boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. In this fascinating account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries and tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them. Fascinating. Next I want to read some less morose more oddball stuff of Roach’s.
Under a Lucky Star by Roy Chapman Andrews
Covers his early years at the American Museum of Natural History (later on he was the director) and the expeditions he led to the Gobi of Mongolia between 1922 to 1930. There he and his fellow scientists discovered the first nests of dinosaur eggs, new species of dinosaurs, and the fossils of early mammals that co-existed with dinosaurs.
I much prefer his book An Explorer Comes Home where he writes about his wife Billy and their farmhouse in New England.
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (2016)
From the publisher – Valiant Ambition is a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and the war that gave birth to a nation. The focus is on loyalty and personal integrity, evoking a Shakespearean tragedy that unfolds in the key relationship of Washington and Arnold, who is an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters. Definitely going to have to read a lot more Philbrick.
We are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun (2016)
For those who have never heard of beautiful naïve well-meaning 26-year-old Amy Biehl and her truly tragic gruesome death on August 25, 1993 – eight months before South Africa’s first fully democratic elections – well I suppose you could read this book. It’s not bad at all, it just doesn’t bring much to the story – certainly there is no research present that leads to gasps of surprise. Months after finishing the book I’m not sure which troubled me more – Bly, who didn’t live through the tumultuous 90s through the apartheid era and has little investigative experience, or Biehl’s mother who seemed to get a lot of first-class airline seats from some nefarious folks likely involved if not in her daughter’s death in the cover-up.
When Breath Becomes Air by by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
A beautiful moving memoir by a neurosurgeon at the start of his career who learned he had terminal cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. This is his – and to some degree – certainly their story.
I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
What are you reading these days? Any recommendations?
*This one is going to be BRIEF.
I’m really going to try to do one of these reading lists every month. I love to read and encourage reading. By the way, I get almost all the books I read either from the Portland Public Library or Longfellow Books in Portland. When I am fortunate enough to have the time to make a trip up the coast to Rockland I always stop in Hello Hello Books and never leave without an armload. It is so important to support our libraries and local bookshops. And the spoken word in general – why I buy the $6 Sunday edition of the NYT every other week or so – well, that and it’s my primary news source.
OK, what I have been reading:
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – dark, disturbing, and none of the fun of Gone Girl.
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson – He is one of my favorite writers today. This is another well-written, well-researched book with as usual an interesting twist – Here’s the summary from Larson’s website:
The saga of how the lives of the inventor of wireless and of Britain’s second most famous murderer (after Jack the Ripper) intersected during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. The inventor was Guglielmo Marconi, the young Italian genius; the killer was Hawley Harvey Crippen, who murdered his overbearing wife and fled Britain with his mistress, unaware that Scotland Yard was hot on his heels. The book—an instant New York Times bestseller—brings to life a host of forgotten characters, including spirit mediums, ghost-hunting physicists, Scotland Yard inspectors, and one of the great pioneers of forensic science. The climax occurs during a trans-Atlantic chase which, thanks to the miracle of Marconi’s invention, was followed by millions of people around the world—with Crippen and his mistress completely unaware.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – brief and utterly fantastic.
Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – This book deserved more time from me than I have right now. It is a story based on Lethem’s own experiences growing up on the streets of Brooklyn during the 1970s. It requires rereading, because it is that smart….that good. What The Paris Review had to say:
It is indeed about the jail, and the place of jails in American life. It is also about superheroes, soul music, science fiction, community empowerment, Spaldeens, graffiti, gentrification, and headlocks. The novel follows two friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude—one white, the son of an experimental filmmaker, the other black, the son of an R&B singer, both motherless, both obsessed with comic books—from the 1970s through the 1990s. Along the way it captures a big swath of what used to be called, reverently, the inner city, and of boyhood and manhood in America.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery – OK, here is the thing I am finding about so many of the reporters turned writers – it seems like there is this excitement of being able to write more than a few hundred words – they have this huge project and they get to indulge all those cravings for descriptions, etc. that get cut during their day job assignments. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a reporter who produces Pulitzer Prize worthy news pieces gets lost in the jungle that is a novel. I cannot say I did not enjoy this book by Montgomery (who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his journalism), but it was nowhere near what I felt it should have been. When Montgomery writes about Gatewood’s abusive marriage he is spot on – you are present for all the vital details – but on the trail it is all facts and frankly that’s best left in a hiking guide book. I don’t mean to be overly critical here, I get it – who wouldn’t be panic stricken writing about someone this fantastic – and I mean he got me emotionally – but there was just so much missing along the way. What is that phrase – “When you can’t see the forest for the trees” – that’s half of this book to me. If you love the outdoors, if you love hiking, if you want to be inspired – read this book and please tell me what you think.
Selected Novels and Short Stories by Patricia Highsmith – I read “Strangers on a Train” and “The Price of Salt” (the film “Carol” is based on the latter) and loved both. Her dialogue is so entirely believable – she is a master at it. Highly recommend for a summer read.
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle – another brief and excellent read. Welcome Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. **By the way, did you know Doyle based Holmes on Edgar Allan Poe!? So cool!
The After Party by Anton Disclafani. New Release. LOVED. You bet your britches I will be purchasing a copy of her first book The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls after reading this one. It’s like the (film) Giant (you know the one – with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean) meets The Help (the book!). Ladies, put on your best dress pour yourself a gin and tonic, paint your lips (and fingernails) red and get started….
Description from Random House: Joan Fortier is the epitome of Texas glamour and the center of the 1950s Houston social scene. Tall, blonde, beautiful, and strong, she dominates the room and the gossip columns. Every man who sees her seems to want her; every woman just wants to be her. But this is a highly ordered world of garden clubs and debutante balls. The money may flow as freely as the oil, but the freedom and power all belong to the men. What happens when a woman of indecorous appetites and desires like Joan wants more? What does it do to her best friend?
Devoted to Joan since childhood, Cece Buchanan is either her chaperone or her partner in crime, depending on whom you ask. But as Joan’s radical behavior escalates, Cece’s perspective shifts—forcing one provocative choice to appear the only one there is.
Houston Magazine mini feature here. And pics of the mansions here. And OMG THIS mansion here.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Wow! This was another of those books I picked up and could not put down. I did, but only to sleep, eat, work a bit and then was right back into it as soon as possible. It is beautiful and devastating and a must read after you read Anthony Doerr’s exquisite All The Light You Cannot See. Two weeks later and it is in the forefront of my mind. Reading this book I knew I would need to return to Paris much sooner than expected. (Well, and the Ritz did just reopen – YAY!!!) Description from the author’s page:
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.
Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain
The essays were supposedly written during a dark period of the author’s life. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was deeply in debt and had lost his wife and one of his daughters.
The work was published posthumously in 1962.
In the opening section, Twain, in the guise of Satan, writes detailed reports to the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.
The essays were initially considered too “controversial” to publish, and were suppressed by Twain’s own family who felt that the writer’s reputation would be harmed if the depth of his dislike for Christianity, and his uncanny ability to see through all the foibles of human belief and the large number of biblical contradictions, became widely known.
The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty
Southern folk tale set in Mississippi by one of the greatest American short story writers and novelists.
The story was inspired by and loosely based on the Grimm fairy tale.
Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christina Byl
The author first encountered the National Parks on vacation. After graduating from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl quickly goes from thinking of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, and welcomes it as a rewarding and very real lifelong endeavor. The years she spent as a “traildog” doing the often underappreciated, backbreaking work of maintaining wilderness trails—first in Montana, and later in Alaska’s Denali National Park is a beautiful and fun story. Recommended for anyone who loves wild places. *Chapter arrangement was a bit awkward, it took a few chapters (they are short) to get with her flow.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
A fascinating and learned read!!!
The author’s words: This is a book for people who care deeply about racial justice, but do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. For all those trapped within America’s latest caste system – whether locked up or out in mainstream society.
Chapter topics include: the structure of mass incarceration, the role of race in the U.S. criminal justice system, exploration of the parallels between mass incarceration and Jim Crow, how the caste system operates once people are released from prison.
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
*Number 91 on the Modern Library’s list of best books.
The story is set in a fictionalized version of Caldwell’s home town, …lays bare the story of the Lesters, the poorest, whitest, trashiest, horniest family in rural Georgia. Extreme poverty has reduced them to little more than dogs. They are desperately hungry, and sexually frustrated.
**According to Chicago Tribune article, Caldwell maintained to the end that the characters in his 1932 novel were shaped by his imagination but that their prototypes existed. As a boy he had visited them in their sharecropper shacks on trips in the Georgia countryside with two Wrens doctors and his father, Ira, a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Jeeter, the Lester family patriarch in Tobacco Road, is a beaten-down sharecropper who can no longer get credit to buy the supplies he needs to farm. His family survives, in their crumbling shack, on fat-back rinds and corn meal. Ada, his wife, is wasting away from pellagra; Dude, their 16-year-old son, is a half-wit; Ellie May, their voluptuous 18-year-old daughter, has a gruesome hairlip that makes her “look as if her mouth were bleeding profusely.”
Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town by Bryan Mealer.
Belle Glade is a town deep in the Florida Everglades where football reigns. It is also a town where there are no fairytales, there is only letting go of dreams.
I heard comparisons of Friday Night Lights (the book, not film or TV show). There are similarities – hometown traditions, team rituals, pressures of big-time high school football, the struggle to get into college, and racism. And then there’s this uniquely sad fact owned by Belle Glade: During the early to mid-1980s, the city had the highest rate of AIDS infection per capita in the United States.
I was most attached, as I would imagine most readers are, to Jessie Hester – the coach and former NFL star.
• Mealer grew up in Odessa (home of the Permian Panthers – you know, whose story inspired Friday Night Lights).
• Mealer is a former war reporter in Africa. I also his book All Things Much Fight to Live about his time in the Congo, but it does not make for general reading so I will not be featuring it specifically in one of my reading lists).
• Here is a link to an interview Mealer did on NPR talking about the season he spent with the Glades Central Raiders.
• And to all the Friday Night Lights film and TV series enthusiasts (it is my second favorite series after Miami Vice) you can get a real glimpse at Odessa football – the book, film… in this fantastic article from The Chicago Tribune.
The White Road: Journey into an Obsession by Edmund De Waal
Epigraph: “What is this whiteness?” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
De Waal is a British potter and nonfiction writer (I have his family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes in my reading stack). The White Road is part memoir part travelogue. Beginning in Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China (porcelain was first made there an estimated 1000 years ago), he journeys into history and across oceans and down rural roads to foreign lands into the “white hills” of Japan, France, Germany, England, and the Appalachian Mountains of South Carolina, where porcelain was invented, or reinvented. Yes, this is a book about porcelain, but it is so much more a book for those of us who want to walk away from technology and touch. De Waal is an excellent researcher (something I admire foremost in my reading) and a true conversationalist.
It definitely reads more like a “history of” when we are given the detailed story of how during the 18th century Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a mathematician and an alchemist, and Johann Friedrich Böttger, a young alchemist, were brought together to try and manufacture porcelain. Then there is the macabre story of Allach porcelain pieces made by prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau between 1936 and 1945. According to De Waal, the company’s catalog proclaimed that white porcelain was the embodiment of the German soul.
* Edmund de Waal was a pupil of Geoffrey Whiting, who was a student of Bernard Leach, the founding father of British studio pottery. Leach was born in Hong Kong in 1887. He travelled extensively through China and Japan in the early years of the 20th century, and is credited with bringing to the West an understanding of the subtle artistry of eastern (Asian) potters.
If you read this blog you know I go down a lot of rabbit holes. So, it was only natural that I added the following book to my library reserve list:
Hamada Potter by Bernard Leach
Hamada Shoji was a Japanese potter who worked in the arts and crafts tradition, making utilitarian – never figurative or merely decorative – pots. During the 1920s and 30s was a central part of the Japanese folk art movement founded by Yanagi Soetsu.
Hamada and Leach were friends for over 55 years. They really got to know each other when Hamada visited Leach in England between 1920 – 23. It was at this time they founded a pottery in St. Ives in Cornwall, England that became one of the most influential potteries in the world.
Leach and Hamada humanized pottery again – the public had been separating the potter from his clay – wanting colourful, brightly detailed, pretentious looking objects. It took years for Leach and Hamada to find clients who appreciated the rougher pots they were making (and which I greatly prefer!).
Michael Cardew was among the first students. (I strongly recommend reading the book The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew by Tanya Harrod
This video of Hamada in the studio is pretty cool.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
This is not an easy book to put down. I read it in one day after trying to walk away twice. Thanks MW for encouraging me to read it!
The “girl” of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is Rachel: divorced, an alcoholic and a commuter into London. Her train makes a regular stop alongside a row of houses, one of which she used to live in with her husband. He still lives there with his second wife, Anna. But Rachel is even more captivated by another house a few doors down. Repeatedly, she catches glimpses of the glamorous young couple who live there. Their mutual tenderness inspires Rachel to make up names and occupations for them and to idealize their relationship — a fantasy that may help compensate for her own lost marriage.
Like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is a murder mystery with an unreliable narrator. In this case, it’s Rachel Watson, a frequently inebriated divorcee whose blackouts are a near-nightly occurrence. Rachel is a wreck. She is also the primary narrator. Each morning and evening during her commute to and from London, her train slows on a worn section of track just behind the same row of Victorian homes. Two most interest her: one the home of an attractive, perfect-seeming couple who frequently appear on their back terrace; the second is her former address and the current home of her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna.
Interested writers might want to check out this NYT interview with Hawkins
Oh, and be sure to check out the trailer for the film starring Emily Blunt.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
***Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
I LOVED this book. So, yes I am dedicating SPACE to it. I wish this book was twice the size. It took me a week to read and folks, I usually get through a book – good or bad – in two days. You want to labor over this one – the sentences are so well constructed, the story so intelligent so well though out, the characters so dear and some so evil. I find anything about Nazi Germany very uncomfortable to read. This is a whole other post, but my rage at what happened stems from my childhood. I am the girl who, when as a teenager visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, couldn’t breathe towards the top and had to go outside and basically sob on the curb. But, all of that’s a whole other post. This is all about the marvelous Anthony Doerr and his exquisite book.
Amanda Vaill, the reviewer for The Washington Post wrote “I’m not sure I will read a better novel this year than Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Here is a link to her review.
Description from Simon and Schuster:
New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
AND …***NOTE SPOILERS, SO MAYBE READ AFTER READING THE BOOK!!
National Book Foundation interview w Doerr:
CM: In reading through past interviews with you, I’ve been surprised to see All the Light We Cannot See described as a novel that oscillates between the viewpoints of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan, because the truth is, although Marie-Laure and Werner are the books’ main protagonists, the novel is peopled with the voices of so many other characters: Etienne, Von Rumpel, Frau Elena, Dr. Hauptman—the evil Volkheimer is given an entire section near the end. To me, the degree to which you let tertiary characters come in to support the narrative felt almost experimental. Did you just follow your instincts as to who got passed the talking stick, or did you have a master plan? Did any other voices end up on the cutting room floor?
AD: Yes, lots of poor souls ended up on the floor. The perfumer, for example, had several more chapters from his point of view in earlier versions, as did Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife. Did I have a master plan? Not really. Mostly I constructed and then cut lots of variations.
When I teach graduate writing workshops, I often see a severity regarding point of view—students like to point out sudden movements: “You broke POV here, you broke POV there.” Students are right, of course, to highlight moments when a narrator breaks into or out of another character’s thoughts, especially if the writer makes that shift unintentionally.
But when I started to worry that my book was becoming too rigidly adherent to the Marie/Werner/Marie/Werner back-and-forth structure (my editor, Nan Graham, used the adjective “ping-pong-y”) I started looking at POV in books that I admire and found that my favorite moments in those books often involved some level of disruption in point of view. A narrator’s privilege gets established and then, later in the book, it expands or frays. Ishmael assumes Ahab’s thoughts in Moby Dick, or Madame Bovary opens in first person, then promptly becomes a third person novel.
In Gatsby Fitzgerald establishes what appears to be a strict POV rule: “This novel will be narrated by Nick, who will have to guess at Gatsby’s thoughts.” Before long, though, Fitzgerald shatters that rule (“[Gatsby] knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath…”)
That kind of stuff would probably get picked on in workshops. So whenever I found All the Light getting too schematic, too rigidly obsessed with its own symmetry, I tried to remind myself that a novel can be a more organic, digressive, human thing, full of movement and departures and tertiary voices.
Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte
Whyte was a sociologist and pioneer in participant observation. Street Corner is an ethnographic study of urban sociology. He lived for four years in an Italian community in Boston’s North End researching social relations of street gangs in Boston’s North End. *In the book Boston is referred to only as an “Eastern City,” Italian immigrants had displaced the Irish population and a corner-gang structure had arisen out of habitual association of the members of a long period of time. At the time of Whyte’s study, Italians were looked upon by upper-class as among the least desirable of the immigrant peoples. This attitude was accentuated by World War II(Mussolini).
In preparing to launch his study, Whyte read a lot of social anthropological literature – e.g. studies of primitive tribes even though he was in the middle of a great city district.
He realized he would be a stranger to the community if he did not live there and so he learned some Italian and lived with a family in the neighborhood for at least a year of his study.
He went easy on the who, what, when, where, and why questions and learned the answers in the long run without even having to ask the questions.
*I was inspired to read this after reading On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman.
Hard Times by Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, oral historian, and radio broadcaster famous for interviewing everyday people from all walks of life.
This book is an oral history of the Great Depression, featuring interviews with among others – a lower class Southern white mother and daughter living in Chicago, an upper middle class psychiatrist who studied with Freud, a former president of the Montgomery (Alabama) branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a coal miner from southwestern Indiana, a wealthy young industrialist’s wife in Chicago, a cook in western Texas, politicians, a poet, and a social worker.
Terkel wrote of the book “This being a book about time as well as a time; for some the bell has tolled. Heroes and dragons of a long-gone day were old men, some vigorous, some weary when I last saw them. Some have died.”
Terkel was an extraordinarily skilled interviewer who captured the feelings of the time. If you are interested in American history I strongly recommend this or any of Mr. Terkel’s other books.
Carl Akeley’s Africa by Mary L. Jobe Akeley
Best known for the Hall of African Mammals that bears his name at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Carl Akeley was an American naturalist and explorer who developed the taxidermic method for mounting museum displays to show animals in their natural surroundings. He died in 1926 while on an expedition in Albert National Park in Belgian Congo (now the DRC). He was among the first to accurately document mountain gorillas as intelligent and social animals.
His wife of two years, Mary, was also an adventurer. After her husband died she continued with his field work that helped result in the iconic Hall at the AMNH.
I happened across this book while perusing the shelves of main branch of the Portland Public Library, one of my favorite places in Portland. The book left me wanting to know more about Akeley – maybe from a little bit of distance, so this summer I plan to read the account of him in Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals by Jay Kirk.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Eric Larson
Just about everyone has heard of the Titanic, but fewer know the story of the last doomed voyage of the great Cunard luxury passenger liner the Lusitania.
As with The Devil in the White City, Larson proves himself an exceptional researcher. This non-fiction reads more like a page-turner from John le Carre. Utterly fascinating, and it all happened and you really feel like you are in the middle of it.
Description from author’s website: On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
I did not get to read all the books in the above picture YET. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (rereading), Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder will have to wait till my June Read List. OR, July at the rate I keep adding books to my pile (Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery, Thunderstruck by Eric Larson, and Wilson by Scott Berg). Among many others.
In the present climate of dumbing-down, I am inspired by those great writers who turn out well crafted and incredibly well researched stories and to those who support the tradition of reading. I encourage you to turn off the television for an extra hour and pick up a book.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson – NEW RELEASE
Delightful, charming, absolutely lovely. The perfect book heading into vacation season.
Bloomsbury Publishing’s description – East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent sabre rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.
When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more free thinking – and attractive – than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.
But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war
Doubts? Google images of “Rye in East Sussex” and read The Washington Post’s review (though I warn you it gives away much of the story)….
Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka – NEW RELEASE
Moving, gothic….between reality and fiction. A youngish woman whose marriage has broken-up at one point travels from city to city volunteering in soup kitchens looking for purpose. There is a sense of great loveliness and frailty in Majka’s stories. Most are set in Maine, some in NYC.
“Majka brings the reader to startling places. . . . From certain angles, it’s a kind of New England gothic, where the lost children and dead women and doppelgängers serve to add atmosphere and meaning to the narrator’s past peregrinations, her dalliances and uncertainties. It turns out in the end that this is in fact a book about an arty person with a complicated personal life. But it’s a lovely one, written in a moving and uncanny register.”—The New York Times Book Review
Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith
This is the final book of the “Ripliad” series starring Patricia Highsmith’s iconic protagonist Tom Ripley, the bisexual psychopath and forger who first appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley. *Note I have not read Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, or The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Nor am I inclined to. He is too polished for me. Highsmith is not. She wrote her first novel at age 29 – Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen in 1951. Lived and died in Switzerland (she was American born), and supposedly had pet snails. She was known for saying what was on her mind and some of it was rather odd.
**I found out about this book while sitting at the bar at Tandem Coffee eating one of their deliciously ambitious sandwiches and drinking cup after cup of their perfect coffee. A stylish woman came in, sat down near me, sat down with her latte and Nutella tart (making me wish I could find room for one of those) and pulled out a hardbound book copy of Patricia Highsmith’s Selected Novels and Short Stories from her bag. We talked about books and were practically giddy to share our love of the library and just finding someone else who reads – loves books. Tandem’s barista went about suggesting one of his favorite recent reads – Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. That book is on my dining room table. I LOVE talking about books with people. It’s what makes places like Longfellow Books so freaking awesome. ☺ You know what else is? That the copy I requested of Highsmith’s book just came into the library.
**I purchase probably 1/3 of the books I read locally, the rest I get from the library. Some are so obscure and some I just don’t think I need to live with.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
As my friend accurately described this book as “forgettable.”
The subject matter is RICH – young Ernest Hemingway before he became famous, the Paris years, the roaring twenties, the years he wrote about in his book A Moveable Feast. But he is not the subject of this book, and sadly neither is Paris (how could it be when the author had never been there while writing the book!!!). No, it is his unfashionable, hardy wife Hadley Richardson who is. A woman who sadly, but truthfully The NYT points out would not be the heroine in Ms. McLain’s story or in any novel, had she not been married to the famous novelist.
For the record, she is the first of four wives and while one may be sympathetic to her cause, you keep shouting run lady run.
So, this is no great romance, but then that’s Hemingway, that’s history.
But what I have the biggest problem with – after the fact that she wrote the book from a coffee shop in I think Cleveland – is that as the NYT writes – she borrows and repurposes voices. I read her book Circling the Sun about Beryl Markham and she did the same thing there – used other people’s descriptions.
It’s a quick beach read. A conversation piece if only for the who’s who that assembles in the book and the fact that most anyone and anything associated with Hemingway is always fun.
Want to know about the real Hadley Richardson, check out this terrific article from The Chicago Tribune.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Maybe read this book instead of The Paris Wife!! Definitely read it!!
The book covers the same ground as The Paris Wife – Hemingway’s years in Paris from 1921 to 1926 as a young writer married to Richardson. What became apparently clear to me while rereading the book is how truly cruel, insecure, and disloyal he was. He turned against everyone who had helped for and cared for him, with few exceptions – including Sylvia Beach, the generous proprietor of the famous Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company.
He was also on the mark and his writing, his descriptions of people and place are the best I have ever read. Having spent a good deal of time in Paris I appreciate how he took notice of the light there – he did not write specifically of the colors, but the red hues – I have not seem that sky anywhere else.
Of F. Scott Fitzgerald he wrote “His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust of a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”
Another favorite quote from the book:
“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early mornings, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed.”
The memoir was published posthumously.
Olives: The Life of a Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum
In 1986, journalist Mort Rosenblum purchased a small overgrown farm in Provence. With it, he discovered, were 150 neglected olive trees that were “old when the sun king ruled France.” Inspired to learn more about olives he travels to several Mediterranean countries to learn about the olive’s history and cultivation. The book is chocked full of rich characters, recipes (I got so hungry reading the book I went out and bought olives), the international politics, and the mafia’s involvement (note the recent 60 Minutes piece). His writing made me feel like I was deep in an olive grove with the pickers. I can only dream of having had a seat at the table when he was served an elaborate chicken dish in a Palestinian home – Jaz Musakhan from the book The Land of Figs and Olives by Habeeb Salloum and James Peters (yes, that cookbook is on my wish list). I found the book intelligent, thoughtful, incredibly well researched, and alive – Rosenblum is such a talented writer and this book was full of passion for the growers. Read his book and get to “know” people like Paco and Andres Nunez de Prado who make olive oil in Andalusia, where they have one-thousand acres where a picker might have come as a young woman and returns every year and one year her teenage son will help. Beautiful.
Review from Smithsonian Magazine.
*I would also recommend the following:
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle came out in 1989. His book A Good Year came out in 2004 (the 2006 film with Russell Crowe is adorable).
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes came out in 1996 (the 2003 film by the same name starring Diane Lane is one of my favorites).
*Economics is the study of how people choose to use resources.
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly. Published 2014.
Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University and Co- director of the NYU Development Research Institute.
The book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problem. He believes the answer lies in the well-being of nations versus individuals. In essence, we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor.
Certainly, he brings up some very good points, but I believe after reading Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly (two opposite ends of the spectrum), I believe I like with Collier (see next).
At some point I intend to read Easterly’s 2006 book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Harm and So Little Good.
Check out The Washington Post’s review here.
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier
Collier is Co-Director, of the Center for the Study of African Economics (an economic research center within the Department of Economics at Oxford U.) and a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government.
He was a student at Oxford in the 1960s, a time when many of his fellow students had family connections to Africa (fathers, male relatives had been colonial administrators…). A father of one of his friends had been governor of Nyasaland – renamed Malawi – the poorest country at the time on the continent. The man said it was easier to rename the country than change it. *Note when Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The book is about the Malawis and Ethiopias of the world, the minority of developing countries that are now at the bottom of the global economic system – and are distinctive not just in being the poorest, but also in having failed to grow.
He developed the notion of “traps” based on conflict, natural resources (lack of..), geography (bad neighbors…), and bad governance and how countries could be gradually pulled out of these traps.
I enjoyed this book immensely, because frankly it was easy to read. Collier was not talking down to anyone – he used his great intelligence and humor to explain complex matters that really are not so complex when you break them down and he is straightforward. No BS and a realist. Yes, force is necessary here and there.
This books is for everyone, not just academics.
For those held prisoner by the images of starving children, Collier smashes some of those images with statistical evidence.
Bravo Professor Collier!
*Note, the book was published in 2007 and still the U.S. government, foreign governments, NGOs, the World Bank… and so on continue to intentionally ignore the facts the reality – why? Well, folks greed and intentional ignorance and bureaucracy (aka politics) – but that’s a whole other post.
Angels of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry edited by Charles Henry Rowell, the founder and editor of the literary quarterly Callaloo. See more here.
Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules and Men by William Ferris. See more here.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and The Maine Woods, both by Henry David Thoreau. The former is based on a boat trip Thoreau took with his brother in 1839 from Concord, MA, to Concord, NH. It was written in 1849 after his brother’s death. The latter describes trips Thoreau took over an eleven-year period into the north woods. I especially appreciated the lists of Indian words and what to take on an excursion into the backwoods of Maine.
*I also picked up The Wildest Country: Exploring Thoreau’s Maine by J. Parker Huber. It follows Thoreau’s sojourns in Maine and offers modern commentary on how the route has changed. I learned Thoreau had difficulty with distances and topography. His estimates were, according to Huber, consistently exaggerated.
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman.
Goffman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. The book began while she was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and continued as fieldwork for her PhD dissertation at Princeton.
Goffman spent six years living in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Philadelphia observing a cast of young African American men who are caught up in the web of high-tech surveillance, warrants, arrest quotas…She also give an account of daily life, including observing girlfriends and family members. This book is a an on-the-ground account of a forgotten neighborhood and the very real human cost of America’s failed response – the blighting of entire neighborhoods and the needless sacrifice of whole generations.
Goffman is the daughter of sociologist Erving Goffman.
There was a lot of controversy around her popular book. **You will need to read the book and the back and forth between sociologists, law professors, and journalists – but my take – she did not fabricate any part of the story and it is as important a work as William Foote Whyte’s ethnography Street Corner Society. Like Whyte, she wanted to go beyond being a fly on the wall and be a participant observer.
For what it’s worth both her thesis advisor at Princeton and her publisher have stood by her book.
The New York Times named the book one of the 100 notable books of 2014.
Here is a link to her TED talk.
Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche.
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
I recommend reading this book, but while I feel Adiche is an excellent writer I find the fact that her protagonist is someone who ranges from annoying to deplorable – well questionable. I want to read more of her work and sit with this for a while. I am sure just about everyone else you will ask who has read this book will tell you they loved it and that I’m crazy. Well, maybe but it just didn’t sit right with me. You read it and tell me what you think.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff. I just couldn’t get into this and believe me I tried. Again, the writing is beautiful I just couldn’t get into the story.
In the fields of western New York State in the 1970s, a few dozen idealists set out to live off the land, founding a commune centered on the grounds of a decaying mansion called Arcadia House. Arcadia follows this romantic utopian dream from its hopeful start through its heyday. Arcadia’s inhabitants include Handy, the charismatic leader; his wife, Astrid, a midwife; Abe, a master carpenter; Hannah, a baker and historian; and Abe and Hannah’s only child, Bit. While Arcadia rises and falls, Bit, too, ages and changes. He falls in love with Helle, Handy’s lovely, troubled daughter. And eventually he must face the world beyond Arcadia.
Woohoo, the first day of spring and what –we’re expecting a snowstorm? Whatever, I’m proceeding as if only blooms are on the way.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. Published in 1947, the book is about the last hours of an alcoholic ex-diplomat in Mexico. The once great and utterly shattered British consul Geoffrey Firmin’s last days are told against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. An insane person finding beauty in the madhouse. He stands admiring the bottles, the beautiful bottles. The book’s title comes from the two volcanoes that overshadow Quauhnahuac.
Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by (longtime contributing editor to Vanity Fair) Mark Seal.
The book is a story about British wildlife filmmaker and African conservationist, Joan Root, who was murdered in 2006. Root was devoted to saving the ecological system of Lake Naivasha, which she lived on the edge of, and which was invaded by the cut-flower industry. In addition to drying out the lake (sucking up water), the large flower farms put pesticides in the lake, and brought in migrant workers who brought crime to the area. In addition to trying to protect her beloved lake, she also waged a war against the poachers (attracted to work on the flower farms) who began to encroach on her land.
Her story is a remarkable one for many reasons, and quite sad. The book is wonderful in many ways, but lags where the author neglected to research the early colonizers of Kenya and instead chose choice information to include as it fit his story.
I encourage you to learn more about this wonderful woman and to not purchase carnations or roses in the future. Note to Whole Foods, really want to piss me off – keep advertising African roses!
The Bolter by Frances Osborne (the great-granddaughter of the book’s subject). This is the story of the wild, beautiful, fearless Idina Sackville, descendant of one of England’s oldest families, who went off to Kenya in search of adventure and became known as the high priestess of the scandalous “Happy Valley Set.” The gin flowed through her five marriages and Osborne shares much from her lengthy research. Here you get a glimpse I have not seen in non-fiction books about the time and place before including how the well-heeled went on safari, the decorating of the great Happy Valley houses, mention of Elspeth Huxley (one of my favorite Kenyan writers), race week in Nairobi, and the divine Denys Finch Hatton – otherwise known as the man Robert Redford played in the film OUT OF AFRICA. I may take issue with the way Ms. Sackville lived some of her life (abandoning her children), but I love her passion for books – she was called among other things the “Kenyan queen of books.” Well, then she can’t be all bad? A highlight of the book for me is Osborne’s insight into the importance of books – “they could be posted, carried, lent, and exchanged, forming a cultural currency.” One also learns a lot about the affairs and exploits of big-game hunter Bror von Blixen-Finecke, a Swedish baron best known to many today as the husband of Karen Dinesen (author of OUT OF AFRICA).
Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) by Jon Fine. Now executive editor at Inc. magazine, Fine was a member of the band Bitch Magnet among others. With his memoir he offers readers an insider’s look at thirty years of the American independent rock underground. I enjoyed the first half of the book, but felt the last half dragged. If you are really into music maybe you’ll enjoy it a whole lot more than me.
My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on the Seine by Kate Betts. OK. I love Paris and I was so excited to read this book, and maybe my anticipation got the best of me, but aside from making me wish I was in Paris I did not feel much. I certainly did not feel for her and her Upper East Side upbringing, prep schools, and certainly did not think her so brave to go to Paris when her godmother lives there and gets her an internship. I certainly did not feel sorry for her when her mother visits a few months after she has been there and buys her a fur coat. She doesn’t seem to realize how lame it is that she – and she writes about this for several chapters – is after 3 ½ years in the great city still trying to mimic Parisians. OK, I remember ardently trying to be more sophisticated when I lived/studied in Strasbourg and every time I go to Paris I pay attention to what the gorgeous stylish women are wearing – but at some point your protagonist needs CONFIDENCE.
When not lamenting her fashion choices, she writes about her love affair with a surfer named Herve and her job at Fairchild Fashion Media.
Note, you might be familiar with her name, she was the youngest editor of Harper’s Bazaar for about a minute and a half – during which she became known as brisk and arrogant, and ultimately was fired for declining readership.
The Liars’ Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr. Here is the NYT review from 1995 and this bit by Lena Dunham for The Paris Review. Karr has all the words and the memories. At time I didn’t know whether to be more stunned by her words, the intrinsic details of what was happening, or just the mere fact that she remembered every single one of those details about her childhood. Read this if you have not already.
Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (publisher’s description – Before his untimely death in 1982, Lester Bangs was inarguably the most influential critic of rock and roll. Writing in hyper-intelligent Benzedrine prose that calls to mind Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, he eschewed all conventional thinking as he discussed everything from Black Sabbath being the first truly Catholic band to Anne Murray’s smoldering sexuality.) I found out about Lester Bangs when I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman portray him in Almost Famous. Man, I get choked up just thinking about it – when I saw that film, what was going on in my life (some of the best years) and how much I MISS PSH. I didn’t know him, but I really could have watched him act forever and ever. I digress. Back to the real life Lester Bangs and his book.
The book reprints some of Bangs’s reviews for Cream, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and others. He put Patti Smith’s up there with Miles Davis, thought the Rolling Stones were the greatest rock and roll band in the world (but that could be “lazy, sniveling, winded motherfuckers”), that Stevie Nicks was a narcissist, and that the Dead Boys were pretending to be something they were not. A great read for anyone who appreciates the music of the 1970s and/or truly great rock criticism.
By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan (author of The Last Werewolf, which I loved, and Talulla Rising, which I didn’t). Jake, the main character of The Last Werewolf, is sophisticated, intelligent, and has a big heart. Duncan is an excellent writer, but a not so great storyteller. I made it through 45 of the 312 pages of By Blood and put the book down. I highly recommend The Last Werewolf.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I tried, I really did with this one. He is absolutely an incredible writer and man what an imagination and storyteller, but the book is so long and I just don’t have the time right now to dedicate to it. I plan to try reading it again when I do.
In case you are interested:
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. I LOVED this book. Not only is Wulf an exceptional researcher, she is a truly gifted writer. The New York Times listed this book in their top 10 Best Books of 2015. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the great Alexander von Humboldt, a man who approached botany like no other before him, who developed the idea of human-induced climate change, and who inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Jules Verne….the list of his accomplishments and those inspired by him goes on and on. He was the greatest scientist of his age and an intrepid explorer – nature was his teacher. I truly cannot say enough about how beautiful and educational this book is, and how much I think anyone interested in science, history, adventure, poetry, and nature will enjoy this.
Off to the Side by Jim Harrison. An enjoyable memoir by the man who wrote Legends of the Fall and the screenplay for WOLF. The first few chapters about his youth in Michigan are fantastic. His tales from Hollywood and hanging out with Jack Nicholson and his gang, well those are fun. I greatly appreciate the man for quotes such as this one “If books aren’t treated as beloved objects like the sports page or the television why would a child wish to read?”
Joyland by Stephen King. It was great until it wasn’t. King tells a great story until it isn’t and his dialogue is terrible. I recommend for a beach read. **I also read Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. A fine read. I learned much about King I did not know, about writing, and the publishing world.
Jack and Jill by James Patterson. Awful. Terrible. I could not make it past the first 50 pages.
M Train by Patti Smith. I just didn’t love this one the way I LOVED Just Kids. Maybe you will?
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. WOW. The Washington Times pretty much nails the quality of this book and O’Brien’s writing “Many people think this is the best work of fiction ever written about Vietnam. Some even think it is the best work of fiction ever written about war. Both are right, and they were right 20 years ago when this book came out for the first time.” The book is a sequence of stories about a platoon of young soldiers caught up in the madness of the Vietnam War. It is a privilege to even read a book such as this.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert. This is an excellent book about the story of the rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton. It is also the story of the making and remaking of global capitalism and with it of the modern world. The book follows cotton from fields to boats, from merchant houses to factories, from pickers to spinners to weavers to consumers.
Chances are you are wearing something woven from cotton. Do yourself a favor and read this book and learn about the world’s most significant manufacturing industry.
Dirt Work by Christine Byl, The White Road by Edmund de Waal, and Olives by Mort Rosenblum.
On my nightstand:
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
Books coming out this summer, that I look forward to reading and sharing with you in my summer and fall lists: The Georgia Peach by William Okie, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz by Mostafa Minawi, The Shaykh of Shaykhs: Mithqal al-Fayiz and Tribal Leadership in Modern Jordan by Yoav Alon, and Rights After Wrongs: Local Knowledge and Human Rights in Zimbabwe by Shannon Morreira.