Winter Reads

Lucy By the Sea by Elizabeth Strout—Elizabeth Strout is one of my favorite authors. She writes clearly and her characters are plainly drawn. She writes short sentences often about small towns. Her novels and short stories are frequently interconnected, and one can follow a character’s development from one book to another. Such is the case with Lucy By the Sea. Her first novel about Lucy was My Name is Lucy Barton who grows up desperately poor in Illinois and with the help of a teacher she is able to escape the bonds of poverty and attend college in Chicago, where she begins writing. When she falls ill, her mother visits her in the hospital and they begin to reknit the fabric of their family. Anything is Possible is a book of interrelated short stories set in her hometown but from the point of view of other townspeople. (this is perhaps my favorite book). Oh William, which I wrote about in another blog, explores her relationship with her ex-husband.

So now we are up to date. It is February 2020 in the early days of the pandemic and William, her ex-husband scientist, implores Lucy and their adult children to get out of New York City because, correctly, he fears for their health and possibly their lives. One daughter and husband move to Connecticut and the other stays in NYC with her husband. But Lucy and William journey to a small town in Maine where they will sit out the pandemic. We’ve all been through these last few years, so reading a novel about it is fascinating because their perspective is from the beginning. They don’t yet know the severity or how long it will last, and what measures they should be taking. But it is also about two people who have lived together, had children together, eventually break up, and live together again in a small house, with very few distractions.  It’s about Lucy, moving from Manhattan to a small town, much like the one in which she grew up, and how she slows down her life to fit her new circumstances. And eventually, it’s about family, as it often is with Elizabeth Strout. Read it, savor it, and find people with whom to discuss it…especially me!

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney—Ever since I read Sometimes I Lie, I have understood Alice Feeney’s writing style. There is a term called “Unreliable Narrators” where you learn not to trust everything or indeed anything that the person narrating the story is saying. The narrator is Daisy Darker.

Daisy Darker was born with a broken heart, literally. Her life was lived from doctor to doctor, in a family so dysfunctional that you wondered how she grew up at all. The only person who loved her unconditionally was her Nana and it is there on Halloween and her Nana’s 80th birthday that the whole family and Connor (a family friend) meet to celebrate, but it turns out there was no celebration, as one by one, each member of the family is murdered, and each in a very personal way. Who did it…and why? Listen carefully to Daisy as she narrates the novel and I’m sure by the end, you will have your own idea. In a nod to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, this is a “locked door mystery”.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig–Nora Seed has come to a dead end in her life and then, to make matters worse, her cat dies. All her dreams have been dashed. She could have been an Olympic swimmer, a glaciologist, a singer in a band and now she was fired from her job in a music store. She sees no future and decides to end it all. But at midnight, she is transported to a library where all the books are about the many alternatives of her life. Nora can “try out” these different lives but must eventually decide on the right one for her. Her favorite librarian, Mrs. Elm is there to guide her through this process. If you have ever wondered what your life would be like if you’ve turned right instead of left, this is the perfect book for you. It’s a quick read and a good book to discuss.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell—Maggie O’Farrell is an Irish writer but so much more: she’s at heart a feminist, and not afraid to try different genres, even nonfiction. She can weave a story and make her characters shine.

It is 1561 and Lucrezia is 15 years old, an artist and a free thinker when she is married off to a duke from a neighboring duchy after her older sister, who was supposed to marry him, dies. He is handsome and seems to really understand her. But there is another side to him: ruthlessness and he must always be in control.  Her foreboding begins immediately when she is sure he is going to kill her in some fashion, but she later finds out that impregnating her is his most important purpose First, though, she must pose for a portrait. This story is taken from a Robert Browning poem about the life of Lucrezia de Medici, written with some literary license. This is life in 16th century Italy for a young woman. It’s not for the squeamish.

Rebel with a Clause: Talks and Tips from a Roving Grammarian by Ellen Jovin—If grammar is something you think about, argue about, and worry about, then this is a book you will enjoy. I originally thought I would skim a few chapters…how interesting could it be…but when she discusses the Oxford comma, lie vs lay, further vs. farther and the use of contractions, I was hooked. Jovin and her husband traveled the country setting up a grammar table in each city. Hungry grammarians would stop by and ask questions and I loved the exchanges. She is the coolest grammarian I’ve ever met. And the least judgmental. And definitely the funniest! I listened to the entire book. But if you want to read it, there are reference tables that can be quite helpful during those grammar squabbles. Either way, you will enjoy it more than you expect…and learn something as well.

No matter what the temperature is outside, it’s always a good time to read…inside.

The Twisted Path of Reading

Now before I begin, this is an article that I wrote circa 2012. Hope you enjoy it and remember, if you haven’t read the book (or this article) it’s new to you.

Did you ever read a series of books that at first glance bears no resemblance to each other but the more you read, the more similarities become apparent? Well, that’s what happened to me as I read the following titles:

Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy, Interviews with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (2011) These conversations took place in March of 1964, barely 4 months after JFK’s assassination. Although it comes with both book and CD, I mostly listened to the CD version. (Oh, dear that is a long time ago) At first, I just marveled at Jackie’s voice, as it flooded my memory with thoughts of those lost years. And her voice is almost hypnotic, as well as charming and cultured. Listening to her speaking about “Jack” and their relationship was not just romantic, it was very dated as she spoke about the role of a wife and how submissive she should be. Apparently, she did change her mind in later years. It was somewhat difficult to listen to, knowing what we know about JFK’s lifestyle.

Their conversations range from the staff in the Cabinet, Congress, foreign heads of state, and friends. Having the book nearby helped to identify the myriad of people that she and Schlesinger discussed. And they do mention many people and not all in a positive light. It still amazes me that her family made the decision to publish these seemingly private conversations.

My advice is to listen to these conversations and let me know what you think about Mrs. Onassis after you’ve finished. And then, read Robert Caro’s new book about LBJ, Passage of Power (2012) and compare notes.

And that is a perfect segue into Stephen King’s latest time-travel novel, 11/22/63. (2011) Jake Epping, a high school teacher finds a portal from 2011 back to 1958—it is always 1958 and it is always the same day. Under the tutelage of a friend, he is urged to stop the JFK assassination. Along the way, he prevents other accidents and murders, finds a job, falls in love (he has to fill in the time between 1958 and 1963) and gives the reader a wonderful travelogue of life in the late 50s and early 60s. We learn more about Lee Harvey Oswald and all his cohorts and as all good historical fiction, it was well researched. As good science fiction the fight between changing the past and the past itself was very engaging. Yes, it is long—849 pages—it is Stephen King after all, but I found it fascinating reading, so don’t give up. You must read it until the end.

Which leads me to Cell (2006), also by Stephen King.  Clayton, a graphic novelist, has finally sold his book and at 3:00 pm is standing in Boston Commons, reveling in the fact that he will finally have enough money to rebuild his life with his ex-wife and son, when he starts noticing bizarre behaviors. Anyone using a cell phone immediately becomes a zombie, complete with “Night of the Living Dead” attributes and appetites. He bands together with two other “non-phoners” and together, after exhausting their options, they make their way to Maine to find Clayton’s son, Johnny.  The trip, of course, if fraught with peril as the phoners band together and develop a hive-like mentality and begin to evolve in true King-like fashion.  I am intrigued with the idea that cell phones are used as a tool of destruction or terrorism. This book, possibly a cautionary tale, was written in 2008. Imagine what would happen now as virtually everyone uses cell phones…all the time. (But of course, now everyone texts!) I also found it interesting that we only know what is happening to Clayton and his friends. We never see or hear any news of the rest of the world or even the country. No one of course will pick up a phone or tries to connect with the internet or television after that. This is a page-turner, and you have to keep reading until the climactic ending.

And then I read The Leftovers by Tom Perrota (2011). In what can only be described as a Rapture, ordinary men, women and children suddenly disappear, leaving behind their baffled and grief-stricken families and friends. However, those that disappeared are not the good Christians one would expect from a Rapture-like disappearance. They are simply taken at random. Three years later, strange cults have appeared: The Barefoot People, a hippie-like group who just seems to party all the time, The Healing Hug movement, complete with a guru who likes teenage girls and is awaiting the birth of the cosmic child to usher in a new age. Not so benign is the Guilty Remnant, who wear white and smoke constantly (whether they want to or not). They simply stare at others and wait for the end of the world. The story is tied together by a group of family and friends in the small town of Mapleton. Don’t look for an explanation of these unexplained disappearances. The author is more interested in what happens to the “leftovers”. This was my first novel by Tom Perrota, but it won’t be my last.

The Leftovers reminded me of the families of the 911 victims, which brought me to The Submission, a novel by Amy Waldman (2011). When the 911 Memorial Commission holds a blind submission contest for a suitable memorial and chooses a winner, they discover that he is a Moslem American. And then politics take over. We see everyone’s point of view from the families, the architect himself, the political movers and shakers, the anti-Islamists and the Islamists themselves. Most poignant is a young Afghani widow. There is no clear-cut hero or villain in this novel. This is an important book to read and discuss as we look into the diverse future of this country.

Happy New Year! May next year be better than this year! And may next month be filled with new books!

Surprising Choices

The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse and Their Last-chance Journey Across America by Elizabeth Letts—If you know me and many of you do, you know animals and pets are not my “thing”. So when this book was chosen for my book club (thanks Kathy) it was not my first choice. But being a loyal book member, I gave it a chance. Here’s the story: Annie Wilkins a 63-year-old farm owner from Maine, decided because of her failing farm, and failing health, she was not going to live the rest of her life in the county home. She had always wanted to see California and the Pacific Ocean. So she bought a horse with the little money she had and took her dachshund and set out in the middle of winter and headed to California. The year was 1955 and she had no idea how to do it…but she did and guess what… it was an unexpectedly charming book.

Letts shows how different America was then. Taking on a geographical and historical journey from Maine to California. Annie had to contend with the weather, rely literally on the kindness of strangers, making sure she and her “boys” remained healthy, and they didn’t run away, and balancing the fact that she had little money, with her overwhelming desire to not take advantage of anyone. And people were there for her, for the most part, willing to have her stay with them. Whole towns feted her, and although the weather didn’t always cooperate, humanity mostly did. Like I said, I didn’t expect to like it, but there were tears in these hardened eyes as I followed Annie Wilkins across the country. And this is why book clubs are important.

Normal Family: On Truth Love and How I Met My 35 Siblings by Chrysta Bilton—Talk about dysfunctional families…Deborah was a woman who never let the impossible get in her way. As a lesbian in the 1980s, she saw that conceiving a child was going to be a problem, so when she walked into her hairdresser’s and saw Jeff, a tall blue-eyed handsome young man, she knew that he was going to be her child’s father. They decided on a price, and he gave her his sperm. When Chrysta was born, Deborah then decided for another price, Jeff would show up occasionally and play daddy. And that’s the beginning of Normal Family. Through incredible wealth and abject poverty, through drugs and get rich schemes, Deborah loved her daughters…yes Caitlin was born to Jeff as well…and decided that nothing was too good for them, even if there was no money for it. Chrysta sometimes became the de facto mother, as her real mother could never face reality for too long. And then there was Jeff, who decided the money was too good in the sperm donor biz to pass up more donations. When Chrysta learned of her 35 half siblings that actually formed a Facebook group, that became another decision in her life. This was not a literary masterpiece, but it certainly was a fascinating insight into what can make a family, normal or not.

All Things Aside: Absolutely Correct Opinions by Iliza Shlesinger—Another book that I shouldn’t like but ended up liking…Shlesinger is a standup comedian. As a 39-year-old millennial, her memories are much different than mine, and I kept thinking as I listened to her that my daughters would certainly identify with this book more than I did. But her language was captivating and her straight out strong opinions about women, pregnancy, child raising and all manner of life problems during and after the pandemic, made me keep listening and laughing and groaning and identifying, no matter what my age.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson—One of my favorite authors, she has captivated me from Scenes from a Museum to Life After Life, along with her Jackson Brodie detective series. Her latest, an actual roman a clef, which takes place in the seedy side of London in 1926. Nellie Coker, a ruthless woman, owns several night clubs, most of them shady, all run more or less, by her somewhat competent adult children. Chief Inspector Frobisher, apparently one of the only honest members of the police force, has his eye on Nellie, ready to arrest her for any number of crimes. And he also has his eye on Gwendolyn Keeling, a former librarian, who he employs as a spy in one of Nellie’s clubs. But she is also on the lookout for 2 run-aways, 14 year old girls who want to become famous. Through these characters we are ensconced in the nightlife of 1926 London.  As in all of Atkinson’s novels, we need to read carefully, very carefully to truly understand what happens.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson–Bryson began his career as a journalist but went on to write books about nearly everything: Shakespeare, science, history and travel. His most famous is A Walk in the Woods. But this book takes us to Iowa where he grew up in the 1950’s and it is as much about Iowa and the 50’s as it is about his life, especially the early years. He is funny, he is intelligent and sometimes he’s very serious. I have enjoyed many of his books, but I think this one the most. If you grew up in the 1950’s as many of my readers did, including me, then you will identify with the total optimism of that decade. Post-war US was much different than post-war Europe. We had all the groceries, the sparkling new appliances, especially television, and baseball. But Bryson had more than that. After finding a very old sweater with a thunderbolt on it, he realized that he was from another planet and could actually zap irritating people and see through whoever he wanted. And that is the Thunderbolt Kid. I’d advise listening to it because of his wonderful soothing voice.

And now, something completely different:

I attended a lovely retirement party the other night where the new retiree made a heartfelt speech about her journey in our library system. And I realized that although my retirement party was a never to be forgotten experience, I didn’t get the chance to actually put into words my feelings after working for 35 years. And it came to me that I have a platform to do this now…my blog! So here it is after a year and a half of retirement, for those that attended my party and even for those that didn’t.

Being a librarian was like being in a marriage. We had our own language, our own way of thinking and communicating. It began for me on the bookmobile where we considered ourselves the MASH unit of the system, forming relationships with our customers, being literally on the road, dealing with broken down machines and learning what it was like to help people choose books to read. It was where I became a Readers Advisor. Moving on to actual libraries, I learned to fit into the community because each library had its own culture.  And each of my accomplished managers over the years had something to teach me, but the most important was that we were a community unto ourselves.

But my very smart, very caring coworkers were the best teachers. We listened to each other, we advised, we laughed and cried, and of course sang, and we never let each other forget that we were all important. Yes, I miss my customers, I miss the readers advisory part of my life (I’m actually still doing that) but I do miss that day-to-day contact, and the language only we understand.  Thank you.

And thanks for reading.

Five Totally Different Books

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie–1948…Nori was 8 years old when her mother left her at the imposing estate of her grandparents in Kyoto, Japan. That was the last time she ever saw her mother. She was an unwanted child…of everyone it seems, kept in the attic, hidden from all because of her dark skin and curly hair. Subject to chemical baths and beatings, she never complained, waiting patiently for the return of her mother.  Her life would have gone on like that, if her half-brother Akira hadn’t appeared, the only one to care about her, the only one to love her. We follow Nori’s tumultuous existence through the 1960’s as she fights to live her own life and begins to understand her worth. This debut novel explores a biracial girl in a “uni-racial” country and the power of having someone who believes in you.

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid–Mohsin Hamid likes to look at global themes from a personal perspective in a science fiction format. In his last novel Exit West he examines immigration, but with a twist. There are secret doors that lead to other countries.  In The Last White Man, we explore racial identity. Anders wakes up one morning and discovers he has turned black. He is the same person but looks totally different…however, he is not the first or the last. Oona, his sometime girlfriend, accepts him totally. Her mother…not so much. What happens when everyone turns dark? In an unnamed city and unnamed country (I can’t believe it’s in the US though), we watch as life as we know it takes a turn. Hamid’s writing is often stream of consciousness without regard for sentences. And I love it. The book is 180 pages. It moves quickly and it would be a great book club book. Lots of questions to ponder. If you have already read it, please let’s talk.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger—Virgil is lucky. He survived a deadly accident with only a slight brain trauma and gets a second chance at life. What will he do with his new life? But it isn’t only Virgil who gets a second chance. Greenstone, his small northern Minnesota community that has been slowly dying for 20 years gets another life, at least that’s what this quirky band of locals are striving for. Rune, a kite flying visitor from Sweden discovers that he has a son from Greenstone who had vanished in a plane years before and he comes to town to meet his son’s family. Nadine, the wife of the lost flier and her son the skateboarder have an unspecified relationship with Virgil. There is also Adam Leer, the very strange rich man who lives at the top of the hill. What kind of power does he have over the town? These characters and many, many, more make up the fraying fabric of Greenstone. Part character study, part magic, Enger has crafted a beautiful novel.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus—Elizabeth Zott is a chemist, and that is all she wants to be. But it is 1951 and women chemists are not easily tolerated. Although her work is far superior to her male colleagues, she is constantly rejected, and her work is often co-opted. And then she meets Calvin Evans, Nobel nominated chemist and it is love at first sight at least for Calvin. He sees in her what no one else sees. Their relationship is exactly what both need until his unexpected death and unexpected pregnancy. She is fired from her job. but life hands her another opportunity. She becomes the new television cooking sensation with “Supper at Six” as she not only gives her overwhelmingly women’s audience new recipes but a dollop of empowerment as well. The characters in this debut novel are fascinating, especially her daughter, Mad and her very protective and understanding dog Six Thirty.

The Language of Birds by Anita Barrow–Gracie and Janine, two sisters bearing the suicidal death of their mother grow up in the San Francisco area with their father and his well-meaning girlfriend, Kate. But Gracie, a budding teen is having none of it and her younger sister Janine, autistic, is ensconced in her birds. Gracie refuses to engage with anyone and instead, reads constantly. Her father focuses totally on Janine and assumes that Gracie is fine. It is only in her poetry class in school that she meets Gina, a poet, does she start to open up.  This coming-of-age novel was written by a therapist but strangely enough, there is no therapy in the story. There is only Gracie as she battles her demons and begins to engage with others and think beyond her own needs. Although I knew nothing about this author or her poetry, I enjoyed the complexities of a young girl as she fights her way out of the cage of her own making.

Help! I’m Falling into a Good Book

The Maid by Nita Prose—In an unknown city at a fancy hotel, Molly Gray is the perfect maid. Her rooms are always spotless, and she really enjoys her work. But after her beloved Gran dies, she is rather adrift because Gran was the one person who interpreted her world for her. Molly has trouble understanding what people really mean when they speak to her. And when she walks into a room and finds a customer dead, her life is overturned and the people she trusts are not the people she needs to trust.  Will Molly solve this crime? Or will she be convicted of it?

You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn—Whatever you have expected from a book by Kal Penn, you will be surprised. From the star of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Penn takes us into his life as an Indian American boy from Jersey City where against all odds and advice from family and friends, he ends up in Hollywood fighting racism and prejudice to become an actor. His memoir, in turns funny and very serious follows his ups and downs in his acting career and a definite turn into what he feels is national service as he joins Barack Obama’s election campaign and ultimately his staff for a year.  As an actor, writer and producer, Penn surprises everyone. And this is not the end of his saga.

We Are Not Like Them, by Jo Piazza and Christine Pride—This is a novel literally ripped from the headlines. Riley and Jen have been friends, more like sisters, since kindergarten. The fact that Riley is Black, and Jen is White never seemed to be a factor in their friendship until a Black, unarmed teenager is killed by two White policemen and one of those policemen is Jen’s husband, Kevin.

Riley is a journalist on a local Philadelphia TV station and this story has become important to her, not only personally but professionally. Jen must grapple not only with her husband, and his job and possible freedom, but his family and the police family as well. Neither woman knows how to respond to each other and the longer they don’t communicate, the more difficult it becomes. They have never really talked with each other about race and among all their other problems, this is the opening they must have to keep their friendship alive.

Because this novel is written by Piazza who is White and Pride, who is Black and each chapter is narrated by Piazza or Pride, it lends a very realistic bent to this novel. Both writers agree that this is a way to open a dialogue about race. If you are looking for a provocative book to open a discussion on race for your book club, this may be a good choice.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz—An English countryside murder, complete with a vicar, a haughty landowner, a bitter maid, and a famous detective. What could be more delicious! But there’s more.  This is a novel about the author of this murder mystery, and when Susan, his editor reads the book, the ending chapters are missing. And the author is dead. Everyone thinks it’s a suicide, but Susan has other ideas. And it’s all tied into the books he wrote…and the missing chapters. Look carefully at the characters in this mystery. They may look more familiar as you read the book.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell—I told you when I reviewed The Invisible Girl by Jewell that I would be reading more of her books….and true to my word I did. Thanks to my sister who can’t stop reading them!

It started out slowly as Henry, his sister Lucy and their parents used to live a normal life, but as the money ran out, people were invited into their home, and they were no longer in charge…it was the family upstairs who took charge, and they turned everyone in the house into a cult.  And then a new baby was born, but who were her parents? And then what happened to the adults?

Twenty-five years later, Libby, an adopted orphan was contacted that she had inherited the big house in Chelsea. She knew nothing about the strange family that lived there but was determined to find out.  The twists and turns in this page turner never stop as Libby learns about the family she never knew.  

Reading in the Hot Hot Sun

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin is the story of an American family gone awry. When father Ellis Skinner, dies suddenly of a heart attack, his family falls apart. Noni, the mother retreats to her room and leaves her four children, Renee, 11, Caroline, 10, Joe, 8 and Fiona, 4 (she at 102 narrates her family’s history). Renee assumes the role of caretaker and for two years, she and Joe ran the household. After their aunt steps in and their mother reemerges from her depression, life becomes more normal again. But two years is long enough to leave scars on the four Skinner children, scars that go so deep, they don’t show up until much later. Especially for Joe, who was always viewed as the golden boy, handsome and extremely athletic, but never lives up to his potential.  Caroline despite her mother’s cautionary tale, marries her high school sweetheart. Renee never wants children, having had to care for her siblings for two years and becomes a surgeon. Fiona, who in later years becomes a renowned poet, tells their story in a series of poems as we discover how the four children lived their lives and shared their grief. 

If you are a fan of the works of Mel Brooks, you must listen to All About Me: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks. By the end of the book, you will know the plot of every TV show, movie, play, and award that Brooks has worked on. And he’s worked (written, directed, produced and acted) on many. I thought I knew them all but apparently not. Yes, he goes into a little more detail than I would have liked, (sometimes it’s like listening to your grandfather go on and on) but he has led an amazing life and knows a lot of famous people. He wrote this book in his mid-90s which he calls his “Third Act”.  I now have a yearning to watch some of his old movies which somehow, I’ve missed!

Happy Go-Lucky by David Sedaris—Oh how I love David! His essays and talks range from pathos to bathos (yes just learned the difference) and I love his take on The Pandemic, the lockdown to the ever-present BLM marches in New York. Yes he is getting older…and crankier but his humor is just as sharp, and his stories of his family are just as funny…and sad. I’ve been listening to him talk about his father throughout his books and it is still cringeworthy. But through Sedaris’ eyes as the old man loses his anger, we see the father he might have been.

The Mercies by Kiren Millwood Hargrave—1617, in a small fishing village in Northern Norway, all the men went out to fish one stormy night and never returned. The women were left to fend for themselves. And they did. They learned to fish and to tan hides and basically to learn to live without men. And then Absolom Cornet arrives, on orders of the king, with his young bride to take control. Apparently, the women of the village were fending for themselves a little too well, and not with the church’s permission. He was there to make sure the indigenous Lapp tribe did not overly influence the Christian women. Based on the real witch trials of 1621, this novel includes a fierce friendship, betrayal and the power of the church. It was an unputdownable book.  

French Braid by Anne Tyler—Known for her character-based novels, Tyler often focuses on families. Her newest book is no exception. We meet Mercy and Robin on their once in a lifetime vacation at Deep Creek. With their two teenaged girls and young son, it should be a memorable occasion. It is but for all the wrong reasons. Everyone wants something different. Mercy simply wants to paint and boy crazy Lily has her first big crush. David does not want to learn to swim, despite his father’s urging and Alice becomes the DeFacto mother. As I began French Braid, it felt almost like connected short stories, exploring one Baltimore family through 40 years of dysfunction and the ties that bind and unbind.

See you all next month and hopefully we’ll have beautiful September weather so we can read our books with the windows open.

Beachy Books

Are you looking for the next Bridget Jones read, something perfect for the beach? Well on the face of it, One Day in December by Josie Silver might fit the bill. Laurie James, a would-be journalist, stuck in a dead-end job, always looking for someone special, is sitting on a double decker bus in London when she spies a young man, deep in a book at the bus stop and she knows this is the one. She stares at him until he looks up and silently pleads with him to get on the bus or she will get off. But it’s crowded and finally when he makes a move to board, it is too late. Laurie spends the next year thinking of who this man might be.

She and her best friend Sarah nickname him “The Bus Boy” and it is not until Sarah introduces her to her new boyfriend, the love of her life, Jack, that Laurie recognizes him. (Surprised?), Does he remember her…will she tell Sarah? That would be too easy. Instead, Jack and Laurie become fast friends, but there is a tension between them that never goes away. Through ten years of changing relationships and even marriage, Jack is there, but is he “there there” or just a good friend? Well, you have to read this charming novel to find out. I read it for a book club and seriously we had one of the best conversations!

What initially attracted me about The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave was that Hannah and her husband Owen and stepdaughter Baily live in a floating house in Sausalito. How cool would that be? But that’s not what the book is about.  This novel is literally a page turner which I finished in a record amount of time! After a big scandal at Owen’s company, Owen disappears leaving a two word note for his wife “Protect her” and a bag full of money for his daughter Bailey. But to protect Bailey, Hannah must figure out why Owen left and finally who he actually is. Along with sulky and understandably freaked out Baily, the two set out on a quest to get to the truth of Owen’s life story, and Bailey’s as well, which takes them to Austin, Texas. And when they do, life will never be the same for either of them.  Read it on a floating house which I’m sure you’ll buy soon.

Are you looking for a book that will satisfy your every literary need? Mystery, romance, tragedy, heartbreak and a good deal of anger is what The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont brings to your bookshelf. I do not have to introduce Agatha Christie to this audience, but maybe some of you don’t know that for 11 days in 1926, Christie disappeared and no one beside Christie herself ever found out what happened during those 11 days.

The Christie Affair is a novel that offers a possible explanation…not probable but possible. She was 36 years old, and her marriage was falling apart. Nan O’Dea (not her real name) was the “other woman” who was having an affair with Archie Christie and was determined to have him. Then one night, Agatha drove off and disappeared while the whole of England searched for her. I will not fill in the whole story, but I can say that Nan was not only very involved in her disappearance but narrated the novel as well (even though there were some parts she could not have possibly known). And it is through her eyes that we fall into this story with a plot you do not expect. It’s as if Christie wrote it herself, complete with clues and parts of Christie’s mysteries thrown in for good measure. I absolutely loved this book and I’m proud to say that my cousin, Peter Steinberg, de Gramont’s literary agent gave her the idea for this book! (But that is not why I loved it!)

Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz—I’m not sure how much to divulge about this page turner of a romantic/science fiction novel. Bee and Nick meet online after a misdirected email. Bee repurposes wedding dresses and is not doing well in the dating department and Nick is a failed writer in a bad marriage. But when they get to know each other through emails, they cannot deny the chemical charge. And after some lengthy emailing, they decide to meet at Euston Station in London. They plot it out down to what they are both wearing, and they both show up…but they cannot find each other. And the question is why? When they finally get back online, they start comparing anomalies. Their worlds seem different on some levels: In Nick’s world Trump is a failure and ecology is a priority. Bee’s world is unfortunately the same as ours. Could it be that they live in parallel universes? Follow these star-crossed lovers as they map out a plan to finally meet. Romance, humor, science fiction…perfect for a movie! I read it in a week.

Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend by Jenny Colgan—Let me first say that the worst part of this very engrossing novel is the title. I was embarrassed to have people around the pool see that I was reading such a pink, frivolous book. I am of course a former librarian and consider myself a literata (yes that’s a word)! But because I’ve read some of her previous books and because a good friend lent it to me, I thought I’d try it out.

Poor little rich girl, Sophie had everything she wanted, except for her mother, who died when Sophie was 11 years old. After that it was just her and her doting father.  But when her father married Gail several years later, it was war and Sophie became the spoiled rich girl with her spoiled rich friends…until the fateful night when her life changed dramatically, and she was told she had to live on her own for six months to develop some responsibility. She finds a flat in the worst part of London with four scrappy, messy, male students and…well I’m sure you can figure out the basic plot, but it is written in a way to make those pages turn. I actually enjoyed it, despite the title.

For the past few years, 741 days to be exact, I’ve been studying Spanish through Duolingo.com along with some of my family. I still can’t join a real conversation with real Spanish speakers, but what I can do is read! My son offered me this “Spanish for Beginners” novel, Hola Lola! by Juan Fernandez. The book follows clueless, 20-year-old William from Newcastle, England. He is living in Madrid and trying to learn Spanish by taking a Spanish course there. He lives in a flat with other students and just tries to get along. He describes himself as awkward, not handsome and a little chubby (his favorite foods are MacDonalds burgers and chocolate chip cookies). We follow William as he navigates through social minefields. In addition, his Spanish is not easily understandable. The novel is written in a way that totally explains the characters and plot with repetition, and vocabulary with questions and answers at the end of each chapter. It’s funny and only about 200 pages. I enjoyed my first ever novel in Spanish! This is the first in a series about William’s adventures. Available from Amazon.com. And I actually read this one on the beach! (en la playa).

Hope you enjoy these novels. I have. Remember to use sunscreen and eat some ice cream every day, just like me.

Look What I Found at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

I was lucky enough to have attended and survived the Gaithersburg Book Festival for although it was held on May 21, it was 95 degrees and you had to be a super book lover to handle that heat.  But it was definitely worth it. Here are some author talks that I attended and if their books are as amazing as their talks, then go out right now and order these books. Ironically for me, they are all Non-Fiction. I must confess that I haven’t read these books yet. These are my impressions as I listened to the authors.

There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America by Amy Argetsinger —Remember when we were young and impressionable, and we couldn’t wait to watch The Miss America Pageant every year? Television and women’s roles were certainly different then. Argetsinger, a Washington Post Style reporter has written a cultural history of American women through the lens of the Miss America Pageant.

And the pageant itself has reflected American life through all its turmoil. The infamous Rule 7, enacted in 1948, stated “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” It was not until 1970 that Cheryl Browne became the first Black woman to participate. Bess Myerson, who in 1945, became the first Jewish Miss America, was asked to change her name to something less Jewish…she refused. And in 2017, misogynistic leaked emails from the all-male CEO and board of the Miss America Organization led to their firing, after which the board was taken over by women. Gretchen Carlson, formerly of Fox News became the next CEO and her first decision was to remove the swimsuit competition, which created some more backlash. This is a fascinating look at an institution that is now just barely surviving and if you read the book, you will understand why. Great idea for a book discussion!

Ann Hood, author of several fiction and non-fiction works, began her career at the age of 21 as a stewardess (not yet called flight attendant) for TWA Airlines. Fly Girl is her story in the air as a witness and participant in the early “Fly Me” years from 1978-1986 about the time that women were finally given the respect that they should have had years before. But this is not a polemic. It is simply a memoir of the best time of her life and the difference between then and now, both for passengers and crew. I attended her and Amy Argetsinger’s presentation as they discussed both their books, comparing life in the air and life on a pedestal. I must tell one of her stories: A very famous writer was a passenger on one of her flights and by that time, Hood had already started writing books. She mentioned this to the author, and he looked at her with a dead pan expression and said, you’re too stupid to write. It was only her flight training that got her through that conversation. We tried to get her to reveal his name, but she never did.

There is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century by Fiona Hill —I’m sure you remember Fiona Hill’s riveting testimony at President Trump’s impeachment trial. But do you know her origins as the coal miner’s daughter from Northern England? As mines were shutting down and no jobs to be had, her father told her that “there is nothing for you here”, the sentence that spurred her to seek higher education and even to get out of England. She studied in Russia and finally the United States at Harvard, where she felt anyone could start anew. And indeed she did, specializing in Eastern Europe. She served under three presidents, Bush, Obama and finally Trump…and you know the rest.  But this is not only a memoir, it’s a cautionary tale of what could happen in America, just as it did in Russia under Putin.

Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could by Adam Schiff—As we have watched the January 6th Hearings, Midnight in Washingon could not be a more pertinent book. Schiff takes us from the former president’s first impeachment trial through the 2020 election and especially the January 6 Capitol riot and his memories of living through that awful day as rioters attempted to break into the chamber. His bitterest comments though, are reserved for the “insurrectionists in suits and ties” who he is sure knew that the election was not rigged but “slowly surrendered to the immorality of the former president.”

The Family Roe: An American Story by Joshua Prager As one does at book festivals, when there are famous writers that are going to speak at a certain time, it’s important to arrive and get a seat at the previous writer’s talk. This often leads to discovering a new author (new to me anyway) and I certainly did. The Family Roe could not have arrived at a more propitious time, now that Roe V. Wade has become history. The story behind Jane Roe is as complicated as Norma McCorvey herself (the real Jane Roe). She gave birth to three children, from three different men, two of whom she gave up for adoption. Her first was raised by her mother. Norma often changed her story, changed her mind and finally switched her position to an anti-abortion stance.

Prager tried to approach this very controversial topic in as neutral and human tone as possible. He felt it was politicized enough.  He discovered “Baby Roe” who was adopted but did not find out about her birth mother until she was 18. And Prager was instrumental in getting all of Norma’s children together. This is a fascinating look at a moment in history that has changed our lives.

And one more book to introduce…As I stopped by the Maryland Writers Association booth, I was asked “Are you a writer?” Well, sort of was my answer. I do publish a blog about books. One of the women in the booth was very excited. She handed me a copy of her book 50 Things to Know About Birds in Washington DC by Dana Burton and asked if I could review it on my blog. Well, now I guess I’ve become an influencer! So here goes…

If you are a bird lover or even if you are not, this slim, handy 70-page book may get you started. It’s not slick or fancy or even in color, but it lists many places in DC where you are sure to find birds including Roach’s Run Waterfowl Sanctuary, Dunbarton Oaks, Hains Point, Rock Creek Park and many more. And she knows lots of interesting facts about birds in this area. She even included a paragraph on  Presidential Pets with Calvin Coolidge at the top of the list. So if you are interested in birds, or Washington DC trivia, this might be the book for you. It could have been checked for spelling errors a little more thoroughly though. Look for 50 Things to Know About Birds in Washington DC by Dana Burton, available on Amazon.com.

The Gaithersburg Book Festival, begun in 2010 has become a place for authors and readers to meet and discuss books. It’s a free all-day event with free parking…but be sure to arrive early! And it’s right here in Gaithersburg! Make sure you attend next year and hopefully it won’t be so hot.

See you next month and happy reading!

Sliding Into Summer and You Need Books to Get There

As I was searching through my list of favorite books, I found Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable by Mark Dunn.  In a small fictitious town on an island off the coast of South Carolina, the birthplace of Nevin Nollop, supposed author of the typing phrase “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog”, there is a memorial to Nollop containing this phrase. Well one day, a letter falls off and the town council decides to eliminate that letter from all speech. And then as more letters fall off, they are eliminated from this book as well…which makes it a very interesting read…probably not a good book to listen to though.

The novel itself is about freedom of expression as Ella (our heroine) along with her likeminded friends, fight to be able to regain the letters before they are all gone for good. It is hilarious and sobering at the same time. And although this book was written in 2001, it is still just as relevant now.

Louise Penny’s new novel, State of Terror is unlike any of the others in her mystery series. It’s possible because Hilary Clinton was her coauthor and Clinton writes about what she knows: a woman Secretary of State involved in a political crisis like no other. And all the usual suspects are involved: Iran, Pakistan, Russia, The Taliban, the former president…or all of them could be the villains.

Bombs go off in two cities in Europe and her job is to figure out who, why and when are they going to be set off next.  Probably in the US and possibly in the White House. But “when” is the key question.  And does she leave these questions to her underlings…absolutely not, because she does not trust anybody in the White House, nor should she. Everyone is a suspect, and it is not until the last few pages that we find out who the mole is. Backed by her counselor, her daughter, her son and a young woman with secrets of her own, they proceed down every blind alley. The answer may lie in an unlikely place…Three Pines, Quebec!

Would I recommend this political thriller? Sure, why not…I’m in it for the thrill, the characters and the fact that a woman Secretary of State is the heroine along with the other women in her life. I’m suspending disbelief on all other counts.

One of my favorite books by Alice Hoffman is Practical Magic published in 1995 (and of course the movie in 1998) about sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, and Sally’s daughters, Kylie and Antonia who all live with their two aunts Franny and Jet. They are part of a family of witches trying to cope with life in modern day Salem, Massachusetts. When Gillian’s boyfriend proves to be a very, very bad person, Sally rescues her and the two must decide what to do with him…they don’t make the wisest choice. And then they need to be rescued themselves.

Many readers want to know the back story of the Owens family. Maria Owens, the matriarch of the Owens family, was tried for witchcraft in the 1600s. In Magic Lessons we meet Maria, who never meant to fall in love, indeed, she even cast a spell to prevent herself from it. But she met and had a baby with the wrong man, John Hathorne who later becomes one of the leading judges in the Salem witch trials. Her life and that of her daughter Faith, provide the framework for future generations of Owens women. Hoffman’s writing is a combination of love and witchcraft, with lots of practical witchy kind of tips and real history, especially about women and the suffering that they endured. I loved it and if you love it there are several more novels in the Owens family saga.

Hoffman fills in some history that will help you understand the modern-day Owens family and that is where The Rules of Magic comes in. Franny, Jet and Vincent, three siblings growing up in the 1960s, all understand that they are different, but they don’t know why until they visit their Aunt Isabelle who guides them through their family history. They all learn the pitfalls of falling in love.

And now the last in the series, The Book of Magic. Some twenty years after Practical Magic we revisit the Owens family.   Although the curse that has been in the family for generations remains, everyone in the family has fallen in love and the men have all paid the price. The latest is Kylie’s boyfriend who is run over by a car, and lays in a coma and it is then that Kylie decides to end the curse no matter the consequences. And the consequences are steep. Carrying “The Book of Ravens” which will give her instructions on ending curses, she flies to London and runs into the wrong man and the wrong kind of magic. The entire family follows her, except Antonia who is very pregnant. What happens there and for Antonia as well, changes everything for the family. They all learn the sacrifices they must make to break the curse.  If you are an Alice Hoffman fan, a magic fan, or especially a fan of love, you must read The Book of Magic. It is a series well worth following.

But I must quote the beginning line: “Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library.” And that tells you how Hoffman feels about books and libraries! At the end there is a list of all the books mentioned in this novel.

Well that’s it for now my friends and as always, let me know what you think…to a degree of course.

Stay safe, remain vigilant and keep reading.

Let’s Read More Books…on your porch, in your garden…or if you’re in Minnesota…under a blanket

What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s books is that they are never about what they appear to be.  It is always more complicated, more nuanced, and she writes in such a way that it is welcoming to the reader, whether she (yes probably her readers are women) is expecting Chick Lit or a psychological page turner. They often get both. In Someone Else’s Love Story, Shandi and her brilliant 3-year son Natty are preparing for a change in their lives and on the way to Atlanta, they stop at a convenience store and become involved in a stick-up. It is there they meet William, a very damaged scientist who becomes their savior and when she falls in love with him, their life gets even more complicated. This novel is so much more so keep reading through the plot twists.

And then, read Almost Sisters, my introduction to Jackson, about a pregnant woman who returns to her family in Alabama to care for her aging grandmother and discovers a secret that upends all her perceptions about her family. It’s not only about family, but race and southern small-town culture, and in addition of course, love.

Lisa See is known for her many novels based on the strong bonds of women, primarily Chinese women. This novel, The Island of Sea Women, however, is set on Jeju Island off the coast of Korea. Against the historically accurate portrait of an all-female diving collective, Lisa See highlights the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja, best friends since they were young divers in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. This is a tricky situation for them because Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, hated by most islanders. Young-sook’s mother is the head of the all-female diving collective, who invites Mi-ja to be part of the “baby divers”, young girls learning how to dive.

The novel follows their friendship throughout their young lives, as they travel to foreign lands diving for their collective and planning their future together. Their lives take different turns as Young-sook marries a young progressive teacher and Mi-ja marries a rich, strong, often violent, businessman allied with the Japanese government. The sad and violent history of Korea from the Japanese occupation, throughout WW2 and the Korean War colors their lives and drives them apart. And one terrible day, their friendship is ripped apart and there is no turning back. Each woman must find her own way separately. As Young-sook learns to deal with tragedy and heartbreak, can she learn to forgive Mi-ja for what she feels is an unforgivable act?

Much of this novel is based on fact. The all-female diving collective, known as the Haenyeo, has been active since the 17th century and has created a semi-matriarchal society where women dive, and men take care of the family. If you are interested in the history of Korea, this novel is actually a good source of information. And please read other novels by Lisa See.  Another fascinating novel about the effect of the Japanese on Koreans is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is at the face of it, a novel about African American identical twin girls, one of whom passes for white and disappears from the family. But it is much more than that. It is about identity, knowing who you are and who you want to be and what you will give up to achieve it.

The girls were brought up in Mallard, LA where, although it is populated by African Americans, everyone is light skinned. When the 16-year-old girls escape to the wider world, Stella passes for white and disappears from her family while Deseree marries a dark-skinned man and gives birth to a girl who looks like her father. She returns to Mallard after several years, with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude.

The novel switches to Stella’s life with her unknowing white husband and daughter in California and then to Jude’s life when she moves to Los Angeles. And finally, to the intersection of their lives. This is a fascinating novel, written with such care and lack of judgment on all the characters’ life choices. Watch for it on HBO as a series.

One of the privileges of writing a blog is that my friends suggest their favorite books…books that literally live on their bookshelves. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is one of them.  Part odyssey, part adventure, a little love story thrown in, a classic western plot with an inspirational theme. What a lovely book. And what a fascinating family. My favorite character though, has to be Swede, with an imagination and literary talent that is as wide as the west itself.

North Dakota, 1951, the Land family, father, Jeremiah, 11-year-old asthmatic son Reuben, 17 year old Davy and 7 year old daughter, Swede find themselves in a terrible predicament when Davy shoots and kills two teens that have been harassing the family and break into their home. Davy is tried for murder and before he is convicted (and he certainly would have been) he escapes to parts unknown. Jeremiah resorts to prayer and decides to take the family and head west where Davy could possibly be headed. Reuben narrates the novel, and we see the odyssey through his eyes. As an 11-year-old he does not always make correct decisions. Do they find Davy, is there divine intervention, does Davy return to prison, there’s only one way to find out, and it is worth the read.  This would be a great book club choice.

That’s all for now. Keep reading and tell me about your favorite reads! Happy Spring!