Sometimes, especially during a Pandemic, it’s good to spend time with an old friend.
Many books are one-and-doners. This post is not about them!
Once or twice a year I re-read a book upon finishing to deepen my understanding (Lincoln in the Bardo or My Brilliant Friend, for example).
Other times it’ll be a few years later for the joy of catching up with an old friend. A book that’s been with you for years can evoke wonderful feelings and memories. These are the books that are among my old friends:
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – I adore the skill John Irving has in wrapping everything up. Everything in the book has a purpose and is pulled together at the end. Triumphant feeling just reminiscing about this book.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – My mom and I were huge fans of old movies. I watched the old black and white movie as a child without knowing the title numerous times. The creepy orphanage and madwoman scenes made a definite impact. When I started reading Jane Eyre as an adolescent & realized I had happened upon the book that the creepy movie was based upon, it was love at first read.
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – I first read The Bean Trees in an early 1990’s book club in Hoboken. I was hooked – Barbara Kingsolver was the first modern writer I encountered whose books included everything a twenty-something wanted: environmentalism, social awareness, (maybe justice?), romance, natural beauty. I have returned to this book several times and consider it a kind-of fairy tale, even as a no-longer twenty-something.
My high school copy of Pride and Prejudice – well read!
Pride and Prejudice by the Queen Jane Austen – this I have read probably 10 times, starting in high school. I even used the book as a basis for a business school paper for my Negotiations class! (I wrote about Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal to Elizabeth and their back/forth). Maybe then my favorite book ever? I know I’ve read Sense & Sensibility at least twice. I just re-read P&P earlier this month after finishing a demanding Hilary Mantel book. I needed something loving & familiar to get back in the saddle. So satisfying!!!
I wrote this a month ago – and it still holds – my fave book of 2020.
My favorite hands down has been Aperiogon by Colum McCann – I just finished it today. It is an amazing novel based on actual events and real people. The plot centers around two unlikely friends, Rami and Bassam, who work together in the Parents Group to speak out against the conditions that led to their childrens’ deaths.
Rami is an Israeli whose daughter Smadar was killed at age 13 in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Bassam is a Palestinian whose daughter Abir was killed at the age of 9 by an Israeli border guard after she left a shop during a school recess. Rami’s daughter’s death pre-dates their friendship; Abir is killed during it.
The book is constructed in 1001 vignettes – an homage to 1001 Arabian Nights. Some are only a sentence long, some are several pages. It is an interesting construct and worked in my opinion.
McCann draws on the geopolitical history of Israel and Palestine. I found myself continually referring to maps and looking up the names of places. I also searched for details on historical events that are referenced throughout the book. In this way the recent conflicts were made much more real and tangible to me.
Even with the violence and sadness that are the central reasons for the book, McCann infuses the book with nature, love and a sense of optimism.
I am interested in hearing how people who may have strong opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian situation react to the book. If you get a chance to read it let me know what you think!
Hi Friends – It’s been a crazy start to the year so I let both the reading and the blogging slip a bit. I’m back in the saddle with reading and almost back on track to get to 52 books this year. Not that I was ever worried!
And now that we’re required to slow down as a result of staying home due to the Corona Virus, I hope to resume sharing my reading journey with you! So far this year I’ve read these ten books:
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
All the Water in the World by Karen Raney
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner **
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
My favorite so far has been Apeirogon by Colum McCann – but I’ll save that review for my next post.
My LEAST favorite has been The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. You might have noticed is asterisked above? That’s because although I have read some sections of the book twice, and some sections once, there are some sections of the book I could not read. It was on many Best of 2019 lists last year and even Obama put it on his list of favorite books (!) but it was overly cerebral for me with too much psychoanalysis and elements of teen age cruelty and violence. So even though I technically didn’t read every word in the book I’m putting on my list.
I also really liked The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It’s an in-depth family story told from a male perspective. It (almost) made me want to be a writer! I have enjoyed several of Patchett’s other books and so eagerly attended a book talk she gave here in Maplewood. She was very entertaining and during her talk recommended several other authors and books….
…which is how I ended up reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.Ms. Patchett said that although the book was not well-reviewed when it came out, she read it recently and there has not been one week when she has not reflected on it in some way. There is a lot to think about in The Casual Vacancy but it probably could have been done with less pages. Though I did enjoy it and think it’s worth reading.
So that’s it for now…. please let me know what you have been reading lately and if you have any good recommendations!
A book with great insights about both the journalistic process and the effects that sexual harassment on women.
She Said (2019, Penguin Press 261 pages) is a non-fiction account of the reporting odyssey that New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey undertook while they pursued the story about Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of women. Kantor and Twohey and the NYT won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for Journalism in the area of Public Service for their reporting (Note that Ronan Farrow also won for The New Yorker in this category).
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book. I already had the basic background of Weinstein’s abuses – they were detailed in the original articles (see here for the original October 5, 2017 article that broke the story). The book gives more explicit details than the articles. The male-dominated culture that allowed the abuses to continue is very upsetting but not surprising.
What I really enjoyed about the book was the minutiae of the investigation. The tension builds as the reporters court actresses and former employees to convince them to go on the record about what they had experienced. The authors do a really good job of laying out the investigative process, and it is fascinating. Even though I knew the outcome, I was quickly caught up and couldn’t put the book down.
Kantor and Twohey also document Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to come forward about her high school experience with Brett Kavanaugh. They reveal the intricacies that led to her testifying in Washington. Again – very interesting to learn more about what took place behind the scenes prior to to her testimony.
Finally, in early 2019 the authors congregate key women from the She Said movement in a weekend meeting in California. The women process what they have accomplished and how the movement has impacted their lives.
All in all, a great book with a lot of insights about the journalistic process and the impacts that sexual harassment have had on women.
I will be re-reading this in the near future for sure.
A Novel by Julia Phillips
Published 2019 by Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages.
My author-book club friend recommends a lot of books and and I’m always adding them to my To-Read List…. when I’m between books I’ll scroll through and see what to read next. I was scrolling and browsing in our local bookstore last week and ended up buying Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.
I found out after I read it that the book has been short-listed for the National Book Award. I haven’t read others on the short-list but think this book deserves it. Here are some of the reasons why:
Compelling mystery – you’ll be presented with it when you read the inside cover so I’ll tell you anyway. Two young sisters go missing in Kamchatka, Russia. I don’t like knowing something bad is going to happen, especially to kids, so this first chapter was a little cringey. But good.
New-to-me setting – Have you ever heard of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia? Me neither. It’s only accessible by sea or air because of the crazy mountains and volcanos. Home of indigenous people (the Even for example) and settled by western Russians. The landscape is beautifully described and is central to the story.
Strong and complex female characters – Yes there are many. Phillips provides a cast of characters so you can refer back to see who is who and how they may be related to another character. Also helpful because the names are Russian or Even.
Structure – The book proceeds in a linear timeline. Each chapter presents a character and her story – all which will pertain in some way to the central mystery. This structure allows Phillips to explore overarching themes and how they play into the book’s central drama of the missing children: female relationships, male/female relationships, indigenous versus non-indigenous, capitalism versus a traditional way of life.
To make the reading of this book even more a pleasure, Julia Phillips came to [words] bookstore tonight. She read an excerpt and I got to meet her. My friend Boo Trundle (they are in a writing group together) interviewed her… It was exciting!
Sometimes you cannot wait for a book to be published.
When I love a book I usually look for other works by the same author and add them to my To-Read list and/or gobble them up as soon as I can get my hands on them. Louise Erdrich is one author I became acquainted with after reading The Round House. The other books I read by her did not disappoint.
Ever since I read Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, I could not wait for Krueger’s follow up novel, This Tender Land. I put it on my Goodreads list & even entered a contest in hopes of winning a copy. I grabbed it at Words (our local bookstore) as soon as it was in and cleared the decks for a weekend of reading.
So I’m disappointed to report that This Tender Land is not as good as Ordinary Grace (Krueger has also written a series of mystery novels.) It was too predictable and too far-fetched. Set in the 1930’s involving runaways from a home for native American children, it felt too contrived. I was disappointed. Maybe if I re-read Ordinary Grace I would think the same about that. Not sure. I think This Tender Land will appeal to a lot of readers, though, so if you like historical fiction give it a try.
I also recently read The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld. A year or two ago I LOVED The Child Finder. I thought it was suspenseful and well-written. Unfortunately though, I found The Butterfly Girl predictable and too contrived. I raced through it rather than trying to enjoy it.
The last not-as-good-as-I’d-hoped follow up is The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Hannah also wrote the best-selling The Nightingale (and 14 other books), which was set in WW II France. The Great Alone is set in remote Alaska in the 1970s and details how a girl survives with a PTSD dad and a victimized mom. I loved the description of the setting and was eagerly buying the story for most of the book… it just got a little unbelievable about 3/4 of the way through. I sped read the last 100 pages at least!
So my take-away – I can’t always assume follow up books will be as good as I hope they will be. Still love when they are though, and makes reading a few “mehs” worth it.
I needed maturity and life experience to more fully appreciate Beloved.
Given the recent passing of Toni Morrison, my book club decided to read Beloved for our September meeting. Beloved was published in 1987. Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved; she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. She is widely recognized as one of the best, if not the best, American writers. Her other works include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby.
For most of us in the book club (if not all), this was a re-reading as we had read the book 20 years ago… I think I read it in the early 90’s, I would have been about 25 at the time. I believe that I was impressed with the book while I was also horrified and saddened by the story.
Reading it again now, Beloved felt like a new and unfamiliar book to me. I did not recall the beautiful and magical language. I did not recall empathizing so strongly with Sethe the main character. I did not recall the savagery of the treatment inflicted upon Sethe, her family and fellow slaves.
Obviously it was the passage of time – my growing older combined with my experience as a wife and mother, that transformed how I processed the book.
If you haven’t read Beloved and/or read it more than 10 years ago, I urge you to read/re-read it. A painful account of the horror of slavery, it is instructive for especially white Americans to feel (even temporarily as a reader) Sethe’s despair. However you will also experience the strong familial love, beauty, and strength of character that Ms. Morrison’s writing portrays.
Already missing the lazy reading days of August vacation…
Well summer vacation is now sadly over and we’re back to real life. I didn’t read quite as much as I usually do over the summer because I had so many things going on. These were the books I enjoyed in August.
First I read Circe by Madeline Miller for one of my book clubs (published in 2018, 391 pages). It is a novelized (is that a word?) version of the life of Circe, a minor Greek goddess. It’s hard to get into at first because you’re reading about Olympians and nymphs and their eternal lives, but gradually you get into the flow of the book. Madeline Miller has imagined the minutiae and details of Circe’s mythology, and it ends up being very interesting, and even believable.
Next up was Inland by Tea Obreht. I was eager to read this book by the author of The Tiger’s Wife. Hot off the presses (just published, 370 pages), the book is set in the late 1800’s in Arizona. It interweaves the story of Nora, a woman on the desert frontier, and Lurie, a man on the run from the law. I’m a sucker for historic western fiction and this was right up my alley. There are a few too many sub-plots but the book is still very enjoyable, although you’ll feel as parched as Nora by the end of the book.
I finished The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso while on our annual vacation at the Jersey shore (2016, 278 pages). The author has an interesting background – born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, lives in South Africa – and it really enhances the book. Omotoso tells the story of two Cape Town women (one white, one black) who have been neighbors for years and loathe each other. Things happen, they end up spending a lot of time together, and their relationship evolves. I especially loved Hortensia’s character and admired/enjoyed her anger and bitterness. The interweaving accounts can be hard to follow but still an enjoyable read. Very interesting on the post-apartheid culture and also a lot of insight into marriage and relationships. I think we’ll have a lot to talk about at our next book club meeting!
My final August book was Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019, 368 pages). Highly recommend! It is a fictional account of a ’70’s band written as a series of interviews with the band members, roadies and groupies…kind of like a documentary. It’s very engaging and feels real. It’s a bummer that there’s actually no album to listen to at the end!
Hope you had a great reading summer and please let me know if you have any recommendations!!
Really enjoyed this book – a little different and it made me laugh out loud.
I haven’t been the best blogger this summer – sorry. Here is a quick catch up on what I’ve been reading.
Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane was discussed in our book club. Just published this year, I read it on my Kindle app because I didn’t expect it to be super good. But it was really good and I should have bought the book! May Attaway is a 40’ish gardener who lives at home with her dad. She’s not entirely happy, and she embarks on a quest to visit four of her formerly good friends. May grows and changes as a person as a result of her quest. I recommend!
Two book club friends mentioned My Year of Rest and Relaxation and said they had loved it, so I had to try it. (Thanks to Mame for lending me her copy.) The book is by Ottessa Mosfegh and was published in 2018 and is 287 pages long. I loved it but it’s not for everyone. It follows a year in which the narrator, a young woman in 2000/2001 NYC, is suffering from depression. She aims to spend time as much time sleeping as possible in order to cope with her life. It is dark but at times laugh out loud funny. Very different and I recommend it.
Published in 2008 and loosely based on Laura Bush’s life… really good!
I also continued my Curtis Sittenfeld spree with American Wife, which is a fictionalization of aspects of Laura Bush’s life. Published in 2008 and 555 pages long, it is the narrative of Alice Lindgren who becomes First Lady of the US in 2001. It’s a deep dive into the various relationships Alice has – specifically her best friend Dena and then her husband Charlie. It was very interesting and well written, and does offer a few twists. It’s a more fulfilling read than a typical beach paperback & worth the time!
My other book club read The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (published 2018, 421 pages). Set in both 1980’s Chicago and present day Paris, it chronicles the impact that the AIDS crisis had on a group of friends, and it’s reverberations a generation later. Very well written and beautiful. Recommend!