Some days you get lucky. It just so happens that 2 articles appeared in my inbox that provide a peek into what differentiates a strong selling book from a phenomenon. Summer is the perfect time to make this assessment. Since June some of the biggest names in books have released their latest. There are those who won’t head out on vacation without the latest John Grisham or Daniel Silva in hand.
Publishers Weekly is the arbiter for what is selling and how many are sold. Each week the list has the ranking, number of weeks on the list, copies sold that week and calendar sales year-to-date. Grisham’s Camino Island has been on the list for 7 weeks, always at #1 or #2. Over 400,000 copies have been sold already and almost 25,000 last week alone. Now that’s a blockbuster!
Farther down on the list at #8 is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It was published 10 months ago, in September 2016. Towles has a strong following and the book debuted on the list, but not even in the top ten. Since January, over 160,000 copies have been sold but it only takes a bit over 6 thousand to be in the eighth position for the week. Publication of the paperback has been delayed since hardcover sales remain so strong.
So why did I choose A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles for the comparison? Continue reading Bestsellers, blockbusters and just plain good reads!
Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister, in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.
For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing. One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.
When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.
Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.
Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:
- Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
- The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
- Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
- Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
- Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
- Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
- Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
- For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
- Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
- I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
- If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
- Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.
This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.
It’s my own special holiday, anticipated far more than my birthday. For the last 16 years, each September, authors of all stripes have come to Washington to speak of their craft before thousands and thousands of book lovers and visitors who just wandered by. I miss the days when it was on the mall, rain or shine or beastly heat. There is something about the big tents with people crowding at the edges after all the seats are gone, that bring to mind a mash-up of a country fair, a Chautauqua festival, and a revival meeting, all focused on the power of the written word.
I was among the early entrants to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, (as was Stephen King!) quickly picking up the complimentary tote bag, poster and schedule of events. Thirteen speaker venues on four levels plus extensive exhibition space, devoted to literacy and educational resources rather than tchotchke sales, have attendees making tough choices from 10 am to 10 pm. Add in the thousand plus volunteers and you get an idea of the sheer size of the event.
Many of the programs I attended were on my “A” list, some were just good fortune. And timing or space constraints prevented me from others I would have definitely enjoyed. So here’s my day, chronologically:
- Marilynne Robinson, 2016 winner of the LOC Prize for American Fiction was introduced by Carla Hayden, the newly sworn in Librarian of Congress. Ms. Robinson was interviewed by Marie Arana and they spoke about the characters that have developed and changed through her trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila. Robinson is deeply religious. Rural life, theology and the institutions of religion play an important role in her novels. Long a professor of English and creative writing, she has recently retired from teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She talked about her characters speaking to her, directing their way through her novels. Robinson has a gentle sense of humor and looks like many of the teachers I had in elementary school. Her manner is very consistent with the settings of her writings, approachable, open and interested in everything around her, storing impressions of the world around her to be adapted in her writing.
- Yaa Gyasi debut novel, Homegoing, has been receiving raves everywhere. Shame on me to not have picked up a copy at Book Expo! The author is only 26 but worked on her novel for seven years. Listening to her speak about the story of two half-sisters born in the 18th century, unknown to each other, in West Africa. It’s a story that travels from the villages and palaces of West Africa to the slave ships to Baltimore and Harlem. Gyasi’s voice is lyrical. This is moving way up on my to-be-read pile.
- Winston Groom, of Forrest Gump fame, and Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, were interviewed by NPR’s Audie Cornish. Groom, whose new book is El Paso, and Whitehead were brought together since each incorporates actual historical figures in their books despite the books veering far from historical reality. Whitehead’s title, the August pick for Oprah’s Book Club, reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual transit system, changing at state borders. Through the eyes of a single slave, the story unfolds across time, geography and circumstance from the bringing of slaves to the US through the present day. And a slave catcher is giving chase. Groom’s El Paso is about a lesser known period of history, 1916 in Texas on the Mexican border. An industry magnate’s family members are kidnapped and he has to recover them. Icons of early 20th-century industry and politics are woven into the story. After what he did in Forrest Gump, I’m sure the reader is in for some ride.
- I couldn’t miss the chance to hear Carlos Ruiz Zafón speak about his novels. The Shadow of the Wind was one of those revelatory reading experiences for me. I’m not one to read the fantastical, but he caught me up from the very beginning. Zafón spoke about his writing, both for adults and young adults, as well as his experiences as a screenwriter. He is grateful to have left screenwriting behind. There were questions about the translation process and the level of input he has as an author – completely involved with his English translator, a matter of faith with the Korean. His works have been published in more than 40 countries. In his case, he is a wordsmith, whether in Spanish or English.
- Adam Gopnik‘s presentation was a cross between stand-up and storytelling. There were riffs on food, family differences, New York, with a touch of politics thrown in. For example, Gopnik told how a crisis occurred when he seared tuna and served it rare. His wife and son asked that he go back and cook the fish. This so offended his sensibilities that he left the house in a huff, not before his wife told him to come back when he was ready and to cook the fish.
- The final event in my #NatBookFest day was Co-Chair David Rubenstein’s interview of Bob Woodward, award-winning journalist and author. In the hour-long discussion, Woodward told how his time in the Army and as a reporter for the Montgomery Sentinel led to a second (and successful) tryout with the Washington Post. As low man on the staff, he was sent to a burglary arraignment on a beautiful June morning, and so the Watergate break-in saga began. Rubenstein asked his impressions of this year’s candidates and many other leaders Woodward has interviewed over the years. I’ll have a lot of catching up to do if I want to read all of Woodward’s eighteen books.
For those who wish they could have been there, the Library of Congress usually posts videos of a number of the events on the website (www.loc.gov/bookfest) shortly after the Book Festival has concluded. I will be looking there, too, to see some of the speakers I couldn’t squeeze into my schedule. Let’s hope our next president continues this wonderful literary event, initiated by Laura Bush and supported by corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, foreign embassies and individual donors.
IN A NUTSHELL
- The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, narration by the author (Simon & Schuster audio, 2015)
- In 40 words or less: There’s far more to the Wright brothers’ story than the first flight at Kitty Hawk. McCullough brings the family to life and sets them in the context of their times. His narration provides the gravitas the story deserves.
- Genre: History/Biography
- Locale: Ohio/NC/Europe
- Time: Late 19th – Early 20th centuries
- Read this to understand the genius and persistence of the Wright brothers and the family that inspired and stood behind them in their work.
Several things need to work well for an audiobook to be a good choice – the subject, the reader and the quality of the material. When you are choosing a book for more than one person to listen to on a road trip, the stakes are higher. Knowing that our tastes differ, I had several selections. The Wright Brothers was not the first pick but within minutes we were hooked.
Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 is credited with launching the age of flight. The brief paragraphs about this achievement in most history books tell of brothers that began as bicycle builders who parlayed their mechanical knowledge to create the first successful airplane. The brothers and their siblings were raised in a household where reading books on all subjects from classical philosophy to mathematics to contemporary literature was the primary activity. Throughout their lives, Sundays were reserved for reading and contemplation, a tribute to their minister father who instilled in them their love of learning and persistence of purpose.
The flight at Kitty Hawk was barely heard of beyond those working on the project for more than five years. Politics and scientific jealousies sent the Wrights to Europe looking for support and a market when U.S. government officials created stumbling blocks or ignored them outright for several years. Throughout it all, the Wrights remained fixtures in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio and maintained their bicycle shop as an ongoing concern. From beginning to end, their sister Katharine provided personal support and business guidance critical to every success they had, often sacrificing her own aspirations.
David McCullough’s deep and expressive voice is perfect for telling the story as he wrote it. The only downside to listening to the audiobook is the lack of photos and a map. I had given an autographed copy of the book to my father, so upon our arrival at his home, I was able to look at the photos. Having a map handy is a great reminder of the very narrow spit of land that was so important to the birth of modern aviation.
Whether your interest is in history, aviation, the power of genius or just a great story, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers will fit the bill.
IN A NUTSHELL
- The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith (Vintage International, 2015)
- In 40 words or less: Through the lives of three interconnected families, the many changes to France’s working- and middle-class from WWI to the early days of WWII are shown. Némirovsky’s keen eye for the import of social status carries the story.
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Locale: Primarily Paris
- Time: 1912-1941
- Read this for a character-driven tour of the vast changes in daily life over the quarter-century between WWI and WWII.
Irène Némirovsky came to fame in the US more than 60 years after her death in Auschwitz in 1942. Russian and Jewish by birth in 1903, she fled to France after the Revolution and saw herself as French, though never accorded citizenship. Némirovsky converted to Catholicism in 1939. She received acclaim for her novels during her life though some were criticized as anti-Semitic. While three novels were published posthumously in France after the war, the discovery of the manuscript of Suite Française by her daughter in the late 1990’s led to the publication of it, and many of her other works, both in French and in translation.
The Fires of Autumn, written as World War II loomed, is reflective of the many changes in the early decades of the 20th century. Three families, the Jacquelains, the Bruns, and the Humberts, all have children whose choices are altered by the advent of WWI. Rather than opening his medical office, Martial enlists as a military doctor on the front. This “heroic” choice leads to an unexpected engagement with Thérèse. And Bernard, the scion of the Jacquelain family, destined for the university, enlists as soon as he is of age, shortly after Martial’s death.
Bernard returns jaded from the war, disinterested in his family’s aspirations or concerns for him. Quickly caught up in the hedonism emblematic of the 1920s, he connects with wheeler-dealer new style businessman changing the course of his life. He marries Thérèse and through their relationship and the interaction with their families and childhood friends, the fracturing of many societal norms are seen.
Having found Suite Française overwhelming, I was hesitant about reading The Fires of Autumn. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Némirovsky tells a good story and her characters are well-formed. The strength of The Fires of Autumn is the timing of the telling of the story. As seen in her life choices, Némirovsky knows all too well that politics can alter fortunes in mere moments and that choosing sides can exact a heavy price. While at times the dramatics of Némirovsky’s life receive more attention than her writings, The Fires of Autumn is a good reason for her inclusion among noteworthy writers of pre-WWII France.