Sharing books with Mom

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. EpitaphMary 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.

Making amends, making friends

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Seven-year-old Elsa and Granny are best friends. Precocious and a misfit among her peers, Elsa gains strength from the magical stories Granny weaves. After Granny’s death, Elsa is sent on a quest connecting people Granny met throughout her life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Non-specific Sweden
  • Time: 2012
  • This book is for you if you enjoy quest literature. Some characters are reminiscent of those in the Harry Potter books. Be aware that suspending belief about the sophistication of a seven-year-old is necessary. It is definitely NOT like A Man Called Ove.

Fredrik Backman made a splash on the literary scene when A Man Called Ove was first published in the U.S. in 2014. His third title, Britt-Marie Was Here, was released last summer. When I had the chance to speak with Backman at Book Expo America last May, I asked which of his books he’d suggest for some book groups I facilitate. His recommendation was My Grandmother… precisely because people seemed to either love or hate it. And he was right.

I am a sucker for a quest. I recommend Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger at every chance I get. Backman does an admirable job of connecting the reader to Granny and Elsa. While it is very hard to imagine that seven-year-old Elsa really has read all the Harry Potter books multiple times, it is no stretch to understand why her eccentric, anti-establishment Granny is her anchor in her confusing family. Elsa’s mother works constantly and is pregnant with Halfsie, soon to be Elsa’s half brother. Everyone seems to adore her stepfather but they have no special connection.  And her father and his new family are not very involved in her life. When Granny isn’t getting into scrapes with the local police and businesspeople she devotes all her attention and imagination to Elsa.

Granny’s unexpected death leaves Elsa bereft and adrift. The small apartment building that Granny and Elsa lived in is filled with characters. Some are a part of daily life, whether Elsa likes it or not. Others are disconnected and often far from view. Delivering an envelope written by Granny to a neighbor sends Elsa on a journey to learn about them all.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is alternately humorous and touching. The imaginary world Granny created to ease Elsa’s night fears is complex with memorable elements. Some of Backman’s descriptions of Elsa’s neighbors are reminiscent of people met in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

As Fredrik Bachman told me, some love the book, others really not. Having Elsa be a seven-year-old is a real sticking point for many. Backman used the timing of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia to bring Granny back home to care for her granddaughter, a choice that created unnecessary hurdles. For those who can buy into the intellectually precocious Elsa, Granny’s imaginary world, and the quest to find Elsa’s true family, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry may be a worthy undertaking.

Reading to move forward at Thanksgiving

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Two weeks ago I spent the morning leading a discussion for approximately 30 people titled Page to Screen. While there was interest in the material presented, there was a persistent buzz and uncertainty in the room about the upcoming election. While the outcome was known two days later, a general unease remains about how we got to where we are today and how we can move forward.

Regardless of one’s choices, the daily news is disturbing. Vandalism, hate crimes and incivility are increasing. This is not the peaceful transition of power that has characterized the aftermath of US elections for two hundred years. Being an informed and engaged citizen is at least as important today as it was two weeks ago. While it is important to step up and support the issues and organizations that speak to our individual concerns, it is also vital to step back and focus on those elements of our lives that shape our views: family, home, personal history and health, leisure interests and more.

Reading can calm or energize; help educate or offer the option to escape – it’s all in the selections. Daily, people are approaching me for book recommendations to distract from the political furor. For some I suggest the hair of the dog, fine narratives of earlier eras in American history, both fiction and nonfiction. Examples would be Erik Larson’s Dead Wake and In the Garden of Beasts, Ruth Gruber’s Haven, Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph, and Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. All serve as a reminder that America has faced intractable problems and dissension in the past, and solutions come with a high price. Here is a list Penguin Random House built of titles to understand America in 2016.

2016 National Book Award finalists
2016 National Book Award finalists

Others are looking for books where the emphasis on characters and plot provide a respite from real politics and history. My current picks in that area are Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, Louise Penny’s mysteries, and the short stories of Molly Antopol and Edith Pearlman. And great comfort comes from re-reading whichever books you consider your old friends.

Don’t forgot that the anger, disappointment, and uncertainty heard in our conversations and seen in the news can disturb children as well. This may be a great time to drop everything and read classic and modern children’s literature together. Biographies of American leaders – presidents, suffragettes, inventors or leaders of the Civil Rights movement – can provide both perspective and inspiration to all in these complicated times.

As I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, my hope is that everyone finds a welcome spot around a table, that there be conversations to bridge differences, and violence is left on the football field. If you choose to battle the shopping hoards, please consider a stop at your local bookstore. Between the books and other gift items stocked, there is likely something for everyone on your list with no assembly required. Even Senator Tim Kaine is ready for a stop at his local bookstore.

Courtesy of Shelf Awareness
Courtesy of Shelf Awareness

Elizabeth Strout returns to form

  • unknownMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout(Random House, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Lucy, long estranged from her family, is visited by her mother during a lengthy hospital stay. Bit by bit they rebuild a relationship, revisiting Lucy’s childhood in Illinois and the silence and isolation that sent Lucy in search of herself.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: Primarily 1980s
  • Read this for an aching look at the mother-daughter relationship.

After Elizabeth Strout burst on the scene in 2008 with Olive Kitteridge, the bar was set very high for any future writings. When The Burgess Boys appeared in 2013 early critics were pleased, many readers not as much. Like The Burgess Boys, My Name is Lucy Barton is a novel, not short stories. But in Lucy Barton and her mother, we have imperfect and complex characters that have been carrying steamer trunk-sized baggage with them for decades.

Set in a New York hospital the 1980s, the rhythm of hospital and family life are very different from today. While Lucy has built a family and career of her own,  her children rarely visit the hospital, her husband is caught up in his parenting responsibilities and averse to hospitals.

Convalescence is slow. Days run one into another marked by visits from doctors, diagnostic testing, and nurses on their own schedules. After several weeks, her mother just appears to Lucy’s surprise. One in the bed, the other in the side chair, they revisit Lucy’s childhood and the small town where her family still lives, still outsiders in many ways.

Little happens in this book. While they speak of the others in their small town, their peculiarities and slights, the acts that crippled Lucy are never spoken aloud. Smart and a talented writer, Lucy’s family never understood her gifts. She was the poster child for low self-esteem.

After leaving the hospital, the understanding gained from her mother’s visit finally allows Lucy to see herself and those around her in a new light. And she continues to transform for the remainder of the book.

If you enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton may be worth a look.

 

‘A Great Reckoning’ is another reason to love Louise Penny

  • Unknown-3A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, August 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Penny’s twelfth novel featuring Armand Gamache is much more than a mystery. In the twilight of his career, Gamache wants to leave a legacy. Strength of character, forgiveness, and the importance of community are at the heart of A Great Reckoning.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: Quebec
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Read this for a well-constructed mystery and so much more – to meet people you’d like to know, in a place you’d like to call home.

I’ve always been a mystery fan. There was a period I spent more time with Nancy Drew than my neighborhood friends. In recent years there has been only one mystery writer that I’d drop anything to read. Louise Penny.

A Great Reckoning is a beautiful book with a specifically moral point of view. Penny’s main character, Commander Armand Gamache, has left his position after decades as head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec. He and his wife have settled in Three Pines, an idyllic community virtually off the grid and not on any map. Save for the occasional murder, Three Pines is perfect – oddball neighbors, a B&B, cafe and a bookstore – but Gamache is not ready to retire.

Faced with a variety of career options, he decides to head up the Sûreté’s academy, the residential training facility for all cadets.  Gamache was instrumental in rooting out major corruption within the Sûreté, facing serious injury in the process. Before retiring he wants to alter what he sees as a corrosive training climate that creates divisive elements from the start.

Just before he takes up this new position, a map appears in Three Pines, apparently dating back about one hundred years. Hand drawn, it bears a resemblance to the local area with some unusual additions. Gamache brings it with him to the academy, giving copies to several of the cadets in the hope they will work together to explain its symbols.

And, of course, there is a murder.  In this case, one of the academy’s professors is killed after the building has been secured for the night. Gamache took the appointment with concerns about the ethics of some of the staff and even brought a discredited former colleague to serve as an example. There is no shortage of suspects.

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Penny is her element when she takes Gamache’s students to Three Pines. As a reader, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen when they met the locals. The portrait of local life, modelled on the community in which Louise Penny and her husband live, could easily carry a novel without the addition of a mystery.

Sense of place is vital in all of the Three Pines mysteries. In A Great Reckoning, both the academy and Three Pines are intentional communities. Cell phones, the internet, and unexpected visitors play very specific and controlled roles. In Penny’s novels, human interaction, individual histories, and human frailties are key.

I’m never one to include “spoilers” in a review. But I will tell you that Armand Gamache’s personality and outlook are in large measure based on Louise Penny’s husband, the former head of hematology at the Children’s Hospital in Montreal. Sadly, he has been in failing health for several years. Having heard Penny speak at Book Expo last May in Chicago, both her husband and Gamache are strong, smart and well-loved.