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.

Afghani Women Showing Their Strength

  • unknown-7The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (Harper Collins, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: Two young Afghani women, separated by four generations,  struggle to find their rightful places in their families and society.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Afghanistan
  • Time: Early 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Read this to better understand the historical issues for women in Afghanistan, regardless of who is in power.

“I was a little girl and then I wasn’t. I was a bacha posh and then I wasn’t. I was a daughter and then I wasn’t. I was a mother and then I wasn’t.” Rahima at 15

At every turn, the women of The Pearl that Broke its Shell consider their naseeb or destiny. Nadia Hashimi novel reminds the reader how difficult it is for someone to break out of a preselected gender role where power and control are asserted physically and an ingrained belief in fate can quash any measure of independence.

Nadia Hashimi’s life experience is about as far from that of her character’s as one could get. Born in the U.S., she wrote this, her first novel, while a pediatric emergency physician in Washington, DC. Hashimi tells the tortured story of life in Afghanistan through the voices of Shekiba, a young girl orphaned in the early 20th century, and Rahima, her great-great-granddaughter born about a century later.

The world of Afghan women is dictated by strict societal norms. Arranged marriage at a very young age to someone chosen by male elders; bearing and raising children (preferably male); cooking and maintaining the collective home along with sisters-in-law and, possibly, other wives; bowing to the will of her husband, mother-in-law, and any senior wives. The wives are dependent upon one another for assistance and companionship, sharing family stories among themselves and with their girl children. And they are their sole source of knowledge about marriage, childbearing, and childcare since they often marry at thirteen or even earlier.

Shekiba was the only daughter of the outcast son in a large family that lived off the land. Maimed after a cooking accident, her father protected and educated her. After all of her immediate family succumbs to cholera, she is grudgingly taken in by her uncles, and grandmother and their families, becoming the house servant. She is tall and strong, so when the opportunity arises to better the family position, she is given to the ruler as a guard for his large harem. When it’s discovered that a man has entered the harem, her life changes yet again. All seemingly well before the age of twenty. And her life was just beginning.

Rahima is the third of five daughters, hearing the family stories from her unmarried great-aunt. Her father is often gone, a warring clansman for the ruler of the local area. Much of his pay is in opium, making life for his family even more difficult. Too often families prohibit girls from attending school or leaving their homes out of concern for interaction with local boys. Some families with only girls engage in a “wink-wink” subterfuge, dressing a girl as a boy to enable her/him to be educated, to take care of tasks such as going to the market, and possibly doing odd jobs to augment the family’s earnings. Rahima becomes one of such girls, a bacha posh, the existence of such a status indicating its acceptance. But before she even reaches puberty, she and her two older sisters are given in marriage to the ruler and his brothers to enrich her father’s family.

In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, juxtaposing the lives of individuals a century apart reminds the reader that despite the strides taken to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan, the tribal culture remains repressive and often dangerous. By creating brave and vivid female characters, Hashimi raised the awareness of the plight of many Afghani women in a way that news articles rarely do. This was a wonderful discussion book for a group I led earlier this week.

Erik Larson brings history to life

  • Unknown-1Dead Wake by Erik Larson (Crown Publishing Group, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Larson paints a bold picture of the events that led up to the sinking of the Lusitania, a catalyzing event to the US eventually entering WWI. Politics, culture, seamanship and warfare all have their place in this compelling narrative.
  • Genre: Narrative nonfiction
  • Locale: US, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, Atlantic Ocean
  • Time: 1915
  • Read this for an understanding of the US and its place in the world in 1915 told in a captivating way.

Erik Larson occupies a rare place among those writing histories. His books bring the era, events and people to life with a 360-degree view. Like a classically structured Shakespearian play, there is a progression in five acts. In the first, Larson introduces the players in this drama. They include a bereaved President Wilson, the young Winston Churchill, world-class shipbuilders and seamen, newlyweds, seasoned travellers, a woman architect, bankers, booksellers and more. Through his research, Larson has brought together rich gleanings from journals, letters and other archival material as well as the scholarship of others.

By Part II, the story shifts between the Lusitania, the U-boat seeking to destroy it, and the British intelligence office tracking the movements of this dance. As the Lusitania moves towards England the passengers are certain that the British Navy will ensure their safety, unaware that there are political forces interested in using the Lusitania as a pawn to draw the US into the war. At home, President Wilson is coming out of a deep Depression, largely due to Edith Galt entering his life. Much of America wants nothing to do with the war in Europe and sees no role for the US in the conflict.


As in Shakespeare, Part III is the heat of the action and Larson takes the reader inside the U-boat, on the ship and in the war rooms on the day the Lusitania is torpedoed. As he has earlier, Larson includes text of telegrams and logs chronicling the action.

Part IV details the actual impact and the resulting effects. Human stories of those on the Lusitania and those on land who strove to save them. Well-acquainted with many of the passengers and crew, the descriptions of chaos and heroism are compelling.

Part V and the Epilogue deal with the aftermath – those who are blamed and those who actually are responsible.

It is a measure of his talent that many dedicated readers of fiction find Larson’s storytelling more vivid than many favorite novels. Ideal for book discussions, the richness of the cultural landscape he describes is as worthy of conversation as the political and nautical events that are the centerpiece of the book. If you choose this as your first Larson title, I predict it won’t be your last.

Coming to a small screen near you – Part 3 ‘The Boys in the Boat’

Earlier today I saw a news article announcing that PBS’s American Experience will premiere a one-hour documentary, The Boys of ’36, inspired by Daniel James Brown’s history The Boys in the Boat on August 2 at 9 ET. Before the Olympics were professional games, before performance enhancing drugs and huge endorsement deals, the Olympics often involved both politics and pride. This show should be “must see TV” so mark it on your calendar and set the DVR. For more information click here.

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  • Unknown-2The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, (Viking, 2013)
  • In 40 words or less: Traces the University of Washington rowers who captured 1936 Olympic gold despite personal and financial hardships, and East Coast bias. Plan to be schooled in team-building, boat-building, the history of the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany.
  • Genre: History
  • Locale: US (primarily Washington) and Germany
  • Time: 1930s
  • Read this! The narrative is gripping, the language is lyrical and the individual stories grab you.  You will be sorry if you don’t.

The glory of the Olympics has been tarnished in recent years, but the stories of individual and team athletic achievements remain compelling. The U.S. hero of the 1936 Olympics was Jesse Owens. The target of prejudice and singled out beforehand as a target, he beat the best track stars the Third Reich had to offer.

Virtually lost in history (except in Washington), was the extraordinary saga of the University of Washington’s 8 man rowing team. In the middle of the Depression, these sons of loggers and farmers, many of whom had never rowed before, joined the team as a means of pursuing their education.


Since the publication of Daniel James Brown’s book three years ago, the attention on the story of these rowers and the difficulty of their achievement at that time in American history has come to widespread public attention. Until that time, rowing was dominated by the East Coast Ivy League teams, generally made up of the well-to-do. The West Coast, and more particularly, Washington, was deemed a backwater, of little concern to the Eastern Establishment in more than just sports. Brown lays out the extreme difficulty of life during the Depression in the Pacific Northwest.

In following their path to Berlin, which included a train ride through the Dust Bowl, the reader is caught up in multiple elements of U.S. history of that period. As vital to the story is Germany’s plan to use the Olympics to further its political ends. The extensive motion picture propaganda campaign developed for the Olympics was the first of its kind. It is all laid out in the book.

Brown’s presentation will capture even the most reluctant reader of nonfiction. I can’t imagine what it is, but some of the very best narrative nonfiction writing of the last decade has come from the Seattle area, courtesy of Daniel James Brown and Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts and Dead Wake). And for those who’d like to share this incredible story with a younger or reluctant reader, this is an adapted version with abridged language and more manageable length (250 pages versus 400).

Many of you have likely read The Boys in the Boat and shared it with friends, family, and other readers. With the Olympics beginning in a just a few weeks, this is the perfect time to bring this great story to those who may have missed it.

Irène Némirovsky’s Look at Life Between the Wars

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  • UnknownThe 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.