So many choices for a summer read

Stone fruit, long days, baseball and endless reading choices are some of my summer favorites. Come summer I have less pressure to read books for upcoming discussions and tend to range farther afield in my choices.

Since we do spend time on the road each summer, e-books and audiobooks have a greater presence than when I stick closer to home. The public library is my go-to source for audiobooks that Dan and listen to long trips.  Once you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to download titles that are available for up to 3 weeks. An inexpensive Bluetooth speaker makes it much easier to hear if your car is not so equipped.

We’re hoping to listen to The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, a fact-based novel of Westinghouse, Edison, and Tesla in 1888. Joshua Hammer’s telling of the rescue of Mali’s treasured Islamic and secular manuscripts from impending destruction by Al Qaeda is the narrative of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Mysteries or thrillers can also be a good traveling pick. I’m looking at The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King, the first in a series of Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories. We have also enjoyed John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, and Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927. Any of their books would be fine picks – good readers with easy on the ear accents, engaging narratives that sustain your attention without distracting from the road ahead. Try out a new genre, if you dare.  We loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. A mix of dystopic and classical storytelling, it was a great listen.

Above is a photo of some of the books I hope to read as the summer progresses. A bit of everything, fiction based on fact, memoir, literary fiction and mystery. I’ve listed them all at the end of the post. The plan is to review as many as possible. Some are certain to appear on my book groups lists. If the library waitlist treats me kindly, I’ll also read Daniel Silva’s latest, House of Spies, and  Louise Penny’s Glass Houses.

Right now I’m finishing up Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Toews is an award-winning Canadian novelist. This is a family story of two sisters, Elfrieda, a concert pianist, and her sister, who has a more well-rounded life despite some poor decisions. I’ve been listening to Behold the Dreamers since before it became one of Oprah’s Book Club picks. It is Imbolo Mbue’s story of two families, one in the 1% but with many problems money cannot solve, the other an immigrant family desperate to stay in the U.S. with the father working as the driver for the wealthy family. Set in New York where spectacular wealth and barely-scraping-by live barely a few miles apart.

Before I forget, plan to stop at local bookstores while you are visiting new places. Yesterday I picked up Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in narrative form while at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. There are knowledgeable booksellers in independent bookstores just about everywhere. Invest in the future of the book. Patronize these shops wherever you find them. IndieBound is one good source to scout them out.

Finally, what have I finished already? Anita Shreve’s The Stars Are Fire, Joanna Trollope’s City of Friends, Charles Todd’s A Casualty of War, Bianca Marais’s Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow and Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend. All would be fine choices to pack in your carry-on and those I have reviewed are linked.

Titles Pictured Above

  • Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif
  • Celine by Peter Heller
  • The Leavers by Lisa Ko
  • The Golden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang
  • The World Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
  • The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling

 

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Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share with friends.

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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.

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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.