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.

‘Bertrand Court’ reveals the extraordinary in everyday life

  • UnknownBertrand Court by Michelle Brafman (Prospect Park Books, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Seventeen stories connected through a cul-de-sac in the Washington area show that familial ties can bind or chafe, lovers connections can linger, and everyone has fragile moments. Brafman has a wonderful grasp of the inner voices of her characters.
  • Genre: Fiction, short stories
  • Locale: Washington DC area
  • Time: 1970 – 2000s
  • Read this for well-crafted stories of the extraordinary elements of everyday life. Perfect to savor in small bites.

One of the most difficult things an author can do is make the commonplace events of daily life compelling.  In Michelle Brafman’s new collection, Bertrand Court, families and friends, colleagues and lovers reveal and conceal themselves in the Washington suburbs. Although some of the people in these stories have careers that are very Washington, the underlying circumstances and insecurities of their personal lives are much more universal.

Brafman tackles the long-simmering jealousies between aging sisters, and couples trying to hide their financial reversals from family and friends. There are those blessed with children and others not as fortunate. Some find a spiritual home in organized religion and one woman wishes for that to fill a hole that her family’s wealth could not satisfy. Husbands question their wives’ choices and vice versa and the children must be shielded, regardless.

While most of the stories need not be connected, it is the periodic convergence of friends and families in Bertrand Court that brings the collection together. Whether it is a birthday party or a (non) book group night, the connection is what counts. No matter how perfect anyone’s life may seem, the stories serve as a reminder that the human condition is fragile and that it’s not the errors or self-doubt that define someone but rather what happens next.

‘The UnAmericans’ deserves your attention

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  • Unknown-2The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: In eight stories, Antopol crosses continents and decades bringing together politics, love, longing and the human condition.
  • Genre: Short stories
  • Locale: Various
  • Time: Various
  • Read this to experience the richness of an excellent collection of short stories.

I admit it.  It took far too long for me to pick up Molly Antopol’s extraordinary collection of stories. From the opening sentences, each story in the UnAmericans drops the reader into a distinct location and time. Throughout the collection, Antopol brings in elements gleaned from her family’s Eastern European experience and their leftist leanings when they arrived in the U.S. Several stories in the collection take place in Israel, each depicting very different family situations.  The precision with which she creates the wide range of settings is extraordinary in writings of this length.

The first story, The Old World, brings together a lonely dry cleaner and a woman longing for her life in Ukraine before Chernobyl. Antopol deftly weaves in each character’s backstory, bringing in the disapproving daughter and son-in-law to underscore the businessman’s vulnerability.imgres

Both The Quietest Man and The Unknown Soldier are twists on the classic theme of divorced fathers seeking to elevate themselves in their child’s eyes. The Unknown Soldier is set as an actor-father leaves prison, having been jailed as a result of the McCarthy hearings. His celebratory road trip with his son does not go as planned, each wanting it to be the other’s trip of a lifetime. In The Quietest Man, a young woman has sold her first play. Long divorced, she has spent little time with her father over the years. Her parents were Czech activists and her father was a celebrated lecturer on their arrival in the U.S. While in the spotlight he neglected his family. Over the years, as new world crises arose, his fame declined. Now her father brings her for a visit seeking reassurance that his image isn’t tarnished in her writings.

With all the different timeframes and settings, there are recurring themes throughout the book. Family is key. Standing up for your beliefs should be lauded, fakery punished. Love isn’t always what it seems. It is how these themes are revealed that differentiates Molly Antopol from most other writers. Antopol was recognized by the National Book Foundation as “5 Under 35” author for this book. She won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and finalist for numerous other awards. The UnAmericans appeared on more than a dozen “Best of” lists in 2014. My only criticism is I enjoyed the stories so much that I rushed to read through them rather than taking more time to savor each one.



So many choices for so many reasons

Who knew? May is short story month. Even the most casual reader likely has noticed the appearance of short story collections on various bestseller lists and Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 7.39.59 PMindividual stories offered up as e-book exclusives. Alice Munro, a specialist in the genre, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature for the body of her work. Publishers are bringing out new compilations from classic short story writers, for example, Let Me Tell You, a new collection of short stories, essays and other writings by Shirley Jackson, was published last year on the 50th anniversary of her death.

If you aren’t already reading or listening to short stories, you really should give them a try. A small collection, by a single author or many, easily fits into whatever tote, briefcase or bag you may carry. And while War and Peace is ill-suited for reading on your phone, short stories are the perfect small bite when you just want to read NOW or while waiting at the MVA, or the doctor’s office, or the train station, or…. you get the idea. Some are even available as audiobooks.

Many find reading short stories different from reading a novel.  The author must set the stage, flesh out the characters and reveal the plot in a few short pages. The ending must be clear, even if intended as a cliffhanger. Some authors have characters reappear throughout a collection, or link the stories through locale or theme. While it is a different experience, it is a fine way to get a feel for an unfamiliar author.

Podcasts are a fine way to listen to a variety of authors and readers. One of the Unknownbest known is Selected Shorts from PRI. Each week, some of the finest actors in American theater read two or more stories during the hour-long podcast. The stories may be by the same author or connected thematically. For those unfamiliar with podcasts, click above to test it out. You may hear an old favorite or discover a new author to add to your reading list.

Neil Gaiman, a writing juggernaut for all ages and genres, has a variety of his stories available in audio and electronic versions at no charge at  Another favorite source of unexpected short stories is One Story, a nonprofit organization that publishes and promotes the short story and authors who write them.  Subscriptions are available in print (pocket-sized) or for the Kindle or iOS device. A perfect small bite delivered every few weeks, in your preferred format.

Independent bookstores are great resources for all things book. Powell’s in Portland, OR, has put together a list of short story titles from some of the greatest authors, from James Joyce to Jhumpa Lahiri to Etgar Keret and David Foster Wallace. There is something for almost every taste.

Having taken the opportunity to highlight the genre, watch for reviews of several short story collections in the next few months.