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.

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

‘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.

My to-be-read list is summer ready!

Ahhhh! Even if your student days are far in the rearview mirror, somehow summer has its own unique rhythm. Now’s the time to change your reading horizons in all sorts of ways. Grab a book and head to a park bench at lunchtime – your desk can manage without you. Try out an audiobook for that road trip. Negotiating a title with your fellow passengers may introduce you to an author or genre you’d never have selected on your own.

For me, summer is the time to queue up books that take me to another place and imgres-2time. Last summer, two particular titles really fit the bill. The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows’ novel of small-town West Virginia in the summer of 1938, just out in paperback, has an enticing combination of family drama, labor unrest and explication of the New Deal program that brought writers to small communities across the country to preserve their histories.

In The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck brings the reader along as he and his brother follow the trail from imgres-3Missouri to Oregon using equipment and tools of 150 years ago. Buck, a seasoned journalist in the midst of a personal crisis, decides this is just the change he needs. As a child, he and his siblings were taken on unusual journeys by their father, an accomplished, loving but difficult man. Needing another skilled horseman for the trip, Buck invited his brother who was dealing with physical and emotional problems of his own. Not particularly close since childhood, the extraordinary physical challenge of the undertaking tested and strengthened their relationship.

Page after page, the reader joins them on the trail, often within spitting distance of 18-wheelers. Along the way they take meals and spend the night with locals in small towns across the route; on farms, in dying communities set aside after an interstate usurped their role as staging point or provisioners. They meet old-fashioned craftspeople that keep their rig going when repairs are beyond their skill. Weather, rough terrain, exhaustion, and injuries leave them minutes from abandoning the quest. It was a joy to accompany them from the air-conditioned comfort of my home!

So what’s on the list for this summer? First up, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, ChrisUnknown-5 Cleave’s latest about Europe in 1939. Mary North takes on the task of teaching students that were not accepted in homes in the countryside as most children were sent for safety from London. Tom, charged with supervising the school, and Alistair, Tom’s best friend now serving as a military officer, both fall for Mary.

On a more serious note, Tribe, Sebastian Junger’s Unknown-4assessment of the damage we have brought on ourselves by loosening the communal bonds of society. He contends that combat veterans overcome their fears and insist on returning to their units after injuries because of the tribal ties they create.  Junger suggests it is the breaking of these bonds that fuels PTSD.

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, 2012 National Book Unknown-2Award winner, is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Her latest, La Rose, is another family-centered novel of contemporary Native American life with a storyline drawn from tragedy.  Erdrich brings a unique perspective to the complexity of the tribal and state justice systems. Snagging a copy of La Rose at the library was a real coup!

Another Louise is near the top of my TBR pile. Louise Penny has created the  magical hamlet of Three Pines in Quebec. Unknown-3With an assortment of quirky locals, poor internet and cell coverage, a cafe, bookstore, and a B and B, it is the perfect retreat except for the occasional murder. Chief Inspector Gamache is the warm, intuitive yet analytical detective who uncovers the culprits and the underlying stories. Through the course of the Three Pines series, his wife and his second (now his son-in-law as well) add a comfortable and familial tenor to the stories.

Now that I’ve shared the top of my pile, I hope you’ll do the same. Please go to the bottom of this post (on the website) and click on COMMENTS so that I (and others) can see what you are reading.  I’ll keep sharing if you will!

Authors on the importance of writing and the worlds they create – Book Expo Part 2

After a day of travel and 5 miles on the conference floor, it took some energy to arrive back at McCormick Place in time for the 8 am Adult Book & Author Breakfast. I am so glad I did.

One lesson learned – humor that may fly at 8 pm with a glass of wine can fall flat at 8 am when the caffeine has yet to do its job.  Faith Salie,  a TV and radio journalist, and panelist on “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”, hosted the event and spoke first about her humorous memoir Approval Junkie. Her opening monolog was a mix of  intentionally bad publishing jokes and one-liners about her pursuit of a baby-daddy as she reached forty. When she finally segued to the importance of reading and writing throughout her life, Salie set the tone for the serious content to follow.

Colson Whitehead spoke next about The Underground Railroad, his upcoming novel that imagines this path to freedom as a physical railway traversing the country. It’s a book he’s been imagining for years and finally put to paper.  He described his journey, from a lowly staffer at The Village Voice more than two decades ago. And he told of how he “giggle-tested” the story line to see if the project was worth pursuing. In The Underground Railroad Whitehead confronts the issues and danger of that time in a story that may remind readers of Swift’s writings. I can’t wait to read my copy.

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I’ve been a huge Louise Penny fan for years. Her books are one of my go-to choices when I need to refresh my reading palate. A Great Reckoning is Penny’s latest mystery about the small village of Three Pines and Armand Gamache. She spoke about her childhood and the magic of books, showing her that anything was possible and that bravery, strength, and love could be found within. She shared that Gamache has been modeled on her husband, the former head of hematology at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital, a very caring man who had to see patients and their parents under the worst of circumstances. And then she told that over the last three years the husband she has known for decades has suffered from severe dementia, unable to walk, speak or recognize her. Each day begins with her reminding him he is strong, brave, handsome and loved. Louise Penny is clearly all those things as well.

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Were this not enough, the final author on the panel was Sebastian Junger. He came to fame most almost twenty years ago after writing A Perfect Storm. In 2010, his war documentary, Restrepo, about a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan came to the screen with widespread acclaim and awards. Out of this began a further study into PTSD, the importance of connections and belonging, the result of which is Tribe. The subject and his conclusions should bring about many conversations in the coming months.

It was a very good morning – informative and thought-provoking. From the four, I have literary fiction, mystery, nonfiction, and humor choices for any particular mood. And as I read them, I’ll keep you posted!