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


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

In ‘Epitaph’ a century-old story has very modern overtones

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • Unknown-5Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (Ecco, 2015) audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber (HarperAudio)
  • In 40 words or less: Masterful research brings the history and people of the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral to life. Vivid descriptions and dialog fill out the political and social history. It will change any assumptions you may have of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Arizona Territory
  • Time: Primarily 1880-1882
  • Read this for a well-written story and a better understanding of the human stories and political dynamics of the Arizona Territory. Today’s Republicans and Democrats have nothing on them.

Only a fool would try to pigeon-hole Mary Doria Russell’s writing style. Her first novel, The Sparrow, captured numerous science fiction awards. A Thread of Grace, a historical novel of the Italian Resistance and the Holocaust was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Epitaph is her second novel about two of the West’s most celebrated figures – Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I’ve been a fan for more than a decade and was not disappointed with Epitaph.

Tombstone, Arizona Territory in the early 1880’s was a bustling town with more than 10,000 people, two newspapers and all the standard businesses of the period. All sides in Post-Civil War politics were well-represented in the Territory, vying for the power to determine the future of its evolving government.

Local politics were very fractious in the counties in the Territory. Winning the position of Sheriff was financially very lucrative, receiving often 10% of taxes collected. And since there often were alliances with assessors, mudslinging and shady deals were not uncommon. Cowboys were a synonym for rustlers and stagecoaches were often targets for robberies. Lawmen often had more than one boss, truly a gun for hire. As Russell lays out the complicated circumstances that led up to the shootout, the politics and shifting business loyalties often put lawmen directly in the line of fire.

Medical science was brought out through Doc Holliday’s ongoing battle with tuberculosis and the slow and painful death of President Garfield, due to infection, after he was shot by Charles Giteau. In the aftermath of the shootout, Holliday, a dentist by training, insisted  over their objections that the doctors use hygienic practices to treat the Earps’ wounds. Alcoholism and laudanum dependence mirror today’s substance abuse issues.  At every step, Russell enriches the understanding of life at that time.

Many stories about the West give women minor roles. Josie (Sadie) Marcus’ left a privileged life in San Francisco’s Jewish community to seek fame and fortune with a theater company,  like her idol Sarah Bernhardt. Achieving minor success, she hitches her star to a political aspirant and moves with him to Tombstone. There she develops a friendship with Doc Holliday and he keeps an eye out for her, recognizing she is in an unhealthy relationship. Josie leaves the unscrupulous philanderer, prostituting herself to make ends meet. Only after many missteps does Wyatt’s and Josie’s  decades-long love story begin. Each of the Earp brothers brought a woman with him when they left Kansas for Arizona. Russell deftly brings out their different interests and temperaments, as she does with each of the brothers.

At every turn, another aspect of the complexity of life at this time is revealed in Epitaph. Interested in the role of gambling or immigrant issues?  It’s there.  Border and political issues with the Mexican government are there, too. The local papers are controlled by competing political groups. Epitaph provides a striking reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A very able narrator, Hillary Huber, read the audiobook as I traveled from Florida back home to the DC area. While her skill and careful differentiation of characters through tone and accent added an extra dimension to the novel, it is Mary Doria Russell’s words and storytelling that carry the day however the book is “read.” In this political crazy season, Epitaph is a perfect book to carry you away while reminding you that change will happen again and again and again.

2017 UPDATED: A Book + Dad + You = A Great Gift

happy-fathers-day-facebook-timeline-cover1When I was growing up, books and reading were always very important. Like many other fathers, my dad spent long hours at work and volunteered in the community.  He read the local newspaper daily but much of his other reading was reports and minutes and quotes and diagrams.

While he still spends lots of time volunteering and reading reports, Dad dedicates time each day to reading for pleasure. An engineer by training and methodical to a fault, his reading tastes are now rather eclectic. Dad reads memoirs and mysteries, histories and titles with a touch of fantasy. His willingness to read outside the box is delightful and gives us many opportunities to talk about topics that otherwise wouldn’t come up.

With my father in mind, here are some titles that your father or another important person in your life might like to receive this Father’s Day. No need to worry about size or color, and there’s no ugly tie involved. Love you Dad!

If you don’t have a local independent bookstore, consider choosing to support one in another community when you shop online. Many will also give advice and take orders over the phone. Find one at Continue reading 2017 UPDATED: A Book + Dad + You = A Great Gift