Fifteen Years of Great Books

June 2018 marks the end of my fifteenth year of writing a monthly “Reader’s Choice” book review column for “The Town Courier.” (Yes, I was quite young when I started...) Reading back over them, I marvel at the terrific books this new century has brought. Just for fun, I picked my favorite book of each year for anyone who might want reading suggestions. This list also holds several of my all-time favorite books, each marked with an asterisk. Enjoy!

2018 “A Gentleman in Moscow” * by Amor Towles
Delightful novel of a Duke confined.

2017 “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” * by Gail Honeyman
Good days, bad days and better days.

2016 “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi
Sometimes death teaches us about life.

2015 “We Are Not Ourselves”
by Matthew Thomas
A wife’s world shifts seismically when...

2014 “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
A chilling, but dazzling, historical novel.

2013 “The Burgess Boys”
by Elizabeth Strout
Better than her Pulitzer-Prize winner!

2012 “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” * by Rachel Joyce                                                                Simple, fun-to-read, yet powerful novel

2011 “The Paris Wife”
by Paula McLain
A trip to Paris’ Left Bank in the 1920’s.

2010 “The Art of Racing in the Rain” * by Garth Stein
A wise old dog narrates this tear-jerker.

2009 “The Thirteenth Tale”
by Diane Setterfield
Filled with surprises and revelations.

2008 “The Uncommon Reader”
by Alan Bennett
A gem about the Queen’s new addiction.

2007 “The Glass Castle” *
by Jeannette Walls
All-time top memoir of kooky parenting.

2006 “I Feel Bad About My Neck” by Nora Ephron
Laugh-out-loud stories about aging.

2005 “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon                                                Protagonist Christopher tells it like it is.

2004 “The Time Traveler’s Wife”
by Audrey Niffenegger
You think YOU have problems with hubby.

2003 “A Year of Wonders”
by Geraldine Brooks
Yes, reading about a plague can be satisfying!

All book reviews from 2010 on can be found here. I look forward to sharing info about good books I read in coming issues of The Town Courier, yet I’ll no longer be writing a monthly column.

"Before We Were Yours" by Lisa Wingate

Two storylines vie for our attention in Lisa Wingate’s hugely popular novel, “Before We Were Yours” (2017). One takes place in 1939 on the shores of the Mississippi River in Tennessee where a twelve-year-old girl, Rill Foss, and her four younger siblings are taken from their houseboat by men who identify as police. The children have been left alone because their mother is having a difficult birth and her father has gone to a hospital with her, so they believe they’ll be taken to the hospital where their parents are. Instead, they are dropped off at a children’s home where it soon becomes clear that the woman in charge, Miss Tann, has other plans for them.

The alternating storyline plays out in present day South Carolina, where Avery Stafford, a practicing attorney, has taken a leave-of-absence from her job in order to help her father, a busy congressman who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer. Avery is being groomed to follow in his footsteps, and she dives in to support her father in his public appearances. The marriage that she and her fiancé Elliot had intended to plan is noticeably pushed aside.

The link between the two stories appears early, in the form of an elderly woman, May Crandall, whom Avery meets at one of her father’s appearances at a nursing home. In an alert moment, May mistakes Avery for her deceased sister Fern. Avery becomes increasingly interested in May and her story when she sees a faded old photo of May with her own grandmother Judy in it.

This story is sometimes hard to read, as readers watch the children being taken from their families, mistreated where they are warehoused, and, only if they are lucky, sent to live with new families who have paid for them. It is harder still to accept that this is based on the true story of Georgia Tann and her Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis where, for thirty years, children who were often abducted were sold to wealthy couples who yearned for a child of their own. Wingate says that the Foss children were a figment of her imagination, but their abduction, their experiences in the children’s home—cruel treatment, sexual abuse, punishment, even death—come from true stories of children she uncovered in her thorough research.

Wingate connects the two stories seamlessly, making it a compelling read and a perfect choice for book clubs. I highly recommend it.

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

I could have never imagined that a work of fiction existed that would inspire me to read more Russian history. I have found it, though, in “A Gentleman in Moscow” (2017), the fascinating and touching novel of American writer, Amor Towles. His first novel, “Rules of Civility,” was also an award-winning bestseller.

It’s 1922 and the Bolsheviks have taken over. At the close of his trial, Count Alexander Rostov has avoided the firing squad or Siberia through a combination of connections and charm. Instead, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, the plush Moscow hotel across from the Kremlin where he had lived as a student and wrote the anti-revolution poem that made him suspect. Their message to him is clear—step outside, and you will be shot.

And, here you have it in a nutshell: a substantial novel, covering decades of one man’s life that takes place in one building. But don’t despair, readers. Towles shows us from the start that he will make us smile, and care deeply for this man we will follow. At the trial that opens the story, the Count is questioned about whether he left his second home in Paris and returned to Moscow to take up arms against the Revolution. No, “those days are behind me,” he tells them. “I missed the weather.”

Aside from the intelligent and witty Count, Towles has filled his story with delightful characters. Towles says in interviews that, as he wrote, the hotel kept opening up to him, just as it did for the Count. His protagonist befriends another permanent resident. Towles says, “For the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide…Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil…. “In the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova.” He has met his match in this bright, verbal child.

A willowy, auburn-haired actress Anna Urbanova, is a returning guest, very much welcomed by the Count. The chemistry between them grows as wine is consumed, and over the years their relationship changes in surprising ways. Emile the cook, and his sous chef Andrey become the Count’s best friends, and, also, his colleagues, when the Count takes on the job of head waiter.

Virtually everything in the Count’s world becomes a character—the miniscule room he inhabits, the aged wine he has stowed there, the hotel cat who monitors his comings and goings, and especially, the luxurious Metropol itself (an actual Moscow hotel built in the same mold as other grand hotels constructed around the world at the turn of the century).

This rich novel might require one to occasionally stretch the imagination, but the joy of becoming immersed in the Count’s world and his rich thoughts is certainly worth it. I say without hyperbole, it is one of my all-time favorite books, and I recommend it without reservation.

"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney

Grab your coat and come take a walk through the streets of lower Manhattan with a witty, outspoken, fun-loving and still curious octogenarian in “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” (2017). It's New Year's Eve 1984 when 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish leaves her Murray Hill apartment to take a looping walk downtown to a Chelsea party given by a young artist she has befriended.

Lillian is not just any old-timer. For many years, she was the highest paid woman in advertising in the world through her job as an ad copywriter at Macy's. The slogans and catchy poems that she published brought her into the limelight, and her super-active social life was fodder for the gossip columns. But now that she's in her ninth decade, there are only two activities that bring her joy—reviewing the choices she made in her life and walking the streets of Manhattan observing others’ lives.

These are also the things that will bring joy to the readers of Kathleen Rooney's wonderful novel. Rooney's fictional character is based on Margaret Fishback, the real Macy's advertising superstar of the 1930s. Through a friend, Rooney was privy to Fishback’s papers, journals, and out-of-print books when they were released to the public, and she realized what an electric personality she was discovering. She set out to create a fictional character, using the real advertising standout as inspiration, and using a walk on the last evening of 1985 as a way get to show us there were gutsy women in the early 20th century who were willing to break the mold.

Lillian insists on walking the long distance alone, though others attempt to convince her otherwise, through the threatening neighborhoods late into the night. Along the way, Lillian chats up strangers she comes across. She comforts a nervous, young security guard on patrol by the river. She outsmarts a trio of petty thieves who threateningly demand $5. She gives a sizable tip to a teenage clerk in a bodega who’s filling in all night for his immigrant parents.

Were the story simply about Lillian meandering through Manhattan, it would be a fun and satisfying read. But Rooney fleshes out a full character. One who proclaimed she would never be just a housewife and mother but finds a man who makes her heart sing and then loses him. One whose high-living takes an enormous toll on her mental health. One who finds deep friendships that last a lifetime or just a few minutes.

I loved this book and can guarantee that Lillian Boxfish will be with me for a long time.

"Lilac Girls" by Martha Hall Kelly

The cover of “Lilac Girls” (2017), showing three young women dressed in mid-20th century style, suggests they are chatting as they stroll about…what? Romance? Adventure? Where to have tea? Yet, readers do not have to delve very far into this novel before learning the characters within have much more critical things to deal with.

Martha Hall Kelly’s breakout novel spans twenty years in the darkest period of modern European history, those from 1939 to 1959, from the point of view of three young women. The stories of these women, whose lives were irreparably changed by the cataclysm of the Nazi regime, are woven through the book. Caroline Ferriday is a wealthy socialite, volunteering in New York City at the French Consulate, when her work becomes frenetic as she struggles to help French refugees. Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager in Lublin, Poland with boyfriend problems, when a careless delivery—her first for the underground—results in her and her mother being crammed onto a train headed to the East German concentration camp Ravensbruck. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor from Dusseldorf, who begins as a counselor at a camp run by the female wing of the Nazi Party and accepts a position as the only female doctor at Ravensbruck.

Within the novel, Caroline’s involvement as an American working to aid those fleeing from Europe, becomes the positive energy of the book that holds it together. As you might imagine, the stories of Kasia, as a prisoner in the camp, and Herta, as a doctor there who is required to act as directed, involve horrors that are sometimes difficult to read.

Kelly reports in her Author’s Note that her book in based on real people. As a New Englander, she once visited the Connecticut home of Caroline Ferriday’s family and found a treasure trove of information about Caroline’s work which extended long after the war. She learned that this socialite volunteer became an advocate for a group of young women, the real Kasia being one, who were experimentally and brutally operated on during the years they were confined in Ravensbruck camp. Ms. Ferriday worked unceasingly to make the post-war lives of the women, labeled “Rabbits,” better by raising money and arranging to bring them to the United States for medical treatment, respite care, and even some sightseeing.

“Lilac Girls” is a prime example of the kind of beautifully crafted and important historical novel that sheds light on a time, however disturbing, that we should not forget.

 

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

It’s hard to pass up a book that was the National Book Award AND Pulitzer Prize winner in 2016, but having read enough about Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad’ to know it was not an easy read, I hesitated picking it up. I’m sure glad I eventually did. Yes, the overriding theme is the unimaginable hardship of a slave’s life and the atrocity of treatment towards them, but it is a unique and important work about that shameful period of American History.

Whitehead tells interviewers that when he decided, many years ago, to write a novel about slavery in the South during the mid-1800’s, he read some of the thousands of slave narratives that had been collected by the government’s WPA program in the 1930’s. Those accounts, he reports, were very “matter of fact” about their daily life. His goal became to create the most complete, vivid, and truthful picture in existence of what life was like for a slave.

Readers follow Cora, a young slave in Georgia, who runs away from the cotton plantation that was the only home she knew with a man who had begged her to escape with him. They head toward the swampy “black waters,” their only hope to hide, as they make their way to the house of Mr. Fletcher, the white man Cora’s companion Caesar had heard about.  Caesar had been promised the man would help them move on northward and eventually to freedom. Fletcher was from Pennsylvania and “abhorred slavery as an affront before God.” He is the first of several helpers on the underground railroad. They are the true heroes of the book, risking their lives to help free the captives.

Here Whitehead plays with the term “underground railroad.” He admits being disappointed as a child to learn it was only a figurative term. So, Cora’s escape route connects her with “agents” who take her to actual rails dug deep in the southern soil with an awaiting train. Without any detail to disturb the image, Whitehead allows her to move to a different state where another helper is ready to receive, hide and feed her until it is time to move to the next stop.

Another plot device Whitehead uses is arbitrarily assigning to each state where Cora lands a different approach to dealing with the growing population of black men and women. Cora is told by her protector that South Carolina is a state where they are more forward thinking and where many former slaves are freemen. In contrast, Cora hears that North Carolina clings to old ways and any black man or woman seen walking around can be stopped, charged, punished, jailed or returned to his owner

This singular, award-winning novel is a must-read to put perspective on today’s lingering racial issues, be they on the football field or city streets. Highly recommended.

"Little Fires Everywhere"

If you pick up this new arrival to the world of fiction, you better clear your schedule for the next day or two; it is one compelling story! Celeste Ng’s (pronounced “ing”) first book, “Everything I Never Told You,” was a surprising bestseller, but she has topped it with her sizzling second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere.”

The setting is Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 1990’s, the upper-middle class town where Ng grew up during those years. She tells interviewers she loved the planned community and wanted to use it as a setting—the dream of a suburban utopia, its rules and regulations, the concern about aesthetics and order, yet also, its openness to diversity. She reports she wanted to imagine a family that was heavily invested in the values of the community and “throw a flame” into their lives to see how people who have the best intentions may not be aware of their blind spots or prejudices.

The book begins and ends on the same day—the morning a massive fire destroys the home of the Richardson family. They watch in shock from the street—Mr. and Mrs. Richardson and their children, Lexie (a high school senior, who’s hopefully Ivy League bound), Trip (a junior, who’s a good-looking athlete), and Moody (a shy sophomore with a crush on Pearl, a newcomer to town). The only family member not present at the destruction of their house is Izzy (a petulant, independent freshman), who, everyone knows, has started the conflagration. Through the smoke, they see Mia, their artsy renter, drive up and slip her keys to their rental property into the mailbox, before driving away with a packed car and her daughter Pearl.

The storylines that flesh out the history of these neighbors are complex and spellbinding. Despite their different personalities the teenagers have become the kind of friends who gravitate toward each other, and automatically head to the empty Richardson house each day after school to watch “Jerry Springer” and trade barbs. Pearl, the bright but quiet newcomer to town, is thrilled to be welcomed into this privileged group after coming from an impoverished and nomadic childhood with her struggling-artist mother.

Everyone in town takes sides when two other mothers—a Chinese immigrant who works with Pearl’s mother Mia and a wealthy, lifelong resident who’s a close friend of Elena—are pitted against one another in a court battle over custody of a little girl. That is where the orderly life in Shaker Heights becomes undone, and it’s every reader’s guess at how the story will end. Don’t miss this great new work.

"A Piece of the World" by Christina Baker Kline

 The cover shows a landscape with an unsettled sky and a lush, grassy hill with a simple, old clapboard house at the top, the kind that has housed children, their parents and grandparents over generations. For many, it will strongly suggest the setting of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World.”  But where is Christina, the woman he shows uneasily stretched out in that field?

Christina Baker Kline chose to create the story of the woman depicted by the masterful painter in her fifth novel, “A Piece of the World.” Kline developed a fascination with Christina Olson, who shares her birthplace of Maine as well as her name, and with the story of the woman’s friendship with the celebrated Pennsylvania painter starting in the 1940’s. Kline’s thorough research of Christina’s family, Wyeth’s art, and his life filled in only some of the blanks, so she used her knowledge of the post-war period in America, gained through writing the bestselling “Orphan Train”, and her imagination to give depth to Christina’s life.

Readers follow Christina as a young woman who bears the burden of a body that doesn’t work right, due to a serious genetic condition that surfaced in childhood, causing the lower half of her body to be twisted. She is a loner who has few close friends and over the decades she lives a quiet life in the family house with her bachelor brother Al. Wyeth drops into her life one summer when she is close to fifty. It starts with his knock on the door and his brisk look through the house, before he lays claim on an unused upstairs room as his summertime studio. He returns year after year as a welcome interruption to her colorless life.

The beauty of this book lies in Kline’s subtle handling of the ebb and flow of the life that Christina has chosen for herself: to stay with her brother in the rundown, family home, lacking electricity and running water that screams out for upkeep and repair. With simple yet beautiful language, she conveys the dedication the two siblings have for one another that is never acknowledged. There are long periods of silence and occasional reprimands, but the depth of their affinity for one another is palpable.

The relationship Christina has with Wyeth is also subtly yet strongly shown. She is a generation older than Andy, whom she sees as a quirky, impassioned man who asks for nothing from her but an upstairs room each day, some home cooking, and space for his moodiness and solitude. Kline delicately reminds us how love can come in different ways.

For a story in which life is so hard for the characters, it is a marvel that Kline shows us that in the bleak simplicity of Christina’s world, the important things in one’s life are more easily seen. Her novel is a beautifully imagined picture of one woman’s life.

"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

When you pick up a book titled “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine,” you know you are not getting another “Pride and Prejudice” or “The Sun Also Rises.” Yet, there is a quality about Gail Honeyman’s 2017 debut novel that left me certain we will be hearing about this wonderful, one-of-a-kind book for a long time. I find myself wondering how to describe it to you. Should I put it in the category of a humor book (though it’s often dark), or an inspirational book, a psychological thriller, feel-good story, mystery or what? It happens to be all of the above.

Thirty-one-year-old Eleanor is a quintessential loner in Glasgow who works in the accounts department of a design firm. She finds her artsy colleagues childish and ignorant and makes no effort to hide it. (They find her eccentric and laughable.) She leads a life of unshakable routine—at her job by 8:30 each day, particular dinners for each evening in her apartment, then hours watching the telly, usually with one or two bottles of vodka for company. The only change in her routine comes on Wednesday evenings when her mother calls from an unidentified place. Her foul-mouthed, cruel mother—“the pretty face of evil”—has been locked up somewhere for a crime that becomes clearer with time.

The energy of the story comes from what Eleanor tells us is the first day of the rest of her life. She won tickets in a charity raffle to the performance of a local band, and the moment the lead singer walked onto stage, Eleanor knew he was the one who was perfect for her, would please her mother, and turn her life in another direction. It’s clear to us that notion is ridiculous (we know him only through several of his Tweets), but it starts Eleanor on a path of self-improvement. We see it begin when Raymond, a disheveled, young tech guy in the office fixes Eleanor’s computer and a friendship begins.

Honeyman quietly hints at the fact that the change in Eleanor’s life will be treated with some depth by dividing the book into three sections—Good Days, Bad Days, and Better Days. You see, Eleanor has a massive scar on her face, and Honeyman treats readers, as well, to a sensitively-handled psychological exploration of the scars on Eleanor’s heart. Honeyman has written a heavy, but uplifting, human interest story with laugh-out-loud moments. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

"The Light of Paris" by Eleanor Brown

Though I might be yearning for a trip to Paris this summer, I have opted to take only a literary one, allowing Eleanor Brown’s newest novel, “The Light of Paris” (2016) to take me there. As a bonus, it is Paris of the Jazz Age, when the cafés of the Left Bank were buzzing with the creative energy of artists, writers, and free-thinkers, and love was in the air.

Yet Brown’s story is narrated by Madeleine, an unfulfilled Chicago housewife, during 1999, the year her world is turning upside down. She tells us at the start, “I didn’t set out to lose myself. No one does, really.” Madeleine has been functioning for years as a model wife and social bee around town but is becoming deeply aware of how wrong this existence is for her. She understands she is living the life ordained by her mother, and now, by her judgmental husband Philip, an ambitious attorney, and she can no longer abide his demanding ways and pressure to have children “because that’s what people do.”

One evening, when Phillip threatens divorce, tossing out scathing insults, Madeleine throws her things in a suitcase and drives south to her home town, ostensibly to help her mother organize a move out of the big house she grew up in. Going through boxes in the attic, she finds her grandmother Maggie’s diaries, written during her stay in Paris in the 1920s. She reads that Maggie’s “coming out” at her debutante ball is a disaster, not the beginning of the life—a man, marriage, and children—that everyone expects for her. Since Maggie isn’t swept up by a suitor, her family encourages her to chaperone a younger cousin on a trip to Paris, but there, the young woman runs off with a lively group of friends she made on the boat, leaving Maggie alone.

In alternating chapters, we watch Madeleine and Maggie have their different journeys as women. Madeleine in current times reconnects with the artistic energy she had as a girl, long buried in the life she’s been expected to lead. Ignoring the still-critical eye of her mother, she finds new friendships, joy, and purpose in the middle of life. Her grandmother Maggie experiences the gift of independence, satisfying work, and love early in life before returning home to the demands placed on her by marriage and a family.

The light of Paris that streams through this lovely story turns out to show itself as the joy that comes with finding out what you really want in your life.

“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren announces at the start of her award-winning memoir “Lab Girl” (2016) that “people are like plants; they grow towards the light.” As she rolls out the story of her rural Minnesota childhood, we understand how she chose science as her path, as the safe place to be. She had a “deep orphan-pain” from her repressed mother and the “silent togetherness” of her Swedish-American family. The joy in her childhood came every day after school, when she went to the college where her father taught, and, for hours, the two of them prepared the experiments, demonstrations and equipment for the following days classes. In the silence of the building, “he was the king and she was the prince.”

Jahren was praised as a schoolgirl for her performance in the sciences, yet during college and graduate work, she was shocked by the demeaning treatment she received as a female from the male biologists, often overhearing crude comments about her gender through the office walls. She now views that consciousness as an opportunity—since no one really knew what a female scientist is, she made it up as she went along.

Toward the end of her PhD work as an assistant in undergrad courses, she identified a disheveled loner named Bill as being exceptionally bright and determined. Something in the energy and curiosity of this oddball clicked with Hope, and Bill became her right-hand man from then on. Throughout the early years, she found small lab spaces in which to work, Bill literally camped out in corners at night, and the two fueled each other with energy and creativity in their research. Their verbal sparring frequently lifts the story to hilarious heights.

Jahren scatters specific information about the trees and plants, seeds and roots she studies amongst the events of her life. These breaks, though sometimes hard for the layman to follow, contain fascinating information about plant life around us. They bring a special richness to the book, as well, by their hint at how much all we living things have in common.

Jahren succeeded in becoming a true scientist—one who develops her own experiments rather than conducts those of others—and thereby, becomes one who “generates wholly new knowledge.”  Yet this type of science, which is sometimes called “curiosity-driven research.” only exists when it’s funded by NSF, so a life of science means a life of constant worry about money. Readers know that Jahren hopes we voters are listening carefully.

After only a chapter or two, I started identifying girls or young woman I knew who might be inspired by this engaging memoir. With Jahren’s warning that trees are being wiped from the earth and we are in big trouble, I am hoping that there are a lot more budding scientists out there, ready to dig in.

"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout has done it again. She has written still another novel that deserves all the attention a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author (for “Olive Kitteridge”) automatically gets. “Anything is Possible” (2017) is her stunning new book, categorized as a novel, but one that reads like a collection of short stories, peopled by folks in and around Amgash, Illinois. You have a head start if you’ve read Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton,” since Lucy and her family have a presence here as well. The Bartons were a poor, struggling family in Amgash before Lucy headed off to college and then to New York City where she is a writer. She is only featured in one story, but referred to periodically when someone reports about seeing her on TV or travels to attend a bookstore reading.

Strout’s gift as a writer comes not only from her seamlessly flowing narrative but also from her keen observation of people—how they speak, what they hold back, what they notice. Dottie, who runs a Bed and Breakfast, observes that one of her guests, Shelly, who bragged about the McMansion they had built, but was embarrassed about others’ criticism, “suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be. Shelly had taken life’s disappointments and turned them into a house.”

The stories are filled with shocking secrets and revelations. With kindness and indifference. With change and refusal to change. One of Lucy’s friends’ mother has a long affair with their Spanish teacher. The husband of a shop owner returned from Vietnam and is never able to live with himself. A farmer loses everything when a raging fire destroys his property and becomes a school janitor who treats the neediest children with such tenderness. For the first time in years, Lucy visits her brother Pete who lives in squalor in their childhood home, and he scrubs away years of filth to make it nice for the sister he’s so proud of.

In a delightfully poignant chapter, “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina visits her almost eighty-year-old mother who lives with her new sixty-something Italian husband, in an apartment on the Mediterranean. She cannot hide her disdain for her mother’s decision to leave her old life and her family (and proudly wear a yellow string bikini). Justifying her decision, Mary says, “Look what Paolo’s done for me, honey. He downloaded all of Elvis’s songs onto my phone.” But in the quiet midnight moments as she reconnects with the sadness she’s brought to her daughter, she asks herself, “Who leaves a marriage after fifty-one years?” But the answer comes to her, and she knows her daughter could never understand “what it had been like to be so famished. Almost fifty years of being parched.”

As a conscientious book reviewer, I jotted down every character’s name and relationship to the others, reviewing it with each following chapter to keep the connections straight. Yet appreciating this wonderful book doesn’t require that. It asks us only to consider what might be hiding below the surface in their lives, and our lives, where anything is possible.

"Vinegar Girl" by Anne Tyler

 If this review were for The New York Times, I’d surely have been reading Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” (2016) with a keen eye on noting similarities and differences to the original work, since it is based on Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Shrew.” Luckily I could just sit back and enjoy the playful writing of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author. My days with Shakespeare are a distant memory, but Hogarth Press wants to keep them alive. Five years ago, the publisher began the project of asking top-notch, contemporary writers to reimagine one of Shakespeare's plays in modern times. Several are already out, including Margaret Atwood’s retelling of “The Tempest” and Tracy Chevalier’s nod to “Othello.”

Present-day Kate Battista is a twenty-nine-year-old assistant in a Baltimore nursery school. She lives with her widowed father Louis, a disheveled scientist who works long hours in his lab, and her pretty, self-centered, fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Tyler shows us immediately what a prickly person Kate is—she says whatever is on her mind, curses inappropriately, has no respect for authority, and doesn't even seem to like kids. Yet Kate's mother had died shortly after her sister's birth, so for the last fifteen years, she has managed the household, taken care of her preoccupied father, and raised her sister. Crabbiness about her lot in life is quite understandable.

The only hint of social interest we see in Kate is her softening around Adam, another assistant teacher who is known for the homemade dream-catchers he gifts to all the women. It is Kate’s father who advances her social life. One day he brings home from the lab his fellow microbiologist, Pyotr Cherbakov, and along with his introduction comes a plan he lays out to his daughter with no apology. He proposes that Kate marry the brilliant assistant, who has an expiring green card, to allow him to stay in this country and continue their project.

Much to the horror of Bunny, who cannot believe their father’s idea, Kate chooses to go along with the marriage, and plans begin for a simple ceremony, naturally without the word “obey.” With a sure, comic hand, Tyler entertains us with details of the arrangement—no guests—and the groom-to-be sprinkling, into his raw English, expressions he picks up—“stepping up to the plate,” “phoning it in.”

Though light and funny, there is definitely enough material for book clubbers to discuss. Readers will have to figure out why Kate goes along with her father’s plan to marry her off to a stranger. Maybe she's tired of watching the four-year-old girls in her class play wedding. Or maybe “she's used up her life” and is ready for a new one. You decide.

"On Turpentine Lane" by Elinor Lipman

It is almost impossible to find a smart, romantic comedy these days at the movies, but I know just where to go at a book store—that would be to Fiction, and then the L shelf for Lipman. She never disappoints. Her newest novel “On Turpentine Lane” (2017) is narrated by thirty-something Faith Frankel, who has moved from Brooklyn back into her small Massachusetts home town, living close to her parents, and working in the development office of Everton Country Day School where she has the mind-numbing job of writing thank you notes to donors. Hoping to throw herself into a project, she has purchased 10 Turpentine Lane, “a chronic headache masquerading as a charming bungalow.”

Going home is Faith’s way of treading water while her fiancé Stuart treks across the continental United States to find himself, or maybe his path in life, but definitely “the awesomeness in the everyday.” (An emergency appendectomy had caused him to rethink his life and to begin using words like potentiality and wholeness.) Faith begins to question the sincerity of the promise he made, or rather “implied,” while tying a red string around the ring finger of her left hand just before he left.

Things aren’t going well for her as she settles into Everton. Her father seems to be developing a new life, now that he’s discovered his inner artist. Her boss Reggie, an ex-athlete of Everton Country Day, shows himself to be an annoyingly incompetent distraction. She had heard her crumbly Turpentine Lane house had a shady history, but an old photo she finds in the basement suggests there might have been serious criminal activity there. To top it all off, Stuart’s Instagram feed unnerves her with its steady stream of photos with attractive women hanging on him.

Luckily, something in her life is working out. Nick Franconi, her friendly office-mate at school keeps her laughing and has her back when Reggie falsely accuses her of a ridiculous ploy to steal funds. She rents out the extra room at Turpentine Lane to Nick when he breaks up with his girlfriend, and now comes the Rom Com I promised. Lipman has given us her most appealing love story yet! Will they or won’t they? I routed for them instantly.

What makes Lipman’s zany stories must-reads for me is not only the appealing characters and the hilarious lines but she throws out, but she also slips in some meatier things to think about—here, it’s the idiosyncrasies of today’s culture, a long-time marriage coming apart and racial/religious intermingling. The bottom line is, though, I loved having an artfully sexy and entertaining book to look forward to in these decidedly idiosyncratic times.

 

"Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance

Like thousands of others, I picked up J.D. Vance’s New York Times bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016) to better understand why the white working class in the middle of the country carried a newcomer to politics and government service, of questionable judgement, into the White House.

Vance starts with geography, focusing in on the hills of Appalachia, most specifically his home of Jackson, nestled into southeastern Kentucky’s coal country, where most workers were miners or small farmers. His mother Bev lived a life of fighting and drama, was addicted to drugs, and brought husband after husband into his life. “Settling down wasn’t quite her thing,” he tells us. Vance spent most of his youth living at the nearby home of his grandmother and grandfather. Mamaw, whom he affectionately calls a lunatic and crazy hillbilly, reminded him daily of their code of behavior. That meant sticking up for family, not taking disrespect from anyone, and certainly not waiting for the law to snuff out someone who errs. (He reports with obvious pride that he is related to the infamous feuding Hatfields.) Mamaw pounded into him the lesson of making something of yourself—“Don’t be like those f_ _king losers.” That lesson stuck.

As background, he says that after World War II, his family was part of the mass migration of people from the hills of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee north to the cities and towns of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania. There they found work in the new industrial plants. He quickly observed a new economic reality—residential segregation—where poor whites lived, were schooled, and socialized only with one another, totally unaware of what was happening on the right side of the tracks. This insular lifestyle brought about low expectations and little resiliency among his people when those factories shut down. It’s a disturbing story he tells about the anger and distrust that built within that group when they were jobless and mistrustful of the government, politicians, and the “elites.”

Yet there is a compelling personal story that underlies the bad cultural news he delivers. So many factors in his early life pointed towards the same shaky path most in his family had taken—unstable work, addictions, tumultuous relationships. They were “set up to fail,” he reminds us frequently. But Mamaw, with all her vitriol and drama, turned out to be the most stabilizing factor in his life. “She believed in me and made me think I could do it.” He almost flunked out of high school, but he and Mamaw knew he was smart enough for college. But all the applications and financial aid information intimidated the two, who knew nothing of that world, so he joined the Marines. There, “giving it all was a way of life,” and he threw himself into it. He found there is “something powerful about realizing you’ve undersold yourself.” That gave him the courage to take his next steps—Ohio State and then Yale Law School.

Understanding Vance’s story and life trajectory, I paid attention when he talked about his people who “worshipped Jesus and the USA” but have lost their patriotism and mistrust the news, politicians and government. Vance has no easy answer to the question of how to address the needs of this angry white working class from whom he came. He’s a Republican but says that his party and the conservatives generally are fueling the notion that government is to blame. His message to those he knows well is “Stop blaming Obama or Bush and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

"Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

“Commonwealth” (2016) is Ann Patchett’s seventh novel, but she facetiously calls it her “autobiographical first novel,” alluding to the debut novel a twenty-something might write where it’s unabashedly stolen from her own life. If you’ve read other books by Patchett, you know the action can take place anywhere—in a jungle along the Amazon or at a nunnery in Kentucky. My favorite, “Bel Canto,” takes place in the home of a South American diplomat where several guerilla fighters hold his party-goers hostage for weeks. But since Patchett has fictionalized her own family life, it takes place in suburban homes in California and Virginia with two splintered families.

Patchett leads us into the action at a christening party one weekend afternoon in Southern California at the house of Fix Keating, a cop. Bert Cousins, an attorney known at the precinct, stops by brandishing a bottle of gin, looking for an excuse to get out of his house bustling with three toddlers and a pregnant wife. Bert takes one look at Fix’s wife Beverly and realizes, “This [is] the start of his life,” and that chemistry leads to the end of the two marriages. Fix stays in California, raising the baby Franny and toddler Caroline, while Bert and Beverly move to Virginia. Bert’s wife Teresa is left in California as the single mother of their four young ones—two boys and two girls.

Patchett made a daring choice, though, to tell the story of these two families in a non-chronological way. Readers may be jolted when the second chapter takes place several decades later when Franny, the beautiful baby her father Fix had carried around on that fateful day, is again with him as he undergoes chemotherapy. Each following chapter covers an episode in the lives of one of the ten members of the families, but the scenes that sing with life involve the six kids spending summer vacations together in Virginia. “They did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

Looking back over it, I think of scenes that hadn’t moved the story along and were dropped as soon as they happened—a child dies from a bee sting because the kids had used the antidote he carried to quiet the hyperactive youngest sibling. The kids break into a car and steal a gun but do nothing with it. As an adult Franny has a relationship with a writer she had idolized, and he writes a novel based on her story. But it’s understandable. Life happens. And what you get with “Commonwealth” is a writer letting us in on all the highs and lows, tragedies and wonderful surprises of family life as she works at making sense of the life she’s lived and sharing it with us.

Another beautifully-written novel by Patchett that takes readers into perhaps more familiar territory.

“Today Will Be Different” by Maria Semple

If you're in the mood this winter for a book to snuggle up with that will transport you to a dreamy spot, look elsewhere! You're not going to find it with Maria Semple’s newest novel “Today Will Be Different” (2016). The title refers to forty-something Eleanor Flood’s empowering morning chant, channeling her inner self to “be present,” “listen deeply” to others, “play a board game” with her son, “buy local” and “be [her] best self.” But hang on, because the day Eleanor takes us through, is different and wildly so.

Eleanor is a busy, ambitious and quite neurotic TV writer and animator in Seattle who had plans for her day, but everything shifts when, her eight-year-old son Timby, who has feigned illness, gets out of his ultra-progressive school for the day to have some “mommy time.” Scattered in are other characters she runs into and some she wants to avoid running into. There’s a theft, an accident, bad news about the graphic memoir she’s been working on (several pages of which are included) and other things so whacky you may at first think you misread them.

The way Semple structures the book is disquieting though. The underlying bones of the book are the events on the day Eleanor and Timby spend together. Yet Semple slips in long sections, written in third person, about family members we have yet to meet. There’s the mother-and-father piece, the brother-in-law piece, the sister piece, and lastly the husband piece (which goes in a completely quirky direction). Some are more interesting than others, but occasionally, beginning reading a new chapter after a break, I wasn’t sure I’d picked up the right book. (Wait! Who’s Barnaby Fanning?)

That information should serve as an alert, not as a recommendation to pass on this book. But while I’m at it, I should also warn you that Eleanor can be extremely unlikeable. She’s brash, rude, judgmental, self-absorbed—I see a faint suggestion of a good heart from time to time—but these qualities might be attributed to the fact that she’s a totally stressed-out mother, wife, creative-type, and former New Yorker.

What has some people gushing over the book—The New York Times calls it one of the 100 Notable Books of 2016 —is Semple’s razor-sharp observations, her ability to zoom in on the details of our lives today, and the brilliant gift of tweaking them up a notch or two to get laughs. This book has some of the funniest lines I've read in years, but political correctness is nowhere to be found. I can imagine a book club of frenzied, working mothers howling about their favorite lines, especially those when Timby reacts to Eleanor’s inappropriate behavior. A hint about the book’s genesis: Semple has said in interviews that about half of Timby’s lines to his mother are direct quotes of ones she’s heard from her daughter. No surprise that Semple can portray an on-the-edge mother so well.

It’s your choice now. How do you want to spend your day?

"Love Warrior" by Glennon Doyle Melton

Like other books that win the lottery (that is, become an Oprah Winfrey Book Club pick) “Love Warrior” (2016) will be read by millions. What they will learn and discuss is one woman’s strikingly honest tale of going through a troubled youth and early adulthood before growing into self awareness.  Melton labels it “the path of a love warrior” where a woman learns to trust the wisdom of the still, small voice inside and not betray herself. No wonder Oprah jumped on board.

Melton’s recounting of her high school and college years is the strongest part of the book. While still in elementary school Melton is painfully aware of the difference between her full body and the wispy bodies of other girls. With raw honesty she describes the lure of bingeing and purging that awareness brings on and the role bulimia played in her life from age ten on.

She makes it through high school, she tells us, by finding “a representative of me who’s just tough and trendy enough to survive.” In college, still playing by the rules that she’s committed to, Melton uses every substance available so she can to stay in the center of the action. But alcohol, which becomes her daily stand-by, inevitably controls her life.

Her marriage to Craig—the tall, handsome “soccer god” every girl at college wanted—begins after an accidental pregnancy (her second) when she decides she wants to raise the child with or without him.  She turns to AA for support to quit drinking. It helps. But then it doesn’t.

She admits how unprepared she is for marriage, having grown up with the idea that the wedding day was the finish line for a woman, so from that day on a woman is whole. The boy that she and Craig have is the center of their lives, but as he grows they grow apart. Two other children, both girls, follow.

She portrays her marriage, not as filled with ups and downs, but rather as filled with apathy and distance. They are good parents but not good friends or lovers. The loneliness she feels is replaced by anger when she learns about Craig’s secret life. A separation and eventually, couples therapy with Craig bring them together again.

Yet for Melton, that is not the happy ending. Through readings and classes, she develops a new plan for her life and a new way of talking about it. The goal she now aims for is to be a strong Love Warrior. One for whom “all the darkness and pain and shame in the world cannot defeat her.” This is clearly a major breakthrough for Melton, but her writing becomes full of catch phrases and may leave some readers puzzling over its power. We are rooting for her most strongly during the first third of the book.

 

"The Last Painting of Sara De Vos" by Dominic Smith

Art, they say, inspires. Having finished Dominic Smith’s wonderful “The Last Painting of Sara De Vos” (2016), I can assure you that a novel about a work of art can also inspire. The glue that holds together Smith’s ambitious story of an artist, an art collector and a restorer is the artwork itself, a 17th century Dutch painting by Sara De Vos. The fictional “At the Edge of a Wood” is widely viewed as her final work.

He describes the luminescent painting to us before the story begins: it’s a winter scene at twilight with a young girl standing against a silver birch looking towards skaters on a frozen river, her emotions appear unclear. Once we can visualize the painting, Smith craftily alternates three stories that follow the life of this painting, and the lives that it touches, from the 1950s in New York, to the 1630’s in Amsterdam, to the year 2000 in Australia.

The book begins in 1957 at a fundraiser in the Manhattan penthouse of patent attorney Marty de Groot. Shortly after that event, he recognizes that the painting his family has owned for centuries, that hangs over his master bed, is no longer the original but rather a forgery. He then takes us to Holland in 1636 when artists Sara De Vos and her husband are barely eking out a living at their trade. The third chapter takes place in Brooklyn in 1957 where he introduces us to Ellie, a struggling young art student and restorer who agrees to recreate this Dutch masterpiece for the challenge and desire for perfection, but also for the much-needed money it brings.

Smith, too, has a desire for detail and authenticity in his story. To write this book, he acquired an enormous amount of information about creating art in general, painting in particular, Dutch history, art collection, forgery and brought it all into the story. As examples, readers learn much about the lives of an artist during the Dutch Golden Age when Rembrandt and Vermeer were producing works and how meticulously a painting must be analyzed in order to copy it.

His sensitive handling of human emotions shows the same attention, leaving us touched by his characters’ yearnings, grief, regret, and loss.

It is a lot for readers to take in as the story leaps back and forth in time and location, but as it builds, readers can only admire the fullness and the richness of the story that Smith has laid out for us. This novel is a true work of art.

"M Train" by Patti Smith

Punk rock star and multi-talented artist Patti Smith’s National Book Award winner “Just Kids” covered the early days of her New York City life, highlighting her deep friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe before his death from AIDS. “M Train” (2015), her newest memoir, is a compilation of later writings from a variety of locales. In it, we see a different Smith. She is mellowing with age, and the essence of the brilliant, inquisitive and kind-hearted soul she is, permeates her tales.

She has lived an amazingly peripatetic life. As a young wife, she promised her husband she would give him a child if he took her to a crumbling penal colony in French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America, to gather a handful of stones, which she placed, years later, on the Spanish grave site of writer Jean Genet who’d been incarcerated in that prison. In another chapter she’s in 2005 Bremen where she’s been invited to the convention of the Continental Drift Club comprised of geologists and mathematicians. Later she’s in Tangier with a group of poets and musicians honoring the Beat Generation writers who were drawn to that city. At all times, her old Polaroid camera and extra film packs are with her, and her artful photos are sprinkled throughout the book.

Far-flung adventure is not all there is. The title hints at the fact that Lower Manhattan serves as Smith’s beloved home base, and those sections have an appealing everyday-ness in their settings. A messy apartment she shares with her cats whom she feeds with “hand-picked personality-appropriate saucers.” Her favorite corner table in the neighborhood Café ‘Ino with endless cups of black coffee, “pretending to write, or writing in earnest, with more or less the same questionable results.” A dilapidated bungalow by the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach she falls in love with and buys just before Hurricane Sandy devastates the area. The watering holes in The Village that bring back her years worshiping the Beat Poets, “couriers of wisdom,” she says, “that once ushered my generation into a cultural revolution.”

Her life was not without tragedy. She was devastated by the sudden death of her 45-year-old husband, the Detroit musician Fred (Sonic) Smith, and a month later her brother Todd succumbed to cancer. To come out of the darkness, she did the only thing she knew to do—write it out, fueled by plenty of joe. And may I suggest, if you’d like to channel Patti Smith as you read “M Train,” find a cozy corner table in a coffee shop and drink up.