"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.

"A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman

No one assigns the book I'm committed to review each month; I’m happily on my own, hoping to choose a book I can enthusiastically promote to other readers. (There’s no red- pencil-wielding English teacher in me, eager to point out failures of tone, structure, or plotting.) I took a risk this month with “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman.

There was nothing about it that drew me in—a Swedish blogger’s novel about a solitary, irascible compatriot who is hell-bent on suicide—yet I was intrigued by the enormous number of readerswho adored it (thank you, Amazon). Thousands of them. So in the interest of bringing variety into my column, I went for it. Backman writes, “Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise,” and that's what happened to me with Ove.

Ove is a retired, fifty-nine-year-old widower who lives in a row house in a small development and drives a Saab. (If you don’t think the make of the car is important, you don’t know Ove.) He’s the kind of man who wakes up automatically every morning at quarter to six and starts his day. He likes screwdrivers and oil filters. He faithfully bleeds radiators. He’s a man who regularly grumbles, “Nowadays nobody can…”

Life offers nothing to Ove, and he plans to do something about it. His boss had announced one day that he no longer needed to come to work, so his days are empty. He has no children and his beloved wife Sonja has recently died. “If anyone had asked, he would have told them that he never lived before he met her. And not after either.” Yet Ove is not very competent at ending his life. It’s not his fault, though, as much as it is the interruptions to his attempts by the locals.

Backman drums up a mix of characters (human and feline) that are delightful. A new next-door neighbor Parvaneh, whom Ove calls the Pregnant Foreign One, is a lively Iranian mother. She views Ove as an indispensable chauffer, handyman, verbal sparring partner, and as the need becomes clear, driving instructor. Her two little girls are singularly strong-minded about their neighbor. A young man who’s just told his homophobic father he’s gay moves in with Ove. A cat whom Ove rescues is ever-present, with a hilarious range of emotive reactions to his owner’s actions.

It seems that beneath Ove’s gruff exterior, which Backman plays with gleefully, Ove is a man who is decent, kind, and helpful. Readers can figure out early on that these people will bring life back to Ove, but that in no way spoils the surprisingly touching way Backman lets that unfold. Yes, it was tough reading the end of this heartwarming story with the tears in my eyes; I didn’t expect to, but I fell in love.

"The Vacationers" by Emma Straub

What characterizes a good summer read? I’m no expert on that since I’m generally indifferent to the season when I make my choice. But this year after a string of heavier topics, I decided on Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers” (2014). A trip to Mallorca was just what I needed.

The Post family and friends, Manhattanites all, rent a picture-perfect villa atop a cliff on the island off Spain for a two week get-away. Franny, the matriarch, had high hopes for pulling together her husband Jim, their eighteen-year-old daughter Sylvia, their son Bobby, his girlfriend Carmen, and Franny’s best friend Charles with his husband Lawrence for a relaxing two-week vacation.

Yet shortly before they left Jim, at sixty, was fired from his long-term editorial job at Gallant magazine for reasons we soon learn had to do with an affair he was having with a twenty-three- year-old intern. Franny must live with explosive feelings about this blow to their marriage. And beneath this idyllic setting, it seems that everyone has a story.

Franny and Jim are barely civil to Carmen, a brusque fitness guru who is ten years older than their son and spends most of her time doing lunges and crunches. She and Bobby, who work together at a gym in Miami, are clearly having problems.

Sylvia has just graduated from high school carrying the bitter taste of a cheating boyfriend and looking forward to starting at Brown in the fall. She has only one goal for the summer—to loose her virginity—and a movie-star handsome Spanish tutor looks like he might fit the bill.

Charles and Lawrence await news from New York about an adoption they’ve applied for; Lawrence was the initiator and Charles, the reluctant one. An email notifying them they are on a short list stirs up hidden feelings.

But Franny, a foodie by trade, pulls it all together with her delicious offerings and planned excursions, all the while fuming and grieving over the potential destruction of her marriage.

It turns out this was a perfect summer read for me. It was smart and fun. There was no tsunami, no shark attack, no kidnapping, only a group of people with a boatload of feelings at critical junctures of their lives. Straub brought me along on the trip with her humor and kindness towards the Posts and friends. You know an author has hooked you in when the characters play Scrabble one rainy afternoon and you find yourself hoping she lets you know who won. (She does.) Straub told an interviewer, “For me, in both actual life and fictional life, it's all about emotional shifts and small internal changes. That's what's interesting to me.” And I’ve learned, that’s what hits the spot for me.

"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

Intimate. Quiet. Deep. These are the words that spring to mind to describe Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Her narrator Lucy, a writer with a husband and two young daughters at home, speaks to us from a hospital bed in New York City where she has spent many weeks one spring after an appendectomy brought on a raging infection. Aside from the drop-ins by nurses and technicians, Lucy has been alone for fear of contagion but also because of her husband’s dread of hospitals. Yet one day she awakens to find her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, at her bedside.

My focus on the setting of a hospital and the circumstances of the story is important, because as Elizabeth Strout tells interviewers, it was a critical choice for her. “A crucible” she calls it, a place to withstand the heat of the emotional fires that lie below the present-day lives of the two. Strout plants another symbol in the story, the building Lucy stares at for hours from her window. For Lucy it was “the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us that allowed us to speak in ways we never had before.”

Lucy is happy to have her mother nearby and is comforted as she talks about families they knew and the unfortunate things that happened to them—a neighbor who fell in love with one of her children’s teachers causing her husband and children to never again speak to her; Aunt Harriet whose husband went out to get cigarettes and never came back. Lucy tells her mother about her older friend Jeremy from her apartment building in New York who made her less lonely. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life and it was always there…”

Lucy revels in the care and kindness of her doctor who visits regularly while her mother is there, and he watches the two interact. When examining her as she prepares to leave the hospital, he tells her, “The scar is healing nicely,” and we readers understand. And years afterwards, the time she spent in the hospital with her mother becomes the subject of her writing.

There is no barrage of family secrets spilling out. Strout is too gifted to let that happen. Instead she gently plants things that suggest a depth to the darkness in Lucy’s impoverished childhood that she never fully reveals—a grown brother, “not slow” according to Lucy’s mother, who sleeps with pigs about to be slaughtered; a brown snake with young Lucy who’s been locked in the back of a truck.

It is the strong and delicate writing of this affecting short work that makes it stay with me long after putting it down.

"Being Mortal" by Atul Gawande

To read Atul Gawande’s powerful bestseller “Being Mortal” (2014) is to engage in an unflinchingly honest discussion with a brilliant, but humble, doctor about end-of-life issues. Not everyone may be ready for that. It’s easy to put off thinking about the complicated choices we may face, given the medical advances that now exist to prolong life. But as Gawande reminds us, we will someday need to confront them for family members and ultimately ourselves. A death certificate requires just one cause of death, as if people are swiftly felled by one trauma. The truth, he says, is that it’s actually “the accumulated crumbling of one’s bodily systems.” A noted physician, responding to Gawande’s question about how to characterize death’s arrival, told him, “We basically all fall apart.”

That down-to-earth description leads to an examination of how prepared our society is, and we as individuals are, to face the reality of an often slow decline. Nursing homes, you might guess, are the answer. Though nursing homes satisfy societal needs, they are not made for what people need, and therein lies the heart of this book. Gawande asserts that the goal that should matter is, how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves. The lack of privacy, the inability to make personal decisions and the loss of familiar people and surroundings that generally go with nursing homes are the opposite of what people really want.

We get a look at what innovators in the elderly care business are doing to address that. Keren Brown Wilson first came up with the concept of an independent living center with assistance. In her Park Place in Portland, residents lived in small apartments, where they brought or purchased their own furniture, had locks on their doors, kept pets and had a nurse available on site at all times.  He reports that early assisted living facilities were meant to serve people until the end of their lives, but they have become more of just a step between independence and nursing homes.

Gawande closes by recounting personal experiences with his father at the end of his life. The young doctor was forced to draw upon what he has learned, not from medical school or fellow physicians, but from hospice caregivers and palliative-care workers who strived to make his father as emotionally comfortable and pain-free as possible. For a physician who once dismissed the concept of hospice care, he has become an ardent supporter.

Gawande says his goal for writing ‘Being Mortal” was to raise the issues and start a conversation. He certainly left me thinking and talking to others at length about these important topics. It’s a must read for those ready to address the uncomfortable but unavoidable idea of end-of-life care.

"What Comes Next and How To Like It" by Abigail Thomas

Abigail Thomas’ books have called to me ever since I saw one in a bookstore and was struck by her style—short, powerful entries of a page or two, occasionally even just a sentence or two. Her highly acclaimed earlier memoir, “A Three Dog Life” (2007) covered her struggle with the tragic loss of her husband from an accident. Her newest memoir, with its intriguing title “What Comes Next and How to Like It” (2015), is an honest, no-nonsense and often witty look at her life in the years that followed, the bleak, joyful, significant, and incidental moments.

This is an enormously readable book. Who wouldn’t like a peek in the window of such a bright, accomplished woman? From Thomas’ direct and unsentimental narrative, we learn that she is messy, she binge-watches TV series (mostly horror), she naps indiscriminately, she claims not to think much about death but seems to have it on her mind constantly (she’s around seventy), and she’d much rather live with a bunch of dogs than with a man. (What if he wanted to talk about mortgage rates or cesspools, she muses. “You can’t shut people up with the offer of a dog biscuit.”)

Life happens and much of it is hard—an aging body with its problems, a daughter’s cancer, the pull of addictions to alcohol and tobacco, and the terminal illness of her best friend. That friend is Chuck and he plays a central role in her story. They met in ’79 at a New York publishing house where “It was my job to train him,” she writes, “but all I wanted to do was make him laugh.” She details a catastrophic episode that blew the friendship up years before, but it survived and became even stronger.

Throughout the book we watch Thomas find joy and peace as she paints. She doesn’t think of herself as a painter but more a writer who happens to paint with toxic oil-based house paint on large surfaces of glass. She instinctively tilts and jars the wet surfaces to see if she can make something beautiful. As the story develops, I came to understand that is also what she does with her life. Her prescription for liking what comes next, is working with what comes to you in life, not wasting energy by fighting it and allowing for the surprises and pleasures you get from what you have made of it.

Her message was not wasted on me. I’m eager to hear more from Abigail Thomas.

"We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas

The title grabbed me in an airport bookstore and despite the novel’s heft (620 pages) I excitedly took it on. “We Are Not Ourselves” had such a familiar ring to me, though not from the voice of Shakespeare’s King Lear, whom Matthew Thomas references, but rather, my mother. “We’re just not ourselves today,” rang in my ears, as a description of the off-kilter feeling that we’ve somehow ended up where we didn’t expect to be. The haunting phrase is the skillfully rendered undercurrent of the book.

Rarely does a first novel get the accolades Thomas’s 2014 book has garnered. It seems that others find the story within as deeply touching as I did. It’s a surprisingly quick-moving and entertaining read for a book that covers the rather unremarkable life of Irish-American Eileen Tumulty, her husband and son from 1951 to 2000.

There are many similarities between Thomas’s life and those of his characters. He tells reviewers he worked on it for ten years—writing most of it longhand in a notebook—while holding a job as a high school English teacher. It was obviously a very personal endeavor. There is no other way to explain the incredible level of emotional truth he is able to convey.

Eileen’s Irish background shapes her young life in the borough of Queens. Her mother, who refuses to become an American citizen, stays close to her relatives, as they emigrate to the U.S., and houses whole families for months at a time in their small apartment. Eileen’s charismatic father holds court at the local bar each night with his pals but he is the only source of joy in her life.

Eileen plans for a more refined life in her future, one more suited to New York’s classier suburbs than the teeming streets of Queens. She’s thrilled to meet and marry Ed Leary, a brilliant but unambitious scientist and college professor, hoping he’ll be her key to getting out of their cramped apartment. His indifference keeps them right where they are.

The realities of life as a hardworking nurse with a husband who refuses two promotions in order to continue teaching at a community college, especially after their son Connell is born, frustrate Eileen. Her dissatisfaction with her daily life and her rigid husband consumes her life. But then Ed starts acting strangely. It begins as “torpor,” slides into depression then shows as confusion, and before long their world shifts seismically when he is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

These were also the circumstances of Matthew Thomas’s life, so he gently leads readers through the overwhelming effect this has on the family—the mixture of stress, anger and guilt Eileen feels and the looming disorientation young Connell experiences. Yet it’s not a depressing book. Eileen and her son transcend the circumstances, slowly and realistically and Thomas gives us a wonderfully-crafted, satisfying ending.

"The Other Language" by Francesa Marciano

“A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger,” Stephen King once wrote. I must admit I wasn’t always a believer in the titillating impact of a short story, but I’m coming around, especially after reading this wonderful collection by Francesca Marciano. “The Other Language” (2014) covers a lot of territory—from an island in Greece to the streets of Paris, around the world to India before coming back to Scotland. Marciano is a native Italian but is truly a citizen of the world, having lived for periods in European capitals, here in New York and New Mexico and in Kenya. She’s naturally nomadic, she tells interviewers. “I like to live out of my comfort zone.”

Marciano gives us richly drawn settings in which to watch her complex characters experience the challenges life has thrown at them. Besides her three earlier novels, she has also done screenwriting and that experience shows in her captivating scenes and easy dialogue. The settings are varied but the stories all involve relationships between men and women, with the focus on a woman. She is not interested in your garden-variety couples but rather she likes to explore interactions between fathers and daughters in the title story or couples who meet coincidently over a lifetime in “Quantum Theory” or a famous rock star and the girl he left behind in “Roman Romance”.

In “Big Island, Small Island” an Italian woman, Stella, visits an old friend she hasn’t seen for fifteen years who’s living on a tiny island off sub-Saharan Africa. With a new religious identity and a child bride, his life is far different than what she had expected from her fun-loving pal.

In “The Presence of Men,” Lara’s renovation of an ancient house in a small village in southern Italy angers the neighbors, but her brother’s appearance with his client, a well-known actor, changes the dynamics of her relationship with the townspeople.

A serious car accident opens “Quantum Theory” and readers cannot be sure how the driver and passenger know one another. Sonia’s car has tumbled down a ravine and rolled over. She and her handsome passenger, a love interest we suspect, escape and walk barefoot through the bush to a hospital hand in hand.

“The Other Language” offers up something refreshing for those who generally stick to novels.  These stories are longer than one might expect, richer and more captivating, making it a surprisingly satisfying reading experience.

"Euphoria" by Lily King

Lily King’s prize-winning novel, “Euphoria”, is an intoxicating read that stayed with me long after finishing it. The gifted writer takes us to a time and place we might know only from National Geographic magazines—Papua New Guinea in the 1930’s. King reports that she’d known little about anthropology before reading about a drama-filled episode in the life of Margaret Mead that caught her attention. While working on that island in 1933, Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, met by chance fellow anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, then began a collaboration with him. Shortly thereafter, Bateson became Mead’s third husband. King said in an interview “ with the heat, mosquitos and malarial fevers, it was just a wild mess”. King creates a fictionalized account of that story that is atmospheric, enlightening and steamy in every sense of the word.  

King’s version of Mead is American anthropologist, Nell Stone, who is in New Guinea studying a local tribe with her husband and coworker, Fen. The two have just left their work with a difficult, combative tribe and moved down river to study a more compliant group. The couple encounters Bankson a fellow anthropologist Fen casually knew. Bankson had been living for twenty-five months alone in a hut studying a nearby tribe, and was depressed to the point of attempting suicide. Meeting the couple, he feels revived and yearns to be part of their lives and work.  

Bankson is the narrator of the events that follow that meeting and the drama that arises around the threesome. Describing Nell in a letter to his mother, he says, “She’s American, quite well-known but a sickly, pocket-sized creature.” What he does not mention is that this fragile, injured but glowing woman consumes his thoughts from the minute he sets eyes on her. A love triangle forms quickly, with personal ambitions, professional jealousies and sexual histories juicing it up.  

King weaves her vast knowledge of the work done by these anthropologists in and around the story of their relationship.  I admit to having known little about the day-to-day life of a working anthropologist, but through the delightful diary entries of Nell that King scatters throughout, we hear about such challenges as interviewing people using only gestures, learning languages with 16 genders, routinely brushing scorpions off your leg and sneaking into secret ceremonies. From now on, whenever I hear the name Margaret Mead, I will visualize her seated cross-legged on a dirt floor, in a stifling, moist room with at least one baby in her arms and young children crawling in delight all over her. 

When Bankson asks Nell, soon after meeting her, what is her favorite part of the work they do, she answers, “the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” When she turns the question back to him, he says, “A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.” The euphoric moments and the grimly-detailed realities are my favorite things in this fascinating book.

"Did You Ever Have a Family" by Bill Clegg

As I headed toward the stacks at the library, “Did You Ever Have a Family” leapt off the New Books shelf right into my hand. Well, not exactly, but as soon as I saw it, I just had to take it home. I had heard the hypnotic title of Bill Clegg’s novel when they announced the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker prize and knew that the book centered on a woman who must deal with the loss of her entire family in a freak accident. I was drawn to it—a potential international award winner exploring one of life’s most unimaginable challenges.

It’s Clegg’s first novel—he’s a big-time New York agent who has written two memoirs—and even with its dispiriting premise, it is a richly written and life-affirming story. The book concerns June Reid, an attractive 50ish woman in Connecticut whose life turned upside down on the eve of her daughter’s wedding to be held at June’s sprawling home, when a horrific explosion kills her daughter Lolly, the girl’s fiancé Will, June’s ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke, while she is outside. Numbed with grief, June gets in her car and heads west, ending up in a small town along the Washington coast that resonates with her.

Clegg creates an unusual energy in his story, using a number of people touched by this tragedy, to recount stories that paint pictures for us about June, her family members and, ultimately, the accident. There is Silas, a pot-smoking teen who lives in the town and may know something about how this happened. Rebecca and Kelly, the lesbian couple who own the motel on the Washington coast to which June has escaped. Lydia, the mother of Luke and June’s closest friend, who must endure overheard conversations in town, even those accusing her son of causing it. George, the father that Luke had never known. Cissy, the bi-racial woman who cleans June’s motel room, leaving her a cup of soup each day that is often the grieving woman’s only food.

This chorus of voices is compelling (once you keep track of the names), and I couldn’t put it down. It was hard to imagine how a short novel that covers only a few months after such a tragedy can end is a satisfying way, but I found the ending simply stunning. Clegg shows us that he knew exactly how all the pieces would come together. The story, after all, was not as much about losing a family but more about finding a family as we move along the roads we travel.

"Us" by David Nicholls

I knew I was falling in love from the very first page of David Nicholls’ fourth novel, “Us”. This gifted screenwriter/novelist promises and delivers on a novel full of hilarity, warmth and poignancy. Yet beneath the humor lies a sharp portrayal of the challenges of marriage and parenthood. His prowess in mingling the two was not missed by the Man Booker Prize judges who put “Us” on their 2014 long list.

The stakes are high for our narrator Douglas as the story opens. His wife Connie announces that their twenty-year marriage “has run its course”, and she thinks she wants to leave him. The idea is unthinkable to Douglas, a research scientist and a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He can’t imagine life without his Connie, a free spirit who had been leading a bohemian artist’s life in London before they married and moved to the suburbs. He tells us, “I have loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so rarely did”. Douglas begs Connie to go through with their summer plans for a Grand Tour of Europe with their only child, Albie, before the boy leaves for university in fall. Lucky for us, she agrees.

The challenges are great for Douglas to plan a trip so special that Connie changes her mind. His experience on the Continent was almost non-existent. He grew up with a father disdainful of “anything suggesting ‘abroad’—olive oil, the metric system, eating outdoors, yoghurt…” Whereas for years Connie has been rhapsodizing about youthful experiences, “sleeping on the beach in Crete”, attending a “wild party at an abandoned factory in Prague” and hooking up with a Citroen mechanic in Lyon “whose hair smelled like engine oil”.

The finicky scientist has made the arrangements with the hope of a vacation full of the art and street life that Connie loves and enrichment for their son. This creates one comical situation after another. Douglas views their stay in Amsterdam as a chance to show off his trip-planning talent. The boutique hotel he signed them up for resembles a “top-of-the-range bordello” He and Connie are assigned to the honeymoon suite, “Venus in Furs”, with an enormous four-poster bed and black sheets, while Albie is next door in “Delta of Venus”.

Douglas says “married life is not a plateau…there are ravines and great jagged peaks and hidden crevasses that send the both of you scrabbling into darkness”. Throughout the story of the family’s summer Nicholls seamlessly weaves the backstory in bits and pieces as Douglas remembers them—their meeting, their courtship and the twenty years of marriage.

David Nicolls has offered up a trip you will definitely want to take.