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.

"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.

 

"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.

"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.