books

Seven Books I Can’t Wait to Read

The stacks of books on my nightstand grow ever taller, but here are a few books I just can’t wait to read.

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng.  Well, thank goodness for this. Celeste Ng’s new book will be out in September. It’s so far away, the cover image isn’t even ready yet, but what a gem to look forward to this fall. The book explores “the weight of long-held secrets, the nature of belonging, the ferocious pull of motherhood—and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.”

 

9780316154727_p0_v3_s192x300Theft by Finding, by David Sedaris. I’m a David Sedaris completist. Even if this turns out to be a list of food he ate, I will read it. And it will be hilarious. This collection will be out in May. Mark your calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

30107561Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson. In his new novel, Wilson introduces us to Isabelle Poole, a pregnant teen who agrees to raise her child in an experimental collective called The Infinite Family. I enjoyed Wilson’s quirky style and compassionate voice in his debut novel, The Family Fang.

 

 

 

 

30268062Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. It’s his debut novel, but George Saunders’s achievements in nonfiction are many. The story is about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the beginning of the Civil War. And, as if this doesn’t sound interesting enough, there are ghosts!

 

 

31941884The Light We Lost, by Jill Santopolo. The Light We Lost is described as One Day meets Me Before You with an unforgettable ending. I’m fortunate to have an advance reader’s copy of this novel, set to release in May.

 

 

 

 

32616120Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay. I can’t think of an American writer whose work is more relevant and more poignant right now. Difficult Women is a collection of short stories all centered around—you guessed it— “difficult” women.

 

 

 

 

29974618The Mothers, by Brit Bennett. A number of you have had great things to say about this novel: the lovely, lyrical prose, the way the story unfolds over the course of a decade, the implications of living with the decisions made by our younger selves. Really looking forward to this one.

 

 

If you’re wondering, like I am, how you’re going to get through the stack of books on your list, check out Nina Badzin’s six tips for How to Read More Books This Year.

What books are you looking forward to reading? I’m always looking for recommendations. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Seventh Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions from books I enjoyed this year.

 

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik BlackmanFor the curmudgeon in your life: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Blackman. A charming book about a sourpuss who will win your heart! The author, Fredrik Blackman, has the ability to take serious subjects (death, suicide, OCD) and relate them in such a matter-of-fact way that they are not off-putting or used for shock value. Backman treats the issues and the characters with kindness. I was rooting for Ove from page one. A Man Called Ove redefines family and shows us the power of connection. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Fredrik Blackman. Any suggestions on which one to pick up next?

 

The Gentleman, by Forrest LeoFor anyone who likes P.G. Wodehouse sprinkled with a little Noel Coward: The Gentleman, by Forrest Leo. Even if you’re not familiar with Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, just know that this one is a fun, hilarious farce. The basic premise: Lionel Savage, a poet and once-wealthy nobleman, finds himself short on cash and decides to marry Vivien Lancaster for her money. A few months into his marriage, he is disenchanted with Vivien and horrified to learn the poetry muse has left him…so he makes a deal with the devil. His ever-vigilant butler, Simmons, is there to help Lionel extricate himself from the steady stream of problems he creates.

 

 

Before the Fall, by Noah HawleyFor those who want a page-turner: Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.  A small plane crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard and only two survive: a down-on-his-luck painter and a boy, the son of a wealthy television network executive. Did the plane crash by chance? Or was there something more sinister at work? It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving away any surprises. The author did a solid job of dropping hints so that you are sure any number of characters could have been responsible for the plane crash. The story alternates between each character’s point of view so you can see how desperate each person is to hold onto the ideas he or she values most. Sometimes it was downright frustrating and agonizing to witness the lengths to which some characters were willing to twist a tragedy into their own personal gain. A great page-turner!

 

Lab Girl, by Hope JahrenFor those who love to dig in the dirt or read about people who do: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. After reading Lab Girl, I will never look at trees the same way again. Respected scientist Hope Jahren gave me a new appreciation of these silent but knowing inhabitants of our planet. She has dedicated her professional (and one could argue her personal) life to furthering our understanding of the flora that is crucial to life as we know it. But this book isn’t all about trees. It’s also about Jahren’s life as a scientist, which can be a difficult road for a woman leading her own lab. I liked the structure of this memoir—personal reflections interspersed with informative science. Jahren does a lovely job of putting words to her emotions as in this one memorable passage: “I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing it’s more than people want to see.” While this memoir is ostensibly about the path to becoming a scientist, it’s really about finding your tribe (even if that is only one other person), perseverance, and following your curiosity—universal desires to which many of us can relate.

 

Atlas ObscuraFor those who have wanderlust in the weird: Atlas Obscura, by Joshua Foer, Ella Morton, Dylan Thuras. “Inspiring equal parts wonder and wanderlust, Atlas Obscura celebrates over 600 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.” Yes, please! This book revels in the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the hidden, and the mysterious. From the dazzling glowworm caves in New Zealand to eccentric bone museums in Italy, every page expands your sense of how strange and marvelous the world really is.Just flipping through this book was a delight. The compelling descriptions! The illustrations! The photos! The charts! I’m using a lot of exclamation points because this book is that cool! I can’t think of a better gift for a creative person to be inspired.

 

Becoming Wise, by Krista TippettFor those who want a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity: Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. Krista Tippett is an accomplished conversationalist. She has interviewed the most extraordinary voices examining the great questions of meaning for our time, but her gift is knowing how to listen and expand the dialogue. From conversations with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to poet Naomi Shihab Nye to Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek, she aims to meet the world where it really is, and then to make it better.I came away from this book with a feeling of resilience and redemption, two words that seem to define her perspective. The book, like her podcast, is a master class in living in the 21st century. And if you haven’t yet listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” do yourself a favor and go through the archives now.

 

Stories of Your Life, by Ted ChiangFor those who like character-driven science fiction: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Disclaimer: I’m not an avid science fiction reader, but I loved this collection of short stories for the way Ted Chiang is able to use science to explore deeper questions about human nature. He asks the question every good writer (and perhaps scientist) asks: what if… What if men built a tower from earth to heaven—and broke through to heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? And as with any good story, the answers are never cut and dried. I was often left wondering about the phrase “perception is reality.”  One of the stories is the basis for the new movie “Arrival.”

 

Siracusa, by Delia EphronFor those who demand compelling, if not entirely likable characters: Siracusa, by Delia Ephron. Siracusa is the story of what happens to two couples on vacation in Italy. By the end of their short stay, events have occurred which will change their relationships forever—but maybe not in the way that you might expect.  Delia Ephron does a marvelous job in drawing well-rounded and believable characters. The four main characters (with each chapter alternating in first person among them) are crafted with precision. Their flaws and blind spots are apparent immediately. I feel I know them better than they know themselves. Have you ever felt conflicted about a novel even months after finishing it? I found it difficult to root for any of the  characters, mired as they were in their own shameless self-contemplation (and often self-congratulation). The very fact that I wanted to finish the book despite not finding any redeeming qualities in the characters is a testament to Delia Ephron’s skill as a writer. I’d be very interested to hear if you feel the same about Finn, Taylor, Lizzie, and Michael.

 

The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer AckermanFor the nature lover: The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. After reading this book, you’ll never use the term “bird brain” again—unless you’re using it as a compliment!  There’s the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later, and the New Caledonian crow, the chimpanzee of the bird world, that makes its own tools. While some birds may not have traditional “book smarts,” they have “street smarts” in that they are able to negotiate complex social networks. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They share. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. All of these cool and interesting facts would have just floated by me if it were not for Jennifer Ackerman’s excellent storytelling abilities. She writes about avian intelligence in a clear, conversational style that kept me engaged to the last page.

 

Looking for more Great Books to Give and Get? Check out the previous lists: 20152014, 2013201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Share in comments. 

Why We Read: To Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go. ~Dr. Seuss

My absolute favorite books—fiction or nonfiction—are ones that transport me to another place. James Herriot’s Yorkshire. Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans. Twain’s Mississippi. The authors brought these places to life and we remember them. It’s not only because these stories are classics. I’d venture to say that they are classics partly because they evoke the setting in a captivating way.

Setting is the Goldilocks element of any good story. It should find a nice balance between not too much, not too little, settling on just right. Selecting the right details pulls me into the characters’ world. Most readers want to find common emotional ground with the main character, and that is an important first step. But if I can imagine myself there—hiking the PCT alongside Cheryl Strayed or onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff as it sinks, I will remember specifics about that story for a long time to come.

The location informs the characters. People are not the same everywhere. The weather, landscape, architecture, foods, flora, and fauna all serve to inform the culture. It’s why you might feel comfortable in Amsterdam but not Alaska, Santa Fe, New Mexico but not Santa Fe, Argentina.

Come along as we travel at the invitation of three authors. First, Ann Patchett takes us to the Amazon in State of Wonder. 

9118135At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter [the name of a character] slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm. When it was fully dark only the misguided insects pelted themselves into the people on board while the rest chose to end their lives against the two bright, hot lights on either side of the boat. The night was filled with the relentless ping of their bodies hitting the glass.

 

Next, we stop at a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with eleven-year-old Kim and her mother, freshly arrived from China.

7362158A thick layer of dust covered the small kitchen table and wide sink, which was white and pitted. As I walked, I tried to avoid the brittle bodies of the dead roaches scattered here and there. They were huge, the thick legs delineated by the harsh shadows…

The walls were cracked, bulging in places as if they had swallowed something, and in some spots, the paint layer had flaked off altogether, exposing the bare plaster like flesh under the skin.

Despite its bareness, this room stank of old sweat. In the corner, a double mattress lay on the floor. It had blue and green stripes and was stained. There was also a low coffee table with one leg that didn’t match, on which I would later do my homework, and a dresser that was shedding its lime paint like dandruff. That was all.

I hugged myself with my arms. “Ma, I want to go home,” I said.

Lastly let’s go to Versailles with Alain Baraton, master gardener there for forty years, as he deals with the aftermath of a terrible storm.

18339812Two young beech trees I had recently planted had been among the first to go. They were now smothered under the mass of a fallen cherry tree. My trees, once so orderly and upright, were now tangled and piled up on one another in painful chaos. They lay in agony, their roots naked and suffering, exposed to the air in a position I couldn’t help but find shocking. The laws of nature, which usually seemed so clement and productive, had been swept away in a climactic upheaval that had lasted only a few hours. Another revolution had struck the subjects of Versailles, and those “subjects” (as we often refer to individual trees in French) were going to die. They had been taken away in the space of a night and there was nothing  I could do about it. Deprived of the garden’s protection, the palace itself suddenly seemed fragile.

Heart racing, I headed to Versailles’s botanical treasure chest, the Queen’s Hamlet. The surroundings had changed so dramatically that I had trouble finding my way. Nothing familiar had survived. The trees that once guided visitors through the garden were unrecognizable. Some of them lay on the ground; others had been displaced or crushed by their neighbors. Even the road was gone. In its place lay a field of mud where my boots sank to the calf.

 

Have books brought you to any memorable places recently?

Writers: I will be teaching an online seminar on setting and description this fall. More details to come soon. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

Why We Read: To Be Convinced

About a dozen years ago, Anthony Doerr went to Rome on a prestigious fellowship to the American Academy. He and his wife packed their six-month-old twin boys to spend a year in the Eternal City. (He received news of the fellowship the day they got home from the hospital!) He had been given the gift every writer dreams of: time. He would be able to devote himself to writing whatever he wanted, no strings attached. His main project was an epic WWII novel with alternating characters: a blind Parisian girl fleeing the Nazi occupation and a German boy whose knack for radio electronics brought him the attention of the Hitler Youth.

Doerr would eventually finish that novel and win the Pulitzer Prize. But that lay years into the future. For now, he was in Italy and recording his thoughts into a memoir called Four Seasons in RomeNote: if you loved the descriptions in All the Light We Cannot See, this book will delight you. I mean, it’s ROME!

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But…it’s also Rome. It’s difficult to convince me that there is something new to uncover. People have been writing about Rome since the Etruscans. How will I not be pummeled with meaningless adjectives and cliches I’ve read a thousand times? How will I not drown in melodrama?

The answer, I’ve come to realize, is that the writer has to change my relationship to the subject in a surprising and convincing way. To do this, she first has to develop a unique relationship to the subject herself. I think Doerr often does a terrific job with this. Rome is, he writes, “an iceberg floating beneath our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface.”

The next step is to select the right details and put them into the right places in the story. Easier said than done, I know. Later in Four Seasons in Rome, Doerr writes:

Every story seeks, in Emerson’s words, the invisible and imponderable: faith, loss, emotional contact. But to get there, oddly enough, the storyteller must use the visible, the physical, the eminently tangible. The reader, first and foremost, must be convinced.

And details, the right details in the right places are what do the convincing…These details are carefully chosen. They are there to reinforce majesty, divinity, to ensure us that what is said to be happening actually is happening.

[The writer] hunts down the most vivid details and links them in sequences that will let her reader see, smell, and hear a world that seems complete in itself. She builds a stage set and painstakingly hides the struts and wires and nail holes. Then she stands back and hopes that whoever might come to see it will believe.

I come to a novel, short story, memoir or essay because I want to be surprised and convinced. I’m ready to give the writer every benefit of the doubt, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. In other words, I’m hoping to make a new discovery, even about a place, a time, an event I know. And, let’s face it, in this Internet age, knowing is a few mouse clicks away. Every story has been told. How can the writer make something commonplace new again? That’s the promise of what lies beneath the cover of every book.

As a reader, what surprises and convinces you?

Have a great weekend, everyone!   

 

Why We Read: To Stretch Our World

“We need fiction to stretch our world.”  ~Susan Sontag

If you want to learn something new—about yourself, the people around you, the world—there are plenty of nonfiction resources. Very bright people dedicate their lives to conducting research or sharing their personal experiences in the hopes of enlightening the rest of us.

Still, I find my eyes are opened widest through fiction. I’ve felt the dust in my throat as it swept across the Great Plains,  realized what it means to be unjustly accused, been an Outsider, discovered how to work a lighthouse, and much more. In fact,  I usually learn more and in a way that resonates with me longer through fiction than nonfiction. Nonfiction often has an agenda. The author has a thesis and is trying to convince me of X. With fiction, I let my guard down. No one is getting preachy (not in good fiction, anyway) or trying to persuade me. The author is presenting the details as they unfold, and I take what I want from it. Fiction immerses me in the lives, occupations, and eras of the people who lived them. These people may exist only in my imagination, but they are representatives for thousands who may not have had a voice.

And so it was with Salt to the Sea, a wonderful new novel by Ruta Sepetys. Near the end of WWII, there was a maritime disaster so terrible, it dwarfed the losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined. When the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea from three Russian torpedoes, it took the lives of more than 9,000 people. Many were refugees and injured soldiers who were “trying to escape from a no-man’s land neither Axis nor Allied in a war already lost but not yet won.” (Read the spot-on New York Times review.)

 

Salt to the Sea

Weaving four narratives in very short chapters (reminiscent of All the Light We Cannot See), Ms. Sepetys brought me there to Gdynia, Poland, with her characters and asked me to make impossible, often heartbreaking decisions. Leave your family behind? Wait for the iron curtain to close across Eastern Europe or take your chance with the Nazis? Send your baby aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff with strangers in a desperate attempt to get him to safety? Behind each of these decisions were people faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. We put ourselves in their shoes. We wonder: would I have the courage, the strength to overcome this?

Every time I pick up a new book, my eyes are opened again and again, and I learn more about myself and the kind of person I want to be.

 

“I am drawn to stories of strength through struggle. I think how we deal with the challenges that face us—that’s what really defines us.” ~Ruta Sepetys.

 

What books have stretched your world lately? Have a great weekend, everyone!