A good place for serious readers

Welcome to A Reader’s Place–a resource for readers of memoirs and narrative nonfiction–well, fiction, too.  In addition to blog posts (below) and reviews,  there’s a special section devoted to memoirs. Click on the Memoirs tab above or the links to the right and you’ll find Reading Lists, Award Lists, quotes, and other interesting information about the genre that keeps on giving. Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, or contact me about speaking.

Read On Life StoriesMy book, a readers’ guide to memoirs and autobiographies–Read On…Life Stories: Reading Lists for Every Tastewas published by Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO in 2009. It seems like everyone is writing memoirs these days and we’re all reading and talking about them. Read On…Life Stories will help you find memoirs you’ll enjoy reading, thinking about, and discussing with friends. The book can be ordered from the usual places.

Women in the Lit LandFor the past several years  I’ve been working on another book, a history of women in the U.S. literary community since colonial times. A collaborative effort, the genesis for the idea came from the Women’s National Book Association, which celebrated its centennial in 2017. The book is titled Women in the Literary Landscape: A Women’s National Book Association Centennial Publication. It was published in March by C&R Press and I’m delighted with the physical book and its contents, which trace the contributions of women in all aspects of the book world. Several posts from the summer of 2018 will give more information about the contents.

 

 

Ohio by Stephen Markley

OhioSometimes a novel is just a story; sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes a novel captures a place and time in such a way that it takes us beyond the characters’ lives. They’re part of the time and place, artifacts of it; their stories resonate with the social, political, and cultural environment. I’m thinking about Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn; The Girls by Emma Cline; City on Fire by GarthRisk Hallberg; and Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers to name a few.

Ohio, due out in mid-August, is as much about the characters as it is about the place and time where they came to adulthood. The title signals that as well as the Hopperesque cover, which is a brilliant entrée into the dark small-town story. The Hopper reference here is no accident. Markley’s genius is to recreate a dispiriting post-9/11 world of rust belt poverty, violence, drug addiction, and ennui, all delivered with a visceral punch. In fact, it’s harder for me to write about the plot and characters–there are many–than it is to describe that social milieu. That’s the good and the not-so-good about the book. There are many characters and I sometimes had difficulty remembering the backstories of each one when they reappeared. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this very noirish novel, just diluted it slightly.

Four characters anchor the story–high school alumni who converge on their home town of New Canaan one night, setting in motion a whirligig of violence and redemption. As they visit old haunts they meet up with other people from their high school days and Markley fills us in on the backstory of all their loves and losses. It’s pretty grim; no one has escaped from those dark high school years unscathed. A line from Nathan Hill’s The Nix is apropos: “Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.” Markley’s characters are not just supporting characters in their friends’ lives, they’re supporting characters in a larger story about the way we live now.

Fans of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom should enjoy this one.

 

 

 

 

 

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

TranscriptionAt the end of May I spent 2 wonderful days at the Javits Center in New York for the publishing trade show, Book Expo. If you’re unfamiliar with this annual book extravaganza, hundreds of publishers set up booths to promote their Fall titles and meet with booksellers from around the country. Advance copies of the titles that the publishers want to promote are given away, authors sign their books, and there’s lots of swag to be had. After 20 years of attending, I have a large collection of publisher-themed canvas tote bags. It’s a standing joke among friends and family. 

Over the 2 days, I lugged home about 25 books–books that have already garnered good reviews and the latest books from my favorite authors. And of course, I’m certain, as I am every year, that I’ll read them all—even though I still have lots of unread books from years past!

No surprise that I first chose to read Transcription by Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors. Atkinson combines literary writing with warmth and humor in compelling ways. This novel, to be published in September, centers around a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited to spy for MI5 just before WWII. Britain in the late 1930s was dealing with fifth columnists: homegrown fascists, communists, and Nazis. Juliet goes from transcribing taped conversations to much more dangerous work, by turns tedious and terrifying. An orphan, Juliet has a great deal to learn about the world, but she’s more than willing to try the undercover life she’s been offered. What she doesn’t understand is that the choices she makes in those war years will follow her into later life. Nothing is ever finished and there are surprises for the reader at the end.

Atkinson’s writing is always a treat to read; Juliet and the supporting cast of characters are lively and well-drawn. The London wartime setting is very evocative. If you enjoy Ian McEwan’s or A.S. Byatt’s novels you will probably enjoy Transcription, too. Her previous two novels–Life After Life and A God in Ruins–were among her best; Transcription is lighter, maybe more accessible to readers who were put off by the structural complexity of the earlier two. I’ve read every one of Atkinson’s novels and loved them all. If you haven’t read any of her books, start with the first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum and you’ll be hooked. 

The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West by John Branch

Last CowboysA good review led me to this book about a rodeo family, the Wrights of southern Utah. Famous on the rodeo circuit for three generations of championship saddle-bronc riding, the Wrights are a large close-knit family with a cattle ranch as well as a serious rodeo passion. Patriarch Bill Wright, no longer on the rodeo circuit, does his best to maintain the land that’s been in his family for 150 years. Changes in the weather that decimate grazing grounds, conflicts with the Bureau of Land Management, and offers from developers combine with Bill’s aging bones to make ranch upkeep difficult. All through the book Bill debates different scenarios if his sons can’t or won’t take over the ranch. He’s been a good steward of the land, but he knows that ranching on Smith Mesa may no longer be viable.

Bill and his wife Evelyn have 13 children, 7 of them sons, most of whom ride the rodeo circuit, burnishing the Wright legend. Saddle-bronc riding is brutal: an 8-second, one-handed, stylish burst, where the rider must synchronize his movements with the wild, angry gyrations of his mount. The Wright sons–and some of the grandsons as well–are big winners, but the success comes with a physical price. Injuries, many quite serious, are frequent, and I can’t imagine how their families maintain equanimity in the face of inevitable broken bones, torn ligaments, and head injuries. In order to compete in as many rodeos as possible to accumulate the wins they need for the championship contest at the season’s end, they drive thousands of miles every weekend. For me,  Bill and his oldest son Cody were the central characters and Branch does a good job of helping us see what drives them.

Author Branch, a journalist from the east coast, spent several years visiting the Wrights, immersed in their lives and relationships. It’s a great story and a fascinating picture of the ranching and rodeo world. The opening scene, where all the Wrights gather to brand and castrate the cattle, is riveting in its depiction of this traditional activity. Although the story does get somewhat repetitive in the last third, with the descriptions of the many rodeo contests blending into each other, the intimate picture of this remarkable family is a testament to resilience and dedication.

Why Reading Fiction is Like Riding a Tandem Bicycle

So Long See You TomorrowI was in the gym last week riding a stationary bicycle called an Expresso, which has a video screen and movable handlebars. It allows you to pick a scenic ride and steer around curves, change gears, etc. It’s something to distract you from the boring activity you’re engaged in. A way to trick the mind and body.

Last week I was also reading William Maxwell’s novel, first published in 1980, So Long, See You Tomorrow. Maxwell was the fiction editor at the New Yorker for many years and he’s a writer’s writer, a peerless prose stylist, whose writing is clarity itself and seems to have sprung forth effortlessly from a swiftly moving pen. You think about how easy he makes it look, how you could do that too! Well, probably not. But it did make me think about how the good writer is always right there with us when we read.

So let’s say that when you read a novel, you’re getting on the bicycle that the writer has constructed. You think you’re in control: you set the speed you’ll read at, turn the pages, stay on course, and you expect that when you’re done you’ve done something good for your brain. Then you realize that the author has climbed up right behind you.

In So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell sets out to tell a story that has a simple plot. A teenage boy recounts how the father of a friend murdered his next door neighbor. The setting is a small town in Illinois. (I’m not giving anything away; this is how the book begins.) Maxwell goes back and forth in time so we see cause and effect. A pretty straightforward ride, yes? The first jolt is when we hear the name of the son of the murderer: Cletus Smith. Maxwell writes that it’s not his real name. Wham, he’s shaking the bicycle seat. Why, in a novel, is he telling us this? Are we riding through memoir territory? What other surprises are on the road ahead?

From that point on, Maxwell is looking over our shoulder, nudging us to turn left here, right there, varying the pacing. Like changes in the landscape, there are changes in point of view. Even the family dog weighs in. It all serves to deepen our engagement with the characters and the plot. We find ourselves thinking about issues of memory, friendship, and the human condition. We’re in his hands, getting a good workout.

The books we’ve read

I subscribe to LitHub, which offers–in the way we read now–daily snippets of literary news and links to full articles. I scan the snippets and usually click through to one or two articles of moderate interest, but sometimes there’s a real winner and I keep that issue in my inbox because it’s too good to relegate to the trash. One recent keeper is a piece by Penelope Lively, one of my favorite novelists, about the books in her personal library. People who interview writers, often ask about what books the writer has on her nightstand or what books or authors are favorites. I must confess, that for the most part I’ve lost interest in the answers. The books on my nightstand are often pretty strange–the results of reviews that caught my eye–and often get returned to the library skimmed or unread. A large group of books I’ve bought with enthusiasm live under the nightstand in a sort of low priority limbo. Recently someone asked for the title of my favorite book and I froze, thinking that the only way I could answer that was to compile a list of all the books to which I’ve given 5 stars on Goodreads. I figure I’m not unique and writers answering those questions are not providing insightful information.

Then there’s Penelope Lively. Her article appeared in Granta and she titled it “Books Do Furnish a Room,” a nod to the 10th volume in Anthony Powell’s classic series A Dance to the Music of Time. Lively writes not about what’s on her nightstand, but about the books she’s bought and read over the years and that still live on her bookshelves. In her “mildly book-infested home…the shelves say something about the person who has stocked them.” What we read, of course, furnishes not just our rooms, but our minds. She writes about how the nonfiction shelves reflect her interest in Egypt, where she spent her childhood; English history and archaeology; and science among other subjects. Although her novels are set in contemporary times and plumb the depths of human relationships, they are literally and metaphorically informed by her wide-ranging reading in those areas.

My library doesn’t contain as many books as Lively’s. As a librarian I learned to weed vigorously. I do still have most of a shelf of Greek and Roman literature from college that I can’t part with as well as Pauline Kael’s complete reviews, but I tend to think of my local library as a convenient extension to my collection. And I do have a hand-written list of all the books I’ve read, going back to somewhere around ninth grade. That’s something I treasure as much as the books themselves. Here’s the link to Lively’s Granta article, worth reading for her lovely, graceful style. https://granta.com/books-do-furnish-a-room/

A dreadful week

ecstantonI received an email on Wednesday from a friend in Australia, very upset about the results of our election, can’t understand how it could have happened and aware of the global implications. My husband and I have been traveling, for the past two weeks, in Canada and upstate New York. Here’s what I wrote to her:

…I will tell you about our experiences today in a little town called Seneca Falls, in upstate New York. We timed our drive back home to spend 2 days here; it’s the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement and we were hoping to celebrate at the national park that commemorates the 1848 meeting where a group of women drew up a Declaration of Sentiments based on the Declaration of Independence and began the hard work of convincing men and women that women needed to vote, which didn’t happen nationally until 1917. Seneca Falls is kind of a hallowed place in US women’s history. Well, it wasn’t going to be that kind of day. I almost expected the flags in town to be at half mast! Every woman I met here looked at me and said, How are you feeling today? and we commiserated. I met a woman with 2 toddlers in tow who said it just felt like the right thing to do today to get in the car and drive here. At the Women’s Rights National Park there were wonderful exhibits about the truly revolutionary women who started the movement.

At one point, I turned around and there was one of the great names, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all dressed up in one of those voluminous black dresses they wore and she smiled at me. I walked over and began to talk to her (a park employee dressed up as Stanton), and she took us next door to the chapel where that first convention was held and, never breaking character, talked to us about the women and the convention, told us stories about Stanton’s family, and answered our many questions. We kept her there, just the two of us, for about an hour. It was so wonderful, especially since I’ve been reading and writing about the suffrage movement right now for the book I’m editing. It reminded me of the teaching in one of the Jewish texts: “you are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to desist.”

So there you are. Hillary didn’t complete the work, but she certainly didn’t desist from trying to move us forward a tiny bit. We’ve suffered through several dreadful presidents in the last 40 years–Reagan and the 2 Bushes (Bill Clinton wasn’t so great either) and we are still reeling from what they did, especially Reagan and Bush 2. There’s so much misogyny in this country that I don’t believe we’ll have a woman president in my lifetime and actually, I didn’t think Hillary was electable until she faced such a dreadful opponent. We just had 8 years of a great president who could only accomplish a fraction of what he wanted to because Congress is so racist and dysfunctional. So now we’re going from the great intellectual to the great dunce. Madness lies ahead.

Books I enjoyed this year

Everyone else has picked their top books, but since I read up until December 31st I don’t like to make my list too early. As before, these are the books I read and enjoyed this year regardless of publication date. Fiction first, then nonfiction, not in rank order.

FICTION

Urza, Gabriel. All That Followed. Holt,  2015. 
An engrossing political novel, set in Spain, told from multiple points of view.  Did you read The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett? Another great political novel.

Gornick, Lisa. Louisa Meets Bear: Linked Stories. Sarah Crichton Books, 2015.
A college romance echoes through the lives of Louisa and Bear, their families, and friends. Poignant and insightful. I love linked stories–previous favorites: In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison, A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. (No need to mention Olive Kitteredge.)

Clark, Claire. We That Are Left. Houghton Mifflin. 2015.
An absorbing story set in England before and during WWI about the devastation wreaked by the war on a wealthy family. Great character development. Did you enjoy the TV mini-series The Cazalets? This is for you. For fans of Downton Abbey too, but not as soapy.

Marra, Anthony. The Tsar of Love and Techno. Hogarth. 2015.
Marra is an astounding writer–A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of those books that I want to read again for the first time. This new one is linked stories set in Chechnya; sad, violent, haunting, and totally human.

Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. Leaving Brooklyn. Houghton Mifflin. 1989.
Not sure how I missed this, since I’ve read and enjoyed many of Schwartz’s novels. It’s a brilliant coming of age story, with lots of 1950s New York atmosphere and piercing insight into a teenage girl’s thoughts. Read this with Schwartz’s memoir Ruined by Reading. Two gems.

Foulds, Adam. In the Wolf’s Mouth. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
A political/war novel set in Italy during WWII. An American infantryman and a British field security officer try to deal with the politics (and Mafia) of an Italian village. They haven’t got a clue. Beautifully written, a classic war novel.

Price, Richard. The Whites. Holt. 2015.
A good police procedural is so entertaining, and this is a great one. “Whites” refers to the unsolved cases that haunt a group of police detectives who work the Manhattan Night Watch. You may not remember the plot after a month, but you’ll have a great time while you’re reading it.

Evans, Lissa. Crooked Heart. HarperCollins. 2015.
Noel Bostock is a great creation–an orphan who’s wise beyond his years but still very much a child. Evacuated from London in WWII, Noel ends up living with Vera, who just wants Noel as an accomplice in her con games, but she gets more than she bargained for. Delightful and memorable.

Pierpont, Julia. Among the Ten Thousand Things. Random. 2015.
An adulterous relationship has serious consequences in this novel that’s so beautifully written it’s hard to remember it’s a debut by someone under 30. I can only compare it to Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, another tour de force about how people mess up their lives. Waiting for her next novel…

Hallberg, Garth Risk. City on Fire. Knopf. 2015.
Well, I read the whole 900+ pages and enjoyed every minute of it, but I’m not sure that it’s more than the sum of its parts when all is said and done. There are some great set pieces and Hallberg has done a great job of recreating NY in 1977, a terrible time.

Taseer, Aatish. The Way Things Were. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
This is probably, no absolutely, the best novel set in India that I’ve read in a long, long time, maybe since A Suitable Boy. It’s a very literary piece, about the role of language and history in shaping personal relationships. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’ll be blissful. Maybe J.M. Coetzee is a readalike?

Weisman, Jonathan. No. 4 Imperial Lane. Twelve/Hachette. 2015. 
Another political novel that I loved this year, about David, an American student, who extends his year abroad in England by taking a job caring for the aging, paralyzed Hans Bromwell, who lives with his sister and her daughter. The politics comes from the family’s entanglement with Portuguese colonial Africa in the era of rebellion and independence. A life-changing experience for David and maybe for the reader, too.

…and I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Henry Green’s novel Loving, first published in England in 1945. Green’s a great prose stylist, works the language in wonderful ways. Years ago I read his memoir, Pack My Bag, always meant to read the novels…

NONFICTION

Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Simon & Schuster. 2015.
What was going on in Shakespeare’s world in the year he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra? Shapiro elucidates the political, social, and religious concerns that influenced his plots and characters.

Russakoff, Dale. The Prize: the High-Stakes, Big-Money Race to Save Our Failing Schools. Houghton Mifflin. 2014.
This is the heartbreaking story of how billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t rescue the public schools in Newark; of good intentions gone bad; of politics as usual; of children deprived of a good education. If you read this, you’ll have to stop periodically to let the steam out of your ears.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau. 2015.
Coates writes this as a letter to his son, about the issue of race in the U.S., for African-American young men in particular. Powerful, sad, and important.

Kim, Suki. Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Crown. 2014.
Kim spent 6 months teaching English to bright young North Korean teens, astonished at their isolation from the outside world and their acquiescence in the system that perpetuates their ignorance. Riveting stuff.

Lightman, Alan. Screening Room: Family Pictures. Pantheon. 2015.
A lovely lyrical and impressionistic memoir of the author’s Memphis family from the 1930s to the 1960s. Lightman’s grandfather was a movie theater impresario, a larger-than-life figure whose influence is still strong, years after his death.

Sacks, Oliver. On the Move: A Life. Knopf. 2015.
I’ve read Sacks’s books for years but had no idea that he rode motorcycles, was a serious weight lifter, and a sometime drug addict. This is a very personal glimpse into his life, and worth every page. Humorous and touching, especially in light of his awareness of his imminent death.

Deen, Shulem. All Who Go Do Not Return. Graywolf, 2015.
Deen bares his soul in this memoir of his childhood and young adulthood in a strict Hasidic community and his growing realization that he had to leave. A fascinating insider’s look at an unusual way of life. Over the years I’ve read a number of memoirs on this subject; this is by far the best.

Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Grove/Atlantic. 2015.
When Macdonald’s father died, she was particularly bereft and decided to tame a goshawk, the wildest of the falcons, in an effort to tame her own grief. More than a bereavement memoir, this is nature writing at its best.

Fuller, Alexandra. Leaving Before the Rains Come. Penguin. 2015. 
I’ve read all of Fuller’s memoirs, starting with the hilarious and touching Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; this latest one may be the best. It traces the rise and fall of her marriage to an American and the ways that her unorthodox childhood in Africa affect her relationship with her husband and her own efforts to find contentment.

Gornick, Vivian. Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. Yale Univ. Pr., 2011.
Gornick applies her own brand of insight and investigation into the life and motives of Red Emma, the complex and contradictory anarchist.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. Simon & Schuster. 2014.
Klein gives us the bad news: the global free market economy is killing our planet and international trade agreements now take precedence over national laws. Important reading, not for the gloom-and-doom, but for her ideas about how we can make changes.

O’Neill, Joseph. Blood-Dark Track: A Family History. Knopf/Doubleday. 2011.
O’Neill probes his Turkish and Irish ancestry, giving us not just the unusual, colorful personalities, but the social and political history that influenced–and upended–their lives. If you enjoyed Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman or She Left Me the Gun, by Emma Brockes, you’ll find this irresistible.

…and I’ve been listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Simon & Schuster, 2013. What a great story Goodwin tells and there’s so much relevance for the issues we struggle with today in politics and journalism. Her writing keeps it all lively and engrossing and the reader, Edward Herrmann does a great job of varying his voice and emphasis to keep the sentences interesting.