Category Archives: Books and reading

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.

Wednesday at Book Expo 2015

This is one of my favorite events of the year–a chance to meet authors and hear about forthcoming books, even take some home. The best. Today was the opening day, a half day really, starting at 12:30 with Laura Miller of interviewing Jonathan Franzen. A big crowd as you can imagine. Franzen had just come back from a birdwatching trip in east Africa and acknowledged that he was having a hard time inserting himself back into talking about the book, Purity, due out Sept. 1. He was, I’m going to say it, more than just a little inarticulate. I took notes as best I could and some interesting tidbits are below.

He talked about how each novel gets harder to write, because the early novels mine the easily accessible material, the stuff that’s most present. With each novel, he digs deeper, ultimately into areas that are difficult to write about. He talked about process–how he starts with an outline but once he starts writing  he always realizes that the book as outlined will never work. In fact, he wrote the first chapter of Purity quickly, based on the outline and was stuck; he didn’t go back to it until a year later.

Miller asked questions about the relationship between plot and character and Franzen spent some time discussing the conundrum of getting the reader to turn the pages in a novel where character takes precedence over plot.

An interesting note: the German edition of the book can’t be called Purity–the word carries too much baggage there.

From that interview I went up to the exhibit floor and waited on line to get a signed poster from Maira Kalman from her new book Beloved Dog. I told her that I had seen the small collection she curated at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum this winter and how interesting it was. She asked if I remembered seeing Toscanini’s pants and she told me that they belonged to her. She loaned them to the museum for the exhibit. (She also has the suit jacket.) I’d love to know what else she’s collected over the years. Of course I told her how much I loved the New Yorker “stans” cover.

Late in the afternoon, laden down with advance copies of books and some nifty canvas bags, I made my way back home. I’ll be back to the Javits at 9 tomorrow.

The Books Overhead, part 1

I often get into trouble by taking too many books out of the library at once, loading up my nook with too many books (and samples of books), downloading too many audiobooks to my mp3 player, and requesting too many ARCs from publishers. That doesn’t include other books people give me insisting that I’ll love them, and the huge folder that I keep dropping reviews into, certain that I’ll read those books shortly as well.

I suspect I’m not the only one who is deluded about the number of books I can read or listen to. I cart home armloads from the library and then return some portion unread; so sad. Then, of course, we forget about those titles, until they appear on “best” lists and then we cart them home from the library or download them to our devices once again.

So in several parts, in several days, here’s the list of what’s waiting for me, starting with the audiobooks on my mp3 player:

The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass. I’m almost finished with this one and while I’m enjoying it, I think the hard copy would have been a better choice. The reader is very good, distinguishing all the voices in a wonderful way, but the story unfolds in a leisurely manner and Mark Bramhall’s careful reading makes it even more leisurely. I haven’t been driving or walking enough, so I’ve been listening for too long. It reminds me, in its themes, of her earlier novel, The Whole World Over; if you enjoyed that one, you’ll probably enjoy this one, too.

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh is one of my favorite writers; I listened to The Hungry Tide a several years ago and it still haunts me. River of Smoke is #2 in a trilogy; I read the first part, Sea of Poppies and was hooked into this sweeping tale of Indian history and society. Can’t wait to listen to it, although I’m concerned that I won’t be able to flip back and forth to manage the huge cast.

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates. I listened to Oates’s Little Bird of Heaven and  downloaded this one hoping it’s as compelling. I have a hard time reading Oates because she’s so unrelentingly grim. We’ll see.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. Sounded too intriguing to pass up. Haven’t read anything by Perrotta yet.

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. Publishers’ Weekly called this a pitch-black comedy; sounds great for audio and the reviews were stellar.

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace. Well, I couldn’t resist this one, especially after just finishing The Marriage Plot; I’m told the manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead is modeled on Wallace. We’ll see.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje’s never one to miss and this book has been getting such great reviews. It will be an interesting contrast with River of Smoke (above) since both are set on ships in the Indian Ocean.

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry. I’m looking forward to listening to this one for the beautiful language.

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain. I spent many years reading about Gertrude Stein and the artists and expatriates and artists who circled around her, so I’m interested in this “take” on Hemingway in Paris from the point of view of his wife, Hadley.

Great Expectations and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. These are just in case I run out of books to listen to. Likely, huh? Not to mention that there are also 3 French language audio courses waiting too…

My Top 20 Faves from 2010

Everyone’s been posting “best” lists so here’s mine, but it’s a little different than most. It’s not my take on the best books published in 2010. It’s  a list of some of the most memorable books of fiction and nonfiction I read this past year, no matter what year they were published. There are so many others, but I feel it would be overwhelming to list any more than this. So here they are, alphabetically by author, grouped into fiction and nonfiction. Forgive me for not ranking them, but they’re so diverse it just wasn’t impossible.


Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Doubleday, 2010, 293p. A heartbreaker of a story told by a young girl who suffers from exquisite sensitivity to the emotions of the people around her. It’s haunting and lovely. This is on the Great Group Reads list for 2010.

Boyden, Joseph. Three Day Road. Penguin Canada, 2006, 400p.
Thanks to Katherine Johnson at NoveList for directing my attention to this remarkable novel about two Native Americans who enlist in the Canadian army in World War II. Spare and very affecting.

Gwin, Minrose. The Queen of Palmyra. Harper Perennial, 2010, 432p.
I’m so sorry this came out hard on the heels of Stockett’s The Help. I liked that one, but I liked The Queen of Palmyra even more. It’s set in the summer of 1963, in a town in the Deep South, where racial prejudice rules the lives of black and white like a nasty, pervasive drug. This is also on the Great Group Reads list for 2010.

Daniel, Susanna. Stiltsville. Harper, 2010, 310p.
When Frances Ellerby  goes to Miami for a wedding, she makes a best friend, Marse, and falls in love with Dennis DuVal, whose family owns a wonderful beach house on stilts in Biscayne Bay. No plot to speak of, except life itself with all the subtle and seismic changes that come from marriage, motherhood, and friendship. An author to watch.

Jones, Sadie. Small Wars. Knopf, 2009, 352p.
Hal Treherne, a young British soldier and his wife Clara are stationed in Cyprus in 1956 as part of the British occupying force. As the terrorist campaign escalates, Hal finds that his responsibility to quell the violence puts him in untenable moral situations while Clara feels the effect on their marriage and young daughters.

Lamott, Anne. Imperfect Birds. Riverhead Books, 2010, 278p.
Lamott’s a great, insightful prose stylist and this dissection of the life of a family in Marin County, CA is a stunner, a painful account of high school senior Rosie, drug addicted and unmoored and how her parents are unable–or unwilling–to push through the layers of lies and deceit that are dragging her down.

Moody, Rick. Four Fingers of Death. Little, Brown, 2010, 725p.
The story is loosely based on the 1950s scifi flick The Crawling Hand, but Moody turns it into a serio-comic dystopian tour de force. It starts with a voyage to Mars that goes horribly wrong; back in the U.S. we are treated to an outrageous vision of our future. You’ll love it—or not, but you won’t be indifferent.

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. Random House, 2010, 334p.
This almost indescribable sad and hilarious novel tells the story of 39-year old Lenny Abramov and his doomed love for Eunice Park. Lenny and Eunice live in some not-so-distant future USA where books are considered smelly artifacts and a constant stream of data from a device that you wear around your neck sends your rankings to everyone you pass on the street. Just read it.

Soli, Tatjana. The Lotus Eaters. St. Martin’s Press, 2010, 384p.
Soli recreates the moral quagmire that was the Vietnam War from the perspective of a group of photojournalists caught up in trying to convey the horrors to the folks back home. Unfortunately the concerns about war reporting that she raises are still quite relevant. This is on the Great Group Reads list for 2010.

Toibin, Colm. Brooklyn. Scribner, 2009, 262p.
Toibin tells this haunting story from the point of view of a young Irish woman, and it’s a triumph of character creation that we are completely inside Eilis’s head, seeing, hearing, and feeling what she does. Eilis leaves her village to come to Brooklyn in the early 1950s in hopes that she’ll have more opportunities here. Loneliness and inexperience combine to change her life. See my review.

Trollope, Anthony. The Way We Live Now. Orig. published 1875, many editions.
I read one of Trollope’s Barchester Towers novels a few years ago, but it just didn’t grab me. This is brilliant, with a cast of characters from all social classes, satire that’s still timely, and a plot that barrels along propelled precisely by the foibles and pretensions of the characters. It was the first book I read on my nook and I was totally absorbed. I’ll eventually get to the TV movie as I work through my Netflix queue, but I’m glad I read it first.


Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs: the Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Harper, 2009, 320p.
I listened to Chabon read this collection of memoir-essays and was charmed by his voice, candor, and scintillating prose.

Flynn, Nick. The Ticking is the Bomb: A Memoir. W.W. Norton, 2010, 240p.
Riveting and raw, Flynn manages to combine some unusual topics. See my review.

Kennedy, Edward. True Compass. Twelve, 2009, 544p.
I listened to Kennedy’s memoir, written shortly before his death in 2009, and loved hearing his stories about growing up as the youngest brother, idolizing his older, charismatic brothers Joe, Jack, and Bobby. The portion about the 1960s is riveting; Kennedy’s recounting of his family’s losses in this decade is painful to hear but it also recalled for me the incredible energy of this time and our certainly that we were on the cusp of momentous change–in politics, personal relationships, and culture.

Pan, Philip. Out of Mao’s Shadow: the Struggle for the Soul of a New China. Simon & Schuster, 2008, 448p.
Pan personalizes issues of human and civil rights in China by telling the stories of people who have defied the government. My book group read it and loved it.

Skloot, Henrietta. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown, 2010. 369p.
There’s hardly a “best” list that doesn’t include Skloot’s book and deservedly so. It has everything for a compelling read. See my review.

Great Reads for book groups, 2010

For the second year, I had the fun of chairing the committee that reads and selects the titles for this list. We look for books that will be good for discussion, midlist books that may not get the big bucks for publicity. Since we read many titles pre-pub, we sometimes include a title or two that does turn out to be a bestseller. We’ll live with that! The list is mainly fiction, but this year and last year we picked one memoir. Here’s a link to the Great Group Reads website with all the titles, annotations, and links to reviews and publishers’ websites. The readers come from around the country and we have a great virtual conversation about the books.

Great Group Reads is part of National Reading Group Month, which is sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association, a great group that’s been around since 1917, when a group of women–ticked off by the all-male Bookseller’s League’s no-women members policy–formed their own group. Still going strong after 93 years, there are chapters in cities around the country. The NYC chapter is the founding chapter, and we host networking and educational events for our members, a great group of authors, editors, agents, publishers, librarians, and others involved in the book world.

All the WNBA chapters host events for National Reading Group Month (October); I’m moderating an author panel for the NYC chapter’s event on October 19th at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, starting at 6:30 pm. Come if you can–the event is free and there will be donations of books from publishers, refreshments, and book signings afterwards. Since Brooklyn now seems to be author central, we have a great group of authors: Susan Henderson, Sheri Holman, Rick Moody, Jackson Taylor, and Emily St. John Mandel. There’s a little more detail on the WNBA website events page; I’ll have more information as it gets closer.