Category Archives: Good for Book Groups

Adding to HOW to Read ALL DAY

As summer approaches and “summer reading” appears everywhere we readers tend to go – the library, bookstores, book supplements in our local papers, book blogs (like this one!) – I thought an update to my “How to Read All Day” list might be in order. To help me out, I solicited advice from readers on Facebook and got some great new additions. Feel free to share more on Readallday‘s Facebook page….

The days are longer, so there are more hours to read outdoors. Try the beach, the garden, your stoop, a bench in a park, a blanket on the grass in the park. As long as you always carry a book with you, you will always have something to read and when the moment arrives, dig out that book and read.

My summer reading recommendations include:

Rachel Howell Hall’s latest and always fabulous Louise Norton thriller, Trail of Echoes – I love everything Hall writes;

Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan, author of The Lifeboat – this novel is a brilliant exploration of truth and our human impulse to do the right thing – but what is the right thing? Rogan has us thinking about and caring about – and we will never forget about – the characters in this wonderful book;

LaRose by Louise Erdrich, another beautiful book from national treasure Erdrich about loss, faith, redemption;

The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman by Mamen Sanchez, a joyful ride of a read while also being a masterful story about friendships, romance, commitment, and the importance of staying true to oneself and yet open to change and adventure;

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson,  a gorgeous, stirring novel that  reads like a poem, telling the story of four girls in 1970s Brooklyn, and the tragedies and triumphs of adolescence, as seen through the lens of one of the girls, now a grown woman;

A Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North, a thought-provoking and unputdownable novel by an incredibly creative writer-  on my own to-read list for the summer are two more of her books, Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August;

And of course I will be reading the latest from Elly Griffiths, The Woman in BlueSharon Bolton, Daisy in Chains, and Louise Penny, A Great Reckoning.

 

HOW TO READ ALL DAY

Always have a book with you.
Read while waiting.
Read while eating.
Read while exercising.
Read before bed.
Read before getting out of bed.

Read instead of updating FB.
Read instead of watching TV.
Read instead of vacuuming.
Read while vacuuming.
Read instead of updating blog or website.
Read instead of weeding.

Read what you want.
Read a book a friend wants you to read.
Read a book a bookseller swoons over.
Read a book loved by your local librarian.

Read with a book group.
Read with your kid.
Read with your cat.
Read to your dog.

Read on a schedule. Set the timer for twenty minutes and let everything else go.

The Joys of Book of the Month Club

I love my new gig as a judges, and from that pool, five books are chosen for the members of the Club.Untitled

Not only do I get to be a judge, but I am also a member of the club! That means that every month, a book is recommended for me based on my preferences. It is like going into the old corner bookstore, meeting up with the owner who has known me for ages, and getting recommendations of what to read. Only my corner book store is gone….but now Book of the Month Club is here. I look over the choices of books for the month, go with the recommended one or choose another, and then, ta da! A beautiful hardcover book appears in my mailbox. I read it, love it, and then go online to Book of the Month Club message boards to take part in the interesting and passionate conversations going on there. Conversations about books: why we love them, read them, and want more and more of them to read, and to love.

The titles that Book of the Month Club offers are special. Whether written by a known author or someone just starting out, the novels, short story collections, memoirs, biographies, and histories are well-written, engaging, original, and unforgettable. Some are more light-hearted, others are deeply, well, deep, and others are just straight and simple page turners. Books to be read in one night, no sleep possible but who needs sleep when there are such great books to read?

What is also so wonderful about the Book of the Month Club is the price of membership. Three plans are available. You can start out with just a one month membership, to test the waters, and that costs $16.99, which will get you the choice of one hardcover book among a choice of five, shipped to your house, along with access to online conversations. If you’re ready to commit to a longer membership, the three-month plan will get you a book a month for $12.99 and the year-long plan will get you a brand new beautiful hardcover book for just $8.99 per month. Untitled

Meet me at Book of the Month Club – we’ll have lots to talk about.

Judith Frank: Choosing Life

A twin loses his brother in a Palestinian suicide bombing of an Israeli cafe and finds himself guardian of two orphaned children. The twin, Daniel, is gay; his partner, Matt, is a goy and viewed by Daniel’s family as a pretty boy, a party boy. The gay couple live in Northampton, Massachusetts, far from the Jerusalem the two young children, Gal and Noam, have known as home and homeland – and so we immerse ourselves into the modern but timeless story told in Judith Frank’s beautiful, expansive, and deeply humanistic novel, All I Love and Know. Unknown

Frank writes with both fluidity and precision about politics, sexuality, and religion; about identity, family, and love; and about fear: the fear of not doing enough to protect those we love, of not understanding, of betraying and of being betrayed.

In telling the stories of the couple Matt and Daniel, of the children Gal and Noam, and of the surviving grandparents, Frank confronts and examines the role that fear plays in the lives of survivors: fear of death flips to a fear of life, because life suddenly has become a huge responsibility. How can we deserve to survive when others have died? What can protect us when nothing protected someone we loved?

Frank is a perfect storyteller, creating vivid landscapes and characters and events. The hot winds of hamsin are felt, the wet snow of Massachusetts seeps in, the ascent into Jerusalem creates a pitch in the stomach; Matt and Daniel and the children became like family, creating waves of worry and irritation, and of pride. A funeral, the first day of school, a party with strangers on New Year’s Eve are all pitch perfect, in their pain, their promise, their let down.

The intertwined story of this multi-generational, multi-political and sexual and cultural family offer the best evidence that co-existence is possible, that survival and safety for everyone is a dream worth working towards; that responsibility and commitment and faith are not just words but attainable ideals. For it is in the stories of individual families, all kinds and varieties of families, that the joined future of the world can be seen.

In All I Love and Know, Judith Frank presents a family that, though scarred and scared, overcomes division and distrust to create their own kind of unity. A unity created through stumbles, mistakes, and hurts, but that is stronger for the scars and for having overcome fears of both dying and of living. We have little choice in how we, or those whom we love, die. But when it comes to life, we can choose. Judith Frank shows us how.

Books About Letters

Seven Great Books About Letters

Unknown-1 Royko In Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol by Mike Royko, edited by David Royko – Yes, that Mike Roykop, tough and cynical newspaper columnist – it turns out he had a sweet and vulnerable heart as a young man in the Air Force and he wooed his high school love from afar through his wonderful letters, found by his son after his death and collected in this book.

Unknown-2 Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo by Maria Galilei – Yes, that Galileo – he was a great dad, sending his daughter (ensconced in a convent) needed food, books, letters, and she was grateful and loving in return.

Unknown-1Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon – This pair of friends sent more than 200 letters back and forth, writing frankly about sex, men, life, and, of course, food.

Unknown-284, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff – A letter arrives a London bookstore, inquiring about secondhand books, setting off a correspondence that brought friendship, and then love, into the lives of two correspondents separated by an ocean but united by books.

Unknown-1 The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – The first detective novel, written in epistolary form, that tracks the loss of a gigantic yellow diamond of unearthly beauty and mysterious power. Love and death revolve around the magnificent diamond – and letters tell it all.

Unknown-1Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster – A young woman is sent off to college through the sponsorship of an anonymous benefactor – all he asks in return are regular letters from school. Funny, heart-warming, and unforgettable, this book was a favorite of mine when I was a child and was just as fun to re-read as an adult.

Unknown-1Lady Susan by Jane Austen – Lady Susan Vernon is beautiful, charming, but also self-serving and quite cruel – follow her machinations to marry off her daughter and find a new husband for herself, written entirely in letters back and forth between the various characters in little-known novel by Jane Austen.

Sisters Lost and Found, in the Land of Shadows

Land of Shadows, Rachel Howzell Hall’s latest novel, is a riveting exploration of crime and its repercussions in the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Together with her previous thriller, No One Knows You’re Here, Land of Shadows proves that Hall is a star at weaving fast-paced, layered, and gripping stories. She creates an L.A. seething with tension; plots that twist and turn; and heroines bristling with intelligence, heart, and grit. Her women are street smart, sexy, and determined. Having made it through tough childhoods in L.A.’s worst neighborhoods, now they want to give voice – and justice – back to the places they came from. Unknown-1

Such a task is not for the faint-hearted – and Hall’s readers have to toughen up as well. Along with Lou in Land of Shadows, I had to face ugly facts and even uglier secrets as the plot unfolded but the writing is so good, the story so compelling, the characters so real, that I dove right in and stayed willingly submerged until the final word. Coming up for air, I was grateful for the provoking and sustaining experience of reading Hall – and I was ready to dive right back down again. So I did, rereading Land of Shadows almost immediately in order to catch all the nuances I’d missed the first time round.

In Land of Shadows, L.A. police detective Lou Norton is called to the scene of a murder staged to look like the suicide of a teenaged girl. Lou quickly spots the grisly signs of foul play but even worse: she is launched back into memories of the disappearance of her sister Tori, when Lou was just a child. Back then, the police barely took notice of a poor black girl gone missing and her disappearance went unsolved. Lou has been nursing the pain of losing her sister for years; the sight of the murdered girl reopens the wounds with a searing vengeance. Norton vows that this time round, the victim will get the attention she deserves.

I stared into the girl’s dead, half-mast eyes – 3 percent of me still believed that the last image seen by a dying person remained fixed in her eyes. ‘Who did this to you sweetie?’ I didn’t care about the ‘why.’ Fuck the ‘why.’ I wanted to know who had taken this girl’s life. Unfortunately, there were no images of that monster in her cloudy corneas. There were specks of red, though. Blood.
‘That’s okay, ‘ I whispered. ‘I’ll find that son-of-a-bitch.’ For you. And for me.

When there is little chance that a crime or its victim will garner attention, how are the losses caused by such violence to be absorbed? There can be no closure, only disillusionment; there is no healing, only a festering of disgust. Without healing, hope becomes crippled into an emotion that aims too low: for revenge, not justice; for escape, not security; for oblivion, not understanding. Lou knows what the unsolved disappearance of her sister has cost her family and how it still haunts her own nightmares.

No matter where her current investigation leads – into “respectable” neighborhoods or the gilded world of college basketball or Lou’s own backyard, further crumbling her broken relationship with her husband- she follows the trail with doggedness, fighting against her own painful memories to get through the web of lies created by family, witnesses, and perps. What Lou discovers in the end won’t make healing easy, not for her or for the family of the girl – but it will make healing possible. And with healing, comes a possibility of rehabilitating hope.

Kit Lyman’s novel, Satan’s Garden, also looks at the toll taken when a sister goes missing. Leaving aside the unfortunate title, this debut novel is engaging, provocative, and deeply moving. Two sisters are as closely twined as only sisters can be, their distinct personalities meshing together into a special bond of strength and comfort. But then Dani is kidnapped and Keely is the only witness. Unknown-2

When months pass with no message from the kidnapper and all clues have been followed to blank conclusions, Keely alone remains certain that her sister is alive. And she is – but for how long? While she remains imprisoned by a psychopath (who seems to know way too much about both girls), Keely becomes caught in another kind of web, one woven by society’s expectations, adolescent cruelties, and the deep pain of missing her sister. Can Dani be found in time – not only to save her life but also to save Keely’s sanity?

Lyman is a wonderful writer and the story she tells in Satan’s Garden quickly drew me in – I read feverishly and on the edge of my seat. The story is told in alternating chapters by first one sister, then the other, in voices that are vivid and unique. I cared about each sister so much, and found myself willing them the strength to survive while hoping against hope that time would not run out. Will one sister have to sacrifice herself to save the other? How can such a choice be made – and yet what other choice is possible, when the life of your beloved sister is in the balance?

Side Effects: the Books of Almudena Solana

I am a huge fan of the Spanish writer Almudena Solana. Great news for me: I am finally meeting her this week after years of reading and re-reading her books (we became acquainted through emails back and forth). Bad news? Only one of her novels – the marvelous The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz – has been translated into English. I reviewed her novel Las Mujeres Inglesas Destrozan Los Tacones Al Andar (English Women Destroy Their Heels By Walking) in 2011 in the hopes it might be translated; now I am trying again with her latest novel, Efectos Secundarios (Side Effects). I’ve attempted a review in Spanish and follow with the English version. Unknown

La última novela de Almudena Solana es una maravilla de la imaginación y de la humanidad. En Efectos Secundarios el novelista español utiliza diez cualidades medicinales para explorar las profundidades internas de cada uno de sus personajes, nombrando a ellos después de los medicamentos comunes. Por ejemplo, una mujer llamada Adiro puede entender cuando alguien está mintiendo; Nolotil es un médico que tiene que aprender a decir “no”: Augmentin está lleno de nostalgia de la infancia; Voltaren es lleno de sí mismo; Paracetamol es una vieja que no puede recordar nada; y Ventolin es un joven saxofonista.

Incluso sin nombres propios, todos los personajes son muy reales y cada uno exige nuestra atención y afecto. Al principio, yo no entendía cómo las historias de los distintos personajes se entrecruzan pero poco a poco todo se unió para formar una hermosa historia sobre la soledad, la familia, la amistad, el amor, el sexo, el dolor y el confort. ¿Cómo se deletrea alivio? A través del contacto humano.

Hay muchos métodos (y algunos pueden decir los medicamentos) para obtener a través de las dificultades de la vida – pero al final, es la relación entre una persona y otra que da a los personajes la fuerza que necesitan.

Yo mismo aparezco en el libro, en la historia de una mujer que lee un libro al día durante un año para hacer frente a una terrible tristeza. Fue durante este año de terapia libro que leí por primera vez Almudena Solana, cuando un día de la biblioteca elegí El Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz. Sentí el toque humano en las palabras de Solana – y me sentí mejor. No paracetamol para mí: sólo libros y más libros. Gracias, Almudena, para el mejor alivio del dolor – las conexiones entre los seres humanos, la empatía de una persona a otra.

Now in English:

The latest novel by Almudena Solana is a marvel of imagination and humanity. In Side Effects the Spanish novelist uses ten medicinal qualities to explore the inner depths of her characters, naming them after commonly prescribed drugs. For example, a woman named Adiro (a kind of aspirin) can understand when someone is lying; Nolotil (a pain reliever) is a physician who has to learn to say “no”: Augmentin (an antibiotic) is full of nostalgia for childhood; Voltaren (an anti-inflammatory) is full of himself; Paracetamol (pain reliever) is an old woman who can not remember anything; and Ventolin (a bronchodilator) is a young saxophonist.

Even without proper names, all the characters are very real and each demands our attention and affection. At first I did not understand how the stories of the different characters intersect but gradually everything came together to form a beautiful story about loneliness, family, friendship, love, sex, pain and comfort. How do you spell relief? Through human contact.

There are many methods (and some may say drugs) to get through the difficulties of life – but in the end, is the relationship between one person and another that gives the characters the strength they need.

I also appear in the book, in the side mention of a woman reading a book a day for a year to deal with a terrible sadness. It was during this very real year of book therapy that I first read Almudena Solana, when one day in the library I chose The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz. I felt the human touch in Solana’s words – and I felt better. No paracetamol for me: just books and more books. Thanks, Almudena, for better pain relief – the connections between humans, empathy from one person to another.

Books About Life – and Cats

As far as books go, it is always the year of the cat. Just take a look at any bookstore and you can find more than a few books about cats (Cat Daddy, Cat Sense, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, I Could Pee on This –poems allegedly by a cat; The Cat Who Went to Heaven – the story of Buddha and his cat, etc. etc). And as a cat lover, that is just fine with me. IMG_7737

Even if I were not the willing slave of two cats, a trio of cat books – two out in the last year and one coming this November – would receive my rave reviews. Because even more than being about cats, the books – The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and illustrated by Wendy McNaughton, and the upcoming The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs are about connection, and all the attendant consequences of taking up with another living being. Along with the feelings of happiness and contentment, there are the darker emotions of possessiveness, jealousy, suspicion, and the deeper ties of responsibility, empathy, and always, always, the promise of growth and change.

The Guest Cat tells the story of what happens when a tiny, independent, and utterly charming cat enters the lives of a couple living in a rented guesthouse. The affection the couple feels for the cat and the reliance they come to have on her presence in their lives sets off a chain of disquisitions on nature, destiny, joy, pleasure, and sorrow – and on the importance of connection, in the moment and of the moment. Some relationships are fleeting, as the one the narrator enjoys with a passing dragonfly, and some are longer but still finite, as the one he treasures with the little cat. But all connections are enriching, as this lovely book so fully illustrates.

The Lost Cat goes further down the road of cat/human relationship examination. When a beloved house cat disappears for six weeks and then saunters back in, well fed and looking good, his previously undisputed owner goes into a tailspin of self-recrimination, paranoia, jealousy, and suspicion. Who has been feeding her cat? And why oh why didn’t he come home when she called? UnknownRelying on modern technology (GPS and spy cameras), the befuddled owner tries to make sense of her cat’s behavior. The life lessons she learns alternate between hilarity and sweetness, and their application to all relationships is spot on: “You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want…But that’s okay, love is better.”

The Story of Fester Cat is enchanting, a gorgeous memoir about how family is created, not the one we’re born with but the one we choose – or the ones who choose us. When a feisty, opinionated, and very observant cat adopts two men, a lovely symbiosis occurs; love, compassion, and care flourish. We readers are fortunate enough to be invited into the family circle and it is a warm and beautiful place to be. This book will take its place on the bookshelves (permanent collection!) of everyone who cherishes their connections with pets, lovers, music, books, and family. Unknown-1

Whether it is a tie of affection and respect between humans or between a human and a beloved pet, a connection is a connection. To quote Nile Rodgers totally out of context, from his bestselling memoir Le Freak, “A great hook is a great hook, whether its for Le Freak or Halo.” And a good friendship is a good friendship, whether it is between two-legged friends or two-legged and four-legged, as so wonderfully examined and celebrated in The Guest Cat by Tikashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul, and The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs.

Letters: Recipe Shared with Julia Child

What do I have in common with Julia Child? Not the art of French cooking. I cannot follow a recipe to save my life. But Julia Child loved writing and receiving letters, and so do I. And in our love for letters, we both discovered an age-old recipe, and a recipe I can follow. A recipe for life.

Julia Child wrote her memoir, My Life in France, using the letters she’d written during her years there to illustrate how that time in her life had been. I wrote my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, to illustrate all the special, unique qualities of letters that make them such a wonderful mode of communication. Neither Julia’s memoir nor my book was intended to offer advice on how to live a good life but when letters are involved, the parallels start percolating. Because the qualities that define a good letter also define a good life (and for that matter, a good recipe).

I set off on a quest to define the special characteristics of letters when my oldest son set off for college and I realized I was not likely to get many letters for him. But I wanted a letter – so much. Why? Why are letters so important to me? The quest began, through history and across the collections of friends, libraries, historical archives, and digging deep into my own green trunk of saved letters. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is the story of that quest, and of what I discovered.

Once I started looking, I found letters everywhere, including in the memoir of Julia Child. Julia and her husband Paul were devoted letter writers to each other, and to their family and friends. Paul wrote long letters to his twin brother every week, and Julia wrote short but regular letters to the father she did not particularly get along with – except via mail.

The couple created a tradition of the annual Valentine Day’s letter, sent to all their friends and family. These self-produced cards are simply fabulous. I especially love the one of Julia and Paul naked in a bathtub, bubbles artfully arranged to protect privacy. The little caption above their heads, stating Wish You Were Here, is especially lovely and funny – did they really wish all their friends could join them in the tub? Probably not – but they allowed all friends in, via their card.

Letters create a bridge, between writer and reader, between one point in time and another. Not only do letters connect us to the people we love whom are a few hundred miles away – they can connect us to people we love who have passed away, and whom we will never see again. Letters can connect us to people we don’t know – I never met Julia Child but I feel as if we are friends, through her letters – and they can take us back even further, to centuries and places and people we never could have become acquainted with. But through their letters, they become very real, alive and dynamic.

In the centuries to come, anyone reading one of Paul’s letters to his twin brother, quoted at length in Julia’s memoir, will get a vivid sense of what is was like to live in Paris in the twentieth century:

“Lipstick on my belly button and music in the air! Thaaat’s Paris! What a lovely city! …. How fascinating the crowds before one’s café table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues. Those garlic-filled belches! Those silk-stockinged legs! Those mascara’d eyelashes! Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work! Hela! Dites-Donc! Bouillabasse!!”

In Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I celebrate the bridges built by letters. Bridges built with care and with time. Think about what it takes to write a letter. Think about, for that matter, what it takes to cook a meal. One of Julia’s overriding precepts in preparing recipes – her advice to all cooks – is that care be taken. The care to read the instructions, assemble the right ingredients, and then follow each step to the letter: as Julia says, “a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience…”

This same precept applies to letter writing, and to life. We should be attendant – faites attention! – pay attention – be aware and in the moment – of our lives. Care about what we do, work at what we do, find satisfaction in what we do.

At the end of My Life in France, Julia writes, “good French food is an art… nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushed through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture…”

Again, the same in letters, and in life. If we are rushed, the results are terrible – scribbled and inane, burned or sour, too sweet or too gummy or too lumpy. But if we take time, even the most slender of notes or the most simple of meals or the most ordinary of moments can be exquisite, memorable, enlightening, comforting.

I am no good at following a recipe for a meal. I just can’t do it, in part because I am usually doing two or three or four things at the same time that I am cooking – and so I am not paying the necessary attention to get any but the simplest of preparations right.

But when it comes to writing a letter, I find it much easier to focus. I sit down and all my attention zeroes in on the person to whom I am writing a letter. When my son left for college, I thought what I wanted was a letter from him. But now I understand that the letters that I write to my son are what matters most of all. Because they are proof of my care and my attention and my love. A letter I write is the first step of the bridge; every letter brings me closer to him.

Care, Time, Bridge. Three qualities of letters. Not the only three qualities – there are more to discover in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (and more guidance on living and on writing letters). But if you start with these three qualities, taking care, spending time, and building bridges, you are well-placed to begin a wonderful journey.

In letters, in cooking, in love – in anything that we care about, take time for, and share, we find the ingredients to a good life.

It’s Out!

My book Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing is released today.  My first reading will take place on April 24th at the Westport Barnes & Noble, to be followed May 4th at the Westport Public Library. Hope you can join me!

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Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, your loving son.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride – what a good boy, to write to his mother so often- and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.

The Soul of a Book Lover

The task of writing a review of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is daunting.  Why?  Because I don’t want to write anything that might keep someone from reading this book. Unknown

Everybody should read this book.  And absolutely all book lovers must read this book. This book is for anyone who questions their place in the universe, and who uses books to find answers; this book is for anyone who has felt ever insignificant or superfluous or confused and turned to a poem or a short story or a novel or a history for comfort and support.  There is much to be mined in this book for comfort and for inspiration and for thought.  I carry it with me now in my shoulder bag, because An Unnecessary Woman is a book to read again and again.  It is a most necessary book about an extraordinary woman.

Aaliya Saleh is divorced, childless, and largely friendless since the death of her closest friend, Hannah, years ago.  She lives alone in the Beirut apartment she came to as a teenaged wife.  The family that remains to Aaliya wears on her nerves but never comforts her fears.

Of what is Aaliya fearful? Of affirming what she has long suspected, that her life is – and most lives are – insignificant. She tells us, the readers with whom she freely converses, that the most common epitaph on Ancient Roman headstones was Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care).  But Aaliya does care.  She cares very much, and her mode of caring is through the translations she works on, year after year.  Translating is not her job – she worked in a bookstore before it closed – but it is her lifeline, almost literally.  Aaliya is a voracious and loving reader – “I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word” – and the homage she pays to the art of writing is her gift of translating.

We first meet Aaliya after she has completed her translation for the year and celebrated with the ritual of two glasses of red wine. The celebration unfortunately (or not – we shall see) has led to Aaliya mistakenly dying her hair blue.  Over the next few days, we accompany Aaliya as she goes about considering next year’s translation project. She contemplates her lifetime of reading, while also supplying an enthralling personal history of twentieth century Beirut, most of it grueling and heartbreaking, but also with a touch of enchantment and moments of joy.

As Aaliya putters through her days, she considers the question of illusions – to what extent are our self-delusions necessary?  The illusion that what we do is important, that history matters, that our love is returned and our birthplace is eternal: what feeds our perceptions, what keeps us whole and hearty?  At times Aaliya feels she knows the characters in books better than she knows the very real people who surround her – is that good or bad, or neither?  Do we learn from books or escape into them?

Our delusions and illusions are sometimes fed by the books we read.  But at the same time, the very best books remind us again and again of what is real and what is true, “that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls…. Or perhaps not.”

The “not” is what worries Aaliya but Alameddine’s novel about this unforgettable woman about this unforgettable woman offers beautiful and persuasive proof that we all contain much more than any surface explanations of our life could convey.  And the final pages of this wonderful book – very unexpected in unexpected ways – are definitive proof of soul, not only as pertaining to Aaliya, but for all readers everywhere.  Maybe we get our souls from the books we read; maybe we put our souls into the books we read.  But there can be no doubt: book lovers have soul.