Category Archives: Books

Praise for The Lowells of Massachusetts

With less than two months until publication, The Lowells of Massachusetts: An American Family is garnering stellar reviews. 

Booklist calls The Lowells of Massachusetts “a fascinating collective biography … paying tribute to both worthy individuals and everyone else in this prominent, complicated family.”

Recommended by Library Journal for readers of biography and American History: “Sankovitch’s use of interpretative passages breathe color into descriptions of home life of various Lowells, adding an artistic dimension to the account. Her ability to switch the focus among the family members while keeping readers fully engaged in the narrative is a significant achievement.”

“A sturdy, busy multibiography of an eminent American family… Exhaustive work by a clear admirer and dogged researcher,” says Kirkus Reviews.

And at latest count, 4.33 star rating on Goodreads.

Follow The Lowells on Facebook and on Instagram.

Returning to Therapy

Book therapy, that is. Eight years ago I began my year of reading a book a day. I was looking for escape, wisdom, comfort, and clarity after losing my oldest sister to cancer.

Reading in my purple chair, with my cat on my lap
Reading in my purple chair

When my year was over, I found myself stronger, calmer, happier. I knew I would always grieve for my sister but I learned through books that I could always carry her with me in my heart. As I wrote in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair about my year of reading, “We all need a space to just let things be, a place to remember who we are and what is important to us, an interval of time that allows the happiness and joy of living back into our consciousness.”

I need that space and the therapy of books — immersion in reading — again. It has been a long, brutal election season and instead of finding relief in the result, I find myself waking in the middle of the night filled with fear. Fear for the future, fear of what America has become, such a divided and angry nation. In researching my book on the Lowell family, I followed them through the years of the Civil War and the aftermath of the divided nation. I found proof in family letters and journals of individuals struggling to bring the country together again with new dignity, new rights, new dreams. I need to find the energy and the hope to work for positive change for all who live here in the United States.

I hope to find that energy and hope in books. I find myself gravitating towards books about women, looking for role models of survival and strength, resilience, and power. Books like Time and Again by Charlotte Rogan, with its heroine who fights for truth at a terrible cost, and The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, in which women from different times strive to understand the unique power of words, the power to record and reflect and inspire. Nicotine by Nell Zink has a quirky and sometimes even flaky heroine who is ultimately tough enough and resilient enough to get it done — “it” being bringing new life to an abandoned house (and way of life).

I will indulge in the books by Elly Griffiths, in which mysteries are solved by Ruth Galloway, a single woman of large build and big heart and keen intelligence. I gave myself an afternoon of fun in reading Hot Flash Holidays by Nancy Thayer: five women in their fifties and sixties deal with aging parents, faltering bodies, annoying in-laws, and impatient children — and through the ups and downs all five rely on the strength of their shared friendships to keep them going. As Renee notes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I am re-reading, “the complicity of indestructible friendship…is what life is all about.”

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the very first book I read during my year of reading a book a day. Over the past eight years, I have looked back at the notes I kept in the book, and passages I underlined but this is the first time I am re-reading the entire book. What struck me right away is that Renee, one of narrators of the book, is fifty-four, the same age I am now. She also happens to weigh exactly what I weight now. Strangely enough, these similarities are changing the book for me — I feel now as if Renee is my double, and I am cheering her on as she enters new territory with trepidation but with hope as well. Right back at me: enter the future with trepidation (and rightly so) but also with hope.

fullsizerender-7But as you can see from the photo, I am not only reading books about women or by women in my new book therapy. I have a wide range, fiction and non-fiction. With so many books to anticipate, the future looks brighter. I feel sure that I will come out of this round of immersion stronger, and ready to work for what I believe in: a future that brings people together to work for the welfare, security, and dreams of all who live here in America.

The Art – and Artists – of Letter Writing

A gorgeous new book, Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters, edited by Smithsonian curator of manuscripts Mary Savig, underscores not only the artistry of a well-penned letter but also the lasting impact of words shared via pen and paper. To read through the beautiful-produced book is to enter the worlds of different artists, joining them in those moments of their life captured in their correspondence.

Artists represented (no pun intended) in the book include Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Howard Finster, Winslow Homer, Ray Johnson, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Maxfield Parrish, Eero Saarinen, and Saul Sternberg.

One of my favorite letters in the collection is the ecstatic note penned by artist Grant Wood after learning that two of his paintings, including American Gothic, were to be included in a show at Chicago’s Art Institute:

ahwoodweb
Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters is a book to savor and to share, and reading through it will certainly inspire the writing of letters (perhaps a great gift for college-bound students and/or their left-behind parents?). As I tried to demonstrate in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, the art of letter writing is not a lost art, nor is it a field left only to artists. Anyone can write a letter, and everyone should.

The Art of Love in Writing Letters

Barbara Newman’s fascinating book titled Making Love in the Twelfth Century: “Letters of Two Lovers” in Context was written for scholars and academics but will be cherished by anyone who loves a good love letter. The letters referenced in the title constitute the amazing discovery made at the closing of the twentieth century of the longest existing correspondence from the middle ages.15518

Making love in the twelfth century literally meant declaring love through words, and in the letters Newman translates, written between a “Man” and a “Woman”, plenty of love is made.  I went through this book madly underlining all the beautiful phrases and sentiments – “farewell, you who shine more brightly than the moon tonight and please me more than tomorrows sunrise” – and if  ever a case could be made for plagiarism, I would love to steal these declarations of love and send them off to find lodging in hearts open to love and joy, as well as to those needing the comport of company in the attendant emotions of confusion, distress, and longing.

There is much to learn in Newman’s book, not only from her translations of the letters and her accompanying notes but also from her fascinating essay Making Love in the Twelfth Century: An Essay in the History of Emotions (should be mandatory reading for all students of medieval and renaissance and modern social history) and her brilliant discourse on the possibility of renowned lovers Abelard and Heloise having penned not only those letters already attributed to the both of them, but also the “Letters of Two Lovers.”

Newman underscores that important thing is how the 116 surviving letters prove that the two lovers were “extraordinary people engaged in an extraordinary protect” – and we are grateful for Newman’s translations and explications of their extraordinariness.

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.

Reading in Brazil

A group of students from the Educational Center Analia Franco, in Caceres, Mato Grosso, Brazil, sent me a wonderful message, via these photographs. 13245889_778421288925167_1643435791_nYes, reading is a passion in Brazil!

I love the purple sign that reads: “One of the most beautiful things in the life is lecture,” which means, READING. I agree completely! And I appreciate that the sign is purple.  Purple will forever symbolize the necessary therapy – and joy! – that reading provides for me.

Thank you to the students and to their fabulous teacher, Milena Campello (center, below).

13275902_778421212258508_1715093090_n

Hugs and lots of book love to (from left to right below) Ingrid, Raul, Mariana and Giulia. Read on!

13232943_776790879088208_2972407442129419312_n

 

Craig Ferguson on Historical Fiction

I love Bohemian Gospel by Dana Shamble Carpenter, Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski, and the list goes on and on. I like historical fiction because I get to learn something – the history part – while also filling up on what I need so much from fiction, which is that connection, heart and soul, to another person, place, and time.

But I have to admit that Craig Ferguson, Book of the Month Club’s guest judge for March, does a much better job that I do summing up what is so great about Historical Fiction.  I look forward to reading the book he chose for this month, The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami.

7th Anniversary of a Great Year of Reading

Seven years ago I began my year of reading a book a day. What a great year it was!  A year of adventure, comfort, escape, and wisdom, so much wisdom shared with me by the writers of all the books I read. In honor of that wonderful day, I am re-posting my first review of the first book read.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog started it all…

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a great book. This beautiful, moving, and occasionally very funny novel tells the story of an amazing woman and a startling young girl, and their parallel and eventually joined paths to recognition of beauty, in the self and in the world.  Unknown-2

Renee is the concierge of a very upscale building in Paris, a supremely intelligent and grammatically exacting woman, and Paloma is one of her tenants, a 12-year old girl already fed up with the falseness of the adults around her and doubtful about life’s possibilities. Renee is acutely aware and appreciative of life’s moments of beauty and yet is unable to grasp the absolute beauty within herself. Paloma is a French, intelligent, and female prepubescent version of Holden Caulfield, a confused and disillusioned but still young and therefore reachable rebel. Her thoughts are presented to us through her two thoroughly engaging and at times heartbreaking journals; from Renee we get her inner thoughts and observations through first person narration.

This book is about finding a reason to live but it is absolutely un-American in its prescription: there is no easy path, life is full of difficulties, and you are on your own. But if you are honest and intelligent and exacting, you will find and appreciate the beauty that exists in relationships and music and nature and books. The book is about the pure beauty that is possible in moments of genuine expression, the fleeting moments that can still last forever in our minds because of their beauty and truth.

If we are lucky, many such moments occur in our lives and we are mindful enough to grasp the beauty. One rainy afternoon I spent in a Barcelona Art Museum over twenty-five years ago, I was stopped short by a painting. I will always remember the beauty of that painting (although I can remember neither author nor title), and the painting has its same power to bring peace to me now as it did then. It is a simple landscape of a dawning sky over a dark hillside, with a hermit just coming out of his cave in the hill. Apricot-orange lines had been painted in beyond the darkened hermit and his burrow to show the dawning of day; looking at the painting I felt the thawing wind of spring, the precious beat of living, the gratitude for another day granted. Memories of mornings I’d spent in the country entwined with the experience of seeing the painting, creating layers of time to be stored and later savored. The moment of seeing that painting and the moments of experiencing what was presented in that painting are moments that, when brought back by remembering, have sustained and comforted me.

Renee is also aware of the threaded memories of life, and of the beauty that endures to sustain and inspire us to continue on with the sometimes heavy burden of living; she tries to pass that knowledge to Paloma, not through lessons or lectures, but through sharing of ideas and thoughts. It is the joy of conversation, of realizing a shared observation or enthusiasm or dis-enthusiasm, that brings Paloma around to a new commitment to living, even when faced very suddenly with death.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog offers us Renee’s beautiful but thoroughly realistic appraisal of life. When she herself must re-examine what she thought she knew about herself, the forced examination does not undercut her appraisal but serves to support it even more: we understand, as she does, that by living fully observant and appreciative of the beauty that appears fleetingly in actual time but permanently in our minds, we can survive and surpass the mundane and trivial and superficial. We can make connections and stave off alienation; each moment caught by our flourishing minds only makes all the moments to come better and better. Young Paloma commits herself to finding those “moments of always within never” as a reason to live and that reason is good enough for me.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was translated by Alison Anderson.”

Cats Forever: The Sequel

Great news for cat lovers and book lovers!  Welcome Home, Bernard Socks, the sequel to The Story of Fester Cat will be released this week. The second installation in Paul Magrs’ series about the cats in his life (and we want more!) is titled Welcome Home, Bernard Socks.  It tells the story of a family reinvented after loss.  Those left behind must pick up the pieces and go on, but how?  Getting a new cat after Fester dies feels like a betrayal but living without a cat is impossible.  And so Paul and Jeremy take the big plunge and find that instead of losing their old cat in the mix of the new, all memories have been incorporated into the present. And who knows what the future will bring? Plenty of adventures, some heartache, but through it all generous servings of love, humor, and compassion.  And that is just on the part of Bernard Socks, cat extraordinaire!  The humans in the story have plenty to offer and so does Fester, for the best news of all is that Fester is still around, keeping watch on the family from the heavens above.  Unknown-1

The Story of Fester Cat  has taken its place on the bookshelves (permanent collection!) of everyone who cherishes their connections with pets, lovers, music, books, and family. Now make room on the shelf for Welcome Home, Bernard Socks.

House with Library

evanstonhouse

For a wonderful twist on the idea of a home library, check out this home’s lending library! Designed as a mini-version of the big house, the lending/giving library offers books to passersby. What a great idea! When I lived in New York City, all the different buildings in which I rented apartments used the laundry room as an informal book swap – people would leave books they no longer wanted and eager readers would take them away. My winter project just might be creating a mini-library to put in front of my house. By the way, this wonderful home with its mini-home/library is located in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois. A fabulous place to live and to read.

Thanks and Kudos to Joe Agnew of Evanston for the photo.