Category Archives: Great Books

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.

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).

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

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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.

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.

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.