Category Archives: Novels

The Joys of Picking My Favorite Books

 I am thrilled and honored to be  Westport Library Guest Curator for November. In the list of 100 books I chose as curator, I share those books that changed my life.  Great good comes from reading great books – check out my list of 100 great books online or visit the Westport Library (or any library or bookstore!) to find them for yourself.

The best books are transformative experiences. By reading a great book, we are changed forever: changed in how we think about something or someplace; changed in how we address joy and sorrow in our own lives; changed in how we find purpose in our lives; and changed in how we appreciate the diversity of experience that the world offers.

Nine years ago I began a project of reading a book a day for one year. My purpose was to find a way to live with the unbearable sorrow of losing my oldest sister to cancer. During the experience of reading 365 books, I was transformed. I came out of the darkness of loss into a place of warmth and light and understanding. I will never be the person I was before I lost my sister but because of the year I spent reading, I am a better person than I was. I am more compassionate, more patient, and more resilient.

In this list of 100 books, I want to share the books that I have found to be most transformative for me during my lifetime of reading.  These books changed me for the better and made me appreciate all the beauty in the world. I have greater patience now to get through  the hard times that come up in every life (every day!). I am resolved to face down the worst qualities in humankind, and to celebrate, always, the best.

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 Now 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.



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.

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.

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.

Quiet Dell: Tragedy and Redemption

I loved Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, containing every necessary element for a great book: compelling and fully-developed characters, resonant and alive atmosphere, complex and provoking plot, satisfying and unforgettable resolution, and absolutely beautiful writing. Unknown-1

Phillips takes her time with this novel, allowing layers of the story to grow and deepen and bloom into a fully-realized world of good and bad, hope and despair, past and present, hell and even heaven itself. The characters latched on to me and took hold, as surely as if my hand was being held; I became intimately connected, especially to the children, and when trouble comes, I shook with fear and helplessness – and I became nervous with desire for revenge, and hungry for redemption.

Phillips’ novel is based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who seduced middle aged women he found through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs popular in the early 1900s. In his love letters to his victims, he claimed to be both wealthy and decent, a single man looking to settle down and start a family, and lacking only the proper woman at his side. The women became convinced of his love, gathered their life savings and possessions, and took off with him, never to be seen again. No one knows how many women Powers killed but he was a serial murder who acted out his murderous fantasies for years before being caught.

In telling the story of the murders that finally brought Powers to the attention of the police and landed him in jail and on trial for his life, Phillips is wise enough to go easy on the revenge – she knows there is little solace in its fulfillment – but goes heavy and deep with the redemption, and for this I am grateful. She offers moving and persuasive proof that the only answer to evil is goodness. Goodness in the form of love and connection, and goodness in the form of survival. The warming of another heart, the resilience of joined company, and the promise of another, better day: “The stream meanders, shines with snowmelt; the water, shaken in ripples, warms suddenly, as though some seismic shift deep in the earth moves time forward. The air breathes and the trees stir, tossing their limbs, opening every bud and leaf.”

The promise of spring, of cycles, of rebirth and renewal. Found in a Quiet Dell.

The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is a slender but rich meditation on fate. What force directs the twists of our lives – or are all events random and therefore beyond our control? When a tiny, independent, and utterly charming cat enters the lives of a couple living in a rented guest house, the unexpected affection and reliance the narrating husband and his wife feel towards the little feline sets off a chain of disquisitions on nature, destiny, joy, pleasure, and sorrow – and on the importance of acceptance of all such gifts of fate, in the moment and of the moment. Unknown

The narrator struggles to define what he feels towards the cat and where she fits – so unexpectedly – into his life; time is passing and he knows all that he is experiencing will change and disappear, but he still tries to stop time and enjoy what he has found in his quiet corner of Tokyo. He turns to Art for guidance, including the works of an abstract artist he befriends, the words of a dying poet he has long admired, and the poems of Machiavelli. The artist tried to capture moments in time, the poet is running out of time, and Machiavelli is thwarted in his efforts to control a symbol of time, the flowing of the river Arno. Although we might associate Machiavelli primarily with the rather ruthless guidance of The Prince, it is through his poems that he shares his experience with forces beyond his control. Working with Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli sought to change the course of the Arno through Florence – but the forces of the river were too strong to divert or change. Machiavelli experienced the futility of trying to change the tide (literally and metaphorically) and put the experience into poetry: “Fortune also is unkind, boldly her long tresses/Disarranged – now here, now there,/One after the other, transform all things…”

Much as Machiavelli used poetry in an effort to understand the forces of the Arno (and of destiny), the narrator uses his writing as a way to control (and understand) the ebb and flow of his life, including his connections to friends, his wife, the cat, and time itself. But even in writing of that special time in his life when a little cat made herself guest in his home, he cannot fully grasp the import of the moments he shared with her: “All I want is to know what happened – I want to somehow grasp every detail of the events of that day, that one day like a tiny dewdrop…but now it’s all engulfed in the profound darkness of time.”

Hiraide’s writing shines a light into the connections that come from living fully in the moments of our pleasure, and the sorrow that comes when such moments pass into what he so aptly calls “the darkness of time.” Hiraide’s writing is lyrical and captivating – his description of the relationship he develops with a dragonfly mesmerizes – and I will revisit The Guest Cat with pleasure, much as I return to favorite poems and paintings and memories. Fate goes where she wishes, times passes without pause, but our experiences of events belongs wholly to us in the moment, no matter the engulfing darkness to come. IMG_7737

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide won the Kiyama Shohei Literary Award in Japan and was a bestseller in France. It was just released in its English translation; it was translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland.

Someone Extraordinary

Someone by Alice McDermott is a marvel of grace, insight, and beauty. There is no high-blown melodrama, there are no evil-doers or outlandish characters, and no improbable or extraordinary events. What is extraordinary is the way McDermott pulls us into the life of Marie; we are treated to a patchwork of recollections that veer back and forth through time and create an incredible and complete portrait of a life.  But not only one life: the novel demonstrates how every one of us is connected, through experience and influence, to the lives around us. 

Marie’s memories of her childhood in the old neighborhood (Brooklyn), the death of her father, her years as funeral parlor hostess, and as wife and mother; the changing relationship she has with her brother, the unexpectedness of marriage, the near-death experience of childbirth, all weave together, forming a picture not only of one woman but also the web of community and family around her. Marie is not seeking understanding or cohesion in recalling the moments of her life, but we, the readers, are graced with the realization: there are no ordinary lives. Each and every character in the novel is unique, and each life has an enduring impact on Marie. As her own life will have enduring impact on ours, as the grateful readers.

Having just laid to rest a beloved father-in-law, I know just how special one life can be.  Where there is kindness, love, and willingness – a willingness to seek, accept, and celebrate – there is greatness. In her exquisite novel Someone, McDermott celebrates the complexity of human experience, and its possibilities for greatness, big and small.

Women of a Certain Age

An examination of life looking back from a mature age is at the center of The Last First Day by Carrie Brown and I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck. The authors avoid the easy take on growing old and instead go for the difficult but incisive exploration of what it means – and what it takes – to be a woman of a certain age. The books are anchored by the characters of two very different women, and the writing styles of the authors are also distinct, and yet what the books share is exquisite sensitivity to the rhythms of life. We are given a close look at the choices the women have made, some good and some bad; the roles taken on, willingly and not so willingly; and the spaces they keep for themselves, isolated and inviolate. It is a mandate of human existence that we have such spaces and yet we are never really alone, ever. The past invades as much as the present, and hope for the future persists in poking its head in, no matter how impossible such hope seems.

In The Last First Day, Ruth faces a wrenching change, a move that will take her from the New England boarding school campus where she has lived most of her adult life, dutifully assisting her husband in his role as headmaster. The stability of those years was a stark contrast to her unstable childhood and now instability threatens again.

In I Married You for Happiness, Nina sits vigil by her husband, rewinding the life they’ve created together. It was a sturdy marriage and yet beneath the surface, certain deceptions, inadequacies and failures still cause pain. But what of the joy? Nina wraps herself up in both the aching and the comforting memories, just as she wraps herself, piece by piece, in assorted articles of clothing. The material and metaphysical accumulations come together, as a kind of promise for the future.

How do the choices we make early in life play out down the road? What insights gained in the past can prepare us for the coming decrepitude of our faculties? Will past joys outweigh sorrow, will memory carry us forward, will desire (not only for sex but also for friendship, food, books) fade away or can desires persist or perhaps reformulate, in greater and different ways? Ask yourself the question: what is the most important thing to me in the world. And then consider how you’ll answer the question twenty years down the line, and how it was answered twenty years ago. The women of The Last First Day and I Married You for Love take a hard look at questions of happiness, identity, and connection, throughout the varied stages of their lives. The answers they come up with will enlighten us all.

Shelley’s Monsters

Mary Shelley wrote the most famous monster story of all time, Frankenstein.  Or did she really? That question is just one of the literary mysteries explored by Lynn Shepherd in her mesmerizing novel, A Fatal Likeness. Was Percy Bysshe Shelley insane or cruelly narcissistic or simply misunderstood? Were his poems reflective of reality or rooted entirely in his wild and torturing (to say nothing of tortured) imagination?  Did Shelley sire the child of his step-sister-in-law Claire Clairmont, or was it Lord Byron, as the Shelley clan always claimed? And in what is a most tantalizing tangent for me (lover of letters that I am), do the surviving letters of Percy, Mary, and Claire tell the truth – or merely hint at what were dark and deep secrets for the twisted trio of lovers?  

The novel begins with the daughter-in-law of the Shelleys, Jane Gibson, desperately trying to track down papers that might besmirch the image of Percy Bysshe Shelley which Jane has spent years burnishing and promoting.  She hires a young investigator, Charles Maddox, to hunt down the papers she fears.  It quickly becomes apparent that what Jane is after is quite something else, and that Maddox is quite something more than she expected. Maddox, heir to an uncle famous both for his investigations and his honor, intently hunts down the papers but finds much, much more than mere scraps of information.  What he does with what he finds will set off a storm of released memories demanding attention, unanswered injustices clamoring for redress, and family secrets (and not only the Shelleys’) screaming to be unveiled, after being hidden in darkness for so long.

The monster within us, the monster in the mirror, the monster in the past: monsters are everywhere, and suddenly Frankenstein seems almost prophetic.  But will the ending — destroy the monster! – be the necessary remedy?  To be familiar with the novel Frankenstein, the history of the Shelleys, and the poetry of Shelley might help with unraveling the complicated plot of this amazing book but Shepherd does not assume any such prior knowledge on the part of her readers.  She offers a very helpful chart of who was related to whom, and how, and in her final notes she delineates what is based on historical fact in her novel (most of it) and what comes from her own fecund and clever imagination.

Shepherd invents just enough to tie all the open questions, undeniable facts, and potent possibilities together in a wholly believable and chilling story of love, deceit, heartbreak, revenge, and loss.  She also manages to conjure up England in the 1800s, along with a cast of characters so richly developed I could see each and every one of them before me as I read, while also incorporating the poetry of Shelley into her text, both in hidden ways and in direct quotations (and in letters!).  She’s inspired in me a whole new appreciation for Shelley, and a renewed desire to read his works, and Frankenstein, all over again. That Shepherd also used letters as clues to a most horrible crime (and the chief instigator to more than one death) sealed the deal for me: Shepherd is a marvel, and A Fatal Likeness is a must-read.