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.

Chicago, Here I Come!

Next week I will be traveling to Chicago for two book events. I will be reading from Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, and signing books on Tuesday July 15th at 7 pm at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Avenue in Evanston.

On Wednesday July 16th at 7 pm, I will be reading from a different chapter and signing more books at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln Ave in Chicago.

Circa 1972
Circa 1972
I am excited to be going back to Chicago and will be visiting favorite spots, including The Art Institute, Gino’s East, and the Museum of Science and Industry, where I plan to stroll down Old Main Street and take a new photo on the old car – updating the one from circa 1972…
And here is 2014!
And here is 2014!

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.

Caught in A Dark and Twisted Tide

Summer is here but I will not be jumping into any bodies of water to cool off, thanks to my beloved Sharon Bolton. A favorite harbinger of summer is the release of her latest thriller and A Dark and Twisted Tide met all my expectations of thrills, chills, and brain curls. It also left me hanging on tightly to the safety of my backyard lawn chair and vowing never ever to jump into any river – or lake, for that matter – any time soon. I don’t want to run the chance of finding a dead body – or two or three or more – the way heroine Lacey Flynt does in the latest Bolton novel. Unknown

Granted, Lacey is swimming in the Thames, not exactly known for the pristine quality of its waters or for the safety of swimming therein. But just the thought of encountering what makes even the brave Lacey shiver down into her bones (to say nothing of the bones she encounters – shrouded in linen and shackled to the depths of darkness) may just keep me land bound for the foreseeable future. The added element of reports of mermaids – drawing boaters to their death through haunting songs – creeps me out in the deepest recesses of my brain, where my own belief in supernatural beings lays dormant until raised to blazing reality by the vivid writing of Bolton.

Perhaps if I had the help of cool and collected Dana Tulloch, my favorite recurring character in the Bolton novels, or the anticipation of sheltering in the arms of hunky Mark Joesbury (another fabulous recurring cast member in Bolton world), I could be a bit braver, a bit more like Lacey who faces her fears and runs headlong into them. But I prefer reading what this guilt-ridden, secretive, sensitive, and completely wonderful wonder woman faces off against, again and again, using brains, body, and intuition (hard-earned from her own hard knocks) to solve mysteries and save lives.

This time the mystery is manifold: who is drowning these young women, where did the women come from, who (or what?) is leaving threats (or promises?) on the deck of Lacey’s houseboat, what is Mark Joesbury up to – and does a mermaid really exist in the waters of the Thames?

Bolton once again treats her readers not only to a thrilling mystery but also to a fascinating landscape, this time set in and around the Thames, a murky, dirty, seething river that carries both the life and the history of London in its ebb and flow, leaving markers of the past to be deciphered and clues of the present to be found. Trust to Lacey to find the clues and also some deeper answers to questions not only of death – why did these women have to die? – but of life itself: how do we keep swimming, when the tide turns against us? Lacey knows – and she shows us how.

Maybe I will go swimming this summer – after all, Lacey’s got my back.

The Gentlest Art

In 1907, E.V. Lucas published a lovely collection of letters under the title, The Gentlest Art. Letter writing is the art referred to and the letters chosen by Lucas illustrate his point of gentility – and of beauty. letters

Lucas published a second collection of letters in 1907, cleverly titled The Second Post and explained by the epigram, “It’s all very well to talk of your Beethovens & Mozarts. Very good in their way, no doubt. But for the music that counts, give me the double knock.” An early variation of the postman always rings twice.

I found so many wonderful examples of letters in the two volumes put together by Lucas, including many written by James Russell Lowell, a favorite eighteenth century American poet of mine. I am especially charmed by the letter written by Lowell on his 70th birthday: th-1

“I have been forging over the reef of my seventieth birthday into the smooth water beyond without much damage to my keel…”