Tag Archives: books

Do Politicians Have Souls? Do They Read Books?

When asked by Steve Berntson, a farmer from Paulina, Iowa, to discuss books that had shaped his life, Rick Perry turned the question back to the economy and failed to name even a single book that influenced him, or cheered him, or inspired him. (New York Times, “After Rocky Start, More Study, and Sleep, for Perry”, October 10, 2011). As an avid book reader who has found wisdom and comfort and joy in books, I suspect the question was asked for the same reason that it was dodged: because the books we cherish — the books that influence us and move us and which we lend out to others and reread ourselves again and again — reveal an important aspect of who we are. As I wrote in my book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, “We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect of ourselves truly, whether it is that we are suckers for romance or pining for adventure or secretly fascinated by crime.”

What we love to read can reveal that we have a propensity for mercy (A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines), an understanding of war (Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry), a generosity of spirit (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens), an intolerance of prejudice (The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty), a dedication to service (Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer); that we distrust dogma (A Gift Upon the Shore by W.K. Wren), strive against injustice (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee), and realize that our actions can have unredeemable consequences (Indignation by Philip Roth).

The books we love reveal how much we value connection (Howards End by E.M. Forster), cross-cultural understanding (Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks), cross-generational exchange (The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray by Walter Mosley), and being alive (Man in the Dark by Paul Auster).

The question of whether a politician reads at all is a good one, and should be asked and answered more often. But the question of which books a politician has loved throughout his or her lifetime must be asked and answered. Because in such an answer we will find an inkling of the soul of the politician, and everyone knows that can be very hard to find.

This post can also be found on The Huffington Post.

Another Lesson from Tolstoy

Tolstoy Lied. That is the name of a book a good friend lent to me: “You might be interested in this one,” she noted wryly. Despite its irksome title, Tolstoy Lied by Rachel Kadish is a lovely, witty, and insightful novel of manners. If, that is, manners are even possible within the cutthroat atmosphere of an English department in a major university. The narrator, Tracy Farber, is a professor of American lit and a great believer in the possibility of happiness. Hence, her disgruntlement with Tolstoy, who implied with his oh-so-famous first line from Anna Karenina,”happy families are all alike’ every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” that happy people are boring people, and that to be different, i.e. interesting, is to be unhappy. Tracy wants to be interesting and engaged with life, she wants happiness, love, and tenure at her university and she will not compromise her principles — or her devotion to truth — to get all that she wants. Unfortunately, the result may be that she does not get what she wants after all. Is happiness really so elusive?

I fell for this book from the page when Tracy described her love affair with books, describing the smell of them and something new, the sound of them: “turn their pages for enough hours and years and you start to rely on it, just as people who live by the shore assimilate the rhythm of the waves: the sweep and ripple making the end of a page, a sound that seems to be made by the turning of your thoughts rather than the movement of your hand.” No e-reader for Tracy: she loves the real thing, books with pages and histories, and even a few lessons or two. Happiness indeed.

And btw, Tolstoy did not lie.

Picking Favorites: Books That Make Me Sigh With Satisfaction

The most common question I am asked during my book tour for Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, is: what was your favorite book of the year? I can understand the question. For one year I read a book a day and wrote about each book I read. I read 365 books, all new to me, by 365 different authors. Of course I must have had favorites. But one favorite? When my year was over, I had over ninety books on my website’s list of “Great Books.” Different books that wowed me, awed me, and made me sigh when I’d finished reading them: sighs of satisfaction and sighs wishing for more. Sighs that are signs of a great book.

A great book happens when I pick up a book and can’t put it down again; when I cannot suppress the sighs upon finishing it; when I cannot wait to tell everyone I know: read this book!

But how to pick a favorite? No one would ever ask me to pick which of my children is my favorite, or which of my parents or sisters I prefer over the other. Family cannot be so divided up, one on the side designated “favorite” and all the others grim-faced on the other side of the line, designated “not-so-favorite.” The books I love are like family (complete with a black sheep or two) and I cannot select one out of the bunch to deem most favored, most special, or most great.

As a child, it was easy to pick a best friend, a favorite sibling, and a favorite book: Harriet the Spy was my first favorite book, and later, Nancy Drew’s The Clue in the Old Album too its place. By high school, I had discovered Graham Greene and The Burnt-Out Case and on the cusp of college, Nadime Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter took favored book status. And then as I settled into being an adult, the favorite books instead became favored authors: Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Dickens, Philip Roth, Stewart O’Nan, Thrity Umrigar, Colin Channer, Ursula Le Guin, Barbara Kingsolver, Martha Grimes, Geraldine Brooks, Jose Saramago — but the list goes on and on, and I cannot possibly name all my favorites, much less pick one favorite book or author, or even genre.

I still fall in love with books, feel the sighs of happiness and satisfaction, and run to the phone to tell everyone I know to read my latest find of greatness. But one favorite book? Can’t do it. Please don’t make me try. But while we’re here: what’s your all-time favorite book? I always have room for more, and lungs strong enough to sigh deeply, again and again.

This post was originally posted on The Huffington Post.

Save a Bookstore: Buy a Book (or Two, or Three)

Tomorrow June 25th is Save a Bookstore Day, with its own Facebook event page and a very clear agenda: on Saturday, all of us who love our local bookstore, will go out and show our love by buying a book at that bookstore — or an armload of books, if the pocketbook allows.

Not sure where your local bookstore is? Check out Indiebound’s helpful bookstore searcher, mark your routes, grab your kids, and get yourself out to the bookstore tomorrow. Be sure to pick up Tolstoy and the Purple Chair for all the book lovers you know — or for anyone looking for ideas on the meaning of life — and why not grab S.J. Bolton’s latest thriller, Now You See Me, for great summer reading? I also recommend Phil Rickman’s The Bones of Avalon, for a great Tudor mystery; Geraldine Brooks’ beautiful Caleb’s Crossing for compelling historical fiction; and Otto Penzler’s wild The Big Book of Adventure Stories, perfect for reading on the beach, in between dips into the water and trips to the ice cream stand.

Bookstores provide flavor, life, and pleasure to our towns, cities, and villages — don’t let them disappear, falling victim to the economy, the internet, the UPS delivery guy. Buy food local, and buy books local. Just imagine what lengths our local bookstores might have to go to, if we don’t go out tomorrow and next week and the week after, to pick up a book or two. What happened in Russia could happen here….

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Tomorrow, June 7th, my memoir entitled Tolstoy and the Purple Chair will be released.  In anticipation, and as a gift to all my wonderful readers, many of whom have shared this long journey of reading and writing with me, I am posting an excerpt from the book today.  You have shared your book recommendations with me, and your memories of favorite books, and your thoughts on everything from laundry to loss.  Thank you all so very, very much.

Excerpt from Tolstoy and the Purple Chair:

“My year of reading was my own hiatus, my own suspension in time between the overwhelming sorrow of my sister’s death and the future that now waits before me. During my yearlong respite filled with books, I recuperated.  Even more, I learned how to move beyond recuperation to living.

When I ran from the hospital room where [my sister] Anne-Marie died, the room where I last saw her alive and kissed her and told her, with confidence, that I would see her again tomorrow, I was running away…

For three years I ran as fast as I could, trying to live and love and learn at double speed to make up for what Anne-Marie lost.  Trying to anesthetize myself from what I’d lost.  When I decided to read a book a day and write about it, I ‘d finally stopped running away.  I sat down, sat still, and started to read.  Every day I read and devoured and digested and thought about all the books, their authors, their characters, and their conclusions. I immersed myself in the world the authors had created and I witnessed new ways of handling the twists and turns of life, discovering tools of humor and empathy and connection.  Through my reading, I reached the point of understanding so much…

I have learned, through books, to hold onto my memories of all the beautiful moments and people in my life, as I need those memories to help me through difficult times. I have learned to allow forgiveness, both of myself and of people around me, all trying with “their heavy burden” just to get by.  I know now that love is a power great enough to survive death, and that kindness is the greatest connector between me and the rest of the world…

There is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love, and nor should there be.  Sorrow is not an illness or an affliction.  It is the only response possible to the death of a loved one, and an affirmation of just how much we value life itself, for all its wonder and thrill and beauty and satisfaction.

Our only answer to sorrow is to live.  To live looking backwards, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forwards, with anticipation and excitement.  And to pass on those feelings of hope and possibility through acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion.

My whole life, I have read books.  And when I needed to read the most, books gave me everything I asked for and more.  Most of all, my year of reading gave me the space I needed to figure out how to live again after losing my sister.  My year in the sanatorium of books allowed me to redefine what is important for me and what can be left behind.  Not all respites from life can be so all-consuming – I will never again read a book a day for one year – but any break taken from the frenetic pace of busy days can restore the balance of a life turned topsy turvy.

My hiatus is over, my soul and my body are healed, but I will never leave the purple chair for long.  So many books waiting to be read, so much happiness to be found, so much wonder to be revealed.”


Loving My Local Library

Today the libraries of Connecticut are celebrating “Snapshot Day: One Day in the Life of Connecticut Libraries.” Snapshot Day is sponsored by the Connecticut Library Association, the Connecticut State Library, and the Connecticut Library Consortium. Its purpose is to illustrate the huge role played by local libraries in their communities by capturing exactly what goes on in each library on this particular day. There is nothing special about today, it is just a typical day in April, and yet there is always something going on at the library.

Last year was the first year of Snapshot Day, with 136 libraries in Connecticut participating. On that day:

More than 80,600 people visited Connecticut libraries.
People borrowed nearly 100,000 books, DVDs and other materials.
Close to 13,000 people used computers at their library.
Nearly 10,000 people attended a program or class at a library.
113,000 people visited Connecticut library websites.

I know I’ll be swinging by my local library today, to drop off books that are due and to check out the express table, laden with new releases that can be borrowed for only three days — I love the time frame and the mandate to sit down and read! I’m sure I’ll run into at least one person I know. Maybe we’ll have time to grab a coffee in the Shakespeare cafe and catch up or maybe it’ll just be a quick, “What are you reading now?” before we head off on our own ways.

It is that wonderful question of “what are you reading now?” that hovers over all great libraries. I host a book chat at the Westport Public Library the first Tuesday of every month, an informal and VERY LIVELY gathering of people of all ages and backgrounds, men and women, who just want to talk about books: what we’ve read lately, what we’d like to read. We don’t always agree on books, and we read a great variety of genres: but we all want to talk about books. Why this need to talk about books?

Because when we talk about books, we can talk about anything at all and everything. Nothing is taboo – just ask the Book Chat crew! Last week we discussed books all right — Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan was a hot topic — but we also talked about Snooki, the real housewives of here and there, starting our own used bookstore in Westport, and ponerology. Do you know what ponerology is? It is the science of evil: the name was given by Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski to explain his work of trying to understand the psychopathic underpinnings of evil regimes.

Stewart O’Nan and his beloved Pittsburgh; housewives; Jersey Shore; bookstores; evil. We can talk about anything when we talk about books – and we do.

Why do I love my library so much? Because it is the place I can go to find books, talk about books, and read books. With a cafe on site, there is nothing I need when I am at home, in my local library.

The Passions of Matt Roeser: Reading and Imagining New Covers for Beloved Books

The graphic artist Matt Roeser has one passion I can identify with — reading — and another I wish I could emulate: creating beautiful new cover art for great books. With my artistic skills, I could never match the beauty, wit, and originality of Roeser’s work but luckily for me — and for you — we are all free to enjoy his fabulous creations via his blog, New Cover. I love his site and have a few suggestions to send his way of great books needing new covers.

Visit Roeser’s New Cover and find new delights in old favorites. I especially liked these three. What do you think?

Spreading the Love: Book Reviews, Good and Bad

I’ve received a number of emails and comments lately, with various undertones of censure, stating that I only write good reviews. “Don’t you have anything bad to say?” is the implied question. Sure, I have plenty bad to say. But when it comes to books, I write reviews of books I’ve liked. I wasn’t always such a reviewer: during my year of reading and reviewing a book a day, I wrote some negative reviews. But in my book about my year (and my life) of reading, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, I don’t dwell on the books that sucked me in with great beginnings but then imprisoned me in their badness (having committed to reading a book a day, I couldn’t turn around mid-day and find a new book so if I was in for a few chapters, I was in until the end). But the bad books were far and few between. Why? Because I took my time choosing my books, and part of my choosing process was looking to recommendations. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, I write about the well-chosen books that made me so happy to be sitting down reading, even as laundry piled up and kids banged on pans and cats shed (and worse) on the furniture. Now that I am reading one or two books a week, I don’t review everything I read. I write reviews of what I’ve liked. I don’t write good reviews: I write reviews of good books.

In her collection of essays entitled Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith writes with a bit of disdain about E.M. Forster. I loved Forster before reading Smith’s essay and I love him even more now. I identify with his aesthetics: “A book which doesn’t leave people happier or better than it found them, which doesn’t add some permanent treasure to the world, isn’t worth doing…” How to define “treasure” or, for that matter, what makes someone “better than” before? In my mind there is no doubt that reading is a treasure, and that lots of people reading is bound to make the world a better place. So how to create more readers? By doing what Forster himself did on his wartime BBC radio broadcasts about books: recommend great books and good ones, and encourage people to read them.

If I were being paid to review a set list of books or being held hostage to reviews (“Review Swamplandia! by tonight or no soup for you!”), I would write more negative or mixed reviews (“the writing in Swamplandia! is gorgeous but the point of the story gets lost in the acres of saw grass and the hugely yawning gape of Leviathan”: soup please?). But I am not being paid and I am hostage only to my own book addiction. And so I pass on recommendations of great books.

Great good comes from reading great books. The opposite — bad stuff comes from reading bad books — is not true. Partly because there are few truly bad books; most books have an audience somewhere who are pleased and comforted and transported by the words contained within. But also because your soul won’t shrivel from reading drivel and your brain won’t explode from reading crap. But why waste your time reading such tomes? And why should I waste my time reviewing them? If there is a specific book you’d like an opinion on, I’ll give it to you. Readers email me all the time not only with recommendations, which I covet, but also with questions, which I answer.

I love to read. And I know that everyone would love to read as much as I do if they read the great books I read. And I believe that love of reading spreads, recommendation to recommendation. So I write my reviews of good books and I dream of a world bursting with voracious, enthusiastic book readers. Such a world just might be the greatest good that comes from reading great books.

This post was cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

War and Peace: Re-Starting Life by Reading Books

Reading War and Peace is like looking in a mirror and seeing myself with all of humanity beside me, reflected back. But it is not our surface appearances that are reflected: it is our internal struggles with how to live and why. All great novels reflect our strivings, inept and agile, for understanding life, and that is why we read them: to gain understanding and become more agile and less inept in our own lives. Of course we also read for pleasure and escape and comfort and thrills – but when explorations of understanding existence are combined with pleasure, escape, comfort, and thrills, then a truly great novel is made. And War and Peace is such a novel. Every type of person is represented (I saw people I know in every scene), every take on life is explored, and every possible relationship is examined. And through his great novel, Tolstoy advises that life can be re-started, from any age, at any stage.

Just as War and Peace itself can be started — and re-started — at any age, any stage. If you have been holding off from reading War and Peace because of its bulk or its war scenes or its huge population of characters, wait no longer. Although I have just finished reading the novel, it is time for to start reading it all over again. I cannot let go of the tide of ideas, the swirl of conversations and internal monologues obsessing over the meaning of existence, the purpose of life, and the elements of the human condition. Every character thinks about the whys and wherefores of his or her placement on this earth and we — lucky us! — are privy to those thoughts. Even better, we see how actions resulting from such deep-thinking often contradict the thoughts: how to act as we think? We strive, as Tolstoy’s characters strive, for coherence and cohesion between our thoughts and our actions but life rarely plays out that way. Happiness, sorrow, pleasure, comfort, duty, greed, birth and death, war and peace: all these emotions and events are explored by Tolstoy’s characters and illustrated by scenes of compassion and love and sacrifice, as much as by scenes of anger and stupidity and impulse.

I didn’t need to read War and Peace to know that we human beings are deeply flawed, that we are bundles of conflicting needs and emotions and rules and beliefs. But Tolstoy shows me through his scenes of a battlefield or a party or at home, that humans are not defined or limited by our flaws; instead our flaws lead to failures and our failures change us. And so our flaws lead to change. And through change, we survive. I needed War and Peace to see the possibility offered by failing, and the potential for re-starting, when all seems lost.

Tolstoy also shows me that sudden or sustained moments of beauty and wonder also transform us, making our imperfections less important and our yearnings more important, and again offering the opportunity to restart a life that seems stalled or stagnant. There is a marvelous scene in War and Peace where Prince Andrey is journeying through a forest to visit the Rostov family. Andrey has entered a phase of his life where he wants to remain contained and unchanged within his own little world, and when he sees an old oak tree, “with branches broken off it ages ago and its old, cracked bark all scarred and broken”, he finds communion with the tree: “He’s right, that tree, a thousand times right…he and I know what life is. Our lives are over and done with!”

Later, when Andrey is traveling back through the forest after having fallen in love with Natasha, he finds the oak tree again. No longer barren and withered, the oak tree is resplendent with life and possibility, “spreading out in a canopy of lush, dark foliage and stirring gently as it wallowed in the evening sunshine.” Andrey again finds the tree expresses his own state: “No, life isn’t over… My life must be lived …” Despite its lovely and rich leafing, the tree retains its form of trunk and branches; it has not changed beyond recognition, it is not a new tree. It is the same tree, transformed. Just as Andrey is the same man he was before, but he has been changed through his meeting with Natasha. He has been re-started.

Tolstoy tells me that life reels with change, bloats with failure, explodes with beauty – and never stops offering possibility. And I hear him.

How to live? I look for answers in books. War and Peace is a source to be mined again and again, a book that will never grow dusty for the re-start it offers, and for the enjoyment such re-starting can bring.