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Posts Tagged ‘classics’

spirit of 76 bookstore interior

We’re halfway through August already (!) and I’m trying to hang on – and diving into all the books, naturally. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, Natalie Goldberg
I heard Natalie read from this, her newest memoir, last month in Lenox, Mass. She was a delight, and this book about her journey with cancer contains both great pain and moments of joy. Short, lyrical chapters trace Natalie’s diagnosis, treatment and wrestling with her own mortality, all while her partner was also fighting cancer. I carried it in my bag for weeks, reading it slowly. It’s heartbreaking, sometimes lovely, fiercely honest all the way through.

Island of the Mad, Laurie R. King
When a college friend of Mary Russell’s asks Mary to locate her missing aunt, Russell and Holmes find themselves wandering Venice, which (in 1925) is brimming with both carefree aristocrats and grim Blackshirts. I love Russell’s narrative voice – so smart and insightful. The case and the elaborate parties (and Cole Porter!) are extremely diverting.

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster, Stephen L. Carter
Few people know that a black female lawyer – Eunice Hunton Carter – was part of the team that took down NYC mobster Lucky Luciano in the 1930s. Stephen Carter – her grandson – sets out to tell her remarkable story. A deeply researched, insightful biography of an extraordinary woman. (I also enjoyed Carter’s novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln a few years back.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 9).

Tango Lessons, Meghan Flaherty
Flaherty first fell in love with tango as a teenager visiting Argentina, but it took her years to try it for herself. She chronicles her journey into New York’s tango scene, and the ways tango has challenged her ideas about dance, desire, taking risks and many other things. Well written and engaging, if occasionally too self-conscious.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I picked up this old favorite and fell instantly back in love with Francie Nolan’s story of growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. Francie is smart, thoughtful, keenly observant – so many of her insights still ring true. I also love her fiercely hardworking mother, Katie, and her generous aunt, Sissy. This is a story of deep poverty and struggle, but it’s also about fighting to make your way in the world, being proud of where you came from, and the joys and disappointments of love (romantic and otherwise). So good.

Forever and a Day, Anthony Horowitz
Marseilles, 1950: The original 007 has been killed by three bullets, and the British intelligence service has sent a new man – James Bond – to find out who killed him and why. This prequel gives Bond an intriguing first assignment, complete with a mysterious woman (of course) and associates who may or may not be what they seem. Well done, though the ending fell a bit flat. I’ve never read the original Ian Fleming novels, but now I want to. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy Tallack
To most people, Shetland is the end of the world – but to its residents, it’s the titular center. Tallack’s novel follows the intertwined lives of a few people living in the titular valley. Beautiful and quiet. Possibly to review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 6).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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belong to me book tulips mug

April has brought the craziest weather so far: six inches of snow, torrential rain, mild sunshine. Here’s what I have been reading:

Last Ride to Graceland, Kim Wright
Blues musician Cory Beth Ainsworth has always known her mama spent a year as a backup singer for Elvis – but she’s never known the details. After her mother dies, Cory stumbles upon a vintage Stutz Blackhawk in her stepfather’s shed: a car that belonged to the King himself. Fueled by a need to know more about her own history, Cory takes to the road, driving the Blackhawk from South Carolina to Memphis. A sweet road-trip story, though Cory is seriously flaky. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 24).

Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
During a serious reading slump, I picked up this book and fell head over heels (again) into this luminous, funny, utterly genuine story about a few families whose lives become intertwined. I adore Cornelia, who also narrates Love Walked In, and I love how her world gets bigger and richer in this book. I am amazed at de los Santos’ deep compassion for her characters, even prickly Piper (Cornelia’s neighbor).

West Wind, Mary Oliver
I need a Mary Oliver fix every once in a while (especially during National Poetry Month). This collection of poems and prose poems is luminous and lovely. Some favorites: “Fox,” “It is midnight, or almost,” and the last poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches.”

Audacity Jones to the Rescue, Kirby Larson
Audacity Jones is whisked away from Miss Maisie’s Home for Wayward Girls as part of a top-secret mission involving President Taft – but neither the mission nor its consequences are what she expects. A fun, fast-paced middle-grade novel with a spunky, clever heroine. (I love her name!)

The Song of Hartgrove Hall, Natasha Solomons
After World War II, the Fox-Talbot estate in Dorset (Hartgrove Hall) is falling apart, and the family’s three sons work to try and save it. Harry, the youngest, is a gifted composer and avid folk-song collector, but he’s also in love with his brother’s girlfriend. Solomons’ writing is gorgeous – she evokes both music and the English countryside so well – though the love triangle didn’t feel quite believable to me. (I loved her earlier novel The House at Tyneford.)

The Saturdays, Elizabeth Enright
The four Melendy children – Mona, Rush, Randy and Oliver – live with their father in a comfortable, shabby brownstone in 1940s New York City. They decide to pool their allowances so they can have adventures on Saturdays, and do they ever! I love this book – the writing is simple and lovely and the characters are so much fun. First in a series.

Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee
After Samantha Young loses her father and her home, she finds herself fleeing town in the company of a runaway slave, Annamae. The two girls disguise themselves as boys and strike out for the Oregon Trail, hoping to outrun their problems and chase their dreams to California. A smart, vivid YA novel with two brave heroines and some really fun supporting characters (human and animal). Reminded me a bit of Walk on Earth a Stranger.

A Front Page Affair, Radha Vatsal
Capability “Kitty” Weeks has ambitions of being a journalist, but she’s stuck writing for the Ladies’ Page of the New York Sentinel. But when a man is murdered at a society picnic on her beat, Kitty finds herself drawn into a twisty conspiracy. This one had a slow start but picked up later on. Kitty is a likable heroine and the setting (1915 NYC) will appeal to lovers of historical mystery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 3).

The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim
Four Englishwomen, unacquainted and all variously miserable for their own reasons, rent a charming Italian villa for the month of April. A winsome comedy of manners with plenty of wit and many amusing misunderstandings. (Also: gorgeous descriptions.) Utterly delightful. Recommended by my pen pal Jaclyn.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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notre-dame

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I have only spent a little time in Paris: a few days here and there on three separate trips. But like so many visitors to the City of Light, I find it utterly enchanting.

There are hundreds of books set in Paris, and I have read dozens of them, but here are my favorites. (Heavy on the nonfiction this time because there are so many gorgeous Paris memoirs.)

Memoir/Nonfiction

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
I read Hemingway’s memoir on the Eurostar train to Paris years ago and fell in love with its crisp, lucid descriptions of life (and writing). I have mixed feelings about Hemingway’s fiction, but I savored every page of his account of life in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife, Hadley, and their son. I adore the last line: “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, T.E. Carhart
A fascinating story of how the author makes friends with the owner of a Paris piano atelier. Carhart’s descriptions of the arrondissement where the shop is located, and the shop itself, are lovely.

My Life in France, Julia Child
Child’s memoir chronicles her travels around Europe with her husband, Paul, and the launch of her culinary career. Her love for Paris comes through on every page, and the descriptions are truly mouthwatering. (Bon appetit!)

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard
Just what the subtitle says. Bard (an American) falls in love with a Frenchman and chronicles the highs (delicious meals) and lows (absurd amounts of paperwork) involved in building a French life. Clear-eyed and charming, with delectable recipes. (I also loved Bard’s second book, Picnic in Provence.)

A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg
Wizenberg’s first book is about grief, growing up and falling in love, but it is also about Paris, where she has been happiest and also loneliest. Mouthwatering descriptions of food and markets, and some lovely passages about wandering Paris alone (my favorite way to explore a city).

Left Bank Waltz, Elaine Lewis
Lewis is an Australian who founded and ran an Aussie bookshop in Paris for several years, á la Shakespeare and Company. Her memoir is a delightful account of that journey, and a slightly different angle than the usual American-abroad-in-Paris memoirs. It is hard to find in the U.S. (I found it in an Oxfam shop in Oxford, long ago.)

Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik
Gopnik writes lyrical, often humorous essays about adapting to life in Paris with a small child. I like Gopnik’s other work (on winter and food, notably), but this is my favorite of his books. (Similar in some ways to Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous Four Seasons in Rome.)

Mastering the Art of French Eating, Ann Mah
I devoured Mah’s memoir about making a home in Paris and exploring the culinary traditions of Paris and the rest of France. She writes eloquently about food and loneliness and evokes the city so well.

Fiction

The Lollipop Shoes, Joanne Harris
I adore Harris’ rich, evocative novels, especially Chocolat and its sequels. This book (published in the U.S. as The Girl With No Shadow) brings Vianne Rocher and her daughters to Paris, where they try to build a new life but find it difficult for various reasons. A vivid, gritty evocation of life in Montmartre.

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
I read Hugo’s masterpiece a couple of years ago (I have loved the musical since I was a teenager). Paris itself is a character in the book – teeming with history, fascinating characters and barely suppressed violence. This is not the scrubbed-clean Paris of my favorite chick flicks: it is vital and bloody and wholly alive.

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
This is Hadley Hemingway’s story: how she fell in love with (and eventually lost) Ernest, and their years in Paris together. Gorgeous and evocative (and, inevitably, deeply sad).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are your favorite books set in Paris? (I agree with Sabrina Fairchild that “Paris is always a good idea.”)

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winter breakfast poetry

We are deep into the season of down coats and fleece-lined tights, of snowflakes swirling down from white-gray clouds or the poetry of bare branches against a vivid blue sky.

Winter is here, and while it isn’t my favorite season, I do have a few coping strategies, including a stack of seasonally apt books. So, in case you’re shivering too (because it seems that a lot of us are), I thought I’d share my wintry picks with you.

Winter: Five Windows on the Season, Adam Gopnik
I picked up this essay collection a few winters ago, mostly because I loved Gopnik’s memoir Paris to the Moon. Gopnik examines winter from several angles: historical, literary, cultural, philosophical. He admits to being a lover of winter, and his prose evokes the best of the season: walking home under a snowy sky, ice skating on a frozen pond, watching the snow fall from behind the comforting barrier of a windowpane. He explores winter’s potential for recreation and daydreaming, its vital place amid the cycle of the seasons. For those who struggle, as I do, to develop “a mind for winter,” Gopnik’s musings are enjoyable and thought-provoking.

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I read and reread the entire Little House series as a child, but I’ve picked up this book every winter since I moved to New England. Laura is such a keen-eyed, relatable character, and I always hope to channel a little of her indomitable spirit. She also tells a good story – the prose is simple but powerful, and the struggles of that harsh winter are sharply drawn. I especially love the scenes around the table, when Pa plays his fiddle and sings, and his reminders that “it can’t beat us!” Winter, even on the Dakota prairie, doesn’t last forever.

A Mind of Winter: Poems for a Snowy Season, ed. Robert Atwan
This collection is a new acquisition for me; I picked it up at the Bookstore in Lenox, Mass., this fall. I knew I’d need a few reminders of winter’s beauty when the temperatures dropped after Christmas. The poems here are varied and lovely – Frost, Dickinson, Jane Kenyon, Marge Piercy, Mary Oliver and more – and many of them capture images of winter in words as brief and crystalline as snowflakes.

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
Based on an old fairy tale about a girl fashioned out of snow, Ivey’s debut novel beautifully evokes the landscape of Alaska: its harshness, its isolation, its often stunning beauty. It’s a story of love: Jack and Mabel, devoted to each other, yearn for a child. When they build a girl out of snow, a young human girl appears as if summoned, and though they come to love her deeply, she can’t be tamed or kept. Heartbreaking and so, so lovely.

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Maud Hart Lovelace
Most of Lovelace’s books, which are set in Minnesota, contain a few wintry scenes: sledding, ice skating, sleighing parties. This fourth book in the series has some of the best: Betsy’s cozy afternoons in the new town library, bobsled parties under the stars, sipping hot chocolate (with whipped cream, of course) on cold days. And shopping for Christmas ornaments. So fun.

What are your favorite books to read in the wintertime?

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith

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red yellow leaves autumn light

“The climate changed quickly to cold and the trees burst into color, the reds and yellows you can’t believe.

yellow leaves boston blue sky

“It isn’t only color but a glowing, as though the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly.

red leaves blue sky light

“There’s a quality of fire in these colors.

memorial church red leaves blue sky

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

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book stack late august sunflowers middlemarch
As you know if you follow me on Goodreads (or read my periodic book roundups), I spent a large part of this summer reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for my occasional book club. Though I was put off by its size, I figured it would be easier to tackle with friends, so I checked it out from the library and gave it a shot.

Spoiler alert: I did not love it. But I kept reading, for several reasons.

First of all, accountability is a powerful thing. I’d never read Middlemarch and I wanted to be able to say I’d given it a good effort. I didn’t finish before book club – but I made it to page 650 (out of 800 in the edition I had), so I was satisfied with my effort. (Two other members who attended the meeting didn’t finish either.) I also liked (some of) the characters, especially practical Mary Garth, and I enjoyed Eliot’s pointed, witty narrative asides.

I know several people (including my pen pal Jaclyn) who love this book. And I figured that it’s probably a classic for a reason: I expected I would be glad I’d read it. So I decided to finish it, even after the deadline (my book club meeting) had passed.

As I was finishing up Middlemarch, I faced another bookish dilemma. I review several books each month for Shelf Awareness, and I get to choose which books I review. It means I don’t usually have to finish a book I’m not enjoying – which is my general policy these days. (As Anne says, life’s too short.)

I sent the following email to my editor:

I’m reading the new Isabel Allende novel (The Japanese Lover) and Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew. Allende is a widely respected novelist, and I’m sure this book will be hailed as a great effort and as Literature. (I remember enjoying The House of the Spirits.) But I’m not loving it. In fact, I’m liking Andrew’s book a lot better – it’s a clever South African mystery and I really like the narrator.

I know you generally tell us to review what we like – but sometimes I worry about skipping over a Big Book or “literary fiction” in favor of a mystery or something less “highbrow.” My question is: should I make a real effort to review the “big” books even if I don’t really like them, or keep reading/reviewing according to instinct and whim? Is it a problem if the Shelf “skips” some of these books? (Am I even making any sense?)

My editor (God bless her) replied succinctly, “We are better off reviewing really good books, rather than trying to shoehorn a book into a review because of the author’s stature.” (She also suggested passing the Allende on to another reviewer who might like it better.)

I happily put down the Allende after reading her email, and relished that South African mystery. But it reminded me how powerful the “shoulds” are.

We think we “ought” to finish a book because it’s a classic, or because it’s “cheating” not to finish, or because it’s the new Big Book by a popular author. The perceived judgment we might receive if we don’t finish is strong enough to keep a lot of us reading books we don’t enjoy. And sometimes (this is the kicker) it is worth it to persevere.

I’m glad I finished Middlemarch, because it’s a classic I’d been meaning to read for a long time, and I did enjoy it. But I’m also glad I put down The Japanese Lover, because it just wasn’t my thing. Both are equally valid responses to two variations of the same dilemma.

I bet I’m not the only one who struggles with this question. Do you abandon books you’re not enjoying – all the time, sometimes, never? If you’re a sometimes-finisher, like me, how do you decide?

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september books hydrangeas

The Knockoff, Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza
When Glossy magazine editor-in-chief Imogen Tate returns after a six-month leave, she’s horrified to find that her former assistant Eve has taken over and is planning to turn the magazine into an app. A whip-smart, wickedly funny satire of the fashion publishing world and our cultural obsession with digital media. I loved it, and I was rooting for Imogen all the way. Recommended by both Anne and Ann.

Named of the Dragon, Susanna Kearsley
Literary agent Lyn Ravenshaw gladly accepts her favorite client’s invitation to spend Christmas in Wales. Once she arrives, Lyn has a series of strange dreams about a woman imploring her to take care of a young boy being pursued by dragons. An atmospheric novel that weaves together themes of love, grief and Arthurian legend. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 6).

Death Wears a Mask, Ashley Weaver
London socialite Amory Ames and her husband Milo attend a masked ball. They’re on the lookout for a jewel thief, but no one expects murder. Amory assists the police in their investigation, while confronting rumors about Milo and a French film star. Witty prose, a well-plotted mystery and a sensitive portrait of a difficult marriage. (I also loved Weaver’s debut, Murder at the Brightwell.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 13).

Kissing in America, Margo Rabb
Since her dad died, Eva Roth has found solace in romance novels, much to the disgust of her feminist mother. When her crush finally notices her, Eva dares to hope for her own romance – but then he moves to California. Eva and her best friend take off on a cross-country road trip filled with wacky experiences and surprising epiphanies about love and grief. This is not a typical YA love story – it’s so much better. Complex, funny and poignant. Recommended by Rebecca on All the Books.

How to Write a Novel, Melanie Sumner
Aristotle Thibodeau, age 12.5, plans to write the Great American Novel (in 30 days!) and thereby solve her family’s financial problems. Her novel is autobiographical, but the characters (single mom, zany little brother, handsome handyman) just won’t behave as Aris  wants them to. Entertaining (though too cutesy at times); full of wry quips (and footnotes) on the writing life. Found at Island Books in Newport, RI.

A Demon Summer, G.M. Malliet
Father Max Tudor is called to a nearby abbey to investigate a suspected poisoning via fruitcake. Soon after he arrives, another abbey guest is found dead in the cloister. This was one of those mystery solutions where two-thirds of the relevant information comes out at the very end, which I always find unsatisfying. (Besides, I like Max’s village and wish he’d get back to solving mysteries there.)

Middlemarch, George Eliot
I read this for my occasional book club‘s August meeting. (Obviously, I did not finish it in time.) I found it quite tedious at times, but witty and full of truth at other times. A mixed bag, but a classic I’m glad I finally read.

Since You’ve Been Gone, Morgan Matson
Emily’s best friend Sloane disappears – with no explanation – right before the summer they’ve been planning. She leaves Emily a list of 13 unusual tasks. With the help of a few new friends, Emily completes the list and discovers a new side of herself. I love Matson’s YA novels (complete with plenty of playlists) and this one was no exception.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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