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Posts Tagged ‘Shelf Awareness’

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As regular readers know, there are few things I love more than a long walk, in any season and almost any weather. My walking and reading inform each other: the books I’m reading often provide fodder for ambulatory reflection, but some books capture the pleasures of walking itself.

Scottish author Robert Macfarlane (whose work I adore) collected hundreds of “land-words” for his book Landmarks. Each section begins with a lyrical essay about a type of landform in the British Isles (mountain, coastline, forest), and contains a glossary of related words. Walkers and word nerds – or those who are both – will find much to love in Macfarlane’s treasures from “the word-hoard.”

For those who particularly relish a walk on a wet day, Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather is a celebration of misty treks through various landscapes and seasons. I picked it up, fittingly, at Blackwells in Oxford last year.

The octogenarian title character of Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, embarks on a different kind of journey: a zigzagging walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984. Narrating her odyssey with the wry zingers that defined her advertising career, Boxfish takes readers on a tour of 20th-century New York on her way to a good steak at Delmonico’s. I’d walk with her any time.

And finally, Emma Hooper’s spare, lovely debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, follows Etta as she treks across the plains of Canada, determined to walk until she finds the ocean. Like Lillian, she is elderly, a bit lonely and fiercely stubborn. Like Macfarlane and Harrison, she walks with purpose and a sharp, observant eye.

These books celebrate the particular joys of a journey, whether it’s a stroll around the block or a cross-country peregrination. The call to interested readers is the same: let’s go.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it appeared last fall. 

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You don’t need me to say it: by any measure, the last two years in American politics have been turbulent, if not downright disorienting. As politicians engage in shouting matches on social media (and elsewhere), I’ve been turning to an unlikely source of comfort: memoirs by staffers from the Obama White House. (This is a little easier to do now that I no longer work inside the maelstrom of politics every day.)

It isn’t just nostalgia, or denial. Whether they’re youthful idealists like David Litt (Thanks, Obama), who jumped on the former senator’s campaign and ended up spending years working for him, or veteran public servants like Wendy R. Sherman (Not for the Faint of Heart), whose career spans multiple administrations, these voices have helped me in two key ways. They remind me of what it was like to live in slightly saner–if no less complicated–political times. And they help explain, with their insider views of the Obama administration’s triumphs and failures, how the U.S. reached its current moment.

Ben Rhodes, who spent nearly a decade working on foreign policy and communications for Obama, chronicles the complex issues, impossible decisions and flat-out unbelievable moments of his political career in The World As It Is – one of my favorite books of 2018. His thoughtful accounts of the Arab Spring and the reopening of U.S.-Cuba relations make a great pairing with Sherman’s blow-by-blow of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and Litt’s breezy but sharply observed rendering of life as a speechwriter for Obama. These memoirs, plus Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, which I read last summer, offer insights on leadership and show their authors’ staunch commitment to hard work and public service.

Mastromonaco wins for best title (and most wry humor), but all four books provide fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into the daily lives unfolding alongside massive world events. Even more importantly, they remind me that even in fraught and divisive times, the American experiment of democracy is still–à la Mastromonaco–an excellent idea.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it appeared a couple of weeks ago.

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In my work for Shelf Awareness, I occasionally get to interview authors, and we always talk about good books: theirs, and usually others. But this conversation might have been the most bookish one yet. I was talking to James Mustich, co-founder of the book catalogue A Common Reader and the author of the wide-ranging, ambitious compendium 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

If that sounds daunting, let me reassure you: Mustich isn’t out to shame anybody for the books they “should” be reading. Instead, his book is an invitation to explore and discover. Here’s a bit of the extensive review I wrote for the Shelf:

Many avid readers have a “book bucket list”: that hefty classic they’ve always meant to tackle, that series they’ll get around to someday, that book their mother or husband or best friend loves that they’ve just never managed to try. But 1,000 books to read before you die? Sounds intimidating, to say the least.

Fear not. James Mustich, a longtime bookseller, voracious reader and a co-founder of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader, has taken has taken on the task: he’s compiled a massive, eclectic, surprisingly accessible list of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Organized alphabetically, it runs the gamut of taste and time: classic novels, myths and plays; beloved mysteries and children’s books; acclaimed contemporary fiction; seminal works of cultural criticism and much more. But it is not, as Mustich insists in his introduction, a canon or a prescriptive list.

Rather, it’s an invitation to explore. Begin at the beginning, the end, or anywhere you like. Flip through the entries; search for your favorites or for what might be missing. And–almost certainly–enjoy a few moments of serendipity along the way.

The best way to use this book is, in fact, to wander: flip through a section or two, go back and forth looking for something you thought you saw. Read the endnotes, skip a few entries or whole sections, only to find them again later. In short, “Read at whim!” as the poet Randall Jarrell entreated his readers. Mustich invokes Jarrell in his introduction, and it’s good advice: with a list this extensive, whimsy is not only enjoyable but absolutely necessary.

And here’s a bit from the Q&A:

How did you decide what to include in the compilation?

I did a lot of research, and I wrote about each book to the best of my ability. I want to share my enthusiasm about books people love, or books readers may know about but might not have taken the plunge into. I’ve been a bookseller for many years, so I’ve also had lots of conversations with book buyers. All of that mixed with some degree of literary style is built into the entries in the book. It’s not a canon or a prescriptive list, but more of an invitation: Here’s a big bookshelf of interesting things. Find something that interests you and pull it off.

Book lists are flourishing in our culture–from the Pulitzer winners to BuzzFeed listicles and every outlet in between. How do you expect people will react to this particular (long!) list?

I’ve spent 14 years writing this book, and I expect to spend the next 14 months traveling the country on book tour, having people tell me what I left out! But I’m excited about that. The book is meant to engage people’s passions. It’s an invitation to engage with your own shelves and start conversations around what books people should be reading. We can lose a lot of that in the book business, or in online bookselling, which is more transactional. But when you walk into a bookstore, you’re walking into this big conversation, and I wanted to capture some of that here.

How did you ever narrow down the list?

I thought of it in a couple of ways. One: we read the way we eat. One day we want a hot dog, and the next day we want to go to a fancy restaurant. Or sometimes both on the same day! And I also kept imagining: If I had a bookstore with a thousand books in it, and I wanted to have all the books I love, plus the usual suspects of classics and so on, plus something surprising for everyone who came in, how would I put that together? That kind of organized it for me.

Are there any books you love that you absolutely couldn’t squeeze in?

There’s a picture book called Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan. I was in Books of Wonder, a fantastic children’s bookstore in Manhattan, with my younger daughter, Iris, who was maybe three or four. She marched over to the shelf and said, “Daddy, I want this one.” We took it home, and I subsequently read it to her several hundred times. She made a great choice. And I couldn’t get that one in here. But that’s another book, where I’d like to write about those books that have been meaningful to me emotionally.

You can read the full review and interview at the Shelf Awareness website. If you’re looking for summer reading inspiration, this is a great place to start.

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shortest way home book anemones flowers

Back in early March, I spent most of a happy weekend in Sonoma County – though it was bitterly cold outside here in Boston. I did that not by hopping a plane (though I did fly to SoCal a few weeks later), but by savoring Miriam Parker’s charming debut novel, The Shortest Way Home.

Here’s a bit of the review I wrote for Shelf Awareness:

Hannah Greene has her life all planned out–or thinks she does. She’s landed a dream job right out of business school, and is envisioning a high-powered New York City future with her boyfriend, Ethan. But a weekend trip to Sonoma County right before graduation changes everything.

When Hannah falls in love with Bellosguardo, a small local winery, she talks her way into a marketing job there, giving up her hard-won position at Goldman Sachs and the plans she and Ethan have laid. Despite the winery’s appeal, Hannah’s 180-degree turn isn’t without its stomach-flipping bumps and surprising curves.

Miriam Parker’s debut novel, The Shortest Way Home, follows Hannah’s journey as she struggles to navigate her new path despite the weight of everyone else’s expectations (and her own).

Parker tells her story in Hannah’s voice, sharing both her protagonist’s delight at the beauty of Sonoma County (and her picture-perfect cottage on the vineyard’s grounds), and her anxiety over having made a rash decision that could upend her life. While she doesn’t regret giving up the Goldman job, and is increasingly convinced that Ethan wasn’t the right guy for her, Hannah second-guesses her new career path at every turn. Can she make a success of the winery? Will this new place, far from everything she knows, eventually become home?

Packed with good books, California sunshine and glass after glass of local wine, Parker’s debut is a sweet, funny, charming novel of a woman daring to upend expectations (her own and everyone else’s) to make her own way. Readers will toast Hannah’s roundabout journey and perhaps be inspired to take a detour or two of their own.

In addition to reviewing the book, I got to chat with Miriam about its creation. We had a delightful phone conversation, and I’m sharing a few excerpts from it below:

KG: Tell us about the inspiration for The Shortest Way Home.

MP: In a lot of ways, this book is a dream for me. I love reading, I love wine, I love travel. This was a book I wrote in the mornings, on vacation and on the weekends away from my job. I decided I was going to take all the things I loved and write a book about them.

You’d been to Sonoma before, but did you go back once you started writing the book?

Yes! I took my dog, Leopold Bloom, and stayed in northern Sonoma County. In the mornings I would write, and in the afternoons I would drive around with the dog and interview people at wineries. I highly recommend going on vacation with your dog!

I loved talking to people at the wineries. You learn the most amazing little details! For example: I learned that wineries plant roses at the end of their rows, because they’re much more sensitive than vines. If there’s any disease or blight around, the roses will show it before the vines, which gives the vineyard owner a heads up.

I also loved learning about terroir. Grapes take on the flavor of what’s planted in the ground around them, so if there’s rosemary, for example, they might have a hint of that. But they also take on the flavor of what was planted in the ground before they were: vegetables or other herbs. I thought it was fascinating that grapes take on both the history and the current flavor of the land.

The Shortest Way Home is mainly Hannah’s story, but several other characters are on their own journeys to figuring out what they really want.

Telling a story of people who are at different stages in their lives, trying to figure out what they want, felt really important to me. I spent a lot of my 20s being disappointed that life wasn’t lining up like it was “supposed to.” I was making mistakes, trying things, and everything didn’t feel like the story I’d seen in the movies or been taught to expect. And then I got into my 30s and realized that things don’t always line up: you have to give them space to happen. I think if I could have told my 21-year-old or even my 30-year-old self that, I would have appreciated it.

The most important question: What kind of wine pairs well with The Shortest Way Home?

I think it pairs perfectly with a glass of sparkling rosé on the back patio! Ideally with a nice herbed goat cheese and rosemary crackers.

You can read my full review and Q&A on the Shelf Awareness site. And if your interest is piqued, watch out for The Shortest Way Home when it comes out in July. Cheers!

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It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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heart sneakers trail

I’ve been reading a lot of great books about marriage lately, and decided to highlight a couple of them for a recent column in Shelf Awareness, which appears below.

They may go together like a horse and carriage, as the song has it. But love, when it’s meant to last a lifetime, can be messy, painful, even deadly dull. Two new books offer a complicated take on marriage that’s much more genuine – and more interesting – than the traditional fairy-tale narrative.

Essayist Ada Calhoun admits the truth: marriage is foundational and nourishing, but it’s also frustrating and just plain hard. Calhoun’s collection Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give delves into the facets of marriage that starry-eyed couples don’t always want to acknowledge. These include paying (literally) for a spouse’s mistakes, daydreaming about other partners (and other lives) and slogging through what she bluntly calls “the boring parts” of wedded bliss.

“Dating is poetry,” Calhoun writes. “Marriage is a novel. There are times, maybe years, that are all exposition.” Her mock “toasts” brim with wit, wisdom and gut-level honesty about the trials of staying married and the quiet rewards of remaining faithful, however imperfectly.

Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel explores a more dramatic but no less sticky aspect of long-term commitment–infidelity and its fallout–in The State of Affairs. Drawing on her years of work with couples (of various ethnicities and sexual orientations) who have dealt with infidelity, Perel explores the reasons people seek extramarital relationships and analyzes their effects.

Despite the pain they cause, she insists that affairs provide “a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.” Her clients’ stories have many different endings, but most, encouragingly, are still in progress: an affair can expose the fault lines in a marriage, but doesn’t have to mean total destruction.

Both Calhoun and Perel present clear-eyed yet ultimately hopeful perspectives on marriage as a tough, flexible and ultimately life-giving endeavor.

Have you read either of these authors? What are your favorite books about marriage?

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yellow crocuses light leaves flowers

March blew in like a lion with two wild, wet nor’easters back to back, and no lack of responsibilities at work and at home. As I navigate these blustery days, here’s a handful of tiny things, like bits of glitter, that are saving my life now:

  • That first sip of Darwin’s chai in the morning, after I lift the cup off the bar and before I put the lid on. It’s hot, spicy and life-giving.
  • Catching the trolley or the Red Line without having to wait.
  • The first (!) golden crocuses, spotted in the yard of a pink house on Cambridge St. (The man who lives there cut some of his roses for me last summer.)
  • Good pens, and ink-stained fingers.
  • Letting the sunlight flood full into my face as I look out the kitchen window, step outside my office building or sink into my favorite pew at Mem Church.
  • Brian Doyle’s rambling rollicking jubilant heartbreaking sentences in Mink River. They read like the Irishman he was: tender and clear-eyed, vivid and joyous.
  • The first scent of spring on an evening run last week: not just damp earth, which I also love, but the distinct smell of fresh blooming things.
  • The chalk heart that someone draws over and over again on the river trail.
  • Seeing my work in Shelf Awareness, which never fails to thrill me. If you love books, you should subscribe – it’s free, fun and informative.
  • A few places in my life where I am sure of a welcome: my florist’s shop, my boss’ office, my Thursday-morning haunt on the sixth floor. And – say it with me now – Darwin’s. (Though that’s not such a small thing at all.)

Some of these lifesavers are tiny indeed. But they anchor me and bring me joy, over and over again.

What’s saving your life these days? I’d love to know.

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