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Summer reading

I read a sequel (Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley) this week, and in general I hate reviewing sequels, because so much of a reader’s reaction is informed by the first book (I enjoyed them both, but by design, wasn’t as blown away by the second one because the first is just so mind-blowing), and also, blog readers may not have read the first one. So, instead, here is a bit of readers’ advisory for you.

One of the librarians at my library asked for a good book to take to a lake house — something fun to read that wouldn’t require too much concentration. When I asked what kind of books she liked, we chatted a few minutes and I got the sense that she enjoys books about family relationships.

Here’s the list I gave her, which I realized just now is in no order. The book blurbs are mostly from the publishers, or book sites, and you’ll see I added my comments. I am pretty sure I’ve written about all of them on bookconscious.

Hi!

Here are a variety of recommendations:

The Beach House by Jane Green — Disregarding local gossip that pegs her as an eccentric, sixty-five-year-old Nantucket widow Nan skinny-dips in unattended pools and steals her neighbors’ flowers before her dwindling funds force her to take in boarders, a change that brings an unexpected visitor. A really summery read!

The Hollow Land and anything else by Jane Gardam — Young Harry Bateman comes from London with his family year after year to spend the summer at Light Trees Farm in the Cumbrian fells country, until he feels that it is his real home. I read this for a book club, but I love every one of Jane Gardam’s books.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively — The mugging of a retired schoolteacher on a London street has unexpected repercussions for her friends and neighbors when it inadvertently reveals an illicit love affair, leads to a business partnership, and helps an immigrant to reinvent his life. Don’t be put off by the mugging; it’s a really interesting read, because that one event sets off a whole chain of other things, but Lively focuses on the relationships, not the crime.

Left Neglected by Lisa GenovaSarah, a career-driven young mother, suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that leaves her unable to perceive left-side information. The disability causes her to struggle through an uncertain recovery as she adapts to her new life. Same author as Still Alice; I was fascinated by the details about living with a brain injury, but the book is also about relationships.

The View from Penthouse B by Elinor LipmanTwo newly-single sisters, one a divorceé, the other a widow, become roommates with a handsome, gay cupcake-baker as they try to return to the dating world of lower Manhattan. Also, The Family Man — Reunited with his long-lost stepdaughter by an ex-wife’s hysterical plea for help, gay lawyer Henry Archer allows the young woman to move into his basement, where she reluctantly poses as the girlfriend of a down-on-his-luck former sitcom star. I also love her book of essays I Can’t Complain. She’s funny and wise.

French Leave by Anna Gavalda — Simon, Garance and Lola flee a family wedding that promises to be dull to visit their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a château in the heart of the charming Tours countryside. For a few hours, they forget about kids, spouses, work and the many demands adulthood makes upon them and lose themselves in a day of laughter, teasing, and memories.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain  — Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President Francois Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him. After the presidential party has gone, Daniel discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind. Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir, and as he leaves the restaurant, he begins to feel somehow different. I also loved The Red Notebook (same author) — After finding an abandoned handbag on the street, a Parisian bookseller endeavors to find its owner, the woman whose jottings he discovers in a red notebook within the bag. Both of these books are a mini trip to Paris!

The entire Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – My grandmother introduced me to these, and Mrs. Pollifax is one of my favorite characters of all time. Mrs. Pollifax is a widow and senior citizen who decides one day to leave her comfortable apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey and join the CIA. Funny, thoughtful, and absolutely charming books. The first is called The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai — Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. I could overlook the somewhat improbable plot because the heroine is a librarian and favorite childhood books are an important part of the story.

The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters – In the first book, which is set in Concord (the hero even goes to the Concord Public Library!), Earth is doomed by an imminent and unavoidable asteroid collision. Homicide detective Hank Palace considers the worth of his job in a world destined to end in six months and investigates a suspicious suicide that nobody else cares about. This series is fantastic, and I don’t usually like mysteries or pre-apocalyptic books. The author won both the Edgar and the Philip K. Dick awards, he’s funny and smart and so are his books.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer— In 1946, as England emerges from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton finds inspiration for her next book in her correspondence with a native of Guernsey and his eccentric friends, who tell her about their island, the books they love, German occupation, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club born as an alibi during German occupation. If you didn’t read it when it came out, it’s a lovely book.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson — Forced to confront the realities of life in the 21st century when he falls in love with widowed Pakistani descendant Mrs. Ali, a retired Major Pettigrew finds the relationship challenged by local prejudices that view Mrs. Ali, a Cambridge native, as a perpetual foreigner. Really good characters and a light touch, even though it’s a book about serious issues.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby —  When their singing coach dies unexpectedly before a big contest, a motley group of singers ina community choir from a small English village must overcome their respective challenges if they are ever going to succeed. Again, how could a book about a small town fading be so much fun? The characters.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby — Katie, a liberal, urban mother and doctor from North London, finds her life turned upside down when her husband, David, undergoes an outrageous spiritual transformation, in a hilarious novel about marriage, parenthood, religion, and morality. I love Nick Hornby; his charactars are funny and real.  I also loved High Fidelity — Follows the love affairs and belated growing up of a “Generation X” pop music fanatic and record store owner.

If you like nonfiction, both Calvin Trillin (I just recently read Travels With Alice, about vacations he took with his wife and kids; he’s hilarious) and Bill Bryson are fun and quick to read.

That’s probably too many books! But I wanted you to have options if some of these are not available.

 Enjoy!

In my new library job I am doing some copy cataloging, which is great fun. It also contributes to my “to read” list, because I inevitably see a book on my cart that interests me. That is how I found The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for HAPPINESS (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools by Susan Engel.

I LOVED this book. I’ll grant that I was primed to — longtime readers of bookconscious know that when I started the blog, it was about what my life learning family was reading. Back then, neither of our kids had ever been to formal schooling. John Holt had a lot to do with that. When I first learned about home education (by helping a library patron find books on the topic when I was pregnant with our older child), Holt’s work was life changing. What Holt wrote about is that children are born learners, who don’t need educational bureaucracies, metrics, curriculums, or even schools necessarily. What they need is adults who take them seriously, who respect their interests, and who give them the time and space to pursue those interests.

In The End of the Rainbow Engel quotes Holt and other educators and philosophers who embrace these ideas about children and how they learn. And she does something I wasn’t expecting — paints a very clear picture of what these ideas would look like in a public school. Any public school. In towns or cities, urban or rural places, with rich or poor kids. I quoted the book on Litsy as I was reading: “A premium on conformity and obedience has left little room for teaching children something much more powerful: the ability to find activities that are compelling, or to find what is compelling in a task, and thus find a way to be deeply absorbed.”

Engel’s call is to stop valuing conformity and start letting kids live their naturally learning-centered lives. She posits that if our education system was aimed at producing happy, well adjusted adults capable of thinking and pursuing ideas, rather than uniformly prepared workers ready for the workforce, both school and society would be better off.

One thing I hadn’t thought of until I read this book is that school is distracting — we actively encourage kids to change the subject several times a day, to move on whether something is done or not, and to work quickly. All the talk of our national inability to focus? Maybe it’s partially caused by school itself. One of our library liaisons heard faculty recently lament in a meeting that college students just want a rubric so they know what effort they need to make for an A, B, or C, and that they don’t try to think. I think Engel’s perspective might be that many college students have dealt with nothing but rubrics for the twelve years prior, and they’ve never been invited to think about doing things any other way.

Engel suggests that rather than standardized tests, which she notes have not been proven to be useful, schools could use many of the tools developmental psychologists employ to observe children’s (and their schools’) aptitudes in several key areas that would promote well being and a successful transition to adulthood. Such tools would include observing classrooms via videotape at random. Her “Blueprint for Well-Being” would ensure every child can have conversations, read for pleasure and information, collaborate and cooperate, investigate, “be useful,” “get immersed,” “become an expert” at something, and “know and be known by an adult.”

Most schools would have to change to allow these skills to be paramount. Engel notes that making room for teaching such attributes would mean simplifying school days, being intentional about schools as communities (including ensuring adults actively and positively engage with children so that they learn how to treat each other, and how to depend on one another so that differences become less important), allowing both teachers and students some autonomy, and ensuring teachers’ well being and happiness in their work, so that they have the energy and enthusiasm necessary to promote these attributes in their classrooms.

What an amazing world we’d have if every kid had these experiences! Some of the examples of classes she observed, both horrible and wonderful, made me want to start a school that embodies all of these principles and goals.Looking around at the pain society is experiencing right now, I wonder the kind of schools Engel envisions, places where competent, caring adults affirm and uphold the humanity, dignity, and natural curiosity of every child couldn’t just be the seismic shift we need? But could we get there with so many adults who are products themselves of our current school system, which Engel notes contributes to the mistrust many adults have of their own ability, each other and authority?

The End of the Rainbow is an amazing read, full of big ideas and thoughtful consideration of what society should want for it’s young people, interesting and important stuff even if you don’t have kids in school. Engel’s writing style is very persuasive. I’m grateful it was on my cataloging cart!

I saw a review of Radio Girls somewhere, and thought it was just the thing after my Infinite Jest fail and an interesting but not exactly light nonfiction read. I was right. Sarah-Jane Stratford based her novel on some real people — especially Hilda Matheson and her friends (who included Lady Nancy Astor and Vita Sackville-West) and the BBC Director General John Reith — and some fictional characters. Her heroine is the fictional Maisie Musgrave, who was born in Canada, grew up in New York, and ran away to become a WWI nurse even though she was underaged. When we meet Maisie, it’s 1926, and she is back in London after attending secretarial school in New York, and is trying to find work. Maisie is young and fairly adrift, having never known her father and never really felt any love from her mother.

She becomes a secretary at the BBC, working for both the Director General’s assistant and Hilda Matheson, who heads the Talks Department. The novel follows Maisie’s ups and downs as she discovers she doesn’t have to be mousy, she loves radio, she’s capable, and she longs to write. It’s her story, but it’s also the story of her time, and the BBC at that time, especially the development of the Talks. I enjoyed the parts about political events, especially the passage of universal suffrage and the first vote for all British women. Maisie also finds her way into a mystery that leads to a brush with spying and to a subplot about British fascists who want to take over the press. And she learns a great deal from Hilda.

In her author’s note, Stratford tells readers that many of the bits about the BBC, its inner workings and growing pains, Hilda Matheson’s accomplishments, and Reith’s actions at the helm are true. So are some of the facts about British fascists, although the story Maisie uncovers is fictional. Also true are the parts of the book about women having a hard road to advancement or even to working after marriage. Some of the plot gets a bit far fetched but it’s a fun read. I came away wanting to read more about Hilda Matheson — what a woman! —  and about the BBC.

Radio Girls isn’t perfect — some of the plot is far-fetched, and some of the language is a bit stale, with characters turning “bright red” or “white” whenever they are expressing shock or anger, for example. But I really enjoyed this debut and kept thinking it would make a wonderful Masterpiece production. Maisie is a delightful character.

I read about You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice in a Blog U post by Joshua Kim. Kim wrote that the book made him ponder the way we select books, which is an interesting question for librarians to consider. He also made the point that the book illuminates how bad we are at explaining our own tastes and at choosing what we’ll like and I thought, “That’s me!”

I’m the person who can never declare definitively my “favorite” of anything — color, book, movie, ice-cream flavor, etc. So well developed was my ability to see the merits of more than one side of an argument or more than one type of anything that my father was convinced when I was in college I was going to be brainwashed in an airport while listening politely to some cult member’s point of view.

I’ve had both good friends and my future husband shake their heads at my music collection (back when said collection was on cassette, and radio stations and the Columbia House music club were my only option for hearing about bands). A friend referred to me as a “musical slut;” the future husband said I was a musical disaster. He seemed frustrated that I appeared to like completely disparate stuff, to “have no taste in music,” when his own tastes were fairly well defined.

It turns out there’s a term for this in the age of the Internet. In You may Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt notes that sociologists Richard Peterson and Albert Simkus call it “omnivorousness,” and that it’s newfangled cultural elitism. One’s eclectic tastes signal status, as liking a particular class of things (for example, being an opera buff) once did. These days my strange CD collection would gain me points if I was trying to impress hipsters or highbrows. I didn’t find this very comforting. I’m not sure what’s worse, to have my taste in music described as weird or elitist. I think I’ll stick with being a weirdo.

You May Also Like is full of social science studies, past and present (I really liked the historical perspectives), observations about modern shopping and listening patterns, and interesting facts about the psychology of choice. Some of it made me squirm — how many times have I said here on bookconscious that I tend to be skeptical of prize-winning books? Turns out that’s a documented phenomena — ratings of books on Amazon drop after they win a prize. (One possible explanation is that people who wouldn’t normally read a book like the prizewinner are drawn to it because of the prize and its publicity, so those readers were never a good match for the book and are disappointed).

Vanderbilt’s writing style made it hard for me to read this book before bed. I finished it yesterday afternoon and found I took much more in. His tone is a bit scholarly — not off-puttingly, but not ideal for when I’m at my sleepiest. I admire someone who totally geeks out over his or her subject, and I think Vanderbilt does. With 63 pages of end notes for 226 pages of text, there are often 5-6 references per page. Vanderbilt’s voice isn’t as familiar or conversational as AJ Jacobs or Bill Bryson, but he does relate some of what he learns to his own experience.

If you like your nonfiction well researched and well written, you’ll like this book. I learned about things I want to follow up on — like Forgotify, a site dedicated to the millions of songs never played on Spotify. I’ll try to notice the subtle clues that an online review may not be authentic and I’ll be more aware of Vanderbilt’s astute point that even if a review is “real” it may be “subject to distortion and biases.” And I’ll be paying closer attention to my own likes and dislikes and those of my friends and family, thinking more critically about how those form and change.

As Vanderbilt concludes, “Trying to explain, or understand, any one person’s particular tastes — including one’s own — is always going to be a maddeningly elusive and idiosyncratic enterprise. But the way we come to have the tastes we do can often be understood through a set of psychological and social dynamics that function much the same, from the grocery store to the art museum. The more interesting question is not what we like but why we like.” That could be an endlessly fascinating thing to explore, now that I’ve read You May Also Like.

 

 

My college friend Marybeth asked me a little while ago to ask if I would read a novel called Mine that her friend’s sister, Katie Crawford, wrote. I didn’t know anything about it, except that Marybeth had read the first chapter and liked it. I finished yesterday morning and I can tell you this: it’s better than most of the books Kirkus has sent me to review in 2016.  I really enjoyed it and I think it deserves a wide audience.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will not be surprised to learn it’s published by a small press, Deeds Publishing in Athens, Georgia. I know there are some good books being published by the big five and other large publishing houses, but I will continue to remind readers as often as possible: there are really good writers being published by independent small presses all over the place, and if you go to your nearest independent bookstore the booksellers can hook you up with some wonderful books you will very possibly not hear of otherwise. Ok, plug for indies over (for now).

Mine is the story of two sisters in a small mining town in Pennsylvania, Janie and Maggie. The story describes their bleak childhoods and how that upbringing impacts both of their lives. The most important events that inform everything that happens to them for the rest of their lives are their parents’ deaths and Janie’s becoming pregnant by a priest who was himself abused by a priest as a child.

I don’t recall reading a date, but hints in the story and the timeframe in which the mines closed (which they have by the end of the novel) make me think the girls’ childhoods might be in the fifties or sixties? As would have been common at the time, Janie is sent away when her pregnancy becomes obvious, to some nuns who take care of “fallen” girls; refreshingly in this novel, the nuns are very kind and caring. But she’s made to give the baby up. About a year or so later, Maggie & Janie move to Philadelphia, where Maggie’s new mother-in-law lives. But Janie is faithful, visiting both the hospital room where she last held her infant daughter and her parents’ graves every week.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the plot, but I do want to recommend this moving book. It would make a good vacation read because it’s one of those books you don’t want to stop reading. The ending is satisfying without being tied up in a bow. The writing is compelling. You probably know older women who were a little like Janie when they were young; no amount of personal tragedy could dim her faith or her kind-heartedness.

This would also be great for a book club. I’d recommend pairing this novel with the movie Spotlight; we finally watched it last weekend and Mine made me really think about not only the Catholic Church’s complicity but also the enormity of the human tragedy — this book reveals just a few victims, and when you scale that up worldwide, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

But I digress. Go get this novel. If you like fiction about women’s lives, historical fiction, or just reading something that’s not on every airport bookrack, ask your local bookseller for Mine, or suggest your library purchase it.

 

I love the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries Read for Later.”  In the most recent issue I took a link to a Wired piece about “bingeing” on books. That to me sounded like a dream weekend, but the article was actually about a publishing format that was hot in the 19th century and is coming back in style: serialized fiction.

Which reminded me that I could download the final chapter of Julian Fellowes’ BelgraviaYes, that Julian Fellowes. His latest project is a 19th century story published 21st century style — via either the website or an app, in weekly installments. I subscribed as soon as I heard about it, which means that for eleven weeks I read a short chapter and then felt a little inconvenienced at being left hanging.

The app itself was seriously annoying — it won’t remember login information, so every week I had to enter it anew, which is problematic both in terms of remembering exactly what strange combo of capitalization, numbers, or characters I’d added to make the password fit the app’s requirements, and typing it all accurately on my iPad, something I always manage to screw up. Also sometimes the latest episode wouldn’t download, or would close while I was reading it.

The book itself is soapier than I would usually enjoy, but coming from the creator of Downton Abbey it’s highly entertaining and filled with historical details. At this point if you buy it I think you’ll get all eleven chapters at once, and if you don’t like eBooks, the print version will be published in early July. The book “opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, 15th June 1815, when the Duchess of Richmond threw a magnificent ball in Brussels for the Duke of Wellington.” From this real event, Fellowes spins a tale of love and betrayal, social aspiration and accomplishment. History and social commentary are the backdrop, but Fellowes’ characters are fictional, and in many ways very modern.

The main characters are the family of a self-made man who made his mark as Wellington’s supplier during the wars with Napoleon and went on to build great houses in London, and the family of his daughter’s love interest, aristocrats whose son was killed at Waterloo. There is plenty of family and social drama, and just plain human nature, and I enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion. I’d love to see a Masterpiece adaptation.

But reading Belgravia affirmed that I don’t love eBooks — I really didn’t even find the “bonus” features like links to information or photos all that engaging. I’m a narrative fan, and I don’t want to “binge” episodes, I want to read an entire novel at whatever speed I choose. But, that’s me. I’m all in favor of reading choices. If serialized fiction engages readers who otherwise don’t believe they have the time or attention span to read a novel, I hope the trend grows. But I’m hoping the print edition of Belgravia does even better than the serialized app, and that publishers use this trend as a hook, but continue to provide those who like to savor rather than binge with novels-in-full, in all formats, including print.

Ok, for those of you who’ve followed along with my can-I-or-can’t-I finish Infinite Jest: I can’t. I tried. I made it to page 500 something. But I have a Kirkus assignment, a tall to-be-read pile, and a book I put in a purchase request for waiting at the library, and also it was slowly dawning on me that even if I persevered to the end, I was not going to “find out what happens.” What seemed interesting and fascinating in the first few hundred pages began to wear me down.

Infinite Jest is still an interesting book. I was amazed at how prescient it seems even though it was published in the early 90’s. Sadly it doesn’t seem all that far fetched that an American administration might consider corporate sponsorship of time. And the drug addiction in the book seems pretty timely. But I was disappointed that the complex plot lines did not become clearer as I read, and I feel a little ripped off that I spent over three weeks trying to get through a novel that was ultimately impenetrable when I have so many other books I want to read.

Would I recommend anyone else try Infinite Jest? I know there are many people who think it’s brilliant. There’s a temptation with a book this out of the ordinary to believe it’s a work of genius that is just beyond the average reader. But I’m afraid I feel like any book that doesn’t reward the reader with some insight after three weeks of hard slogging is probably not a good book. It may be a creative, experimental work, it may be groundbreaking and innovative and unique, and I’m all for complexity, nonlinear narrative, unreliable narrators, etc. But I’d like, in exchange, a good story. This book didn’t give me that. And it’s fairly depressing, to boot. So I’m out.

A side note — I tried Infinite Jest as an ebook at first, and then when it was clear I couldn’t finish it by the time my Overdrive loan would expire, I placed a hold on the hard copy. I’d advise anyone trying to read this book not to bother with the ebook. If you want to try to read the footnotes — something I had limited success doing even in the paper version — it’s just completely inefficient to try to do it in the ebook.

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