Message in a Bottle
Books In Light of Today’s Tragedies

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After a week like the last one, I struggle with what to write in this venue. It would be silly of us to overemphasize the importance of books in light of the recent events. I’ve turned away from the half-finished pile of titles on my nightstands and tables to watch the news incessantly, even during a road trip to southern California visiting old friends and family. As I introduce my infants for the first time to important people in my life, I can’t help but feel the shakiness of the world they’re entering and worry about how they will understand the tragedies of our nation.

Before bedtime we hold our babies in our laps and read them a story, just as generations before us all over the world have put their kids to sleep. These enduring books, like Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? are a comfort: stories that remain unchanged in a constantly changing world. I see the safety these stories provide and they reassure me that my kids will always have one place to go where they will feel safe.

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Books serve many purposes, but today I’m thinking about how they can make you feel at home. Safely tucked in bed, when I’m scared and lonely and worried during the day, I can still crack open my old copy of Pride and Prejudice and know a world where children do not die and true love prevails. The biggest problems are who to marry. I know I’ll turn back again and again to these safe worlds and appreciate the comfort they provide. That’s the role that books, and the safe haven of bookstores, play in relation to today’s tragic events. For that I’m deeply grateful.

—Miriam

The Dinner: Something to Chew On

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When someone tells me a book rattled them, I become curious. When my mother-in-law says it over a text as we play Words With Friends, I’m even more intrigued. 

"It was awful," she said.

"But could you put it down?" I asked.

"No. I couldn’t stop reading it."

Alarm bells went off. I’m okay skipping out on a disturbing book, if it’s bad. But compelling and impossible to put down? I’m not going to miss out on that. And so I had to pick up The Dinner by Herman Koch and see what she was talking about.

The Dinner is structured like a meal, and the setting is a pretentious restaurant, but this isn’t really a book about a dinner. This is a story about the lengths people will go to protect their children and how parents influence their kids. That subject isn’t immediately evident in the first half of the book. I’m guilty of skipping over the server’s description of the appetizer, the uncorking of the wine, and trips to the restroom. It was only when I was ready to give up on the entire book that the story became interesting.

The fact that The Dinner hit all the bestseller lists is surprising, considering it’s a foreign translation and perhaps an acquired taste for American readers, contains the most unlikeable characters possible, and takes a long time to pick up steam. That said, once I got into it I couldn’t put it down, just like my mother-in-law predicted. One big clue that I’d enjoy it was the back cover, which featured praise from authors of some of my favorite recent books, including Gillian Flynn and S.J. Watson.

Two Dutch couples meet for dinner to discuss a recent and troubling incident with their sons. Paul Lohman is the misanthropic and increasingly unreliable narrator. He and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his sister-in-law Babette that evening, and Paul loathes Serge. Serge is a slick and popular politician while Paul is a history teacher on indefinite leave, and they couldn’t be more different.

Paul seems to hate everything and everyone except his wife and son, Michel. The first troubling revelation is about the crime that Michel and Serge’s son committed, but as the story broadens, we learn more about Paul and how his actions may have led up to Michel’s dangerous mistake. What at first appears to be a cynical but insightful narration becomes harder to trust, as Paul reveals secret after secret leading up to this dinner. His past behavior becomes harder to justify, and the revelations that come with each chapter paint a growing picture of life viewed through disturbed lenses.

Without spoiling the surprising revelations that make the book so shocking and compelling, I will admit that the end left me thoroughly unsatisfied. I wanted to see the kids punished, to know the consequences of Paul’s previous actions, and more than that, I wanted a clearer understanding of Paul’s wife Claire, who surprises everyone, including the other characters, by turning out to be the complete opposite of what she seems. Lady Macbeth would have been proud of Claire.

The Dinner has been compared with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, another favorite thriller I read recently. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and could live with the ending, you’ll like The Dinner too.

—Miriam

When David Sedaris published his book of essays about anthropomorphized animals, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, in 2010, he made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In addition to the amusing snail joke Sedaris shared at the end of this clip, he mentioned that he originally wanted to call the book “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” but his editor nixed the idea.

Well, looks like that title made it to print after all, and on April 23rd, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls hits shelves. While Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk had a fictional format and a dysfunctional and adult Aesop’s Fables quality to it, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls returns to the essay format where Sedaris flourishes. This collection is something of a traveler’s diary, covering a range of venues from North Carolina to England to Australia. No other writer can work in a colonoscopy, Costco, and a chintzy wedding gift quite the way Sedaris can, and although much of this book rehashes his favorite topics (like dysfunctional family and experiences living abroad), there’s a new tinge of melancholy and fewer laugh-out-loud moments in his writing. The youthful energy of his older breakout work has ripened into a more mature cynicism.

I’ve loved David Sedaris since I read Me Talk Pretty One Day in 2000, but I knew I really loved him when I heard he recently confessed his love for the television show Breaking Bad (my husband and I are obsessed with that show, and I can see how Breaking Bad's absurdities would appeal to Sedaris's sense of humor). His longtime fans will find plenty to enjoy in his latest, but don't expect anything revolutionary.

If you’ve never read Sedaris before, try the paragraph below (excerpted from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls:

"I don’t know how these couples do it, spend hours each night tucking their kids in, reading them books about misguided kittens or seals who wear uniforms, and then rereading them if the child so orders. In my house, our parents put us to bed with two simple words: ‘Shut up.’ That was always the last thing we heard before our lights were turned off. Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator or anywhere near it, because our parents recognized it for what it was: crap. They did not live in a child’s house, we lived in theirs.”

If that made you laugh, that’s all you need to know to diagnose a love for this writer that will only ripen over time. Run over to Island Books as soon as you can and get the book. In fact, I recommend a few copies of his backlist titles too. After recently reading The Round House and The Dinner (I’ll get to that book here next week), some lighter fare is definitely in order, and anything by David Sedaris fits that bill nicely.

—Miriam

Can You Guess Which Author Endures?

imageI have a cousin who is hopelessly addicted to Tab (I know, I know, who drinks Tab these days? Well, she does). She drinks at least four cans a day. Once my dad and I gave her a taste test. We presented her with three glasses and asked her to identify which was Coke, Pepsi, and Tab. Unbeknownst to her, we presented two glasses of Coke and one of Pepsi. After insisting that glass two was the Tab, she was shocked to learn that her “Tab” was actually Coke. She’d been drinking Tab her whole life. How could this mistake be possible?

Have you ever been to a wine tasting and felt hopelessly unsure which bottle costs $10 and which costs $100? Don’t worry, it’s a rhetoric question so no need to embarrass yourself by answering. I won’t tell you my answer either. Sometimes excellence isn’t immediately obvious. When I surprisingly came across Tab in the grocery store recently (I know, I know, who still sells Tab these days?), I wondered if the taste test could be applied to literature.

imageIn the questions in the short quiz below, I present three quotes from different novels. Can you tell me which option comes from a timeless literary giant, rather than a current writer? Don’t worry, I won’t pull the Tab quiz trick on you.

1) a. “We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking. This is the great paradox.”

b. “He sighed profoundly, and flung himselfthere was a passion in his movements which deserves the wordon the earth at the foot of the oak tree. He loved, beneath all this summer transiency, to feel the earth’s spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak tree to be; or, for image followed image, it was the back of a great horse that he was riding, or the deck of a tumbling shipit was anything indeed, so long as it was hard, for he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to; the heart that tugged at his side; the heart that seemed filled with spiced and amorous gales every evening about this time when he walked out.”

c. “‘Before you, [name], my life was like a moonless night. very dark, but there were starspoints of light and reason… And then you shot across my sky like a meteor. Suddenly everything was on fire; there was brilliancy, there was beauty. when you were gone, when the meteor had fallen over the horizon, everything went black. Nothing had changed, but my eyes were blinded by the light. I couldn’t see the stars anymore. And there was no more reason for anything.’”

2) a. “To be confronted with such pity, and such earnest youth and beauty, was far more trying to the accused than to be confronted with all the crowd. Standing, as it were, apart with her on the edge of his grave, not all the staring curiosity that looked on, could, for the moment, nerve him to remain quite still. His hurried right hand parceled out the herbs before him into imaginary beds of flowers in a garden; and his efforts to control and steady his breathing shook the lips from which the colour rushed to his heart. The buzz of the great flies was loud again.”

b. “More and more I find myself at a loss for words and didn’t want to hear other people talking either. Their conversations seemed false and empty. I preferred to look at the sea, which said nothing and never made you feel alone.”

c. “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”

3) a. “She still felt shell-shocked by all of it, numb. Beneath the numbness, though, was a raw and terrible anger that was unlike anything she’d felt before. She had so little experience with genuine anger that it scared her. She actually worried that if she started screaming, she’d never stop.”

b. “But sometimes, maybe most times, it isn’t that clear. It is dark and you are near the edge of a cliff, but you’re moving slowly, not sure which direction you’re heading in. Your steps are tentative but they are still blind in the night. You don’t realize how close you are to the edge, how the soft earth could give away, how you could just slip a bit and suddenly plunge into the dark.”

c. "For the first moment he thought he was going mad. A dreadful chill came over him; but the chill was from the fever that had begun long before in his sleep. Now he was suddenly taken with violent shivering, so that his teeth chattered and all his limbs were shaking. He opened the door and began listening, everything in the house was asleep. With amazement he gazed at himself and everything in the room around him, wondering how he could have come in the night before without fastening the door, and have flung himself on the sofa without undressing, without even taking his hat off. It had fallen off and was lying on the floor near his pillow."

Answers:

1) a. Nicholas Sparks / The Notebook

    b. Virginia Woolf / Orlando

    c. Stephenie Meyer / Twilight

2) a. Charles Dickens / A Tale of Two Cities

   b. Paula McLain / The Paris Wife

   c. Amor Towles / Rules of Civility

3) a. Kristin Hannah / Firefly Lane

   b. Harlan Coben / Hold Tight

   c. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Don’t worry I found this quiz less than obvious too. The point is, up close there isn’t always an obvious difference between good and great. Sometimes we can only see greatness in retrospect. The question is, which of these current writers will people still be reading in a hundred years?

—Miriam

Family Matters: The Burgess Boys

imageElizabeth Strout has a knack for creating unlikeable characters rich in emotional complexity. She pulled in many readers with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, and her latest, The Burgess Boys, again displays her lyrical prose and ability to capture the complexity of family relationships. And there’s just something about Maine. Stephen King always writes about it, and Strout’s writing is also deeply connected with the small town atmosphere. Her books always have a strong sense of place. There’s much to discuss about both Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, and I suspect BB will make it on many book club lists.

The Burgess Boys is the story of three siblings: Jim, the oldest, a married and successful lawyer in New York; Bob, divorced, the warmer and kinder of the brothers who lives near Jim and has a mediocre career in law; and Susan, Bob’s twin and a single mother raising her teenage son back in their working class hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine. Jim, Bob, and Susan’s father died in a bizarre accident when they were small children and the incident has haunted their entire lives. What really happened to their father and what they think happened may or may not be the same thing, and that back story frames the events in the book and informs their present relationships.

Shirley Falls has recently had a large influx of Somalis and the town is simmering with tension between the locals and the immigrants. When Susan’s son Zach gets into trouble with the law by putting himself smack in the center of the racial and religious conflict, both Jim and Bob have to return to Shirley Falls to help their sister and nephew. While the problem with Zach works itself out, the ripple effects cause changes in each of the characters’ lives.

imageBob has always idolized Jim, and the downward spiral of Jim’s life forces Bob to reevaluate how he’s always looked at the world. These are ordinary and flawed characters. They are no one special. Yet Strout makes them compelling, probably because of the way their dysfunctions drive the course of their relationships.

Jim’s wife, Helen, is probably one of the most interesting characters in the book. Upset that her beach vacation has been interrupted by Jim’s family crisis, she lives in a world of nostalgia and memories of raising her children. All Helen wants is the uninterrupted security of family life, and whether that makes her selfish, privileged, or frivolous, her sentiments are still something any wife and mother can at least partially understand. We may not like her, but we get it, which makes her storyline all the more painful.

Richly developed characters are one of Strout’s strengths, and the fact that these people seem so real is what contributes to one of the biggest themes in the book. Strout highlights the nature of change, or lack thereof. The story itself seems to say that people do not become inherently different; they become more of what they already are. I can’t think of any recent fictional characters that demonstrate that more than Jim, Bob, and Susan.

—Miriam

Book Club Combos

Once a month, Roger, James, and I get together to brainstorm what should go into the store’s monthly eNewsletter. Our banter at these meetings covers a wide range of topics, not limited to but including: books on our minds, our children’s antics, publishing industry gossip, store anecdotes, and our continued wonder over James’s tendency to polish off a large soda before breakfast.

Every so often after one of these pow-wows, I look over my notes and think, "We are good. We are really good." Then we build the newsletter, off it goes, and some of our creative lists end up passed over in a pile of other emails. It happens.

So selfishly, today I’m revisiting one of my favorite lists from our March newsletter. We were discussing how often two books just naturally go together, and thus produced the following list of perfect pairs for book clubs. I’m including three combos here on the blog, but if you want to peruse our longer list, click here.

Artistic recognition beyond the Civil Rights era

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The House Girl by Tara Conklin intertwines the stories of two strong women: Lina, a modern attorney, and Josephine, a slave from the pre-Civil War era. Lina discovers a controversy rocking the art world: art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of the slaves who worked her Virginia tobacco farm, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. In piecing together Josephine’s story, Lina embarks on a journey that will lead her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother’s mysterious death twenty years before. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores the pivotal roles that Phillis Wheatley, a slave and acclaimed author, and Thomas Jefferson, who refused to acknowledge her talents, played in shaping the black literary tradition.

 A pair of books that try to bridge the gap between the 1% and the rest of the world

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The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore tells the story of two kids named Wes Moore who were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz tells a fascinating history. The author grew up in Virginia owning a beloved blue sweater. When she outgrew it, she donated it Goodwill, only to find the exact same sweater eleven years later, her nametag still inside, on the back of a young boy in Rwanda. Her experiences there inspired her to leave her career in banking and sparked a quest to uncover the roots of global poverty. A powerful autobiography and a practical-minded call to action.

Women of the West

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A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher is a vivid and revelatory novel based on actual events of the 1847 Oregon migration, following two characters of remarkable complexity and strength. An ambitious trader, deserted by his Native American wife, sets out to find her after the death of his children from smallpox. Instead, he meets a remarried widow, careful mother, and reluctant emigrant. As their hidden stories and obsessions unfold, and pasts and cultures collide, both must confront the people they have truly been, and may become. The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss takes place in the winter of 1917, when nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen saddles her horses and heads for a remote county in eastern Oregon, looking for work “gentling” wild horses. She chances on a rancher, George Bliss, who is willing to hire her on. Many of his regular hands are off fighting the war, and he glimpses, beneath her showy rodeo garb, a shy but strong- willed girl with a serious knowledge of horses. So begins the irresistible tale of a young but determined woman trying to make a go of it in a man’s world.

See more

—Miriam

Let Them Eat Cake Or A Kindred Spirit?

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Here’s a question: can you judge a book by it’s cover? The answer is no, even if most people do it anyway. It can pay off to look beyond your first impression, especially when it comes to getting the most out of a book.

Case in point: Facebook COO and former Google VP Sheryl Sandberg gave a memorable TED talk in 2010, emphasizing the need for more women leaders and calling out the challenges women face in the workplace. That passionate speech became the basis for Sandberg’s new feminist manifesto hitting stores on March 12th, Lean In, a book I fear may fall short of its deserved audience because the subject matter could turn many people off before they make it to the content.

A combination of data, personal anecdotes, observations, and advice, Lean In's overarching point is that many women have a tendency to “check out” in their careers years in advance of motherhood, anticipating the need to pull back eventually. While men tend to forge ahead, women hang back and accept lower salaries, smaller responsibilities, and fewer promotions to save their energy for domestic pursuits. In her book, Sandberg coaches women to “lean in” rather than pull back to achieve the success they deserve and create a richer and stronger workforce.

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My initial reaction to the premise of Lean In brought up the similar defensive feelings I had over reading The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts in 2007.  Bennetts, like Sandberg, wrote her book with the best of intentions to champion feminism. Despite the part of me that agreed wholeheartedly with the concept, I wondered why women repeatedly hear we aren’t doing enough.

The Feminine Mistake relied on fear tactics (Lean In does not), and addressed the risks for women of tossing aside their careers: financial ruin after divorce or death of a spouse, over-parenting their kids, and possible lower self-worth. The Feminine Mistake frightened me but didn’t change my decisions over how to live my life.

Ironically, Lean In has so far elicited the exact response that Sandberg anticipated and plays a large role why women fail in the workplace. Female reviewers are already trashing the book before it hits stores, claiming Sandberg is too privileged to understand the ordinary woman. Her harshest critics claim she wrote the book to line her own pocketbook and boost her celebrity. And men? Mostly ignoring it. I’ve even heard anecdotes of male editors who contribute to “best of” lists refusing to consider Lean In because it doesn’t “interest” them. Come on! A big part of the reason we don’t have more women leaders is that many women (not all) tear other women down, and many (not all) men dismiss women as unequal or focus on their sexuality.

What’s great about Lean In, and what you won’t get by giving it just a casual glance, is the way Sandberg addresses the finer points of navigating the workplace and home life for women and makes suggestions about how to make small changes in big ways. For instance, Sandberg found that for a woman negotiating a raise, the most effective method was acknowledging that women don’t often do it and framing it to employers as an awareness of that widespread issue and that the point of negotiating is for “women everywhere,” rather than just for the individual. Meaning women, much more than men, need to use “we” language in the workplace. She also recommends women never ask people to be their mentors because it’s off-putting to senior executives. Instead she recommends subtler ways to forge a connection and inspire the top dogs to take an interest in you on their own.

While Sandberg’s personality, experiences, and inner life remain obscure in this book (sometimes she portrays herself as insecure, other times she describes bossing around her siblings like they’re her staff), the wisdom she possesses is on full display. Both for men and women, it would be a mistake to judge this book by its cover. There are solid nuggets of gold between the pages.

—Miriam

Is Hillary Writing a New Memoir?

imageThere aren’t many people who can write a new memoir every decade and say something fresh, but there is one who can: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When she announced recently that she’s planning a new memoir, the publishing world went crazy with excitement. Editors started drooling over the very idea. It could be an epic bestseller in the making—but it will be crucial that the book covers the right stuff. If Clinton is willing to write the kind of memoir we want to read, there’s bound to be a huge bidding war between publishers. Along with the question of who will publish it comes speculation over the amount of her advance, which will likely be one of the highest sums ever paid for a book proposal.

Hillary has published two memoirs already: It Takes a Village in 1996 and Living History in 2003. Both were tremendously successful and surprisingly intimate. So there’s good reason to believe her next book will be on par. The question is what are her motives this time around? It all depends on whether she runs in the next election. If that’s her intention, this new work will be a platform for her candidacy, much as Obama’s The Audacity of Hope was a way of capturing the public’s attention back in 2006.

imageWill Clinton talk about the 2008 primary election and the evolution of her relationship with Obama? The attack in Benghazi? The last decade with Bill and Chelsea? She addressed the tough stuff like Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky affair in Living History, but she was in a different position back when that book came out. We can only speculate what could be in her latest, but let’s hope it lives up to our expectations. Because if it’s as compelling as I suspect it will be, we have something good to look forward to reading when the next presidential election rolls around.

—Miriam

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

We always come away from the Oscars resolving to see the movies we missed. What about the books that inspired those films? This year five of the nine best picture nominees were tied to books: Lincoln (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals); Life of Pi (Yann Martel’s novel); The Silver Linings Playbook (based on Matthew Quick’s novel); Les Misérables (Victor Hugo’s epic); and the big winner, Argo (Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio).

imageTeam of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a complex and fascinating nonfiction account of Lincoln’s relationships with the three men he selected for his presidential cabinet. All of them were his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, and yet they came together to keep the nation strong during a tumultuous era (Obama must have been inspired by this kind of history when he appointed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State). The movie Lincoln covers narrower ground by highlighting the President’s efforts to pass an amendment to abolish slavery. Goodwin’s book goes far beyond the movie, which focuses more on philosophy than personality, and reconstructs a surprising chemistry between larger-than-life characters. Committing to a 900+ page work demands more than the few hours required for the film, but it’s well worth the read.

imageIn Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi, we get a good amount of Pi’s life before his seafaring voyage, including a portrait of his father’s zoo and the teachers and religious men who influenced Pi’s view of the world. All that background is missing from the film, and while the book jumps immediately to the disaster that strands Pi, the movie builds tension during the voyage. The ship sinking is a memorable and striking part of the film, but the darker tones of the novel seem carefully avoided. It’s a different story without the gut-wrenching suffering that appears in the novel. For a richer and more haunting experience, pick up the book.

imageThe Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick is about a high-school teacher recently released from a mental hospital after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death. He’s determined to win back his wife, but as he settles back into life under the care of his parents, he begins a relationship with a widow who also suffers from mental illness. She promises to help him reconnect with his wife if he partners her in a dance competition. The film retains the main characters from the book but is much lighter than the novel, although both will leave you feeling hopeful and entertained.

imageThe latest movie of Les Misérables was adapted from the musical that opened in London in October 1985. That musical is based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel from 1862. Filled with several plots, the book’s guiding theme is the possibility of redemption through good deeds. The main story chronicles the struggles of an ex-convict who carves a new life for himself while being pursued by a ruthless police inspector. I won’t lie, the book isn’t easy and the movie is fluff in comparison. But if you fell in love with the Broadway show, as most of us did, you’ll be far more satisfied turning to the great work of literature. A book this big and ambitious can’t possibly be adequately boiled down to a film.

imageIf you’re fascinated by espionage, Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio will satisfy. Released to coincide with the movie, the book details CIA officer Tony Mendez’s plan to rescue American diplomats who escaped from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after its seizure by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979. Mendez pretended to be a Hollywood producer scouting possible backdrops for a film and managed  to smuggle out the six American diplomats, who were being hidden by the Canadian ambassador. The movie is tailored to be a blockbuster and takes liberties while keeping to the spirit of the story. Readers who want the less sensationalized but more detailed version will enjoy the storytelling in the book. That said, it can be difficult to keep the individual stories of the six escapees straight and for that reason, seeing the movie first might be the way to go.

—Miriam


 

Old Wives’ Tales

imageThe Aviator’s Wife came out in January and is the latest “wife” tale in my collection. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m automatically drawn to this genre of historical fiction. Authors who choose the mysterious wives of famous and controversial men as their subjects automatically have a good premise, so all they need to do is write the already-existent story well. When done right, these novels reveal women who demonstrate humility, sensitivity, emotional strength, ability to love, and empathy for those less fortunate. In other words, the qualities their husbands lack.

Before I read The Aviator’s Wife, all I knew about Charles Lindbergh was that he made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, he was anti-Semitic, and his first-born had been kidnapped and murdered. I knew nothing of his wife Anne. There are many fascinating anecdotes about Charles and his family, but this book is about Anne’s inner life more than anything else.

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The story begins when Anne meets Charles in Mexico after her father has become a U.S. ambassador. Charles has just come into the international spotlight after flying The Spirit of St. Louis across the ocean. Anne assumes that Charles will prefer her older sister, Elisabeth, but he admires Anne’s more serious and practical nature and takes her out alone for her first ride in an airplane. She falls in love with flying as much as Charles, and after they marry she becomes an accomplished pilot herself and acts as Charles’ copilot on many of their early married adventures.

As their lives unfold, the narrative repeatedly skips forward to Anne bringing Charles, who is on his deathbed, to their home in Hawaii. In her hands she holds letters that reveal how Charles betrayed her, and she waits for the right moment to confront him before he dies. As Anne proceeds to remember the course of their marriage, we already know where the story is going and so we’re predisposed to dislike and mistrust Charles.

If you’re looking for deeper details on the Lindbergh kidnapping, this isn’t your book. The facts of the case are glossed over in this telling. This is a book about a complicated marriage and Anne’s personal growth from young submissive wife to dutiful mother to strong woman in her own right. One of the interesting parts of The Aviator’s Wife is when Anne helps Charles write his bestseller The Spirit of St. Louis. The process is a perfect example of how their marriage functioned, with her as the dutiful behind-the-scenes partner that made so many of his accomplishments possible. By the time they get to writing the book together, she has come to fully resent that supporting role that she once cherished.

imageI found Anne a frustrating and complicated character because she was so willing to do anything to please a husband she had put on a pedestal. That approach is clearly of the time and today’s women will likely struggle with that aspect of Anne’s personality. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. If anything, it’s a huge accomplishment for a writer to create a protagonist that’s not necessarily likeable and still hold the reader’s attention. Anne Lindbergh was a fascinating person, and it’s enjoyable to peer behind the curtain of facts and glimpse her inner life. I should also add that Anne was a bestselling author in her own right. If you want to know more about Anne you’ll want to pick up Gift from the Sea, her most well-known work about American life and the joys of simplicity and solitude.

imageThe Aviator’s Wife is an enjoyable read and will appeal to fans of the recent bestseller, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain. The Paris Wife is about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. I loved The Paris Wife, but my top choice in this category is my ever-favorite “wife” story, the truly extraordinary novel American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. American Wife follows a thinly veiled “fictional character” whose life is strikingly similar to George W. Bush’s wife, Laura. You don’t have to like these women, or their husbands, to enjoy the books. All you need is a little curiosity and interest in the complications of marriage.

I suspect they won’t sell as well, but my question is, when are people going to start writing the “husband” books?

—Miriam

A Tale of Revenge

image"I had to do what I had to do. This act was before me. In the uncanny light a sense of dread so overwhelmed me that tears started in my eyes and a single choking sound, a sob maybe, a wrench of hurt, burst from my chest. I crossed my fists in the knitting and squeezed them against my heart."

—Joe, The Round House

Revenge is always a good topic, and the National Book Award winner The Round House does a sly job of convincing readers that vigilante justice is both necessary and inevitable. Joe is only thirteen, but when his mother is brutally raped, he’s forced to grow up fast. The local priest preaches that out of every evil comes good, but Joe fails to see the good in his mother’s overwhelming depression and his father’s helplessness. The jurisdiction issues that surround his North Dakota Indian reservation will protect his mother’s attacker. So what’s a kid to do when his family has been broken and justice isn’t forthcoming? The way the story unfolds makes it easy to understand why he’d want to take matters into his own hands.

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The title of The Round House refers to the place the attack occurred. A round house is the place of village religious activities, and in the book the round house is located at the intersection of native and state land. Even though the attacker is identified fairly early, the location of the crime will make it even harder for justice to be served. The situation demonstrates how easily the rights and safety of American Indians have been disregarded by our national culture. It also shows us how extenuating circumstances can transform a victim into an aggressor.

imageimageIn stories of revenge, violence begets violence. A good tale of vengeance lets us vicariously stick it to the bad guy. Books like Carrie, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and The Count of Monte Cristo come to mind. The emotional intensity of the revenge theme has inspired many great works of literature. I liked The Round House, although it felt slow at times. Justice, like all satisfying conclusions, requires patience.

imageLast year’s Gone Girl comes to mind as an excellent revenge tale, less literary and more surprising than The Round House. Those characters are far more diabolical than Joe, yet the writing is good enough to convince us that their motivations might be logical. The ending raises more questions than answers, and sets a new standard for how an act of revenge should turn out. That is the ultimate question, right? After the satisfaction settles in, what should happen next? Will something good come out of something evil?

The ending of a revenge story is probably as challenging for a writer as a reader. Even if the avenger gets away with their act of retaliation, their life will never be the same. The need to act, and the fearlessness required to deliver justice, is the ultimate test of character. And should we admire them or disapprove? Either way, these questions make for compelling fiction.

So now your turn. What are your favorite tales of revenge?

—Miriam

Classic YA: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The Witch of Blackbird PondAs I tried to reclaim a reading life leading up to and right after the birth of my twins, a friend recommended I stick to reading young adult fiction. Perhaps in an attempt to regress to my own childhood, I picked up a book I remembered fondly: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

The New England witch hunts endure as a fascinating piece of history, and before I graduated to The CrucibleThe Witch of Blackbird Pond whet my appetite for fiction about the era. Set in the late 1800s, this coming-of-age story follows the orphan Kit from her home in Barbados to a Puritan community in Connecticut. The death of her beloved father and a distasteful suitor have forced her to go to America, and Kit is grudgingly taken into her aunt’s family as something of a Cinderella. Although her aunt and one of the sisters are kind to Kit, her fiery uncle and other competitive cousin make her life particularly difficult. Kit’s loneliness prompts her into a friendship with an older widow, Hannah Tupper, who the community believes to be a witch.

For readers who enjoy portraits of everyday life in a different time period, like Civil War era New England in Little Women or the American frontier in Little House on the Prairie, this glimpse of 17th century New England will be a good fit. Alongside Kit’s individual story, Speare brings the political and religious issues of the time to light by using the community’s persecution of Hannah Tupper as a specific example of how the Puritan settlers persecuted the Quakers. Kit’s uncle, Matthew, is deeply involved in early American politics. His passionate commitment to the right of Americans to govern themselves and his desire to break free from England foreshadows the American Revolution.

The most powerful reason this story resonates is the fact that both Kit and Hannah are outsiders in a community where everyone is expected to conform. The Puritans go to church every Sunday and live a life of hard labor, and they persecute and ostracize anyone who wants to live outside that rigid structure. No matter the time period or specifics, the outsider story endures and appeals to most children and teens.

By the end of the book, both Kit and Hannah find a place in the world that finally makes sense and allows them to pursue their own versions of happiness. It’s a hopeful ending that promises good things can come after the struggles of coming of age. As my husband and I welcomed our babies into the world after a difficult twin pregnancy, I found renewal in The Witch of Blackbird Pond in a completely different way than when I read it as a teenager. We’re all still growing up, no matter how old we get.

—Miriam

Books and YouTube Can Lead to Carnegie Hall

imageWhether you’re a fan of John Green or not, I suggest you peruse this New York Times piece from January 16th. It’s startling to discover that authors are taking over more than just the internet. They’re taking over Carnegie Hall. As in, the Carnegie Hall that serves as legendary concert venue to artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell. A new era for writers has arrived, and I’m not talking about the age of ebooks.

imageIt was just a year ago that I cheered for Green on this blog, and he’s continued taking over the world. An Evening of Awesome, a variety show celebrating the one-year anniversary of publication for John Green’s bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars, played Carnegie Hall to a sold-out house last week. The show starred John Green and his brother Hank, his VLog partner. Besides their riffing, the night included two readings from John Green’s books: the section of the kiss in Anne Frank’s house from The Fault in Our Stars and later, a selection from Paper Towns. In the middle were surprise guest appearances (the Mountain Goats band and author Neil Gaiman), Hank’s songs, including his original Harry Potter hit that made them a YouTube sensation back in 2007 ("I couldn’t care more about Harry Potter / than if Hogwarts was my alma mater…"), and Twitter questions from the audience (predominantly female teenagers). The questions ranged from inane (“Who’s your favorite Power Ranger?) to obvious (“What advice would you give aspiring writers?”). My favorite answer was when Green suggested hopeful authors tell their friends stories and notice when they get bored.

imageIt’s obvious from John Green’s Tumblr that this guy has interests pulling him in all kinds of directions. His fans get to connect with him like no other author out there. But don’t short-change him because of his youthful and spirited persona. He’s the real deal and his books are just as good as their hype. He’s got the writing chops. And he can sell out Carnegie Hall with nothing more than a low-key variety show.

Now that’s talent.

—Miriam

Heavy Hitters Returning in May

Even if you’re not much of a reader, chances are you’ve heard of The Da Vinci Code and The Kite Runner. They were movies too, after all. But it’s been a few years. No one’s been talking about Dan Brown or Khaled Hosseini in a long time, despite the fact that Brown has sold over two hundred million copies of his six novels and Hosseini has sold thirty-eight million copies of his two books. Well, let the whispering and speculation begin, because these guys are back with new novels in 2013.

Dan Brown

Here’s what we know so far: Dan Brown’s new novel, Inferno, is another Robert Langdon adventure, this time returning to Italy (where Angels & Demons took place) and centering around a great piece of literature, Dante’s Inferno. Let me guessthere will be a secret code embedded in the poem. General readers will love the revelations, and scholars will go nuts trying to convince the public that the book is fiction. Religious leaders were beside themselves over the assertions about Christ in The Da Vinci Code, so the Christianity-laced text of Inferno will likely cause as much of an uproar. An obscure author is bound to sue Dan Brown for stealing his idea. And Brown’s love for puzzles and symbols will engage readers once again.

Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini will be offering up his first book in six years with And the Mountains Echoed. The description floating around is so vague it could be about anything. The clearest hints I’ve heard about this one are “multi-generational novel, the surprising actions of those closest to us, lives and loves and choices around the globe.” Let’s hope the book jacket has a little more detail once the publication date approaches, but suffice it to say this will be another tearjerker.

Crotchety readers often sigh when they hear blockbuster authors have another book on the way. “It’s the same old formula,” they complain, or, “his prose wasn’t that good,” or “that last book was so overrated.” Perhaps they fancy themselves another Michiko Kakutani harshly critiquing for the New York Times.

I’ll make an argument for those who only have time to read a few books a year. Sometimes, people want to read what everyone else is reading. Maybe they want to be entertained rather than impressed. A formula that works can be a good thing. There’s something to be said for authors who have the ability to speak to such a broad audience, even if their character development or plot structure isn’t perfect.

Stop by the store in May to inspect the new Dan Brown or Khaled Hosseini (and smell the books—you can’t do that online). We know people will flock towards these obvious choices, even though we love to steer customers to our more obscure favorites peppering the shelves. Booksellers anticipate the big books too, and not just for the guaranteed sales. Whether Brown and Hosseini’s latest turn out to be enjoyable or not, we love seeing customers excited about reading. These authors motivate people who don’t always read to tackle a book, and for that, we thank them.

—Miriam

Taking Down Bin Laden

Until now, one of the most detailed accounts available about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was published in the New Yorker in August 2011. The article takes us into the moment of bin Laden’s death with this description:

"Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, ‘For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.’ After a pause, he added, ‘Geronimo E.K.I.A.’—’enemy killed in action.’ Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, ‘We got him.’"

(“Geronimo” was the code word that bin Laden had been found.)

The New Yorker article pieced together the narrative using interviews with officials who had interviewed the SEAL team, not with the individuals themselves.

There have been other more extended accounts of the raid, including former SEAL commander Chuck Pfarrer’s well-received Seal Target Geronimo. That book also relied on interviews with members of the SEALS. But our curiosity about such a monumental and secretive event remains, however, and on September 11, a new account of the killing of Osama bin Laden hits stores. Written under the pseudonym Mark Owen, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, is by one of the Navy SEALs who participated in the raid in Pakistan last year (his co-writer is Kevin Maurer) and will likely be a huge bestseller. The first printing is set for 300,000 copies and the author will promote his book in disguise and with his voice altered. He also intends to donate a portion of what the book earns to the families of slain SEALs.

Problems are already popping up. Almost immediately after the book was announced, FOX News revealed the real identity of the author, an experienced 36-year-old member of the elite Navy SEALs who recently retired. He’s from Alaska and also participated in the highly publicized rescue of Captain Richard Phillips in the Indian Ocean in 2009. I’ll refrain from repeating his real name here. Not surprisingly, other former and current SEALs have expressed their anger over the book and fear that future missions may be compromised if inappropriate details are leaked.

Another source of anger is that No Easy Day has not been submitted to the White House for review, although the publisher, Penguin, says a former special ops attorney vetted the manuscript. The assumption then is that the author will share his personal thoughts and feelings about the experience rather than any classified information because he must have signed a nondisclosure agreement when he joined the SEALs. If he doesn’t stick with that angle, “Mark Owen” could be subject to prosecution for revealing national security secrets.

The timing of publication is as nerve-wracking as the potential content. With the presidential election just months away, Republicans probably won’t appreciate a bestseller that calls more attention to Obama’s success. Other media related to the mission has already been pushed back until after election day, including producer Kathryn Bigelow’s anticipated film about the bin Laden raid, Zero Dark Thirty. Yet No Easy Day pushes ahead with its September 11th release.

I, for one, am hoping this narrative offers more on the thoughts and feelings of the author. I’ve liked the factual accounts, but I still want more than a story based on interviews that come to us secondhand. Ideally, No Easy Day will vividly describe the relationships between the team members and what it felt like to be part of such an important historical event, especially the experience afterwards where they couldn’t receive individual public acknowledgment for their heroism. Perhaps it’s precisely the anonymity that drove “Mark Owen” to write this book. It will be interesting to see both how he’s received once we can put a personality on one of our national heroes, and how the government officials, politicians, and other SEALs react to the book’s content.

—Miriam

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