I Finished A Few Books

Since I last wrote I made a bit of progress on my yearly reading challenge and finished a few titles. One by a new favorite author, one I picked up on a whim and one for book club. As the summer wears on (and on and on…) I am getting back into a reading routine and have created time for myself in the evenings to sit down with a book and not feel guilty for taking the time to indulge in my favorite occupation. I think my new job helps. Looking at oodles and oodles of forthcoming titles every day definitely stokes my interest in reading!

Foster by Claire Keegan – Last year I read Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan and, along with many other readers, loved it. (It was my last 5 star read on Goodreads.) I have a great admiration for writers who can tell a complex story using spare prose. It takes such skill to do it well and Keegan does. In Foster, we follow a young, poor girl as she is sent out to live with a distant relation over the summer. The differences between her household and her temporary home are subtly portrayed and the love and care her foster parents provide is transformative. A somewhat ambiguous ending gives it a hazy quality that I liked.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas – I’d heard a lot about this book when it released in the spring but wasn’t too keen on reading it – until I was desperate one night and it was available for me to download immediately from our digital library. A middle-aged English professor at a small college in upstate New York becomes obsessed with a young, sexy novelist at the same time her fellow professor husband is suspended for having relationships with students. Timely, bitchy, with lots of black humor I really enjoyed this though it has a bizarre conclusion.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – I am still hosting a virtual book club for the library and The Paper Palace was our July title up for discussion. A hugely popular best seller last summer, I was looking forward to reading something beachy, light and easy to fly through. I was sadly disappointed! This is one heavy beach read. Parental neglect, child abuse and rape, incest, a dreary love triangle and justified illegal acts – it’s all here and it is tough going. Cowley Heller is a good writer, her dialogue is snappy and funny and I really liked the structure of the book, however it was quite hard to read at times. It’s a very different type of book, but it did remind me of Where the Crawdads Sing all through my reading – lots of the same themes but also that mystique that makes some books compellingly readable despite the subject matter.

Currently : I started a galley of The Marriage Portrait, the new novel by Maggie O’Farrell. I am sad to say that it has been a slog for me. I really liked Hamnet but this new one doesn’t hold up as well and needs to move a bit faster. I’ll probably return to it, but setting aside for now while I read….

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

The Palace Papers by Tina Brown

I’m also going to resurrect the ABC Reading Project I developed last year so look for future posts featuring books from my own shelves.

How is your week going? Reading anything good?

Fabulous Fall Reads

fabulous-fall-readsLast Saturday, my friend and colleague Melissa and I gave our “Fabulous Fall Reads” presentation at my library. We talked about the books we think people would love to read over the next three months. We had another great turnout, similar to our Sizzlin’ Summer Reads attendance, and plan to do it again for spring 2017. Without further ado here are my fall favorites with their US release dates:

The Ballroom by Anna Hope (Sept. 6) – The Ballroom is a bittersweet story of  forbidden romance and a fascinating look at how mentally ill people were treated in Edwardian England. If you like well-written, romantic, historical fiction like that written by Sarah Waters, Graham Swift and Sebastian Faulks you will enjoy The Ballroom.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Sept. 6) – Amor Towles writes like no one I can think of today. His sophisticated and elegant writing reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald but his stories are straight out of movies of the 1940’s. If you like old-fashioned and heart-warming yet complex stories, you’ll love A Gentleman in Moscow.

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan (Sept. 6) – This clever and twisty thriller will satisfy fans of domestic suspense novels like The Widow by Fiona Barton, I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh and The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders (Sept. 13) – Mrs. Rodd is a delightful character reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. This is definitely a cozy series but has a darker edge so would appeal to fans of the Maisie Dobbs series or the Amelia Peabody series. I can’t wait for the next book featuring Mrs. Rodd!

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (Sept. 20) – This was absolutely riveting and clever — it’s a dark page-turner and a superb thriller that will appeal to fans of Tana French.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Oct. 4) – This novel has wonderful fully-developed characters, beautiful spare writing, is adventurous and suspenseful, and has a morally complex plot. I really loved this book and read it in one day. It is definitely a western, but a western that will appeal to anyone who likes good storytelling similar to The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin or Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky (Oct. 11) – In hazy and dreamy prose Dermansky takes not only the main character Leah, but the reader, on a journey that is humorous, thought-provoking and inspiring. If you like stories about women who take control of their lives, like Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, you’ll love The Red Car.

The Mistletoe Murder by P.D. James (Oct. 25) – I would recommend this to James fans and to those who appreciate literary British mysteries written by authors such as Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie ,Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters. Also, if you like to read mysteries set at Christmas (I certainly do) The Mistletoe Murder is a creepily good one to look for this holiday season.

My Lost Poets by Philip Levine (Nov. 8) – If you enjoyed Just Kids by Patti Smith, My Lost Poets will appeal to you. It is a lovely and uplifting artistic memoir.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Nov. 15) – Swing Time explores the nature of identity, cultural appropriation, happiness, fame and power and ambition and friendship- all in a witty, sharp, layered and compelling story that you’ll think about long after you read the last page. This would be a perfect choice for book clubs and if you like writers like Louise Erdrich or Amy Tan you’ll relish Swing Time.

Have you read or do you plan to read any of these titles?

The Girls by Emma Cline


“I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls.”

I had quite a struggle within myself when deciding whether I wanted to read The Girls or not. On the one hand I love reading about the sixties, the Manson murders are such a defining moment of that era and I always like to read hot debuts, especially by female authors. On the other hand, I heard a really negative opinion of the novel from a colleague, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book inspired by such a dark event and I was afraid the hype would let me down. In the end, I gambled on reading the novel – and won.

The Girls takes place over several months during the summer of 1969 when Evie Boyd, a fourteen year old, gets involved with a Charles Manson-like family in Northern California. Evie’s parents are divorced and neglect her quite a bit, her best friend has dropped her and she is bored, lonely and vulnerable. Then she sees a group of ragtag, dirty, unkempt girls picking through dumpsters behind a restaurant and is fascinated. Especially with the girl who seems to be their leader. When this girl, Suzanne, eventually invites her out to The Ranch Evie becomes embroiled in their drug fueled, seedy, criminal lifestyle which is all overseen by Russell, a manipulative sociopath. Then her mother finally catches on and sends her to live with her father. Running away she spends one last night with Suzanne before the girls carry out an act of revenge for Russell that seals their fate forever.

Cline’s writing is mesmerizing and her ability to create atmosphere is impressive. Her short, strong yet hazy sentences and carefully chosen historical details really evoke the whole California in the sixties vibe. Most impressive, though, is the way she inhabits the head of a teen girl, a girl who is intelligent and observant but still prone to being influenced by those whom she admires and finds attractive – which is why she cares more about what Suzanne thinks of her than of what Russell does. I liked that the focus of the novel is not on Russell but on the young women who choose to follow him.

My only whine about this novel is that it is unrelentingly dark. It takes you on a very grim trip that was hard to stomach at times. I’m not afraid of dark novels so I carried on – and there really isn’t anything else this book can be. I just had to take a breather from time to time.

I found The Girls pretty much as great as all the hype has cracked it up to be – and I think Emma Cline is a fabulous writer.  She’ll be on my list of “writers whose books I will always read – or at least try” from now on.

Have you read or plan on reading The Girls?

Book Club: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


My book club has been meeting for almost 3 full years now and for much of that time I’ve lobbied to get Gilead on our schedule with no success – until last month! Since this year we took turns choosing the books I knew this would finally be the year we read it (since I’d pick it for my month) and I’m very glad we did. What a marvelous book!

Gilead is written in the form of one long letter from Reverend John Ames to his six-year-old son. Reverend Ames is dying of a heart condition and wants to set down his family history and his thoughts on religion and life in general for his son to read in the future since he won’t be able to tell him these things himself. In a rather rambling style he moves from the past to the present – much like our thoughts work, but all in a really beautiful, lyrical style that is a joy to read.

The first bit of the novel is Ames’s musings and explorations of his heritage and childhood and then the letter switches to a present day description of his struggle to communicate with or trust his best friend’s son, Jack Boughton. Jack is a bad egg, so to speak, and Ames doesn’t like how he hangs around Ames’s son and wife and his cynical, unbelieving attitude. One of the book club members said she thought this part of the novel was unnecessary – she loved just reading about Ames’s memories and philosophical meditations. I thought the conflict (even if just internally) with Jack was fascinating and revealed many more depths of Ames’s character that will someday benefit his son.

Since my book club met during Thanksgiving week we didn’t get a very good turnout, but those of us who attended had a very passionate discussion. This is one of those books that is not only a pleasurable and rewarding read, but also makes for an incredibly stimulating discussion title. I think this is one of the best books that my book club read this year.

Have you read Gilead?

Someone by Alice McDermott


At my book club’s April meeting I presented three books for the group to choose from and the overwhelming vote was for Someone by Alice McDermott – because it is quite short! However, I was pleased with the choice as this is a novel I’ve contemplated reading for quite a while now and Sunday over at Ciao Domenica had nothing but praise for it which piqued my interest even more.

This is one of those books that is more of a character study than anything – there really isn’t a traditional plot arc that holds it all together. In fact, the narrative moves in out and between the present and the past with no discernible transitions so it takes about 20 pages to realize what McDermott is doing and to become comfortable with the structure. Once you do, though, it’s quite easy to ride the wave of the main character’s memories.

The novel is told in the first person by Marie Commeford, an elderly woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Most of her memories center on the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Her family is Irish Catholic and live in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood and she is close to her beloved father and older brother who’s already been chosen to attend seminary at a young age. Most of her memories have that tender, almost yearning quality that we have as adults looking back on our childhoods. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment in her life, but she tells her story very straightforwardly with little regret. As I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a lot that happens in the novel yet Marie’s unexceptional story is riveting, more riveting to me than that of a spy story or an adventure story. Reading about ordinary people is always fascinating because most of us are ordinary – yet when you read something like this you realize that everyone has an interesting life and that, truly, everyone is ‘someone’.

How did my book club like it? Well, I think the majority of us appreciated it, but there were two members who didn’t – they didn’t see the point of the meandering style and just didn’t enjoy reading about Marie’s life. Despite that we all managed to have a pretty lively discussion about the book and I think it really set off a lot of related examination of our own memories and life stories. All in all, I’d recommend this for book clubs as it is a) short and b) brings up a lot of issues that will lead to a thoughtful discussion.

Have you read Alice McDermott?

Willa Cather Reading Week: A Lost Lady

A Lost Lady

I was so happy to read Willa Cather this week – to be back in the West, in the beautiful landscape of Nebraska, in the small railroad towns and among the pioneers who are rough yet cultured in their own way. I always feel that reading Cather is the closest I get to reading about my own heritage in a novel (other than reading Westerns, I suppose) as my mom’s family were all pioneers, settling in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and, eventually, Arizona. Cather’s settings and characters are so familiar to me.

A Lost Lady is set in Sweet Water, a small town in Nebraska that is on the rail line between Omaha and Denver. Mrs. Forrester is a beautiful, mysterious, refined woman who lives with her wealthy husband in a big, lovely house on the outskirts of town. She’s vibrant and flirtatious – what is often called a man’s woman. Young Niel Herbert falls under her spell rather early in his life and as he grows up we see Mrs. Forrester from his perspective – from near perfection to the clear-eyed disappointment we sometimes develop in the cherished adults of our youth. But always he protects her, helps her, forgives her, until she finally puts her faith in the wrong person and his respect for her cracks.

This is a fascinating portrait of a woman who, like the West, is in transition. Though Niel longs for her to remain steady in her charms and perfection, Mrs. Forrester needs to change as the world changes. It is upsetting to all of the men around her and ultimately leads her to break with the people who want to maintain tradition and stability. It is a convincing character study and a classic portrait of frontier life on the verge of vanishing.

A short novel at just 150 pages, but a powerful one. Willa Cather’s writing is sensational, especially as it is not showy, but subtle and quiet.

Thank you to Ali for hosting this week. I’m now motivated to read the rest of Cather’s novels.

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates


After reading Revolutionary Road last summer I felt great interest in reading more of Richard Yates’ startling novels. However, as these things go, it has taken me almost a year to read The Easter Parade, my second of his books.

Just like Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade sucks you into the hyper-realistic world of a dysfunctional family at mid-century. Sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes grow up with their painfully desperate single mother, who has a drinking problem that escalates as her daughters grow up and away from her. While Sarah marries and starts a family, Emily goes to college and afterwards begins work at an advertising agency. She dates a succession of men and completely distances herself from both her mother and her sister Sarah, losing herself in her relationships, until she is forced to confront the disastrous mess they’ve all made of their lives.

Reading Yates is uncomfortable yet so utterly enthralling. His characters are us and they are our relatives, friends and neighbors so reading about their empty and wretched lives is alarming. Are we all doomed to live meaningless lives full of emotional coldness, unable to face our disappointments and accept that life is not always about big moments, that no one is perfect? Yes, these thoughts really did go through my head while reading this book! And that is part of the beauty of Yates – he really makes you confront the sadness and the hopeless moments we all face. Depressing and humbling, yes, but also invigorating because the truth of it is that everyone can find their own way to rise above the mundanity while acknowledging that our day to day life IS our real life – there’s no ‘someday’. And we also must find a way to connect with those around us in an authentic way.

So, this is my take on Yates! His books are hard to read and agonizing to ponder and, honestly, not full of much hope. But I take them as a manual on ‘how not to live my life’ while enjoying his straight forward writing style and the mid-century settings.

After reading The Easter Parade I did buy two more of his novels – Cold Spring Harbor and Young Hearts Crying – and I’m interested to see if my thoughts about his writing stay the same after reading them.

Have you read Richard Yates?

Also, I apologize for the theme changes. I am constantly looking for something that I can’t find in the themes available to me, but this one will stay for the time being.

Have a non-Richard-Yates-like weekend!

Pulitzer Project: The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson


In looking for a place to start with American women writers I decided the best place to begin would be to read the books from my own shelves (which I will do), however I also thought it would be interesting to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels or short story collections written by women. There have been thirty women who have won the prize since 1918, from Edith Wharton in 1921 to this year’s winner, Donna Tartt. I have read several of the novels including The Goldfinch and most of the recent female winners, but there are more that I haven’t read and some that I haven’t even heard of. The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson is one of the novels that was previously unknown to me.

It won the prize in 1924 and is set just after the Civil War in Iowa. The McLaughlin family are Scottish immigrants who left Glasgow to escape their cramped home (they have 11 children), to own land and to make a better living than they have in Scotland. They live in a farming community of other Scottish families who all support and encourage each other. When the novel opens the McLaughlin’s oldest son Wully has just returned from the war and plans to marry a neighbor girl, Chirstie McNair. Despite a previous understanding, she won’t have anything to do with him when he rides over to see her. Of course, he’s hurt but he’s mostly perplexed and persists until he finds out the reason she’s rejected him and the terrible secret she’s been keeping. The rest of the novel tells of the repercussions the secret has not only on Wully and Chirstie, but on the entire community.

The Able McLaughlins is not a sophisticated novel, but it’s a definite page turner. I found myself racing through it, wanting to know how Wully and Chirstie would come out and if the secret would be revealed. Compared to The Age of Innocence, which won the prize just a couple of years before, it seems terribly melodramatic and doesn’t have the nuanced characterizations that Wharton writes so beautifully. It has lots of panache and vigor and the descriptions of the pioneer life are riveting, but I’m not really surprised this novel has fallen off our reading radar – it’s in no way a classic and has a troubling theme and a bleak view of women. In 1936 Wilson published a sequel to the novel, The Law and the McLaughlins, and I’ve thought about requesting it through ILL, but I’m not sure it would be worth the $6.

I’d like to read at least one female Pulitzer Prize winner this summer – it will probably be Willa Cather or Edna Ferber. I haven’t decided if I’ll re-read the works I’ve already read like Gone With the Wind (probably not) and To Kill a Mockingbird so for now I’ll stick to reading the ones that are new to me.

Have you read any of the Pulitzers won by women? You can see a list of all the winners (male and female) here.

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter



This was one of the two books I completed in April (only two!) and I chose it partly for its slim profile. I bought it last year after coming home from a trip to Colorado with a desire to read about the Southwest then promptly stuck it in the book case, where it stayed quietly forgotten until its time came due.

The novel is set in New Mexico during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and is told from the viewpoint of Hal, a young man who lives with his uncle, the Colonel, a powerful cattle rancher who owns thousands of acres of grazing land but also grazes his cattle on government land (as many ranchers, including my grandfather, still do). A conflict ensues when eastern immigrants, whom the New Mexicans call ‘nesters’, put in claims with the government to settle the land the Colonel has been using for his cattle. The nesters move in and the Colonel adjusts, but his power wanes.

Around the same time, he marries. Beautiful Lutie Cameron meets the Colonel on one of his trips to St. Louis, where he sells his cattle, and agrees to marry him and move out to New Mexico to live on his ranch. Once she arrives she doesn’t complain about the harsh and lonely living conditions, but she does everything she can think of to ignore the fact that she lives in the middle of the desert with rough ranch hands. She plants cottonwood trees all around the property to hide the view and constantly entertains friends from town. Then one day she disappears, leaving the Colonel and their three children behind.

And the nesters eventually leave also, abandoning their dugouts and crops to the harsh land of little rain. Yet still the Colonel ages and loses the power he had over the town and the influence he wielded in his heyday. He mourns the loss of Lutie. Progress changes his world and leads to another family tragedy.

The Sea of Grass is lyrically written and aims to portray a changing West through the story of one pioneer who stoically succumbs to the march of progress and his wife’s rejection of his beloved way of life. The writing is sparse yet descriptive with lovely passages about the desert landscape scattered throughout the narrative. The Colonel and Lutie are complex characters whom Hal struggles to understand because their motives and actions are always clouded by their own misunderstanding of each other and, unlike the typical Western novel, nothing is black and white in their lives. I liked that the novel was about the West, but doesn’t have any violence or macho male characters. It is a subtle and gentle novel about a world that was lost a long time ago and is still mourned.