Quick Reads and Lists of Books

Although my tastes these days tend toward feel good stories, and I’ve forgotten about checking on all the award winners this year or grabbing new publications as soon as available,  I am still always looking for a good book to take me away from reality.

Fiona Davis took me to the New York City Library and favorite neighborhoods I wonder if I will ever see again in The Lions of Fifth Avenue.  An historical novel framed around a series of book thefts spans two generations of women as they navigate family and careers.  With a smattering of women’s rights and a big dose of family drama, the story is easy to follow and with a read-it-in-a-setting vibe.  It was a Valentine’s present to me through Libby, the library’s email guru, after a friend recommended it.  If you are a lover of New York City, a lover of libraries, or just want to escape into the stacks again, The Lions of Fifth Avenue will satisfy.

William Kent Krueger’s Thunder Bay also has an historical bent, with a suspenseful plot and a taste of the Old West in the seventh book in Krueger’s Cork O’Connell mystery/detective series.  Search for a long-lost son mingles with gold in Canada and the Ojibwe tribe in Northern Minnesota.  In his style of rich character development and slow moving plot, Krueger gave me a different perspective and a reason to turn the pages.  This paperback has been sitting on my shelf, and now Krueger has his eighteenth to be published in August, 2021.  I need to catch up.

I’ve preordered a stack of books:

  1. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro    The story of Klara, an Artificial Intelligence Friend, who observes behaviors from her shelf in the store, hoping someone will choose her.
  2. Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams    The misadventures of a lovelorn Victorian lexicographer and a young woman investigating his adventures a century later.
  3. The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan     During World War II, a BBC radio program hold a cooking contest with the grand prize as the program’s first-ever female cohost.  Four women vie for the chance to change their lives.

and, in case you are wondering, some of the award winners for 2020 are:

  • Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  • Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown for the National Book Award
  • Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain for the Man Booker Award
  • Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet for the Women’s Prize for Fiction
  • Raven Leilani’s Luster for Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Have you read any of them?

 

 

 

Got Milk?

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I was planning to see old friends in California and attend the annual Literary Conference to meet authors and pick up ideas.  My airline ticket is still outstanding and I won’t be using it because the conference will be virtual this year.  I do plan to log on but it will not be the same.

Reading is not the same.  When I can muster the motivation to open a book, it’s more likely a sequel to the  Bridgerton saga or the wonderful fable by Jane Smiley – Perestroika in Paris – recommended by my good friend.  And I read much more slowly, but perhaps the story of the horse, the dog, the raven, the rat, and a couple of ducks in Paris – and the map inside the cover – was one I was reluctant to see end.  How else could I vicariously be in Paris, and will I ever be there in person again?

The newsletter announcing the virtual literary conference had a few recommendations for books, and one title inspired me to look for it in Libby.  Neil Gaiman, author of so many of my favorites – The Good Omen, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and more – delivered another gem in 2013 I missed – Fortunately, the Milk.

The story is simple: Dad goes out to get some milk for his kids, taking a long time,  but eventually returning with a carton. When asked why he took so long, he tells them a fantastical tale involving a spaceship of green globby aliens.   But it was the first paragraph that grabbed me – possibly because buying cartons of milk has become the bane of my existence these days when I fully expect to meet virus laden aliens in the grocery store.  It could be my story.

“There was only orange juice in the fridge.  Nothing else that you could put on cereal, unless you think that ketchup or mayonnaise or pickle juice would be nice on your Toasties, which I do not, and neither did my little sister, although she has eaten some pretty weird things in her day, like mushrooms in chocolate…”

Maybe I’ll read a little Gaiman today and pretend it’s green globby aliens who’ve taken over the world.  Oh wait, they have.

Circe – A Witchy Goddess for Our Times

Image of Circe Book Cover

🏺The Greeks attributed both good times and misfortune to the whims of the gods.  With the world still in turmoil, we are all hoping the gods get tired soon of tormenting us poor humans – enough already.  We need some good times. Reading Madeleine Miller’s Circe has me wishing for some spells or maybe an errant lightning bolt.

If you are a fan of Greek mythology as I am, having D’Aulaire’s children’s book as one of my most treasured still on my shelf, you will enjoy the retelling of how the world was once occupied by goddesses and nymphs, with unusual powers.  Although a minor character in Greek storytelling, Circe is the focus of Miller’s story, as she interacts with her father, the Sun, and Odysseus on his travels.  Miller cleverly weaves in other gods – Hermes, Athena, the Titans – as well as lesser known humans with skills – Daedalus, the architect and father of Icarus, as they interact with the main character.  The minotaur makes a brief appearance as Circe’s nephew, and Medea as her niece.

Impatient for a resolution to some of the teasing narrative, I often flipped to google to remind myself how the story progresses in the famous Greek poems. Why was Athena so worried about Circe’s son?  How was the famously beautiful Helen related?  Whatever happened to poor Prometheus and his liver? Who was Achilles’ lover?

But Miller has her own agenda for retelling the old tales with Circe as the heroine, “ a reclamation of one of myth’s reviled women.” as noted by author Clare Messud in her review of the book. Annalisa Quinn for NPR says: “{Circe is } a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it.”

Though most readers may recall Circe from her dealings in the Odyssey,  Miller extrapolates a world from the few short lines from Homer’s poem to create more of her life, from her lonely childhood with Helios, the sun, as her scorching father, her first romance with a human and later a true love with Odysseus. Circe’s discovery and development of her magical powers gives her the well earned accolade of witch and her heritage makes her a goddess.

I downloaded Circe to my phone in 2018, when it was first published, but have not felt the urge to read it until now.  I’m glad I did.  The story was entertaining and flowed easily.  I knew how the story ended, but I persisted to finish.  From the pages, I noted a few lines relevant to me today I might not have appreciated two years ago:

“Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things, is another that waits to tear the world in two.”

 

“…the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood grew overnight. In the pantry jars of oil and wine, bowls of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”  A dream come true.

 

“Your wife sounds like a clever woman {says Circe to Odysseus}. {He answers} – She is. I cannot account for the fact that she married me, but since it is to my benefit, I try not to bring it to her attention.”

 

“What was the fight over? Let me see if I can remember the list.  He ticked his fingers. Vengeance, Lust, Hubris, Greed, Power.  What have I forgotten? Ah yes, vanity and pique.”

 

 

 

Library Books to Start the New Year

Libby, the email librarian, has been offering me “skip-the-line” books lately, with a seven day deadline to finish.  Ready to meet the challenge, I finished two books in record time, while ignoring others under the usual three week time frame.  The pressure to finish before Libby surreptitiously swallows my book back into the void is a challenge I cannot ignore.

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half did not tempt me when it was first published, despite accolades from Barack Obama, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and others.  I usually buy a book immediately – hardback, if I can wait a few days,  or ebook, if I need it now  – sometimes even preordering, when a new book is one I want to read and review immediately.  When I order from the library, I  expect I will have forgotten why I did by the time it appears six months later on my screen, but Libby’s “skip-the-line” brought The Vanishing Half forward sooner than expected.

Mirroring the theme from the film Imitation of Life, with a black woman passing as white, Bennett creates a novel about twin sisters, one choosing to live her adult life as a black woman and the other as a wealthy white woman. Desiree returns to her mother’s house in the small Southern town where she grew up, while Stella moves on to the big city to marry a white man who knows nothing about her background.  Their lives grow predictably different, with one struggling through poverty and the other eventually becoming a college professor.  Their daughters meet as adults, with one in medical school in love with a transgender and the other a struggling blond actress.

A Local book club picked this book for a future zoom discussion and questions rifle through the story as well as in the ending. Looking beyond the issues of race, this all white female book group might consider Libby’s pointed analysis of the book: “how a person’s past shapes decisions, desires, and expectations, and explore… {how some} feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.”

Hidden in Plain Sight

Eighty year old author and former member of Parliament, Jeffrey Archer, is still writing compelling stories with delicious hanging threads at the end to tease readers into the next novel with his characters continuing their adventures.  Hidden in Plain Sight is the second book featuring Detective William Warwick. As with the Clifton Chronicles, the Warwick novels create a family saga, as the novels follow William through his career, his loves, and his family.  Using his trademark twists, Archer chronicles the characters’ triumphs and tragedies,   This one was easy to finish quickly, and a nice distraction from the present day world.

 

 

Looking Forward to 2021 in Books

Author Sophie Hannah reminded me that when I curse an inanimate object for getting in my way, causing me to smash my toes or bruise my elbow, it is, after all, not the inanimate object’s fault.  In an article listing her favorite books for the new year, Hannah notes:  “I’ve heard many say good riddance to 2020 and I understand why, but it also makes me want to correct the misunderstanding. A year is a moral-value-free and agenda-free unit of time. It has neither agency nor culpability. It’s merely a container inside which we have experiences.”

She suggests you start your 2021 reading with Abigail Dean’s Girl A a psychological drama about a girl whose new life starts when she escapes from an abusive family. “It’s a riveting page-turner, and full of hope in the face of despair.”  Publication: February 2

Fans of Kristin Hannah will be happy to know she has a new book – The Four Winds – set in the depression era of 1934 Texas. Elsa Martinelli must make the choice between the land she loves and moving west in search of a better life.   Publication: February 2, 2021

 

Here are a few more books to look forward to in 2021:

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishaguro focuses on what it means to be human in his new novel Klara and the Seed.  Klara, an Artificial Friend, smiles and nods to customers in the store while tracking each day by the sun’s arc. When a mother and daughter adopt Klara, repressed emotion springs open, fleshing out Ishiguro’s themes of resilience and vulnerability in our crazy world.  Publication: March 2, 2021

Remember The Nest?  The author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney returns with her next novel in Good Company, a tale of a marriage in mid-life and the secrets that threaten to upend the relationship between Flora and her husband, as well as with her best friend, Margot. Publication Date: April 6, 2021

Chris Bohjalian returns with a new thriller in Hour of the Witch. In Boston in 1662, A young Puritan woman plots her escape from an abusive marriage while being careful to avoid any accusations of witchcraft. April 20, 2021

The first novel in nearly a decade by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahira, Whereabouts is set in an unnamed city with the story’s first-person narrator a single woman in her mid-40s.   Lahiri wrote the novel in Italian and translated it into English. Publication: April 27, 2021

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is an historical novel about a female aviator at the turn of the twentieth century whose disappearance becomes the basis for a big Hollywood production a century later. Publication: May 4, 2021

Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose book You Should Have Known became the basis for the HBO series The Undoing,  returns with another tale of deceit and betrayal. Jake, looking for his next bestseller, tries   literary theft to rise to stardom in The Plot.  Publication: May 11, 2021

More books to come.  Ann Patchett is promising a collection of essays in November, and Beatriz Williams has a new historical fiction in June.

Finally, back to author Sophie Hannah for a final recommendation – The Enchiridion by Epictetus

Epictetus was a slave and a Stoic who believed that “men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by the opinions about the things”. We can’t control what happens in the world, or even to our own bodies, but Epictetus believes we can always control our own minds by, for example, deciding to …be at peace with whatever we cannot prevent from happening.

I just ordered the paperback for $1.99 but you can get it for free on Project Gutenberg.

Looking forward to next year and more great books…

Happy New Year!