A Quick Inventory of Books

You know where the road to good intentions leads and I seem to have been on it for a while.  Although I have renewed online library books from the Libby site, more often they are returned unread.  How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell is the latest ebook I have on my Libby shelf, but I think maybe I’ve already figured it out.  The list of books returned stays on the site, admonishing me for neglect, and I’ve forgotten why I decided to check out the titles in the first place.  Have you read any?  Should I try again?

  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma
  • The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin

I have read and finished Bob Woodward’s RAGE, and it offered more than I wanted to but should know.  Things are worse than they seem.  I followed by watching the new not so fictionalized cable presentation of The Comey Rule and my appetite for facts ignored by the general population gave me indigestion.

My books from Powell Book Store finally arrived by slow boat, but Trust by Susan Choi was disappointing.  I have hopes for Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life, with a review from Elizabeth Berg promising magic.  I could use some.

The Authenticity Project by Claire Pooley is an iBook on my phone, as well as The Secret Book and Scone Society, recommended by a friend.

On my to read list (I still have good intentions):

  1. Monogamy by Sue Miller (on the NYT Sunday Review
  2. The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey (a favorite author)
  3. The RBG Workout by Bryant Johnson

Zooming with Books and The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Although I belong to several book clubs, I’ve been a member of a local group for years.  The size has morphed from a handful of people to over thirty when the snow birds are in town.  Snow birds, for those of you who live in the same place year round,  is that category of lucky people who fly South or West to winter in warm lazy climes and return to their civilized home territory, complete with neighborhood bookstores, professional theater, and real newspapers, in the Spring – the best of both worlds.

I live in the same place year round – and it’s not the one with the bookstores, theater, and newspapers – but with great weather and amazing views.  Lately, traveling has been a distant dream of days in the past.   Even before the pandemic, I had become wary of attending this book club.  As my dear friend, Julia Child, always said, I lacked the cour- ahge (courage).  More about this later.

I have just finished Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – bought from the only small independent bookstore in the neighborhood  – and decided it is perfect for the next zoom meeting of this book club.  Not only is it upbeat, fun, and easy to follow, but the back of the book has a Reader’s Guide with questions for discussion – and some even go beyond literal meaning.

Answering prescribed questions has become the standard for this book club, despite a few members’ attempts to steer the discussion into a real conversation.  The new zoom format begs for structure, and prepared questions seem to be an easy organizational tool, and a way to corral a group of participants.

Here’s where my courage is lacking.   Before I can take a quiz on a book I’ve read – and the questions usually are testing factual knowledge – I’d have to read the book at least twice and take notes.  I’ve decided life is too short to read many books twice; there are too many other books I want to read first.  And, knowing there will be a quiz can be scary – feels too much like being in Sister Eugene Marie’s sophomore literature class.

But I will be reading Waxman’s book again to take notes, not only for the books mentioned that I want to read, but also to outline the sights and sounds of the Los Angeles I seem to have missed whenever I visited there.  Next time, when I finally use the cancelled airplane ticket, which now will be free of its change charge, I will be ready to find the food, the streets, and the city Waxman describes.   And all those books she mentions, from Saroyan’s The Human Comedy to Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham will be on my list to read on the plane.

The story follows Nina, who prefers reading to anything else – even people.  Of course, she works in a bookstore and has floor to ceiling bookshelves in her little apartment.  But Nina is not just the smart bookish stereotype; she’s clever and witty.  She discovers her missing father when he dies and writes her into his will, suddenly immersing her into a family of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, leading to a series of hilarious conversations and not too shabby inheritance.  Romance is added to her life when she connects with someone on a rival trivia team in a classic meet-cute scene.  If you enjoy Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones), add Abbi Waxman to your list of modern Jane Austen novelists.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill was fun and refreshing. Go ahead – ask me a question.

TIPS For Your Next Zoom Book Discussion:

  1. Keep participation optional, including the video – not all of us can get to our hair dresser these days.
  2. Send the discussion questions a few weeks before the meeting, and be sure to include open ended questions. No one likes to have to remember what Aunt Mildred was wearing on the third Tuesday before the murder.  But relational questions can help connect the book to the reader, e.g., Would you have handled the character’s anxiety differently?
  3. Steer away from the “Writer’s Process.”  Instead ask readers to identify a favorite character, a plot twist they found believable or unbelievable, the value of the setting (locations) in the story – could it have been anywhere or did the setting make a difference?
  4. Have readers identify a favorite quote or passage from the book.
  5. Reading Guides are usually available, but don’t feel compelled to use all the questions.  Remember it’s a guide, not a quiz.
  6. Have fun – isn’t that the point?

In Search of the Unknown Island

After rereading Jose Saramago’s slim Tale of the Unknown Island again this morning, I wondered if Saramago, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, had ever found a good alternative to reality, or if he just kept searching throughout his life.

The Tale of the Unknown Island is a fifty-one page allegory with the width of my iPhone but with the breadth of a sharp and timely political treatise. Two brave people under the rule of a malevolent king find courage with one another to search for a better life.  I marked the page with the words: “this is the way fate usually treats us, it’s there right behind us, it has already reached out a hand to touch us on the shoulder while we’re still muttering to ourselves.” In the end, they sail away in a boat, content and hopeful, looking for the Unknown Island they’ve already found in each other.

I looked for Saramago’s life story and found In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Saramago recalls the inspiration of his grandfather – “The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write.”

Saramago recalled he wrote Blindness (a morbid tale but appropriate for our times) “to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures...trying to exorcise the monsters generated by the blindness of reason, {he} started writing the simplest of all stories: one person is looking for another, because he has realised that life has nothing more important to demand from a human being.”

Saramago’s stories are full of parables, stories with lessons civilization evidently still has to learn. Find The Tale of the Unknown Island.  This short tale may offer some hope.

Read my review of Blindness here.

Related Information: Saramago’s Nobel Lecture

Books to Give Away

Although I have many ebooks on my phone, I have combined my attempt to support independent bookstores and my yearning to hold pages in my hands with a ton of books now crowding my shelves.  Since the library is not accepting donations, I need to disperse my collection some other way.  Maybe this year everyone I know will receive one of my books (only read once, some pages only slightly turned over, few markings in the margins) – the perfect used Christmas gift.  They should be safe to read, although they have not been tested and some of the contents may have contagious ideas.

Here’s my list of two dozen – want any?

  1. The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian
  2. The Second Home by Christina Clancy
  3. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummings
  4. The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black
  5. Feels Like Falling by Kristy Woodson Harvey
  6. Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
  7. Beach Read by Emily Henry
  8. Dumpty by John Lithgow
  9. Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel
  10. Naamah by Sarah Blake
  11. Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
  12. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum
  13. The Confession by Jessie Burton
  14. No Time to Spare by Ursula LeGuin
  15. I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam
  16. How to Find Love in A Bookshop by Veronica Henry
  17. Hell and Other Destinations by Madeleine Albright
  18. Weather by Jenny Offill
  19. Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
  20. Inland by Tea Obrecht
  21. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman
  22. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookshop by Matthew Sullivan
  23. Miss Austen by Gil Hornby
  24. Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan

What books are on your giveaway shelf?

 

Paris By The Book – A Virtual Escape

I desperately needed to get away and quietly sitting on my shelf for over a year, Liam Callanan’s Paris By The Book‘s red cover finally caught my attention and gave me a first class ticket to my favorite city.  Callanan’s descriptions of Paris were as real as being there, as I relived walking the cobblestones streets, climbing up to Montmartre, and eating the buttery croissants.

Of course, the virus is everywhere these days, even in Paris, but escaping to a time and place before the pandemic spoiled everything in the city of Madeline and The Red Balloon offered a respite from reality.

Callahan creates a story around a Wisconsin woman with her two daughters who travel to Paris to find the husband/father who disappeared one morning, never returning from a jog.  He was a writer who would sometimes go away for days to nurture his muse and overcome his creative burnout from tending to the boring essentials of daily life.  He had not written a book in a long time, while his wife supported the family as a speech writer for a university.  At first, his family thinks he just went away on one of his writeaways.

Months later, after finding an itinerary code in a box of cereal, Leah and her daughters follow Richard’s clue to Paris, where they think he might have gone.  On the last day of their Paris vacation, they find a bookstore for sale and reinvent their lives.  Always on the alert for Richard, the girls and Leah sometimes think they see him but he eludes them, as they carry on with their new lives in Paris.

The book teases with clues, keeping the reader off balance, wondering whether or not Richard is alive or in Paris.  The suspense of the search lends impetus to the plot, yet it’s Callanan’s descriptions of the family’s new life in Paris keeping the mood sublime.  Paris is practically perfect, and its problems can be easily overcome in the interest of living out the fantasy of owning a bookstore there. Callanan does solve the mystery of Richard in the end, but not as I had expected.

Books, of course, are central to the surroundings, as Callanan offers classic titles as well as children’s books stacked in Leah’s English language bookshop in Paris called The Late Edition.  The famous Shakespeare and Company has a cameo in the book, and later the author explains in his afterward its significance as well as the real bookstore in Paris he almost bought.

Two famous children’s stories and their authors weave through the story – Ludwig Bemelmans with his famous Madeline stories and Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, both the book and the movie.  I had to stop to revisit both.  The Red Balloon movie is on Amazon, with short clips on YouTube. Watch it and raise your spirits instantly.

Leah and Richard first meet and form a relationship over these children’s books; later they read the books and biographies of the authors to their daughters, and through the stories they pass on their love of Paris to their children.  The dream is to visit Paris someday.

I read this book slowly.  These days I have no place to hurry to, and finding a story with familiar scenes  I can relish was a balm I was reluctant to end. Paris By The Book transported me to another place, another time, another life. It was nice to dream of being there for a while.