Daisy, Madeleine, Oona, Sartre and Others

One of the good things about not being able to go anywhere is that you have permission to stay put and not go anywhere.  For me, it means I don’t have to make excuses when turning down invitations, and can feel content staying in to read or nap.  It’s not always easy to find a book when browsing is limited but good friends and family usually pass along a few titles, and there’s always my stash on my shelf, thin paperbacks I had planned to take with me on a plane before my travel stopped, or heavy hardbacks I keep putting off until I have the time or inclination.

What are you reading these days?     Here are a few I’ve read lately:

Daisy Jones and the Six

Someone suggested Taylor Jones Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six was a feel good novel to read, so I downloaded the ebook.  Reid’s fictional oral history of a seventies rock band based on Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks was a good distraction, but I couldn’t help stopping to look for the characters in real life, and listening to the real music.

With some of the best lyrics ever written, Fleetwood Mac’s songs resonate still and finding old favorites played live by the band over the years (thanks to you tube) did lift my soul.  Based on the lives of the band members, it’s sometimes hard to remember the story is fictional.  Using the construct of oral history, Reid lends more credibility to the story, and not all the characters match reality, but when she deftly records how the same incidents are remembered differently by the band members, I wondered what had really happened and had to pause to look it up.  Who knows what was going on inside the heads of Lindsay Cunningham and Stevie Nicks, but the Daisy Jones character comes close to having the reader believe Reid knew.

Friends and Strangers

This was another zoom book for me – a book discussion with the author sponsored by an independent bookstore.  I read Friends and Strangers quickly to be able to make the deadline of the meeting, so I may have missed some of the nuances, but J. Courtney Sullivan charmed me as she was interviewed by the bookstore owner in Cape Cod, with the sound of her young children playing in the background.

Ron Charles wrote an incomparable review for the Washington Post you can read by clicking on the link here.  Like many women, having been both a mother who depended on babysitters and a babysitter myself, I connected to both perspectives in the story.  But Sullivan hits on many more issues as she explores class differences,  age disparity in friendships, and immigration.

Hell and Other Destinations 

I have been having breakfast with Madeleine – not the sweet French girl who romps through Paris – but the formidable former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.  In her latest memoir, Hell and Other Destinations, Albright has a conversation with the reader about the latest chapter in her life.  The lesson learned is a familiar one – it’s not over until you say so.

Although Albright has authored several books, I have not read one until now.  With the country reeling from the virus, the demonstrations, and the barrage of news, this seems like a good time to listen to a woman who has the voice of reason in her timbre.  Of course, I found the pictures in the center of the book first.  My favorites were Albright sharing a laugh with television’s Madame Secretary, Tea Leoni, and a young Albright ready for college in 1958.

Albright introduces each chapter with a humorous lesson-filled anecdote before chronicling her experiences. In 2001, Albright retired as Secretary of State but continued reinventing herself as an author, a professor, a speaker and a supporter of the Democratic Party.  She takes this memoir through both of Hillary Clinton’s runs for President, remarking on her friend’s abilities as she goes and using her famous line for her book title.  She ends in 2019 with Trump but before the pandemic changed everything.

Her career has had the benefits of networking and connections, but Sanger in his review for the New York Times noted her frustration in the current political climate when he ended with:

” {Albright} got a call in 2017 from Mike Pompeo, the incoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who would soon be promoted to her old office at State. Albright had long served on the C.I.A.’s external advisory board. ‘He thanked me for my service,’ she writes. ‘Then he fired me.’ “

Ooona Out of Order
Margarita Montimore’s age-swap story sometimes had me feeling off balance.  Oona time travels every year on her birthday but not chronologically.  At 18, she travels to her life as a middle aged woman, beginning her quirky adventure. Each year she hops through decades, picking up much-needed stock tips to maintain a life style without working,  but Oona is still a young woman on the inside while changing on the outside.
If you can resist trying to decipher why she is time traveling, and can ignore the obvious anachronisms, you will enjoy Oona’s struggle to adapt to the eighties and nineties and the twenty-first century while she is still mentally back somewhere in the seventies.  The moral of the story is of course to live in the moment and appreciate every day.

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
I became a fan of author Sarah Bakewell while reading How to Live: or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  If you have not read the book, now is the time.  Check out my review HERE.
Over a few of my own cocktails while reading At the Existentialist Cafe, I found myself swept away by thinkers – so rare in these times – Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger.  Don’t worry if you slept through Philosophy 101 in college and barely recognize some of the names. Bakewell’s narrative will have you appreciating how exciting it is to think and ask questions.

A Book Can Cure You

A recent article by Catherine Hong for Real Simple magazine focused on the value of reading books for mental well-being – not a new concept – but bibliotherapy is often ignored or under appreciated.  Getting lost in fiction has always been my preferred form of therapy, and I was happy to read the studies Hong provided supporting how reading a good book could “help people become happier and healthier, not to mention more emotionally attuned to others.”

In one of my favorite books, The Little Paris Bookshop, the owner has an uncanny talent to evaluate his customers’ problems  (including doubt, disappointment, and fears) and prescribe exactly the right book to shake them out of their gloom – everyone’s except his own. He believes in the healing properties of fiction and romance.  Being in southern France only adds to the cure.

In Hong’s article she asks other writers for books they use for bibliotherapy.  Among the recommendations are a book of poetry, an examination of a classic, and a puzzle mystery for middle schoolers.

  1.  Look by Somaz Sharif:        Anglie Cruz, the author of Dominica, suggests poetry for soothing the soul.  In Somaz Sharif’s Look, the reader is engaged with how language is used for and against us.  “It’s a good book to read now as we face unbearable loss.”
  2. Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler:     Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Book of Longings, suggests this book to transport you to the Yorkshire moors and save you from being “burned out at work or simply in need of creative kindling”
  3. The Westing Game by Ellen Rasling:   Julie Grames, author of Stella Fortuna, recommends this middle-grade mystery novel to inspire you to be a better human being…”

You might write yourself a prescription for reading a book to take you out of your doldrums.  My go-to authors are Jane Gardam, Kent Haruf, and Jeffrey Archer to whisk me away somewhere else and immerse me in someone’s else’s life, but I keep looking for more.      What books do you recommend for bibliotherapy?

Related Book Reviews:

Gothic Thrillers: The Guest List and The Sea of Lost Girls

For now, I am content with easy mysteries and psychological thrillers; I just finished reading The Guest List by Lucy Foley and The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman.  Both reminded me of Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with a cast of women betrayed by a male villain, who satisfyingly  gets his at the end – with a surprise twist.

The Sea of Lost Girls

Goodman’s tales are old friends; I’ve read The Lake of Dead Languages (2001) through to The Widow’s House (2017).  The Sea of Lost Girls has her usual Gothic flavor, set in an academic setting, this time in an old boarding school in Maine, with a haunting past of dead girls and ghosts.  Tess, the heroine and former student, returns as a teacher with a past.  A young girl is murdered near the beach with suspects ranging from the heroine’s son to her former lover and her husband.  Goodman weaves the psychological thriller around the lives of past abuses and present day secrets.  A fun and quick read.

The Guest List

Foley’s The Guest List has a wedding fueling its thrills and a remote Irish island provides the chills. The horror on the night of the wedding jolts the opening, and the rest of the story backtracks to lead the reader to the big reveal.

The groom is a handsome TV star, but slowly his chiseled looks take on the aura of a Dorian Gray.  His college buddies confirm his background and lurid past, as they party as the guests from hell.  Five narrators, each marking separate chapters, slowly weave the story to its surprise ending: the wedding planner and owner of the island, the bride, her young half sister and bridesmaid, the best man and old college buddy of the groom, and Hannah, the wife of Charlie, former lover of the bride.  The story evolves slowly, giving the reader time to assimilate the characters and try to guess the victim as well as the murderer, but it was a surprise to me.  Fun and satisfying.

What’s on the Bookshelf Behind the Speaker

As I watch the PBS news hour, sometimes I am more fascinated with the books on the shelf behind Judy Woodruff than the news she presents.  Ron Chernow’s Grant has a special place on her shelf, and it is conveniently positioned sideways – easy to read the title. When the small box appears in the upper right hand corner to illustrate the story being presented, I wonder at the vase of flowers under it.  Are those peonies?  They must be silk flowers because they never fade.  I am easily distracted, especially when the news is information I would rather not hear.

When the camera blurs the background or is too far away for me to see the titles, I get annoyed.  When the shelves only have a vase and a totem, I wonder if the correspondent either does not read or is too private to expose the books her or she prefers.  Someone said a room is not a room without books. Books, like some of those presented as background when the speaker is talking from home, not a studio, can reveal not only tastes and preferences, but also a predilection for topics framing the speaker’s education or enthusiasms.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review offered a slate in “What Do Famous People’s Bookshelves Reveal?”   It was no surprise to see two books about horses on the shelves of the future King of England.  Prince Charles has “Shattered” by Dick Francis – from the master of the equine thriller, a novel of horse-racing, and “Stubbs” by Basil Taylor –a biography of the 18th-century English painter best known for his depictions of horses.

Hollywood icons reveal themselves when being interviewed, but look at the books behind them to get the real picture.  Actress Kate Blanchett’s 20 volume set of The Oxford English Dictionary makes me wonder if she has an inordinate love of language, a need to factcheck her words, or just the  tendency to pack her shelves with neutral fare. Actor Paul Rudd’s “Code of Conduct” by Brad Thor – the 15th installment in Thor’s thriller series with hero counterterrorism operative Scot Harvath could be research for a new movie.

A viewer created a list of the books behind comedian Stephen Colbert’s stay at home library, revealing books from authors he had Interviewed in past shows, many with political and historic themes.  Among them:

  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter
  • All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt byJohn Taliafierro
  • Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

But there are also:

  • Born Standing Up, A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin
  • The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin

And, sharp-eyed SNL At Home viewers noticed actor/comedian Larry David had Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein and David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49 among the titles on his home shelf, while he was channeling Bernie Sanders on air.   On the One World: Together at Home special, fans may have noticed Kerry Washington’s color-coordinated books behind her –  all yellow books on one shelf and all the red covers on another.  Evidently, J.K. Rowling likes the color coded system too.

“It’s a sneak peek into their private lives,” said Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse. “How legitimate it is, is a big question.”

I’m always curious about what someone else has and is reading.  I was excited to see Hilary Mantel’s new book The Mirror and the Light on a table in the background of former Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s house while Stephen Colbert interviewed him.

On your next Zoom book club call, you might want to impress viewers with how well-read you are – or wish you were – with a backdrop of books.

Books on My To-Read List

Twenty new books on my wish list – most by authors I have enjoyed before. I know I have missed some – let me know if you have any to add. * Books I plan to read first.

  1. The Queens’s Fortune by Allison Pataki  (historical fiction of Napoleon’s Josephine, written by the author of Sisi
  2. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (author of News of the World)
  3. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (Tyler takes us back to Baltimore) *
  4. The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman (another Gothic thriller by the author of The Lake of Dead Languages
  5. Perfect Little Children by Sophie Hannah (psychological suspense thriller)
  6. Beach Read by Emily Henry (quirky romance)
  7. The Guest List by Lucy Filey (murder mystery)
  8. The Paris Hours by Alex George (One day in the lives of four characters in 1920s Paris)
  9. The Library of Legends by Janie Chang (historical novel with a group of students, fleeing across China to escape the war with Japan.
  10. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd  (if Jesus were married…)
  11. Hid from Our Eyes by Julia Spencer Fleming (a new Clare Ferguson mystery)
  12. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (magic, secrets, and danger)
  13. You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe (humorous biography of George Washington
  14. The Authenticity Project by Claire Pooley  (a Sopie Kinsella like book)
  15. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld  (if only Hilary had not married him) *
  16. The Book of V. by Anna Solomon  (historical fiction with three women’s lives intersecting across centuries)
  17. Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore (funny age swap story)
  18. Abigail by Magda Szabo  (coming of age story set in Hungary before the Nazi invasion)
  19. Weather by Jennifer Offill (author of Dept. of Speculation)
  20. I’d Give Anything by Marisa de los Santos (author of Belong to Me)

Have you read any of these on my list?