If You Wait Long Enough, It Becomes a Paperback

Before the pandemic started I read a book by Benjamin Black about two young English princesses evacuated to Ireland during World War II – The Secret Guests.  I meant to pass it on to an old friend who likes war stories with a little romance and intrigue.  As it sat on my shelf over the months, I wondered how I would get it to her, since she is now protected from having visitors, and I was reluctant to stand in a post office line to mail a book.  Suddenly, I saw Black’s book on a paperback list, and I mailed it to my friend from one of my favorite independent bookstores.  At once, I was able to support a small business and thrill an old friend.

Benjamin Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville.  As Benjamin Black he combines mystery and crime in easy-to-read novels.    If you are a devoted viewer of The Crown and a fan of all things royal, this story will feed your curiosity about imagined conversations of the future Queen of England and her sister.  Short and fun.

Paperbacks are stacked on my shelf too, and here’s one I liberated.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop 

Veronica Henry’s slim novel carried me away on an imaginary trip to some of my favorite places – Oxford, Cotswold, and a side trip to Daphne du Maurier’s Fowey.  As charming as its name, Nightingale Books is the center for observing the lives of the town’s characters as they meander through a series of romantic interludes  and some intrigue.

Henry’s predictable storyline is a comfort to follow.  I yearned to be in the bookshop, browsing through its shelves and listening to the owner’s recommendations – Tove Jansson’s adventures in Finn Family Moomintroll sounds inviting.   And the cozy restaurant serving gourmet meals for only two at a time, seems perfect in this time of hazardous restaurant eating.    I could almost taste the “pear mousse, light and fluffy, with a warm rich chocolate sauce in the middle.”

 

 

 

 

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:

Simon the Fiddler

Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed.  I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America.   If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.

Despite the pull of Confederate  conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist.  Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself.  After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.

When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love.  Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again.  During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges.  Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.

Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly.  All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles.  And Doris?  Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?

All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon.  But the ending is not all sunsets and roses.  Jiles’ last notes are:

He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there,  for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.

And so, life goes on …

After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book.  But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going.  And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit.  Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.

Review: News of the World

Redhead By the Side of the Road

Anne Tyler’s quirky characters always resonate with me, from the annoying travel writer in The Accidental Tourist to meddling Maggie in Breathing Lessons. Her setting in  Redhead By the Side of the Road is once again Baltimore, and again she has family as the fulcrum for examining the life of her hero.

Micah Mortimer is a forty something bachelor who manages an old apartment house for the free rent in the basement, and dabbles in computer repair with his small company Tech Hermit.  Micah has a structured and organized life, bordering on obsessive – the kind of guy who must have all the pencils sharpened and lined up, if he used them, and has a schedule for cleaning, eating, waking up, and most of his life.  Although he has had girlfriends, Cass, an elementary school teacher, is the latest he has lost, and he is befuddled by what he did to make her leave him.

Brink, a young freshman in college, and the son of Micah’s first love, appears suddenly at his doorstep.  Brink is running away allegedly looking for his birth father, but the real reasons surface later.  Micah gives the boy coffee and a place to sleep for one night, assuring Brink he could not be his father (he never slept with his mother), and then sends him away when the boy refuses to call his mother to reassure her.  Eventually, Brink confesses and reunites with his family, but not before he ruffles old memories in Micah.

The redhead at the side of the road makes an appearance only twice in the story, and both times this reader wonders if it is symbolic of Micah getting older with his eyesight starting to fail, or some manifestation of his own desperate life – the redhead appears to be sitting, huddled with her head down and clasping her knees.  The first time the redhead appeared, I laughed out loud when Tyler revealed the true identity.  The second time, I wondered if his not seeing clearly said something about his relationships.

Through a series of incidents with his family – all older sisters and broods; with Lorna, Brinks’s mother; and with a funny assortment of customers needing help with their computers, Micah reevaluates his life and comes to a moment of awakening.  The ending reveals his vulnerability and offers hope for better connections with human nature. Tyler wryly reaffirms it’s always a good time to change your life.

This might be the best time to read Tyler’s story, not only for Tyler’s subtle humor but also for her message.   When all of us are experiencing our routines being changed through circumstances we cannot control, reading about a man whose life seemed happy with his ordinary regimen and suddenly has to adjust to outside forces is relatable.  It’s comforting to know he not only survived but life got better – eventually.

Related Review: https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2016/06/21/vinegar-girl-by-anne-tyler/