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

Book List from Author Christina Clancy

When the independent bookstore Where the Sidewalk Ends sponsored a Zoom discussion recently of Christina Clancy’s new book, The Second Home, the author graciously  panned her camera to her pile of books, precariously tilting in a pile nearby.  She offered a few books to pre-order, and some now available in her stash.  I decided to find out more about each, to better decide if I wanted to read any.  I am still waiting for her book to arrive, but, in the meantime, her book list is full of good ideas.  Here are her recommendations and my notes on each:

Books to Pre-Order

  • Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie – publication September, 2020 – “coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s quest for acceptance in post-World War II Japan.”
  • The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson – publication February, 2021- “following the merging lives of Ruth, a black female engineer who seeks out the child she gave away, and Midnight, a young white boy struggling to find his place in the very poverty Ruth managed to escape.”
  • Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson – publication January 2021  – from the publisher: “A novel about divorce, marriage, and everything that comes in between (money, class, ambition, and opportunity), Better Luck Next Time is a hilarious yet poignant examination of the ways friendship can save us, love can destroy us, and the family we create can be stronger than the family we come from.

Books Available Now

  • Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson  – Joanna Rakoff reviewed the book on the New York Times Sunday Book Review with the headline: Screwball Comedies.  “…set in 2009, (the story) begins with a nod to a real-life scandal: a Madoff-style swindler has worked his charm on Mimi Banning, a reclusive writer. She was on the brink of losing not just her house but also the copyright to her book. Mimi calls her editor, Isaac Vargas. She’s ready to write another novel, provided he supply her with “a huge advance and an assistant, bankrolled by the publisher.” Vargas sends Mimi his own girl Friday, Alice, a bossy, pragmatic Nebraskan, thinking she’ll keep his star writer on track to meet her deadline…High jinks ensue.”

 

  • The Grace Year  – thriller by Kim Liggett – “In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth;{consequently}, they are banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.”

 

  • Remembrance – historical fiction by Rita Woods  – Denny Bryce in his review for NPR says: “Rita Woods’ debut Remembrance is a complex story of loss and survival told across 200 years by four women, united by the color of their skin and the supernatural powers they command. It’s an ambitious, absorbing novel…Woods creates memorable characters in all four settings, each with a distinct purpose that helps make the impossible relatable. Remembrance is a well-researched, epic historical fantasy that, despite its flaws, delivers upon the themes of pain and suffering, loss and survival — and how they can drive the creation of a safe place that by its very existence is timeless.”

 

  • Summer Longing – light beach read by Jamie Brenner – “Ruth Cooperman moves to Provincetown, Mass., hoping to slow down. She finds an abandoned baby on the front porch of her rented beach house. Couple Elise and Fern move back in to the cottage they rented to Ruth to care for the infant rather than call the authorities. Ruth’s quiet retirement becomes even more crowded after her estranged daughter, Olivia, agrees to visit, while Ruth continues her search for a house to buy…Elise and Fern bond with the baby and dream of making her their own. However, the mystery of the baby’s mother lurks in the background, and Ruth’s tenuous relationship with her daughter, as well as the connections created as the town comes together to support Elise, Fern, and the baby, will soon be tested.

And the Books I Plan to Read First

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson – from the New York Review of Books: “Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer…into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship…{and} discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love…”

The Imperfects by Amy Myerson –  “The estranged Miller siblings Beck, Ashley and Jake find themselves together for the first time in years, forced to confront old resentments and betrayals, when they find a secret inheritance hidden among their dead grandmother’s possessions—the Florentine Diamond, a 137-carat yellow gemstone that went missing from the Austrian Empire a century ago. They begin investigating her past only to realize how little they know about their brave, resilient grandmother. As the Millers race to determine whether they are the rightful heirs to the diamond and the fortune it promises, they uncover a past more tragic and powerful than they ever could have imagined, forever changing their connection to their heritage and each other.  Inspired by the true story of the real, still-missing Florentine Diamond.”

I read Amy Myerson’s first book – The Bookshop of Yesterdays:  my review