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?

Women’s Dreams, Decisions, and Defaults

How do choices decide a lifetime?  Two books, sitting for months on my shelf, turned out to be similar in addressing the answer.

The Confession by Jessie Burton

In The Confession, Jessie Burton, the author of The Miniaturist, uses a well-used relationship theme in the lives of two women – one older and famous, the other young and impressionable.  Burton’s story has some of the same elements as Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorite books) but lacks the page-turning thrills I craved.

The plot alternates from present day Rose, searching for her mother in 2017 to her mother Elise’s story as a young woman 35 years earlier.  Elise abandoned Rose when she was a baby, to be raised by her father, who claims not to know why she left or where she went. The secret drives the story, as Rose disguises herself to work as an assistant to her mother’s former lover, a famous novelist who has not written in thirty-five years, hoping to discover more.  Both Rose and Elise have no self-confidence as young women, and both seem to be searching for something or someone to take charge of their lives.

Rose finds Joe, a wannabe restaurant owner, and muddles through years of a bland relationship.  Elise finds love with Constance until Connie betrays her with another woman; in revenge Elsie has an affair with a married man and becomes pregnant with Rose. Both have complicated lives, accentuated with decisions which change their futures.

Burton’s agenda for asserting women’s rights becomes lost in the circumstances, but the search for closure kept me reading.  Sadly, Rose only finds her mother peripherally – not very satisfying, but the open ending leaves possibilities.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Although I’m not a fan of Weiner’s books, this one is signed and had been sitting on my shelf since I missed her author luncheon last year, and it turned out to be a good complement to The Confession.

Mrs. Everything alternates between two sisters, Jo and Bethie (Weiner’s little women), as they grow up in the 1950s era of family values, find their way through the turbulent sixties, until finally landing as adults in suburban Connecticut and a feminist collective in Atlanta.  Elizabeth Egan for the New York Times notes:

Weiner tells the story of the women’s rights movement and the sexual awakening of a woman coming of age at a time when being attracted to women would keep her at the fringes of the world she was raised to join. She opts for the safe route, making unimaginable sacrifices along the way, especially on behalf of her sister, who finds the freedom to live the life they both wanted.

Weiner often cringes when her books are called chick lit or beach reads, and  Mrs. Everything seems heavy on the issues for such a label,

but my next book really is a beach read – says so in the title.  I’ve started reading, and so far, it seems to be a romantic comedy starring Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner in their famous literary feud. The two main characters are writers, accidentally living in houses across from each other and each has a summer to write a book.  To encourage a new muse in their writing, they agree to write in the other’s genre.  The Franzen character, known in the book as serious Gus, will write a happily-ever-after romance, and the Weiner character, with the name January Andrews agrees to write serious stuff.

Should be fun…

 

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.

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

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.