My Thrilling List

Book titles catch my eye but I really don’t have a list. I write them on little slips of paper, the backs of envelopes, at the bottom of the plumber’s list, on the paint swatches – all in a pile I keep planning to organize.

All night thrillers seem to attract me the most lately, vicariously providing satisfaction from feeling powerless over the verbal abuse by the plumber’s secretary, along with false promises and purposeful delays on a seemingly endless renovation.

A few books lately have offered some respite:

Megan Miranda’s Such A Quiet Place had the same twisting switchbacks as her earlier book The Last House Guest. This story has the neighborhood in a small college town disrupted by murder and the return of the murderer, when she is released early from prison. Speculation, gossip, and manipulative friendships twist the plot, and the idea of being a good neighbor gets a makeover.

The Turnout by Megan Abbott sets the scene in a small, old ballet studio needing a renovation after a fire caused by a space heater. With my recent experiences with a renovation, I could relate to some of the lines: “He has to finish that renovation sometime” and “Aren’t there some states, she’d heard Detective Mendoza joke to Walters, where murdering your contractor is a misdemeanor?” A creepy thriller with a twisting plot. You may never think of the Nutcracker the same again.

Finally, The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry starts as a routine police procedural but quickly morphs into a strange tale of a serial killer with touches of sci-fi. This page turner follows a journalist investigating the murder of a young attractive real estate agent. Her chase leads her through time and space into parallel universes as the reporter discovers she’s not the only one who’s in pursuit of the murderer, who keeps killing the same woman in different versions of her life. The time travel keeps the pace fast, and the ending may have you wondering which version of the good life you are living. Lots of fun.

What books offer you an escape?

The Booker Longlist

The Booker longlist is one I have anticipated, but in the past few years it has not inspired me to read from it. The prestigious literary award is given each year to the best novel written in English and published in Britain or Ireland. This year, however, when I really need a few good books, the list holds promise for me.

I’ve already read Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, and I have Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle on my library list. I will add Frances Spufford’s Light Perpetual where the author imagines how the lives of five children killed by a German V-2 rocket in 1944 might have turned out had they survived the bombing.

Richard Powers, author of the Overstory, has a powerful new story in Bewilderment, to be published in the United States in September. “The novel is set in the near future amid Earth’s slow deterioration. It follows a widowed father of a most unusual and troubled nine-year-old boy, as he turns to an experimental neurological treatment in order to save his son.”

Perhaps you’ll find something too. The full longlist includes:

  • Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North
  • Rachel Cusk’s Second Place
  • Damon Galgut’s The Promise
  • Nathan Harris’ The Sweetness of Water
  • Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun
  • Karen Jennings’ An Island
  • Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace
  • Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This
  • Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men
  • Richard Powers’ Bewilderment
  • Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room
  • Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle
  • Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual

Book Lust

Librarians always know the best books to read, and Nancy Pearl, Librarian of the Year in 2011, and NPR commentator and book reviewer, combined her recommendations into a book – Book Lust. Published in 2003, I am just getting to it, and making my list from it. Pearl has written a few sequels since then but this is a good place to start.

The book chapters are organized alphabetically by theme from “My Name is Alice” (authors) to “Zen Buddism” and “Zero,” and I started by skipping around, landing on “Magical Realism, Intriguing Novels, and First Lines to Remember.” Ultimately, I just flipped through all the pages, taking notes as I went, looking for new reads, and gratified when I came across a familiar title I had read.

Here are a few for my to-read list:

  1. Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night uses a reunion at Oxford as the setting for an academic mystery without a murder.
  2. John Banville’s The Untouchable is based on Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, and one of the infamous group of Cambridge spies.
  3. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams tells about Cosi Noline, who comes home to Arizona to find an ill father, complications in love, and a town facing an environmental threat.

Pearl includes a separate section – “One Hundred Good Reads, Decade By Decade,” from 1900 to 1990s; the book includes an overwhelming list of titles with separate sections for her favorite authors, including Barbara Pym and Gore Vidal. It’s impossible not to find something to read.

What I’ve Read and Enjoyed Lately – but not Reviewed

  • The Paris Library by Janet Charles – based on the true story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris during World War II
  • Dream Girl by Laura Lippman – Another thriller from the author of “Lady in the Lake.” With traces of Rear Window, this is a page turner.
  • The Vixen by Francine Prose – Although it’s been almost seventy years since Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for espionage, Anne Sebba’s biography on Ethel Rosenberg recently brought the story back into view. Francine Prose brings her fictionalized and somewhat askew version of Ethel Rosenberg into her new novel The Vixen. Maria Semple , one of my favorite authors, calls it ” a rollicking trickster of a novel, wondrously funny and wickedly addictive.”

What I’m Reading Now…

  • The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
  • Such A Quiet Place by Megan Miranda

Should It Stay or Should It Go

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post with the title question “Should We Stay or Should We Go,” I am facing the dilemma of culling my bookcase – what books should stay and which should go?

Although it is more likely books on my shelves have been read and forgotten, it is with horror that I realized I have books gathering dust I’ve never read. Some were lovely gifts, some were well intentioned purchases for future reference, some I had no idea why they were there. In good conscience I could not give away a book I’d never read, so I ventured into the realms of the forgotten books.

Nora Ephron died too young but left behind a wealth of humor and sarcasm that would have made Dorothy Parker proud. Two years before her death in 2012, Ephron began organizing the 557 page memorial to herself in The Most of Nora Ephron, published in 2013. The book seemed overwhelming when I received it, and because I was one of the many readers who took her death personally, I kept the book but could not read it. Now I am laughing through her descriptions of her ex-husband, the “Jewish prince” who cannot find the butter in the refrigerator in “Heartburn,”and pausing from Ephron’s profiles of famous women to look up Julie Nixon Eisenhower to see if she is still alive (she is).

The Most of Nora Ephron includes her books, plays, scripts, early columns, graduation speech, poems – even a few recipes, some no one should ever make – lima beans and pears in molasses.

I read her entertaining “Afterword” to the screenplay of When Harry Met Sally and her homage to Gourmet Magazine. I skimmed over her irate blogging on the politics of Bush and Cheyney and found her funny and poignant poem on the last page of the book – “What I Will Miss” – anchored with “pie.”

Ephron’s voice came back to life in the pages, and despite pausing to watch Meryl Streep play Ephron in her autobiographical movie, I finished reading it in a day.

Back to what to do now having read The Most of Nora Ephron. I could donate the book to the libary, give it to a friend to enjoy, or return it to the shelf next to my copy of The Most of P. G. Wodehouse. What would Lionel Shriver do?

Should We Stay or Should We Go

At the beginning of the vaccine distribution, I was inordinately miffed at somehow being classified as too young to be vaccinated. Having overcome my umbrage, I found Lionel Shriver’s Should We Stay or Should We Go had me considering old age again. Although the author is 64, she uses 80 as the marker for the beginning of being “really old.”

When her father dies after a long and debilitating illness, Kay Wilkinson can’t cry; she is relieved. Determined to die with dignity, her husband Cyril makes a proposal. To spare themselves and their loved ones such a humiliating decline, they should agree to commit suicide together once they’ve both turned eighty – end it all before it gets any worse. A medical Doctor, Cyril has access to Seconal and neatly places the pills in a black box in the refrigerator, to be washed down with a good wine when the time comes.

Although the subject matter is morbid, Shriver uses Gallow’s humor to good advantage. I knew by page fifty there was not a simple solution to the dilemma of Kay and Cyril when the chapter title “The First Last Supper” promised more adventures to come. Shriver creates a parallel universe in alternate chapters, showing how their decision on that fateful birthday could resolve. If they cut their lives artificially short, what might they miss out on, or what horrors might they escape?

Shriver cleverly creates thirteen chapters of scenarios, including surviving cryogenics, being hit by a bus, using long-term health care to live at the London version of the Ritz old folks home, contrasted nicely with no health care and living on the government dole at a place right out of “Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And she addresses the “five-minutes-to-12 syndrome” – the temptation to hang on until it’s too late, and lose the opportunity to decide anything. Sometimes it’s good to stay, sometimes it’s better to leave.

Some chapters have them leave; others have them stay, and Shriver, an American writer living in London conveniently connects the Leave or Stay to the Brexit vote. Later, the Covid pandemic shows them in two versions of lockdown, one in dire straits of near hunger and isolation, the other living so well they are reluctant to rejoin the fray after quarantine is lifted. Shriver also tackles the future of immigration and its unexpected effects on the old couple.

The topic is becoming popular: Roz Chast humorously addressed it in her New Yorker style cartoon book – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and Derek Humphry’s 1991 self-published Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over four months. Katie Engelhart’s 2021 book, The Inevitable, is about people determined to exercise control over their own deaths.

And yet, most of us will put up with anything rather than die. Shriver notes that most think “If they ever do die – not that most people believe in their heart of hearts that they ever will – they’ll be wise, warm, funny, and sound of mind until the very end, with doting friends and family gathered round.” But it doesn’t always work out that way.

My mother, who died at 94, after a life of never going to the hospital except to give birth, and 5 last days of slow decline, told me – “Noone wants to leave the party.” Shriver would caution – make sure there’s still a party.

At times disturbing and even gruesome, Shriver’s sardonic wit provided enough comic relief to keep me reading, and her ingenious possibilities kept me wondering what would come next.