Christmas Just Isn’t The Same

It’s been a while – no real excuses except feeling too distracted to write – but not to read. I have a list I will share, but first – Joan Didion. I remember reading The White Album years ago, and when I heard of her death, I had to stop reading my current book to find an old copy. Her first line lives on as one of the best first lines of a book – “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Enough to inspire me to reread it to discover what Didion’s words might mean to me now, forty years and a never-ending pandemic later, and if they would have the same impact. I struggled to think of a current writer who has the same impact with her clarity of observations.

Zadie Smith in her tribute to Didion in The New Yorker, noted:

It is a peculiarity of Joan Didion’s work that her most ironic formulations are now read as sincere, and her sincerest provocations taken with a large pinch of salt. Perhaps when your subject is human delusion you end up drawing that quality out of others, even as you seek to define and illuminate it. How else to explain the odd ways we invert her meanings? We tell ourselves stories in order to live. A sentence meant as an indictment has transformed into personal credo.”

Joan Didion’s name may be more familiar to modern audiences than her work, except perhaps for “The Year of Magical Thinking,”(she wrote five novels, six screenplays, and fourteen works of nonfiction), but it’s never too late to read books guaranteed to inspire, jolt, and perhaps persuade you – “…while everyone else drank the Kool-Aid, she stuck to Coca-Cola …”

Books I Have Been Reading Recently

Never by Ken Follett – slow start but picks up into a roller coaster ride – watch out for the ending

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman – the fourth book of witchery – fun to read and wish you were part of the Owens family of witches

Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France by Katie Quinn – a better version of Eat, Pray, Love with the author’s tongue-in-cheek memoir, good information, and a few great recipes.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen – the first in a trilogy. The book made the Washington Post’s top ten for 2021. The story revolves around an associate pastor at a Protestant church in suburban Chicago who’s troubled by his own envy and adultery. “The novel presents an electrifying examination of the irreducible complexities of an ethical life.” Take the time to savor Franzen’s use of words, and the inevitable thoughtfulness he will instill in you, as you read.

The Party Crasher by Sophie Kinsellla – read just for fun – book candy

What I am Reading Now

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weil – I hope it has a happy ending…

Books on My To Read List

  • Gilded by Mariss Meyer
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  • These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
  • A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris
  • The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz
  • The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier
  • Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Just As Good the Second Time I Read It

Sometimes I get tired of being the one who is responsible; it often means I get stuck doing everything myself. My mother told me to ignore little imperfections and let others do some things for me, but it isn’t easy. I’m working on it, and sometimes people surprise me.

In Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, Marie Curie lurks in the background as the model for two responsible girls who aspire to make a difference in the world of science, and would rather do it themselves. Kit Owens doesn’t realize her full potential until she is challenged by the seemingly perfect new girl in class, Diane Fleming. Best friends and competitors, the two rise to a final challenge when they meet again as adults, and then their worlds explode.

Secrets challenge the reader’s expectations, and Megan Abbott writes in the same vein as Ruth Ware, with complicated characters and twisting plot notes. Lots of murders dot the landscape, and the story is scary.

When I started to read this book, I thought I had read it before; pieces seemed familiar Sure enough I found I had reviewed it last year, but I had forgotten the plot and how it ended. Has that happened to you?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – The Dinner List

9781250295187   What five people, dead or alive, would you invite for dinner and conversation? Often asked of authors interviewed for the New York Times Book Review, I agree with Kate Atkinson – no writers. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand…and she shows up as one of the guests at a birthday dinner in Rebecca Serle’s The Dinner List.  

Although I expected a fluffy and perhaps happy piece of fiction (maybe it was the bright yellow cover), Sabrina’s love story is bittersweet and introspective.   Chapters alternate between Sabrina’s first person narrative of her relationship with Tobias and the dinner party with her wish list attendees.  Her father, Robert, is among them, as is her best friend Jessica, who periodically excuses herself to pump her leaking breasts.  Sabrina’s college philosophy professor, Conrad, offers literary allusions to the conversation.  Of course, Tobias, the boyfriend, is there, but the star of the evening is Audrey Hepburn.  Sabrina’s name is no accident; her parents were engaged after watching the movie, and Roman Holiday is Sabrina’s favorite film.

I usually prefer to create my own images of characters in a book, and the movie versions usually disappoint me with their choices of actors playing the roles, but the presence of Audrey Hepburn (coincidentally one of my favorites too) lent an exotic note to the narrative.  It was easy to hear her whispery notes when she sang Moon River to the group, and her graceful lithe movements as she lit a cigarette or motioned for more wine were easy to imagine. Serle is careful to include background notes of Hepburn’s childhood during the war and her post-acting humanitarian work with UNESCO, humanizing Hepburn as more than the actress who played Eliza Doolittle.  She becomes the voice of reason and a much needed maternal force for the overwrought Sabby.

The chapters describing the messy relationship between Sabby and Tobias, the conscientious girl with the wild artistic boy, seem to follow a formula, but as the dinner party conversation escalates into the reasons behind why the guests have been chosen, the story shifts and offers some surprises, including who is alive or dead.  Serle offers unlikely hope at times for a change in the universe, but the reader cannot suspend belief that far, and Audrey pulls us back to reality.  In the end, peace and love prevail, and the dinner ends with the guests leaving and Sabrina facing her life as it is.

The story reminded me of a movie spun out of romance and denial, but the premise of the dinner party gave it just the right twist to keep me wanting to find out how it would end at midnight.   I was sorry when it was over.

Who would I invite to a dinner party?  I have no idea, but I like Sabrina’s idea of going to a fancy restaurant instead of cooking, and like Sabrina, maybe I’d learn something more about those who attended.  How about you?

Something in the Water

Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick – Something in the Water – has me wondering when she will produce it for viewing. Catherine Steadman’s book has all the elements of a great series – exotic settings, unreliable characters, and plot twists favoring the female leads.

I listened to Steadman’s British tones reading the book for Audible and it was hard to not keep going into the night. The “something in the water” was not what I had expected and the hints of espionage and financial fraud added to the suspense.

Erin, a documentary producer, and Mark, an out of work hedge fund expert, go off on their honeymoon to Bora Bora. Mark, an expert diver, convinces Erin to overcome her fears to experience the beautiful underwater world. His cavalier comments about the sharks in the water had me suspicious, but what they find leads the adventure into murky waters as each plot twist combines danger and a new life for both.

Great fun to listen to.

Summer Books – Not All Are Beach Reads

With the help of my friends, I found a list of easy books to capture my attention.

9780062562647  Carol Goodman, one of my favorite Gothic mystery writers, always adds a literary flavor to her stories as she maintains the suspense.  Her latest book – The Other Mother – had me reading through the night.  Daphne Marist and Laurel Hobbes, new mothers suffering from post-partum depression, meet in a support group and become best friends.  As Goodman develops the tale, I wasn’t sure which one had been murdered, if one had assumed the other’s identity, or even if there were really two women.  It’s a gripping page-turner and so much fun to read.

518SwKZGkdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Joanna Trollope’s modern version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is easier to follow if you know the original story, and Janeites may know Austen’s novels well enough to predict exactly what will happen next.  Whether or not you are familiar with the plot (from Austen’s book or the movie with Emma Thomspon), this updated story  will make you want to read to the happy ending of Trollope’s version.

contentAfter avoiding her books for so long, I finally read the first in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels – Still Life.  I enjoyed it more than I had expected. In Still Life, Penny establishes the setting in Three Pines. Her description of this fictional town near Montreal made me want to book a flight to find it.  Gamache is introduced as the brilliant investigator who speaks fluent French as well as Cambridge educated English, and he starts each investigation with a croissant and a coffee – a civilized approach to murder.

Next on my agenda are two easy reads: a paperback I found buried in my stash – To Capture What We Cannot Keep – a nineteenth century romance by Scottish writer Beatrice Colin – set in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower construction; and Mary Alice Munroe’s beach read – appropriately titled Beach House Reunion.

Waiting in the wings:

  1. William Trevor’s Last Stories
  2. Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunight
  3. Madeleine Miller’s Circe

A great start to the summer…