Books You Can Skip and A Few to Keep

Although my inclination is to not publish reviews of books I did not like, I seem to have collected quite a few lately.  Just because I did not find these books compelling does not mean you won’t.  The first is by an author I follow and usually anticipate reading, the second is a classic with history painfully repeating itself in the present, and the third is from LibraryReads –  the site with picks from library staff nationwide.

The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg

A group of women have regular meetings to reveal secrets and offer support to each other. Although reviewers have called the book uplifting, I found it disappointing and tiresome.  Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for angst and empathy.

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

This classic came to me by way of Libby, our library’s online service.  At first, I laughed at the ridiculous scenarios, until they came too close to current political reality.  Although Lewis was targeting the 1930s American government, I found a 2017 essay in the New York Times titled “Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump.”  Sadly, history does repeat itself.

Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson

Liar, liar, pants on fire!  In Wilson’s book ten year old twins can spontaneously burst into fire, burning everything around them but not themselves.  Lillian is summoned by her former class mate Madison to act as their nursemaid, while Madison prepares her husband to become the next Secretary of State. Although the story line is outlandish, Wilson’s symbolism is hard to miss, and the snarky comments on parenting and politics are contemporary.  I read the whole book, wishing it would burst into flames.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

If you read all sixteen chapters of Walker’s information dense material, it may actually put you to sleep – as you are reading it.  The author gives you his permission:  “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”  Go straight to the Appendix – “Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep” with reminders you have probably read elsewhere: stick to a sleep schedule, exercise, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals before bed, and one I often apply – “If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed more than twenty minutes, get up and do {something}.”

 

Keeper Books:

Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse by John Lithgow

Best Christmas present ever,  Lithgow’s satirical poems are hilarious.  The targets include anyone connected to the American President, from Rudy Giulianio to Betsy DeVos, with Lithgow’s line drawings adding to the fun. In her review for the New York Journal of Books, Judith Reveal notes: “A prolific writer and award-winning actor, Lithgow has penned a laugh-out-loud picture of American politics at its worst. And yet, through the laughter comes a sense of despair.”  

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

Cartoonist and illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s children’s book for adults is probably one you should give as a present to someone. When I read about it, I gifted it to myself, and now am reluctant to part with it. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Is your glass half empty or half full?” asked the mole. “I think I’m grateful to have a glass,” said the boy.  

My Favorite Books of 2019

What did you read this year?  Did you keep a list?  Do you remember the good ones?

It’s almost Christmas Eve, and I have a few books on my shelf I may finish before the end of the year, but I decided to stop to look back on the books I read in 2019, I found a few with stories still resonating with me, and others with plots I could not remember.

When this Sunday’s New York Times ran an article on the front page on Where the Crawdads Sing, i was reminded how much I liked that book.  Although I read the book in 2018, it is still at the top of the best seller list, and worth mentioning this year.  Alexandra Alter in her New York Times article details the book’s unlikely success, selling more print copies “than any other adult title this year – fiction or nonfiction…blowing away the combined print sales of new novels by John Grisham, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King.”

The book has it all – a murder mystery, a survival story, romance, a little useful information, and a recommendation from a famous movie star – but it also has a page-turning compelling narrative mixed with beautiful explanations of nature.  The author, after all, spent years in the wild herself studying lions and tigers and elephants.  Like many writers, Delia Owens is a loner and an observer.  She wrote this – her first work of fiction – approaching seventy years old and after divorcing her husband of forty years.  It’s never too late.

I reviewed the book when it was first published and immediately starting recommending it.  Here is my review:

https://nochargebookbunch.com/2018/08/22/book-club-bait-compare-a-novel-and-a-nonfiction-study-by-the-same-author/

If you haven’t read the book, it’s never too late.

Favorite books from 2019 I remember:

January:   The Overstory by Richard Power – I read this twice to not embarrass myself in a new book club, but I could probably read it again and find more I missed.  I hesitated to recommend the book because it was dense and difficult, but if you want a challenge on a cold winter night, give it a try.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/01/12/the-overstory/

February:  The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash – If you are a fan of John Lennon, you will enjoy this and possibly find it a good book club pick. Here is my review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/02/28/the-dakota-winters/

March:  The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – A Story for dog lovers.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/03/09/early-spring-fever/

April:  Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley – It’s complicated, but the characters are finely drawn with unexpected consequences in the Tessa Hadley style.  My review:https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/04/18/late-in-the-day/

In May and June, life got in the way, and I did not feel like reading or writing, but finally books lured me back.

July:   The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware – a friend gave me a preview copy of this thriller and it was just what I needed to get me back into reading. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/07/28/the-turn-of-the-key-by-ruth-ware/

August:    Lady in the Lake by Laura Lipman – a thriller with a surprise ending. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/08/22/lady-in-the-lake-by-laura-lippman/

September:   The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Patchett says she writes the same story each time she writes a book, but this one resonated with me because I grew up in her setting.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/09/25/the-dutch-girl/

October:  This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger – I agree with my friend about Krueger’s style being close to Kent Haruf.  An easy book and a promising book club pick.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/10/15/this-tender-land/

November: The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett – An old peaceful treasure set in Maine.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/11/08/historical-diversions-chevalier-and-orne/

December: The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper and Carlson Ellis – A picture book with a perennial message.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/12/21/the-shortest-day/

 

Please share your favorite books.  I am always looking for another good book to read.  

Happy Holidays – here’s hoping Santa brings lots of good books under your tree.

The Secrets We Kept

Dr. Zhivago is at the heart of Lara Prescott’s debut novel – The Secrets We Kept, as the action flips back and forth from Boris Pasternak and his lover Olga Ivinskaya in Russia to secretaries who are really American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives in Washington, D.C.  How could a romantic epic raise the ire of the Russian government, especially Kruschev, and tempt the CIA to smuggle copies into Russia to prompt its citizens to question their government?

Although Pasternak’s novel is a love story, but with political undertones, Prescott uses historical research to reveal the constraints the Russian author and others in the country endured.  When the book is banned in Russia but published in Italy, and eventually everywhere in the world but in Russia, Olga, who is not only Pasternak’s muse and mistress but also his literary agent is sent to a Russian prison and he is under constant surveillance. Although I knew the story drawn from Pasternak’s life experience – the main character who does not leave his wife, while passionately connected to his beautiful mistress, I did not know the intrigue behind publishing the book in Italy and smuggling it back into Russia for “soft propaganda warfare – using art, music, and literature . . . to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought.”   The Secrets We Kept proved educational as well as informative.

I found the East section of the book describing the lives and loves in Russia more compelling than the West with its secret missions and nebulous relationships, but the idea “that literature could change the course of history” was enticing and prompted me to find the book once banned in Russia – not that long ago.  Like many famous Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago has been adapted to film, and I vaguely remember watching the snowy scenes with beautiful Julie Christie and handsome Omar Sheriff, but I had never read the book. In fact, I may have only experienced great Russian novels late at night through the classic movie channel – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Sea Gull. Pasternak was a poet first and his words were acclaimed as powerful as well as expressive when the Nobel Prize Committee cited him “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” This book is available for free from the Gutenberg Press, and it seems a good place to initiate my reading of Russian literature.

As the book flips back and forth from East (Russia) and West (CIA), the narrator shifts to different characters and it’s not always clear who is talking.  The Western section focuses on two secretary/agents and their intersecting personal lives, leading to an ambiguous ending, but the historical facts shine in the Eastern section.  Of course, like its Russian counterpart – the Secrets We Kept has been optioned for a movie but the book would make for an interesting book club discussion.

The Shortest Day

Perhaps you won’t notice but the sun will appear later and disappear earlier today. The winter solstice on December 21st is the shortest day of the year. In a short poem Newbery Medal winner Susan Cooper explains the magic of the day in a picture book with illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis.

The Shortest Day, written for a theatrical production by the Christmas Revels based at Harvard University’s annual celebration and performed in nine cities across America, may be a children’s picture book but its message of hope and peace is for everyone. Cooper explains at the end of the book how “this celebration of the light (is) a symbol of continuing life” across all religious observances from Christmas to Chanukah and many other faiths.

She ends the poem with…

“This shortest day

As promise wakens in the sleeping land.

They carol, feast, give thanks,

And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.

And so do we, here, now,

This year, and every year.

Welcome Yule!    

The Fountains of Silence

In The Fountains of Silence, Ruta Sepetys unpeals the layers of horror inside Francisco Franco’s Spain.  His dictatorship lasted over 30 years, while Europe turned a blind eye and the United States made deals to profit itself, often at the expense of Spain’s poorer citizens.  Within the context of a Spanish family still suffering the consequences of the 1930’s Civil War in 1950, and a young American blissfully ignorant in his bubble of wealth and privilege, Sepetys writes a story with sound historical notes.

Photography and romance wield strong influences on the young hero, eighteen year old Daniel Matheson, when he returns to Madrid to visit his mother’s homeland with his Texas oil baron father.  The newly constructed Hilton creates a backdrop for privileged American businessmen and their families, while the underbelly of the building keeps the secrets of the impoverished locals who serve as maids and bellboys.  Daniel falls for Ana, the hotel maid assigned to his family, and through her discovers the hidden world of Franco’s Spain.

Sepetys periodically inserts letters and speeches with quotes from real sources, providing a provocative perspective on how the American government and capitalist leaders forgave fascism to do business with Franco’s regime. The well researched details brought Franco’s Spain and its people to life, while reflecting greed, political corruption, and the determination to overcome them.

At the heart of the story is an ongoing mystery. Babies are separated from their parents at birth and redistributed as orphans to be adopted by more “desirable” families.  Daniel becomes inadvertently involved in the intrigue and tries to use his photojournalism to stem the corruption before he returns to Texas, but without success.

The ending jumps to twenty years later, with Franco dead and  Daniel returning to Spain with his younger sister.  The finale is both romantic and nostalgic, with hopes for a promising future for both the characters and the country finally resurrected from years of oppression.

This was a time and place I knew little about, and I found it an easy way to learn history, while enjoying a love story with a happy ending.