Suggestions for Next Year’s Book Club

unknownLooking forward to next year, some books clubs have already finalized their monthly reading list. Others are having parties to discuss possibilites, or desperately asking their members to host a book – any book.  As I reviewed the books I’ve read in 2017, I thought about those I would be willing to reread for a discussion, and which would offer some value for expanding knowledge, nudging introspection, or just be fun to revisit.

 

With its inherent possibilities for comparison to what really happened, historical fiction is strong on my list.  Requiring the host to research (but google is so easy), the fictionalized lives imagined by the author compared to facts recorded in history could make for a lively discussion.  Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life adds the possibility of comparison to the popular PBS series “Call the Midwife,” based on its own memoir.   Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate opens a hornet’s nest but also addresses foster care.  News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post Civil War Texas and nominated for the 2016 National Book Award, with its “True Grit” flavor, is an easy and direct tale of a young girl and her gritty escort but with surprising twists.  All four books are easy to follow and carry the weight of information worth knowing.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is another of my favorites based on historical fact and is well worth reading, but may be too ambitious for some book clubbers (there – I’ve thrown down the challenge).

Meeting new authors, especially if the book is short, a little frivolous, but with a smattering of philosophy, is always good for mixing up the list.  Joanna Trollope, an author new to me but who many already have read, has a new book – City of Friends.  Lisa Allardice describes Trollope’s books as “tales of quiet anguish and adultery among the azaleas; Trollope created the original desperate housewives.” Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will be welcomed by readers who enjoyed The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.  Rooney adds a dash of New York City as she reminisces on her New Year’s Eve walk through the city.

Not a big fan of nonfiction, I still feel compelled to include one on my list.  Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies offers enough scientific inquiry with relatable anecdotes to  be readable.  The National Book Awards recently published their longlist for best nonfiction, but they seem too political for me.  You can decide for yourself – National Book Awards nominees for Nonfiction.  I have yet to read Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris, but I expect to like it – more a memoir, but could fit the nonfiction category.

When bestsellers are not in the library system, classics are usually available, and this year I reread Edna Ferber’s So Big – with an amazingly contemporary message.  Wallace Stegner’s books Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose should be required reading for everyone, but this year I read one of his earlier, shorter books – Remembering Laughter – a good book to start a discussion of this famous author.

For my final two, I nominate a coming of age story – Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, and a story about an abandoned child – Leaving Lucy Pear.  

My list has 11 books, one month off the year for the annual luncheon or decision-making party.  If you click on the title, you will be directed to my book review.  What books are on your book club list for next year?  What books would you recommend?

MY LIST:

  1. My Notorious Life
  2. Before We Were Yours
  3. News of the World
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo
  5. City of Friends  
  6. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
  7. Why Time Flies
  8. So Big
  9. Remembering Laughter
  10. Ordinary Grace
  11. Leaving Lucy Pear

Books from 2016:

I have not included books from earlier years, but, if not yet discussed, I would point to:

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Man Booker Shortlist

Although I have only read two books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist, I would read them again.  Both were books I started to listen to on audible and then switched by the first one hundred pages to reading online, to better savor the nuances.  George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo was a complicated chorus of voices accompanying Abraham Lincoln as he fought to make peace not only with his young son’s death but also a battered nation during the Civil War.  Autumn was Ali Smith’s gentle nod to the battering of circumstances (Brexit) and the relationship of time to life. Both books have a lot to say about personal perspective and national angst.  Both are award winning novels and well deserve to be on the shortlist.

The others on the list now have my attention; Sewall Chan quickly summarized each for the New York Times:

  • Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1” – the story of a young American, Ferguson, across much of the 20th century, in four different versions. Events like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement “reverberate around and through what’s happening in Ferguson’s life.”
  • Fridlund’s debut novel, “History of Wolves” about a wild adolescent, Linda, who lives on a commune in the Midwest and is changed by the arrival of a young family.
  • Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West,” about a couple uprooted by turmoil, in an unnamed city swollen by the arrival of refugees.
  • Fiona Mozley’sdebut novel, “Elmut,” about an English child’s struggle to survive and his memories of Daddy, a moody, bare-knuckle fighter who defies rural social norms.

Fridlund’s story catches my interest, but I’m not sure I will read the others.  Have you?

Review:    Lincoln in the Bardo

 

 

The Burning Girl

Messud_final_front.indd   In her interview of Claire Messud for the New York Times, Ruth Franklin identified the writer as the “one of the foremost chroniclers of women’s hidden appetites.”  Just as in her slow building tale of shocking exposure in The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud uses her character’s yearning as a focal point,  and turns tedium into introspective terror in The Burning Girl.

This story involves the relationship between two girls – best friends as they are growing up – until they are not.  In the interview Messud mentions her inspiration for her premise, the unraveling of a friendship not long after her family moved from Toronto to Sydney.  “I’m not talking to you,” a close friend told her one day.  “Why?” Messud asked.  “You know why,” the girl replied.

In the novel, the narrator, Julia, notes “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point.”  It happened to me, and I saw it happen to one of my daughters.  Messud told the interviewer she viewed “the ending of a friendship as a universal rite of passage,” and she effectively uses the disconnect between Julia and Cassie in her novel.

More than the estrangement of the two friends is Messud’s handling of their differences that eventually causes them to see each other differently.  “As if I’d been holding an apple and thinking it was a tennis ball…”  As young girls, Julia and Cassie play and have adventures.  By middle school, Julia is clearly destined for a better life.  Her grades are better, she is tapped for the speech team, her parents send her to drama camp in the summer.  Cassie, whose single parent works late hours as a hospice nurse, finds make-up and boyfriends, works summer jobs, and is disinterested in making the grade in school.  When her mother finds a boyfriend who moves into their house, her life changes dramatically.

Their friendship suffers and Cassie finds a new best friend.  Her unhappy home life leads her to look for her real father, only a name to her, declared dead by her mother.  She finds his name on the internet and decides to confront him – another piece from Messud’s real life.  Messud cites a friend who did just that with dire consequences.  When Cassie disappears, Julia knows where to find her when she remembers their old childhood secret haunts, but the discovery is not welcomed.

Just as in the ending of The Woman Upstairs, the ending of The Burning Girl leaves the reader with more to think about than a tidy conclusion.  Julia’s life seems to be on a trajectory for success, but Cassie’s life is in question.  What will happen to her?  Will she continue to want more for her life or be beaten down by circumstances? In her interview, Messud says her work offers space for women to be “appetitive,” to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more…”sometimes…they manage to find ways to get what they want.”

In the interview Messud cites her favorite British fairy tale – “Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep.”  In the story, Elsie saves the day by skipping with a magic rope – as an old woman, she’s still skipping.  Maybe Cassie will have that – maybe we’ll all have that magic – to keep skipping, no matter what bumps come along in life…and for young girls – that burning fire in the belly to want more.

Review:  The Woman Upstairs

Interview with Claire Messud

 

 

The Excellent Lombards

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I may have missed Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. Patchett recommended the book as “the book Hamilton was born to write.” Like Patchett’s Commonwealth, The Excellent Lombards focuses on a family, and has some biographical references from its author. Coincidentally, both books also have a character named Frances.

Since Hamilton tells this coming of age story through the voice of twelve year old Mary Frances Lombard living with her family on a small Wisconsin apple and sheep farm at the end of the twentieth century, the rhythm of the narrative is hard to follow at first. Ownership of the farm lands has been passed down through generations and is now shared by Jim Lombard, Frankie’s father, his cousin Sherwood, and an elderly aunt May Hill. Everyone from old May Hill to the children, Frankie and her brother, William, work the farm, except Nellie, Frankie’s mother who is the town librarian.

Frankie is determined to stay on the farm forever, imagining a long life there with her brother, but the small farm struggle against land development and innovative crops, as well as inner family rivalries, threaten her dream. Change is hard, especially when you don’t want to grow up.

Hamilton, of course, has a message for the reader through tense moments at town hall meetings or around the dinner table, but the novel’s humor, cleverly flowing through Frankie, kept my attention – from her pushing the library carts through the halls in a synchronized dance routine to being locked in the old lady’s bedroom while she was sharpening her spying skills.  Frankie will go to extremes to keep everyone happy, purposely losing the geography bee to her younger lispy cousin to make her feel better.

Hamilton touches on historic moments such as the terrorist attack on the New York City Towers, but only as placements in time. The real terror is the developing history noone can stop. The story ends with Frankie facing her own possibilities, opportunities, and obstacles – some seem inevitable. With grace and wit, Hamilton delivers her perspective on the difficulty of letting go.

Man Booker Time – How Many Have You Read?

images-2The annual  Man Booker Longlist was announced today with five books from the United States –  two books I’ve read, one I do not plan to read, and two with possibilities.

Here is the list – have you read any?

from the United States:

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – my review
  • Autumn by Ali Smith – a lovely, sometimes humorous, testament to friendship across generations and time, the first in a four part series (think seasons)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead  – Although I have not read Whitehead’s imagined rail system, my vote for a better examination of the same subject is Yaa Gaasi’s historical fiction Homegoing!
  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Aster – “What If” books have become popular with treatments from Kate Atkinson, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Peter Howitt, and others.  Auster’s book promises to be easier to follow than most, with chronological exploration of possible lives for Archie.  It’s on my to-read list.
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fredlund –  A strange tale of a teenage babysitter in Minnesota confronting the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do.  Sounds like an intriguing 288 pages.

The rest of the list includes:

  • Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
  • Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley
  • The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The shortlist of six books is announced in September – not much time to catch up on reading.