A President Who Reads

I like lists of recommended books whether from movie stars like Reese Witherspoon, industry leaders like Bill Gates, or from Presidents who read. Barack Obama has a list, with a nod to recently deceased author Toni Morrison – “You can’t go wrong by reading or re-reading the collected works of Toni Morrison

His reading list has one of my old favorites – Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” I wonder if he is just discovering this 2009 classic? Another a book is by an author local to me, Hope Jahren.  Although she has moved on from the University of Hawaii, her book “Lab Girl”prompted me to look for a Hawaiian tree mentioned in her book.  I wonder if she knows they have drastically trimmed its branches.

I will probably skip Chiang’s collection of short stories but will give Whitehead’s new book a try, since a friend has given it high marks. Hurakami is one of my favorite authors but I prefer his novels to short stories.  I suspect, but would rather not know what the internet is doing to our brains in Carr’s “The Shallows.

I’ve ordered Wilkinson’s American Spy from the library, described by Mick Herron in the New York Times as a “murder mystery that offers genuine social insight,” and purchased Tea Obreht’s Inland – I still remember Obreht’s first complicated novel, “The Tiger’s Wife.”

Here’s the list from a President who reads:

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson.
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu.
Maid by Stephanie Land.
Inland by Téa Obreht

Have you read any?

Hatchett Book Group has a website at https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/best-read-u-s-presidents/ with a list of Best-Read U.S. Presidents, ranging from John Adams to Barack Obama. Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Tom Clancy, Ralph Ellison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Doris Kearns Goodwin were some of the authors who made the list of Presidential favorites.

Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

shopping   If you remember Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, you will recognize the same venue – Baltimore – and a similar woman in crisis manipulating the suspense in her new novel – Lady in the Lake.  Lippman calls this a newspaper novel, using real sources for credibility, while imagining an attractive thirty-something woman’s climb to popular columnist, deftly using the bodies she finds along the way to further her career.

I can think of a number of actresses who might want to play the role of Madeline Schwarz; she’s attractive, smart, feisty, and sexy.  Once she decides to leave her comfortable twenty year marriage with Milton, nothing will stop her from pursuing her dream job of being a journalist.  After she and her friend discover the dead body of Tessie Fine, she finesses her correspondence with the accused murderer in jail to get a low-level position at the Star, Baltimore’s afternoon newspaper.  With this taste of success, she decides to pursue another death of a young girl, Cleo, found in a city park lake fountain and nicknamed the lady in the lake.  These two murders drive the plot, while Maddie’s struggles with herself and the system capture our attention.

Although Maddie is the main voice in the story, Lippman cleverly diverts to others who connect with her, giving short chapters to their voices: Maddie’s lover, the newsman who covers the police beat, a Baltimore Orioles baseball player after a game, the mother of the murder victim, a psychic, and others.  The most persistent voice is Cleo’s ghost, as she reacts to Maddie’s interviews with family and friends, and her message is consistent – stop prying.

Maddie appears needy and coldly ambitious. She manages to ruin a few lives as she uncovers the truth, and she pays for her mistakes in blood.  Lippman ties up the loose strings, answering all questions in the end, but not without a double twist I did not see coming.

Related Review:  Thrillers with Heat

I Needed a Plot

The list of books I’ve started to read is growing.  Each had something to offer but it took a while before I found one with a plot.

shopping I couldn’t explain my quiet laughter to my husband as I read Cathy Guisewite’s Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault.  How could he appreciate trying on a pair of jeans in a department store dressing room?  After all, her funny book is described as  “a look at the challenges of womanhood”; her audience is not men.  If you remember her wry comic strip “Cathy,” you will find yourself back in the world of hilarious insecurity and funny truth telling.  I hadn’t finished all the essays before returning the book to the library, but I’ve bought a copy and plan to open it randomly whenever I need a restorative boost.

UnknownMelinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift simultaneously shamed me into realizing all the good deeds I have not yet done and reassured me of what some women choose to do with their influence – and money. She teased my curiosity about her private life before and after Bill, but most of the chapters focus on the changing of societal goals she supports:  family planning, educating girls, women in the workplace, and women’s equality. Although she sprinkles her insights with anecdotes from their marriage, her main purpose seems to be to highlight their good works in third world countries and how it has improved lives.  Some of her deductions applied to women’s empowerment  in Africa may seem a little over simplified here:

“The process of changing from a male-dominated culture to a culture of gender equality must be supported by a majority of community members, including powerful men who come to understand that sharing power with women allows them to achieve goals they couldn’t achieve if they relied on their power along.  That itself serves as the greatest safeguard agains any overbearing bossiness from outsiders.”

Her note reminded me of a colleague who described her experience as the only woman administrator in a meeting to determine policy.  Although she had some good ideas, none of the men listened to them.  “Too bad,” she told me later, “I could have made them look good.”  The best she thought she might have accomplished was to have her ideas absconded by the men.

I skimmed over the last few chapters to the epilogue with her adage: “Love is what lifts us up.”  And then I remembered the epigraph at the beginning of the book – a quote from Marianne Williamson, guru and current candidate for President of the United States.  Maybe next I’ll look for Mackenzie Bezos’ book, or one by one of Warren Buffet’s wives?

thOcean Vuong has a conversation with his dead Vietnamese mother in a language she doesn’t speak or read, as he reflects on his life.  Stream of consciousness – no plot. Dwight Garner’s review for the New York Times noted “this novel picks up genuine force and has some of the mournful resonance of the Bruce Springsteen song ‘The River’ in its second half.” I stopped before I got there. Have you read it?

UnknownI needed a book with a plot, so I turned to the new Kate Atkinson book on my shelf – Big Sky.  I had not read her Jackson Brodie detective novels, but liked her other books.  Since detective novels are usually full of disparate characters, and the plot inevitably will lead to the solving of a murder or two, I thought reading this would be a mindless effort. But this is Kate Atkinson who requires the reader to pay attention, and who included subplots and tangents in her stories.  Big Sky was entertaining with secrets and lies, a sinister network of corruption, and a few asides to Brodie’s life in his thoughtful meanderings.  It has a complicated plot – not what I expected – but finally, a plot to try to follow.

Related Reviews:

Life After Life by Atkinson

Transcription

Summer of ’69

I missed my chance to meet Elin Hilderbrand in June on the Cape, but my friend sent me her book, with a personalized note from the author.

th    It took longer than I had anticipated to read Hilderbrand’s Summer of ’69, but maybe I really didn’t want to leave the Nantucket beaches, imagining myself eating lobster and ice cream, while walking the storied town. Following Hilderbrand’s New England family while they summered in Nantucket and Edgartown transported me.  The times seemed simpler, yet it was a year with its own excitement – the landing on the moon, Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident, and Woodstock are all featured in the story.

The women are the main features: Kate, her mother, and her three girls control the narrative, with peripheral husbands, one a scientist who is working on the moon landing and another who visits on weekends.  A son who is fighting in the Vietnam War ventures into the story on the sidelines through letters and flashbacks, and assorted boyfriends represent the good and bad of the times, with a nod to MeToo.  But Kate, Blair, Kirby, and Jessica are the stars – each offering perspective from a range of ages – from a blossoming thirteen year old to a rebellious free spirit, along with a soon to be mother of twins, and a distraught mother drinking away each day from worry about her son in the war  The determined grandmother has her moments as she vainly tries to control the lives of her daughter and granddaughters, but each has her own battle with herself, and in the end overcomes self-doubt and outside influences to have a happy ending.

A good beach read – even if you are not at the beach.

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Another delicious Gothic murder mystery by the author of The Woman in Cabin 10 and In A Dark Dark Wood, The Turn of the Key has Ruth Ware’s trademark twists and enough suspense to keep you reading through the night.  If you are familiar with Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (available for free from Project Gutenberg), you will know the similarity in the titles is no accident.

Both novels revolve around a caregiver of children – a governess in James’ 1890 story and a nanny in Ware’s.  Both involve ghosts – real or imagined – wreaking havoc on the surroundings, and both lead to the revelation of whether or not the caregiver is guilty of murder.  Both are scary.

Ware sets her story in an updated Victorian smart house with an automation system controlling lighting, climate, entertainment systems, and appliances and a sophisticated home security system, but she cleverly maintains the Gothic aura by keeping sections of the house, especially the creepy attic and the overgrown garden, in old-fashioned mode. Setting the story in the Scottish Highlands helps too.  Both James and Ware knew a threatening house must have a past, preferably with a murder or two to stir the possible malevolence instilled in its walls.  The death of a child figures prominently in both stories.

The protagonist in The Turn of the Key, the nanny, is writing a letter from prison to solicit the help of a well-known attorney.  As she tells her side of the story, the reader suspects she is an unreliable narrator, but Ware keeps the story off balance by creating circumstances showing she might be innocent.  The big reveal at the end of the story identifies the murder victim and the murderer – and it caught me by surprise.

Ruth Ware has been compared to Agatha Christie and Wilkie Collins (author of the Woman in White), but her modern Gothic tales amazingly update the eerie and mysterious, translating the thrills into today’s world.  A smart house with computer glitches can be scary.  She always delivers a good story with a surprise ending, and I can’t wait for her next one.

The Turn of the Key is due for publication in the United States on August 6th.