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Once again our services were purchased for an evening. (That is not as sexy as it sounds.) To explain, our donation to the annual Norwich Women's Club Gala Auction means that once a year we get to visit a local book club, share a great meal, and talk about what books we have read. We focus on books that we believe would make good picks for their book club to read during the upcoming year. We always have a blast; and, we hope we are helpful to the book club who "wins" us each year.
As a result, each year, Book Jam readers get to see what we recommended during that annual visit. Today is that day. We hope our picks and reviews help grow your "to be read" lists as well.
Normal People by Sally Rooney (2019). One of the best books from 2019. Ms. Rooney is hailed as one of the best voices of her generation. This book shows why. Full of psychological insight, Normal People is the most artful and literary of all of the titles I will review for this, our 2019 Adult Summer Campers post. This subtle work threads readers into the lives of two young Irish teens, Connell and Marianne. They meet while in high school where he is a popular athlete and she is a brainy outcast. They share a connection that they keep secret even as their paths cross again as students at Trinity College in Dublin. It is tender. It is disturbing. It is real. To quote one reviewer, this book explores “what it means to be in love today.” Another describes it as being about “the transformative power of relationships.” This isn’t an easy read but is ultimately a beautiful and impactful one. Sally Rooney is an author to watch - and to admire. ~ Lisa Cadow (Note: We previously reviewed Ms. Rooney's Conversations with Friends in our "Honoring the Irish on St. Patrick's Day" post.)
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Kwan (2019). Hardcover Searching for Sylvia Lee by Kwon (2019) - While the blurbs describe this as a mystery/thriller, I'd say this is a book about secrets and how they infect families - even if keeping them is well-intentioned. I loved this book - so far it is my recommendation for summer 2019. ~ Lisa Cadow (and Lisa Christie)
The Overstory by Richard Powers (2019). As the IndieNEXT list states, "I can’t stop thinking about this book! A sprawling, literary eco-epic, The Overstory is the kind of novel that changes people. It’s a riveting call to arms and a bitter indictment of our wasteful culture. More than that, it’s an incredibly human story with a huge cast of richly imagined characters that you’ll never forget. With writing that is dense but accessible, Powers is a master at intersecting science, art, and spirituality without sacrificing plot. I pity the next customer who comes into our store looking for ‘a book about trees’ because Powers has given me a lot to talk about.”. I agree. ~ Lisa Cadow
Akin by Emma Donoghue (2019) -- I LOVED the relationship between the great uncle and nephew in this novel. Noah, the great uncle - a retired chemistry professor, still speaks to his dead wife - an award-winning chemist, in his head whenever his life gets stirred. And the delivery by a social worker of his unknown great nephew, 11-year-old Michael, a boy whose father is dead from an overdose and mother is in jail for dealing, stirs things up. As the novel begins, Noah is days away from both his 80th birthday and a return to his birthplace - Nice, something he had avoided for 75 years for a variety of reasons unveiled as the book progresses. Rather than change his plans, he brings Michael along. With Michael's help, Noah discovers and unravels the mystery behind his mother's life in Nice during WWI. And while they bicker about food and sleep and screen time and walking too much, they learn to appreciate each other and that sometimes people have to make tough choices for the ones they love. ~ Lisa Christie
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (2019) - A tale of one slave's journey from Jamaica to London where she waits her fate after being accused of killing her masters. Frannie lives a life of twists and turns and her story unfolds as a "confession" to her lawyer so he has something, anything he can use to help her. A haunting tale that I found myself underlining as I read and thought about white privilege today. Her tale will stay with me for awhile. ~ Lisa Christie
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019) - One of the most devastating and beautiful books I have read in a long time. I knew I was in trouble when I started silently crying at the unfairness of the arrest of Elwood, the first boy described in this novel. I knew I was in trouble knowing the stories in this book are based on true stories of a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years. So like Millie in the final chapters, I took breaks from learning about what happened to Elwood and Turner (in my case by reading magazine articles and children's books). Please don't let this deter you from picking this novel up and reading the tales of the Nickel Boys - boys sent to a fictional juvenile reformatory in the Jim Crow South. ~ Lisa Christie
The Travelers by Regina Porter (2019) - One of the best books I have read this year. A clever, character-filled saga of two families and the people intertwined in their lives. Their stories leap backwards and forwards over 50 years pulling you along with them to Vietnam, Berlin, New York, New Hampshire, and The American South. Ms. Porter's characters, humor, and prose will stick with me for a long time. (I also thank her for the cast of characters listed in the opening pages; I referred to it more often than I'd like to admit.) This is just gorgeously written and full of characters you enjoy spending time with and getting to know. ENJOY! ~ Lisa Christie
Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera (2019) - Three women in the Deep South just prior to the Great Depression are connected in unexpected ways. In the opening pages, Gertrude, makes a dramatic choice to save her four daughters from starvation and her abusive husband. We then meet Retta, a first-generation freed slave, employed by the Coles the prominent family who owned her ancestors. As the story continues, things aren't as clear cut as they seem when Cole family matriarch Annie discovers the terrible reason her family has been ripped apart. All three must learn to trust their instincts as they navigate harsh circumstances. A pitch-perfect story of redemption and hope and a reminder that facing unthinkable truths sets you free. Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler attests, "Call Your Daughter Home is an exhilarating and important book." ~ Lisa Christie
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2019). As our friend Carin Pratt stated in her review, "It's no surprise that Where the Crawdads Sing is infused with the flora and fauna of the North Carolina coastland where it's set, as Owens is a wildlife scientist renowned for her nonfiction books about Africa. The story of the "marsh girl" abandoned by her family and left to eke out a living from the marsh that surrounds her, is told in lyrical, evocative prose. It is a coming of age story, a love story, a murder mystery and a study of the effect of isolation on a young soul, all in one! A pretty remarkable (fiction) debut." ~ Lisa Cadow (and Lisa Christie)
Ask Again Yes by Kate (2019) - This is an amazing saga of two families living side by side in Queens. Combined with the news, it was a bit intense -- I had to put it down and read a kids book and that enabled me to finish it in one fell swoop. If you are in the mood for a well-written saga about life and choices and love and friendship and all the things (addiction, mental health, poor choices) that can enhance or interfere with those things - this book is for you. ~ Lisa Cadow
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (2017). As a woman of a certain age facing a life with teenaged sons and trying to figure out what marriage after 20 years looks like, I realize I have forgotten how fraught and exciting and lonely life as a college student can be. This intense novel by Ireland's Sally Rooney reminded me in a delightful way. Frances a striving poet and her performance artist partner / lover Bobbi are befriended by An older couple. Complications ensue, including the perhaps predictable affairs and strivings for more for everyone. I read it in one long sitting. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
There There by Tommy Orange (2018, paperback 2019) - The writing in Tommy Orange's debut novel is forceful and builds a percussive momentum as the story progresses, perhaps not unlike the beat of a drum at a Native American Powwow. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the author himself majored in sound engineering as an undergraduate before working in a bookstore and falling in love with reading and writing. There There explores identity and sense of place, telling the story of twelve characters, mostly urban Native Americans, all living in Oakland, California. Their lives are braided together though it is not until the end, at the Oakland Powwow, that the reader understands just how. From the outset, it is clear that things won't end well. However, the beauty of the prose, the poignant stories of the individuals it tells, and the insights and honesty it offers into the Native American experience compel one to read to the painful, shocking finish. Orange's work has received a great deal of publicity since it was published in 2018. Margaret Atwood and Pam Houston have both sung its praises. The New York Times named it one if the "10 Best books of the Year" in 2018. It was even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. These kinds of reviews can be off-putting to the casual reader, the hype overwhelming, the literariness of it all stopping one before the first page can even be turned. Don't let this get in the way of reading such an important and accessible book. For me it was one of those "shape shifters," a work that helped me to understand our culture and history in a different, richer (though not easier or more comfortable) way. ~ Lisa Cadow
News of the World by Paulette Giles (2016). Our friend Sara at the Norwich Bookstore first brought this to our attention. As she stated, "This is a marvelous story based on the real-life of a former war veteran, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who made his living reading world news to the inhabitants of small towns and wilderness outposts throughout North Texas. “When they read his handbills, men abandoned saloons, they ran through the rain from their firelit homes, they left their cattle circled and bedded beside the flooding Red to hear the news of the distant world”. I was rapt with the thought of those readings. As if this wasn’t adventure enough, Kidd agrees to return a feral 10 year old girl to her relatives 400 miles across the state, braving weather, highwaymen, Indians and the rough terrain that is Texas. ‘Cho-henna” witnessed the brutal murder of her family 4 years earlier and then was whisked away, absorbed into the Kiowa tribe. This is a complex, layered story of post-war history and the human heart. There are moments of breathtaking suspense and heartbreak, and a happy and credible ending!" We thank her. ~ Lisa Cadow
Outline by Rachel Cusk - Greece and play and work and fun! This was chosen as one of fifteen remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write in the 21st century by the book critics of The New York Times. For those in need of some plot info, Outline is a novel in ten conversations. It follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during a hot summer in Athens. She leads her students in storytelling exercises. She meets other visiting writers for dinner. She goes swimming with her neighbor from the plane. The people she encounters speak about their fantasies, anxieties, theories, and longings. Through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn. ~ Lisa Cadow (Seconded by Lisa Christie)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017). IndieNEXT among others named this as a best book of 2017. "Min Jin Lee has given us a treasure. Pachinko is one of those rare novels that changes your perception of history. The characters are complex and fascinating, and the setting is so beautifully drawn that I felt I was right there with them in Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Lee illuminates the history of Koreans during and after World War II, but, more than that, she brings us a haunting yet beautiful story of family, devotion, lies, politics, and, of course, the game of pachinko.”~ Lisa Cadow
Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018). Our friend Carin Pratt once again brought a great book to our attention with this recommendation. "Pat Barker writes about the cost of war better than just about anybody. (Her WW1 Regeneration Trilogy is a classic.) In Silence of the Girls, she retells the story of the Trojan War, mostly from the point of view of Briseis, a queen who becomes Achille's slave and concubine after he kills most of her family and obliterates her town. All the Iliad characters are here and wonderfully wrought -- Achilles, driven mad by bloodlust and desire for revenge, sorrowful Priam who just wants his beloved son's body, Achilles' loyal childhood friend Patroclus. But this story really belongs to the women -- the "spoils" of war, and how they deal with their changes in fortune. This is a powerful, visceral, anti-war novel." ~ Lisa Cadow
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019) - I feel as if Jane Austen and Ms. Brodesser-Akner would have enjoyed sharing a cup of tea and observations about society; and that we all would have benefitted from the novels emerging from their discussions. Ms. Brodesser-Akner takes a topic I really, really did not want to read about - divorce and middle-aged dating - and writes so well I ended up completing every page. Her writing is bracing; her plot is relatable; and her humor is lovely. ~ Lisa Christie
State of the Union by Nick Hornsby (2019) - Told over conversations before couples therapy, this short novel looks at how a marriage falls apart and what people will do to fix it. ~ Lisa Cadow (and Lisa Christie)
The Gifted School by Bruce Holinsger (2019) - This is one of those books that might be easy to read and feel better about your life - "I would never do that". "Aren't these people insane?"Or to be cynical about -- "wow what a coincidence that this novel is released as the college admissions scandal unfolds in the courts. How opportunistic". Or to dismiss as a "beach read". And while it is hard to hang your hat on any of the characters and want them to succeed or relate to their extreme circumstances, Mr. Holsinger somehow still makes them relatable and I kept reading. I picked this up as it seemed timely and I was looking for a relatively easy to digest quick read -- basically a "beach read". This novel (Mr. Holsinger's - a University of Virginia professor - first) about what happens when a public school system in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado creates a school for "gifted children". Basically it is the current college admission scandal for K-12 students. The story unfolds through the eyes of four families in an elite town and one family from a town far enough away to be affordable and allow them to clean the houses of families in the elite town. As you can guess before you even open to page one, people behave badly, long-standing friendships are severed, and secrets are revealed. For me, all that may be beside the point, because what I received in this "beach read" is a book that has me thinking about how while I would like to think I would not go to the extremes of the characters in this book to help my children, I drive a barely three year old car with 62,000 miles on it due to hockey, soccer, baseball, and football carpools and games. I have gone to a teacher / principal once or twice to advocate on my sons' behalf. So I probably shouldn't throw too many stones before acknowledging my own glass house. Is it the best book I have ever read? NO. Does it have me reflecting on my life and the life of those in this lovely area I call home? Yes. That is a pretty good review for a "beach book". Plus, it will give your book club plenty to talk about. ~ Lisa Christie
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017) – A fascinating look at Lincoln after his beloved son Willie dies and the USA is burning down all around him due to the Civil War. Told in a completely uniquely gorgeous style and premise – actual historical documents describing this time and the souls of the dead interred with Willie give voice and color to the narrative. Challenging to read; fascinating to think about. (Winner of the Man Booker Prize, and an IndieNext pick.) ~ Lisa Christie
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) – I am late to the party over this National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize winning novel. But, this tale of Cora and her life as a slave will capture your imagination and give you many reason to pause and think about race relations today. Please pick it up if you have not already. (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.) ~ Lisa Christie
Brooklyn by Com Toibin (2015) As The New York Times said in its review of Toibin's novel, "Colm Toibin, born, like Eilis (the main character in Brooklyn), in Enniscorthy, (Ireland) is an expert, patient fisherman of submerged emotions. His characters and plots vary widely... In Brooklyn, Colm Toibin quietly, modestly shows how place can assert itself, enfolding the visitor, staking its claim." All of this makes a great novel for rich book club discussions. ~ Lisa Cadow
We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee (2017) – Honestly, I can’t review this book more accurately than indie bookstore reviewers did, so I am totally copying their review here. I will say, I think this book – once I actually incorporate some of its advice – may change my life. So from the indie bookstores’ review, “today most of us communicate from behind electronic screens, and studies show that Americans feel less connected and more divided than ever before. The blame for some of this disconnect can be attributed to our political landscape, but the erosion of our conversational skills as a society lies with us as individuals. And the only way forward, says Headlee, is to start talking to each other. In We Need to Talk, she outlines the strategies that have made her a better conversationalist—and offers simple tools that can improve anyone’s communication.” I add this book here to help us all have great conversations during and through the 2020 elections, and because I think we all could use some help having better conversations. ~ Lisa Christie
An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn (2017). This was a New York Times/PBS NewsHour Book Club Pick, but we did not know that when we picked it for this post. I loved it for its look at Homer's Odyssey and for its exploration of the relationship between a father and son when the father decides to take his son's undergraduate Odyssey seminar at Bard College. ~ Lisa Cadow
Who Killed My Father by Edouard Louis (2019). This slim volume packs a punch as the author rips into France's neglect of the working class (as seen during strikes earlier this year). He does this by chronicaling his visit to his childhood home to visit his ailing father. Tough, but full of compassion and things to think and talk about. ~ Lisa Cadow
Black is the Body by Emily Bernard (2019) - A collection of very personal essays about being Black in the predominantly white spaces of Vermont. Insightful, vulnerable, and helpful. While Professor Bernard does not claim to speak for every person of color in a white space, her reflections could be considered a must-read for anyone wishing to gain greater understanding of what living in such a white space is like for people of color. ~ Lisa Christie
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb (2019) -- I loved every page of this rather long memoir of life as a therapist and someone in therapy. Ms. Gottlieb's honesty about her own mental health needs -- recovery from the apparently unexpected abandonment by her fiance - intertwined with tales of her clients really allows you to look at your own mental health and what can be done to help (even if you think you are fine). ~ Lisa Cadow (Seconded by Lisa Christie)
Motherhood by Shelia Heti (2019 paperback) - Canadian author Sheila Heti is all at once a philosopher, a poet, a radical self-inquisitor, and a cultural explorer. Her introspective writing style pulls readers into her active mind, taking them on an intellectual and emotional journey to deeply examine every facet of an issue alongside her, which in this case is the loaded subject of motherhood. To be or not to be? The nameless narrator in this, her second autobiographical novel, is a woman in her late 30's. She has found a supportive mate named Miles and we meet her as she is struggling to decide whether being a mother is right for her. Reading this book is like being on a reproductive roller coaster ride strapped into the unsteady seat next to Heti: her momentary leanings, ambivalence, and vertigo induced by the idea of parenting shifting from one page to the next. Reading this, I felt torn and simultaneously exposed, pushed to re-examine with a fresh lens my own (good for me) choice to have children (twenty plus years ago), my own ongoing confusion about this role and society's expectations, my complacency being on the other side of this decision making, and my assumptions about the younger women around me. To say that Heti is a talented writer would be like saying like Georgia O'Keeffe was a talented artist. There is a quality to her genius that allows her, like O'Keeffe, to gracefully explore internal as well as external landscapes, raw femininity, gender, power, and the many colors of emotion. The question Heti poses in this work is not new, and is, in fact, more important than her ultimate answer to it, which consistently eludes her. As she reflects, "Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself - it is the greatest secret I keep from myself." This book is recommended for all of us surrounded by people making reproductive decisions, for those pondering the magnitude of motherhood, or simply for those with mothers and sisters on Mother's Day- and on every day of the year. A New York Times Notable Book of 2018. ~Lisa Cadow
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) – Funny, sad, and amazingly moving memoir about growing up a biracial child in South Africa during and just after Apartheid. Mr. Noah is insightful and honest as he dissects his life and his choices and the choices that were made for him. Each chapter begins with an overview of life in South Africa that relates to the subsequent story from his own life. (Named on the best books of the year by NPR, New York Times, Esquire, Booklist.) ~ Lisa Christie and Lisa Cadow
Educated by Tara Westover (2018). Educated, is one of the most affecting – if not the most affecting – memoirs of 2018 . In many ways this story is about author Tara Westover’s educational journey from her family’s rural homestead in Idaho where she received no formal tutelage, worked in the junkyard on their property, while only barely passing the GRE to matriculate to Brigham and Young. It concludes when she earns her PhD from Cambridge University in England. It is an astounding and moving narrative which often leaves the reader shaking her head in bewilderment. But when the last page is turned, this book is even more importantly about something that lies beyond formal learning and the ivory tower. It is about standing up for one’s self, making sense of reality, and finally harnessing the strength to say “This is my truth.”Many readers have observed that this book reminds them of Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls‘ affecting and best-selling memoir. This makes sense as they are both books about surviving and succeeding professionally unusual childhoods. And yet Westover’s experience deserves to stand alone. It’s that good. It offers a window into the Mormon experience, life in the West, and also addresses the the difficult subject of domestic abuse. Highly recommended and an excellent choice for book groups. ~Lisa Cadow
August Snow and Lives Laid Away by Stephen Mack Jones (2019) - I am a HUGE fan of Mr. Jones's debut August Snow. So I was excited to see this new mystery brings August Snow, a superbly wrought ex-police officer turned “fixer” - of neighborhoods, of people and of mysteries - back. I was even more thrilled that I liked this second in what I hope is a long series. Detroit itself is a character in both, with its gentrification front and center. ~ Lisa Christie
Some Graphic Truths
Graphic novels and non-fiction books are growing in popularity and importance. We want to use this post to honor two excellent graphic books we were lucky enough to hear about. We hope you enjoy our reviews and that they lead you to these two books, and then to many others in this genre.
And perhaps this post will even lead you to learn more about The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) located in nearby White River Junction, Vermont. They are creatively educating the next generation of graphic novelists. Check out the CCS website for upcoming events, classes, and degree programs.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier (2019): It is no secret many people in America experience anxiety and that these feelings are something that children in our society are struggling with more and more. In Ms. Telgemeier's fifth graphic novel aimed at the elementary and middle school set, she addresses this important topic in an accessible way. Her drawings are colorful (with friendly hues of purple, green, red and tilde) and they pull readers quickly into a story about fourth grader Riana who is increasingly experiencing puzzling stomach issues and worry about school. This character's experiences are based heavily on Ms. Telgemeier's own.
I immediately wanted to read this book after seeing Scott Stossel's recent review of it in The New York Times. He was so moved by this graphic novel hat he brought a copy of it to his own therapy session. He wanted to show it to his own counselor as he felt that it more accurately captured what it was like to experience a panic attack that almost anything he had ever read (including Freud, Brene Brown and Tara Brach). I can understand why he was so affected by this work.
Guts does an excellent job of de-stigmatizing counseling. Raina's therapist respects her autonomy and welfare while working in a respectful partnership with her parents. Guts also subtly and non-judgmentally explores issues such as sibling rivalry, germ-phobia, puberty, mean girls, and fragile adolescent friendships.
From what I hear, copies of Guts are selling as quickly as they are re-shelved at the Norwich Bookstore. Ms. Telgemeier also has a devoted following young readers at our local library. When she holds a reading, supposedly she draws upwards of 1,000 fans. I am so grateful to have been introduced to her work. It is a valuable resource for people of all ages. ~ Lisa Cadow
This Is What Democracy Looks Like by Dan Nott, with help from James Sturm, Michelle Ollie and the Center for Cartoon Studies (2019): With this second review, we are leaping from traumas of the body to democracy. Hmmm, we will try not to think too hard about what this transition says about our world today. A quick note, in reviewing this book, we are straying a bit and linking directly to the authors at the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), not an indie bookstore. We link that way because currently CCS is the best way to find this book. We review this book now, because we believe is important to immediately spread the word about this important comic that CCS created to help all of us be better informed participants in our democracy.
Designed for teens, using colorful illustrations and on-point language, This Is What Democracy Looks Like describes what democracy is and how it is supposed to work. This Is What Democracy Looks Like helps provide critical context and information to move readers beyond politicians' personalities and specific election cycles concerns. And since we are in the midst of a Presidential election cycle, with so much attention is focused on personalities of the politicians and the drama of their words and deeds and mis-steps, this book is a breath of fresh air. Bonus -- CCS also created a free downloadable teacher's guide, linked to the National Council for the Social Studies's common core state standards, for those who works with our teens.
According to CCS, the book's goal is to help students be empowered, informed, and civic minded. Our goal is to help more students, teachers, and readers find this book. ~ Lisa Christie