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Every year, we start January with a few picks of great books to really dig into after the relatives have left. While Covid again changed the hustle and bustle of the holidays for many, we still hope January offers some quiet time to sit and really enjoy a very good book. To help you do this, we once again offer a selection of three books (fiction, memoir/cooking, and kids) to read after the relatives have left. Enjoy and Happy New Year!
SIDE NOTE from Lisa Christie: I am thrilled by the book Lisa Cadow chose to review today. It totally made my day to read how much she enjoyed this gift Christmas gift from me. I share this merely to remind you that January can be bleak; we've heard calls to divorce lawyers and therapist have increased dramatically of late. So, maybe we can all remember that giving the gift of a good book can elevate your mood just as much as the recipient's; and you can support a local indie bookstore at the same time -- further spreading the joy of just one gifted book.
Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci (2021). If you've been missing gathering around the table with family and friends during the pandemic as much as I have, here is an antidote: sit down with actor, writer, and director Stanley Tucci's new memoir Taste to evoke those special feelings of camaraderie. Tucci's new book takes the reader back to a childhood spent in 1960's in Westchester surrounded by Italian relatives who bottled their own wine from oak casks in the basement and roasted goats in their backyard, through a lifetime of cooking with friends (often famous) and visiting restaurants across the globe, then all the way back to present-day London where much of his time, when he's not filming on location, is spent shopping and cooking classics like Spaghetti Carbonara for his children and wife. Tucci is an energetic, hilarious, and creative writer who tells a great story and shares wit as well as wisdom. Parts of his book are written like pages torn from a movie script full of dialogue and direction, which makes sense, given that he's spent his entire adult life acting from and even composing scripts. (Some may not realize that Tucci was not only one of the actors in the cult classic 1996 film "Big Night" about two brothers struggling to save an Italian restaurant on the Jersey Shore, but he was also a coauthor.) An unexpectedly poignant part of the memoir chronicles his recent treatment for and recovery from oral cancer, which only served to deepen his already very serious relationship with food. As he explains, "I must say that years ago I never thought that my passion and interest in food would come close to eclipsing how I felt about my chosen profession. Acting, directing, cinema, and the theater had always defined me. But after my diagnosis I discovered that eating, drinking, the kitchen, and the table now play those roles. Food not only feeds me, it enriches me. All of me. Mind, body, and soul. It is nothing more than everything. Cook Smell. Taste Eat Drink Share. Repeat as necessary." Turning the last page of Taste I yearned for just one more bite, one more laugh, one more chapter, and a little more time in Tucci's brilliant company. I'll have to make due with the smattering of simple recipes from the book that I plan to try and the slab of Kerrygold butter that now sits on our kitchen counter after learning that it's what the Tucci family enjoys with their bread. This is the perfect read to fill yourself up with after the relatives have left. ~Lisa Cadow
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (2021). I still remember how I felt while reading Ms. Shipstead's Seating Arrangements years ago - completely entertained by what most would consider a 'beach read" and also caring about the fates of the characters inhabiting her imagined New England Island as a high society wedding unfolded. This time, with the impressively sweeping novel Great Circle, I cared about the the fates of her two major characters -- Marian, a girl determined to be an aviator in prohibition-era Montana, and Hadley, a "Twilight-like" movie star in the process of self destructing over her romantic and social media choices. The link between the two? Hadley's selection to play Marian in a biopic picture years after Marian's plane disappears into the ocean. I also cared about the secondary characters: Jamie - Marian's twin a talented painter, Caleb, Jamie's and Marian's wild childhood friend, Hadley's eminent neighbor Sir Hugo, and Wallace, their drunken well intentioned, talented artist uncle who took Marian and Jamie in after their father was jailed for abandoning his duty as captain of a sinking ship in order to rescue them. (Their mother's death from suicide, seen in retrospect, induced by post-partum depression, plays a role throughout this tale.)
That is a lot to tackle and it is all laid out for readers in the first 100 pages, allowing the next 400 pages to pull readers along while revealing the unique fates of each character. Even so, it's still a lot to take in, so don't worry if you are not always on task, keep going and let her re-engage you with compelling characters, plot twists, and oodles of research. When completed, readers are left with with a sweeping saga of life in the USA during the 20th century, and/or a great distraction from the quiet after the relatives have left.
NOTE: Throughout Great Circle, I felt a longing to re-read Beryl Markham's terrific memoir West with the Night, and hope I make time to do so. If you have not yet read West with the Night -- please do so; you will not regret it. You might also wish to try Seating Arrangements for a shorter and completely different take of Ms. Shipstead's gifted writing. ~ Lisa Christie
Black Boy Joy by assorted authors and edited by Kwame Mbalia (2021). This collection of 17 short stories about black boys in the USA provides the perfect book to pick up if your attention span just can't handle a saga. I truly loved my time with the boys in these pieces as they imagined traveling outer space, participated in cooking contests, and debated the best super hero ever. Because 17 authors weigh in during this collection, there is lovely variety in tone and style: some are funny, some are happy-sad, all are compelling. The shorter length of the stories makes them ideal for discussion - teachers everywhere take note. For everyone -- the boys' joy is contagious. As Booklist said in their review -- "Pick up Black Boy Joy for a heavy dose of happiness." NOTE: I listened to this via audiobooks, and it was a superb way to spend time commuting to high school hockey games. ~ Lisa Christie
Once again, Norwich, Vermont ushered Pages in the Pub into our holiday plans, and for a second time due to the pandemic we met via Zoom. And once again, the presenters - this time presenting as pairs - Vermont librarians Lucinda Walker and Peter Money; booksellers Emma Nichols and Sam Kass; and cartoonists Emma Husinger and Tillie Walden, did an incredible job of raising a lot of money for our beloved Norwich Public Library (thanks to the generosity of the Norwich Bookstore), confining their Zoom reviews to 90 seconds and their written reviews to six words (harder than it sounds), helping many finish (or at least start) their holiday shopping, and giving all of us a GREAT list of books to give and get (and maybe start reading today).
Presenter bios are listed below the presenters' recommendations so that you can know a little bit more about the amazing and accomplished people who gave us all such great recommendations and six-word reviews. We thank them all! For ease of shopping from an indie bookstore, just use the Norwich Bookstore's online ordering page for this event.
Baking with Dorie: Sweet, Salty & Simple by Dorie Greenspan (2021). Deliciously easy & always yummy bakes! ~ Selected by Lucinda
Well Fed Weeknights by Melissa Joulwan (2016). Paleo-ish, easy dinners, under 30 minutes! ~ Selected by Tillie & Emma H.
Gastro Obscura by Cecily Wong (2021). Fun facts, Delicious dishes, tantalizing travels.
~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
PICTURE BOOKS FOR KIDS (UNDER 8) – FOR FAMILIES TO READ TOGETHER DURING THE FIRST SNOW STORM
Professional Crocodile by Giovanni Zoboli (2017). Dreamy with few words, ode to routine. ~ Selected by Tillie & Emma H.
The Creature of Habit by Jennifer E. Smith (2021). Careful creature takes chance on chaos. ~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
EARLY CHAPTER BOOKS (3-8) BECAUSE SOMETIMES YOU WANT TO BE A BIG KID, EVEN IF YOU AREN’T
Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon (2015): Pirates! chickens! fairy queens! walkie-talkies! friends! nemeses!). ~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
POETRY FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT BEAUTY AND TRUTH
Summer Snow by Robert Hass (2020). Sage, smart, tender, vital timely observations. ~ Selected by Peter
BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS (AGES 8-12) – THOSE BEYOND TONKA TRUCKS AND TEA PARTIES BUT NOT YET READY FOR TEEN TOPICS
The List of Things that Will Not Change by Becca Stead (2020). Heart-warming story + authentic voice = excellent read!. ~ Selected by Lucinda
Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu (2021): Daring 'delinquents' undaunted by the patriarchy. ~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani (2021). Colorful musical adventure through time. ~ Selected by Tillie & Emma H.
BOOKS FOR YOUR FAVORITE HIGH SCHOOLER
A-Okay by Jarad Greene (2021). Acne and asexuality in middle school! ~ Selected by Tillie & Emma H.
Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (2021). Smart. Wry. Ambitious. Loved. Fat. Charlie. ~ Selected by Lisa
NON-FICTION OR REFERENCE BOOKS FOR PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO THINK AND CHAT WHILE SITTING BY THE WOODSTOVE
New England's Roadside Ecology by Tom Wessels (2021). Indispensable reference for our region's hikers. ~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
A Little Devil In America by Hanif Abdurraqib (2021). Black art shapes our whole culture. ~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman (1987). In which the medieval feels ... modern. ~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
GRAPHIC BOOKS BECAUSE PICTURES ADD 1,000 WORDS
Here by Richard McGuire (2014). A brilliant time-traveling graphic novel. ~ Selected by Tillie & Emma H.
MEMOIRS/BIOGRAPHIES FOR PEOPLE WHO ENJOY LIVING VICARIOUSLY THROUGH OTHERS
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (2015): Author famous for gothic horror also makes a mean pudding. ~ Selected by Sam & Emma N.
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar (2021). Racism. Education with Humor. Engaging sisters. ~ Selected by Lisa
FICTION FOR ANYONE WHO NEEDS AN ENGROSSING NOVEL TO RECOVER FROM THE NEWS
When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble (2021). Beautiful story of a Cherokee horse-diver. ~ Selected by Lucinda
I Was Never The First Lady by Wendy Guerra (2021). Daughter/mother coping in dream[e]scape Cuba. ~ Selected by Peter
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld (2020). Three women, three histories, daring prose. ~ Selected by Tillie & Emma H.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS BECAUSE SOMETIMES YOU NEED A QUICK FIX
Sarahland by Sam Cohen (2021). Hilarious, queer, short stories; very 2021. ~ Selected by Tillie & Emma H.
MYSTERIES / THRILLERS FOR ANYONE WHO LOVES TO GUESS THE ENDING
Falling by T. J. Newman (2021). “Speed” on a plane - heart pounding! ~ Selected by Lucinda
Northern Spy by Flynn Berry (2021). Sisters' relationship tested by IRA resurgence ~ Selected by Lucinda
Lucinda Walker is the Director of the Norwich Public Library. In the words of Eloise, she “loves, loves, loves” her job, her colleagues and the Norwich community. She is addicted to podcasts (Brave Little State, Ear Hustle & Mortified are current favorites), a daily walk or run and dark-roasted coffee. Lucinda lives in Brownsville with her writer/librarian husband Peter Money (see below) and two kids, Hartley & Lily.
Tillie Walden is a cartoonist and illustrator from Austin, TX. She is a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies, where she now teaches. As of 2022, she has published three graphic novellas with the London based Avery Hill Publishing and three with First Second Books, including her Eisner Award-winning books Spinning and Are You Listening?. She currently lives in Norwich, Vermont with her wife Emma Hunsinger (see below) and two cats Stan and Tatiana.
Emma Nichols wanted to grow up to become either a librarian or a witch, but she's delighted to be co-owner of the Norwich Bookstore instead (close enough, right?). Her first, and only, tattoo is a quote from a story by Kelly Link, and she wishes more people would ask her for short story recommendations. If she's not at the bookstore, you'll most likely find her reading, baking bread, or tinkering with spreadsheets.
Peter Money is currently the Mary L. Blood Memorial Library librarian in Brownsville (West Windsor), Vermont, where Civil War artifacts and taxidermy --named Olivia, Newton, and John--keep him company. Married to "big city" librarian Lucinda Walker (see above), Peter is firstly a poet, novelist, and teacher who performs with the poetry band Los Lorcas. In 2019, his novel Oh When the Saints--set in Dublin--was launched in Ireland by Nuala O'Connor (the author of 2021 Best Seller Nora) and praised by Peter Orner. Peter's other books include American Drone: New & Select Poems, Che: A Novella In Three Parts, and translations of Saadi Youssef with Sinan Antoon, Nostalgia, My Enemy. In addition to Last Night In America with Los Lorcas, Peter's spoken word album Blue Square is available on Apple Music. RTE aired his streamable radio essay, "Loves: Silence and the music of JS Bach." When not "booking," Peter may be found painting, mowing, or wide-eyed at something his grown son and daughter have done. Some version of himself is found at petermoney.com, @poetpetermoney (I), @petermoneyhere (T).
Sam Kaas has been a bookseller for most of his adult life, and still thinks it's just about the best gig a person could have. He is the co-owner, with his partner Emma Nichols (see above), of the Norwich Bookstore. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, he has a fondness for strong coffee and dark, rainy days. He knows more than you might expect about classic cars, off-brand guitars, and the Drive-By Truckers discography.
Emma Hunsinger is a cartoonist from Connecticut. She started her career making New Yorker gags before getting her MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her short comic "How To Draw a Horse" appeared in pages of the New Yorker and was nominated for an Eisner. She currently lives in the Upper Valley where she spends most of her time trying to stay warm.
The Book Jam Lisas
Lisa Christie, co-founder of the Book Jam, was, in previous times, the Founder/Executive Director of Everybody Wins! Vermont and USA, literacy programs that help children love books. She currently works as a part-time non-profit consultant, school board member (who is ever grateful to our teachers, administrators, staff, students, and parents/guardians), and all-the-time believer in the power of books. She lives in Norwich with her musician/podcasting husband, two superb teenage sons (well only when the oldest is home from college), and a very large dog. She often dreams of travel.
Lisa Cadow is the co-founder of the Book Jam. When not reading or experimenting in her kitchen, she is a full time student of counseling at the University of Vermont. She fervently believes that health outcomes would improve if doctors could prescribe books to patients as well as medicine. Lisa lives in Norwich with her husband, three cats, and a fun border collie and loves it when her three adult children visit.
As the United States enters Thanksgiving week, we feel grateful for so much: health care workers, school personnel - teachers, administrators, and staff, grocers, restaurant staff, vaccines, boosters, friends, families, our town, good food, walks in woods ... The list could go on and on.
And we recognize that things can be complicated when it comes to gratitude, including with the Thanksgiving holiday and how the story surrounding pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a meal for the good of all isn't a simple one. As part of re-examining stories, we are highlighting Native American Heritage Month and review in this post two recently published books by Native American authors. So, happy reading and happy Thanksgiving - in the best sense of that phrase.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac (2021). This, the first children's book I've read that directly addresses the Covid-19 pandemic, is spectacular. When the story begins, Malian's visit with her grandparents at their home on a Wabanaki reservation, is interrupted by the Covid-19 lockdowns. The adults in her life decide it is better for her to stay with her grandparents than back in the city with her parents. And so she stays -- protecting her grandparents, just as they protect her. She won't go outside to play with friends. She tutors her grandparents about video chats. She cares for a stray dog; and, she attempts to keep up with her school online. Perhaps most importantly, she listens and learns from her grandparents' stories. Told in verse (fewer words per page for reluctant readers), with stories from the Wabanaki people woven throughout, this novel is a lovely read about what we do to help family, friends, our community, and the world when we can. It also specifically highlights how Malian's community has cared for one another throughout troubles of the past, and how they keep helping today. ~ Lisa Christie
The Sea In Winter by Christine Day (2021). In this tale of loss and growth, Maisie is supposed to be auditioning for amazing ballet programs across the USA. She's dreamed of being a prima ballerina since she wore her first toe shoes. She's also supposed to be able to talk to her father about anything and everything. Instead, a torn ACL has derailed, perhaps permanently, her ballet career, and a war took her father years before - so long ago she worries she can't really remember him. Eventually, her anxiety and dark moods hurt as much as the pain in her knee. Told with love, spirit, and hope, as well as excellent reminders about the power of good therapy - both physical and mental, this tale is an excellent one for any young reader - perhaps especially those for whom life right now is not very dreamlike or who are struggling to find their joy. I also appreciated the glimpses into Native American tribes on both coasts of the United States, as well as descriptions of nature in the Pacific Northwest. ~ Lisa Christie
NOTE FROM ONE WEEK AFTER THIS POST WAS FIRST PUBLISHED --- We are always delighted when people enjoy our reviews. And, recently through a series of connections (i.e., our good friend Katie Kitchel was cast in a demo reel/proof of concept by one of our town's indie filmmakers - Nora Jacobson - that stars members of a Native American tribe), one of the above reviews was seen by one of the reviewed authors - Joseph Bruchac. We are beyond thrilled he was delighted to be highlighted. We love the fact our small Vermont town connected us in one step (Hi Katie) to Mr. Bruchac. And, we were extremely moved by the poem he shared with us through Katie. With Mr. Bruchac's permission, and with our gratitude, we share his poem here.
by Joseph Bruchac
I know the names
on this land
have been changed,
printed on maps
made by those
who claim their ownership.
Some say nothing survives.
But the wind
the same song
of our breath.
The hilltop trees
still bend like dancers
that never ended.
And the little pines,
lift up, protected
from the weight of snow
by the held-out arms
of their elders.
There's something novel in this day and age of myriad food bloggers and online recipe juggernauts about sitting down with and cooking from a good old fashioned cookbook. When this happens and If they're lucky, the reader is transported into another chef's kitchen and offered an intimate and curated food experience. I had just this sensation over the weekend when conducting research for this post. From suggested pantry ingredients to novel techniques to tested recipes, I felt inspired by the different kitchen worldviews I glimpsed in between the pages of the new releases Grist and À Table. The experience was almost akin to walking through the back of the wardrobe and falling into two refreshing and very different culinary Narnias. Since spending time with these two books, I've already served lovely dishes from both and plan to keep working my way through them this winter. I also have the sense of being slightly transformed by the new ideas I encountered, as if my own culinary journey has been slightly altered (for the better). May you also experience a similar feeling of gustatory pleasure and growth, no matter what cookbook you find to keep you company through the winter solstice and beyond. ~ Lisa Cadow
Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds and Legumes by Abra Berens (2021). This elegant guide will have you cooking creatively throughout the winter (and then right into spring and summer, too) with the jars of sustainable and long-lasting grains that line your pantry shelves. I think I heard my farro and polenta calling out to me immediately to get cooking as soon as I turned the first pages of the table of contents. On the menu tonight in our house is "Risotto with Leeks and Bacon," one of Beren's "variations on the theme" that she provides home chefs in each section of the book (side note: they are more often than not veggie-based). Reading Beren's recipes has me missing the copious amounts of eggplant and tomatoes that burst forth (sometimes too exuberantly) from the farmshare because I'm now armed with new ideas for how to make them shine brighter next summer. "Seared Eggplant and Cherry Tomatoes with Fried Lentils and Tahini Dressing", next August anyone? She also highlights exceptional farms in her book - it's dedicated to "everyone who turns the soil to put food in our mouths - and offers helpful ways to turn a pot of beans or a pan of grains into five different interesting meals to last the week (e.g. "How to Build A Myriad of Fresh Bean Salads" and "A Week's Worth of Lentils without Any Boredom"). Fun new go-to sauces, spice blends, and herb relishes are also part of her generous offering to readers. After spending time with this book, it comes as no surprise that Berens was a recent James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Chef: Great Lakes. I'd write even more, but I need to head to my kitchen to make a batch of "Barley Thumbprint Cookies" (with raspberry jam, of course). ~ Lisa Cadow
À Table: Recipes for Cooking and Eating the French Way by Rebekah Peppler (2021). I'm impressed. As one who considers herself a Francophile, it's hard to convince me that I might need yet another French cookbook. Well, Ms. Peppler had me from the begining with her ideas for "apéro" (the custom of drinks and light hors d'oeuvres before a meal), house wines, and snacks such as roasted lemons and green olives as well as "Eggs Mayo with Persillade" (a parsley sauce I plan to make as often as possible from this point forward). I couldn't stop turning the pages of this cookbook, so entranced was I with her take on modern-day French cooking and entertaining from a decidedly young and hip perspective. As an American expat currently living in the 18th arrondissement, this food writer's got her finger on the pulse of Paris and includes wonderful recipes for dishes like "Parsnips with Fennel and Honeycomb" (whole gorgeous chunks of honeycomb!) and a "Sucrine Wedge" salad of lardons, radishes, and blue cheese that knocked our socks off - or perhaps I should say “chaussettes”?- when we enjoyed it with a hunk of warm crusty bread for dinner the other evening. I can't wait to make the “Carrot Tarte Tatin.” Four stars and a big Ooh La La. ~ Lisa Cadow
We had another post planned for today; then over the weekend one of the beloved dogs in our lives died. And for that Lisa (Cadow), her husband, and her family of grown children, things just sort of stopped. For those of you who have experienced the death of a pet you may understand how different your life is when they are gone. For those who have not, you may not understand the grief someone can feel over an animal. For both of those categories, there is Love That Dog, a book that has become our go-to gift to give to people grieving pets (and for other reasons such as is a very good book). Because it is an older title (first published in 2001), it occurred to us that maybe some of our readers missed it, or forgot about it. So today, we review Love That Dog in honor and memory of Pompy (and his amazing humans).
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (2001). First, do not let the fact this is a book written for children fool you; this book is for everyone. The plot begins with the "fact" that Jack hates poetry, and another "fact" that his teacher Mrs. Stretchberry keeps insisting he and his fellow classmates write poetry in many, many assignments. Despite his best efforts to avoid these assignments, there does not seem to be a way out of this "poetry thing" for Jack. Eventually, he gives in, starts writing, and discovers things such as:
"I guess it does
look like a poem
when you see it
He also discovers he has some important things to share and say. He then learns, to his dismay and then his delight, that poetry just might be the perfect way for him to process some things he's been denying.
Love That Dog is written in poetry form, meaning fewer words per page than in a typical chapter book. This makes it both more accessible for some reluctant readers, and inspirational for budding poets.
Readers also get a poetry lesson or two because Ms. Creech allows us to see Jack's class assignments calling for responses to eight well known poems from various poets (e.g., William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Walter Dean Myers). The full poems are included in an appendix. We promise that is not as boring as it sounds.
We want to emphasize this is just a very good story - no matter its form, topic, or intentions. We think you will fall in love with Jack, Mrs. Stretchberry for insisting children can be poets, any pets in your life, and Newberry Medal Award winning author Sharon Creech. As The New York Times said in their review of this book 20-something years ago, “Sharon Creech has achieved more than one impressive feat here.” We think this book is a great reminder at any time, and perhaps especially in times of grief, that pain and joy often exist side by side. ~ Lisa Christie
Recently, our indispensable and beloved Norwich Bookstore changed hands. We are so grateful for the hard work and vision that Liza Bernard and Penny McConnel brought to building such a vital part of our community; and, we are excited to welcome Emma Nichols (also a podcaster) and Sam Kaas with their fresh energy and creativity to Vermont. We look forward to seeing what the store becomes under their stewardship. For now, we have asked them to introduce themselves to Book Jam readers with a few recommendations of what to read right now. We hope you enjoy their picks and are able to visit them in person soon. ~ Lisa and Lisa
We are the new owners of the Norwich Bookstore, and so, naturally, we wanted to introduce ourselves by recommending a couple of books. It is, of course, impossible to introduce a reader in only two books, but we’ve made the attempt, choosing titles that we think paint a somewhat accurate picture of our own personal reading tastes. We hope you enjoy these picks! ~ Emma and Sam
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (2019). How to Do Nothing is not exactly instructional, as the title suggests, but I guarantee it will teach you something. It is a takedown of our society’s prioritization of productivity, efficiency, and capital. It is a love letter to bird-watching, long walks, and careful attention. It is a plea for maintenance and sustainability. Ms. Odell reframed the way I saw the world and my place in it, which is why I return to these pages again and again. ~ Emma Nichols
Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks (2002). Fire Logic is the first in a fantasy quartet, and it is my favorite book—not in the series, but of all the books I’ve read. There is too much to the plot to summarize it in a satisfying way, so I won’t attempt to. But I will say it hurdles relentlessly forward, enthralling and entertaining, with villains that are drawn with as much detail as the heroes, until they become indistinguishable. It is one of those books that is both dark—concerning war, revenge, a land under siege, a society demolished—and full of hope—showing a community reimagined and rebuilt. It insists its characters question their beliefs, their driving forces, and do what’s right no matter how difficult. With themes of forgiveness, friendship, community and generosity, I believe this series is trying to teach its readers how to be. ~ Emma Nichols
The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Freedom, and Forgiveness on the Rails in the American West by Carrot Quinn (2021). This astounding memoir was, appropriately enough, one of the books that I carried across the country with me as we traveled from Seattle to Vermont. A meditation on the sometimes-contradictory urges we all feel for freedom and for connection, The Sunset Route lingered with me for months. Carrot Quinn grew up in a harrowing environment of neglect, with a mother whose mental illness was severe and sometimes violent, before leaving home in her teens. She spent the next several years traveling the country - hiking, exploring, and riding freight trains with a tight-knit community of travellers, all of whom were seeking their own solace. Ms. Quinn’s vivid descriptions of her travels across a seldom-seen landscape will make you want to hop a freight yourself (don’t, though; it’s very dangerous), and her explorations of what it takes to find a family, wherever you may be, might just leave you feeling hopeful. The Sunset Route will appeal to readers of Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger just as easily as it will to fans of Tara Westover and Cheryl Strayed. ~ Sam Kaas
Someone Should Pay For Your Pain by Franz Nicolay (2021). I first came to Franz Nicolay as a fan of his music. Mr. Nicolay, who plays keys in The Hold Steady, and was previously part of dozens of bands (notably World Inferno/Friendship Society) that could probably best be described as cabaret punk, is a beguiling songwriter in his own right. This doesn’t always translate well into prose - in fact, it rarely does - but Someone Should Pay For Your Pain, Mr. Nicolay’s debut novel, is remarkable - tender, authentic, and sincere without being didactic. Rudy Pauver has seen better days - he had a promising album fifteen years ago, but since then, he’s been stuck: alone on the road, playing to increasingly indifferent crowds, and deeply hidden in the shadow of his former protege. Most of his personal relationships can best be described as “conflicted.” His current tour is already on its way from bad to worse - a gas station robbery, a cancelled show - when his niece shows up with troubles of her own, forcing Rudy to confront both his past and his future. Mr. Nicolay is one of the rare writers who accurately captures the way working musicians speak and interact, and his intricate dissections of a creative life - of the sometimes surprising conflicts between ethics and morality, love and responsibility, success and fulfillment - make this slim novel a standout. ~ Sam Kaas
The Book Jam is back from our annual "gone reading" break. And as has become our tradition, we are starting up again with reviews of two books we read over our break - one pick for each Lisa. As much as we have in common -- and we do - we are Lisas, moms, working women, book lovers, Vermonters, 50-somethings, married to Navy vets - and as much as we often love the same books - we are often struck by completely different books - as we were today. One of us picked a novel set in the American West in the early 1900s by best-selling novelist Jess Walter. The other Lisa chose a Graphic YA novel written and illustrated by many (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury & Nate Powell). Both though are about dreams, change, and bravery. And, thus - we are the Book Jam; and, we are back. Happy autumn and happy reading!
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter (2020). Meet two very different brothers Gig and Rye Dolan, both living in Spokane, Washington in 1909. This book takes us on a journey with them throughout a tumultuous year of hard work, falling in love, participating in protests, serving jail sentences, and finding themselves unexpectedly involved in fighting unfair labor practices. Along the way, the reader vicariously experiences a rapidly changing city and a growing Pacific Northwest while also meeting private detectives, double agents, an opera singer, corrupt timber magnates, inspirational labor rights activists, and the people who love all of these characters. This book helped me to learn about an important era of history that made a fundamental difference in the labor law that exists today. It also reinforced my admiration for Mr. Walter as a versatile and talented writer (readers may remember him as the author of the very popular Beautiful Ruins which was published in 2009). Cold Millions is a rollicking, funny, deadly serious, smart, and important read and probably - no definitely!- one of my favorite books of 2020/2021. Highly recommended. ~Lisa Cadow
Run: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury & Nate Powell (2021). This sequel to the National Book Award winning March trilogy takes up after the March on Selma. Through centering Congressmen Lewis's personal set backs as he tries to lead SNCC after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, this graphic book reminds us that progress is definitely not linear, identity groups are complicated, and that change is typically resisted by people in power. The illustrations by L. Fury with award winning Nate Powell from the March trilogy, capture both on their own and then with accompanying words, the anger, confusion, hope, and dreams of the major players and the country at large during this period portrayed in Run. As the New York Times Review reminded me, "Black Americans have never been a monolith, despite frequent efforts to portray us as such. Lewis offers a fair-minded account of how his turn-the-other-cheek philosophy clashed with the frustrations of the movement back then. At age 26, he found himself broke, jobless and no longer its chosen one." I highly recommend picking this up, contemplating it from your favorite reading spot, and then sharing it with everyone (adults and young adults both) you know. This is a superb sequel to an amazing trilogy about the brave men and women whose actions and words forced us to be our best selves. ~ Lisa Christie
As we head into the last full month of summer 2021, we offer below a robust list of beach, mountain, camp, cabin, trailside, riverbank, front porch, and lakeshore reads (please let us know if we’re forgetting any important relaxing reading locations!) for adults to dive into before autumn takes hold. We hope there’s something to tempt every type of literary palette. You might want to read a recent NYTimes article about summer reading to get in the mood for this list.
And with this post, we, too, have officially gone readin' - our own precious, eagerly-awaited for time out to read all the books we hope to recommend to you, dear readers, this coming fall and winter. We look forward to being back in late September to help “put the right book in the right hands at the right time.”
Embassy Wife by Katie Crouch (2021). I laughed. I cringed. I really missed my time as an expat in Madrid. And, I was filled with wanderlust for anywhere in Africa, but specifically Namibia. Perhaps because winter covid safety precautions were in place (and travel was verboten) when I read this novel, it was especially nice to live in Africa for a bit while reading. I also greatly appreciated that this story cleverly hid targeted critiques of race, privilege, and power in the world as the author explores the mingling of various expats and the citizens of their hosting nations. Embassy Wife is truly a great book for those who like novels to have a bit of bite/satire, as well as those who like novels that cause you to think while being entertained. Or, as the Washington Post review of this novel says "... here’s the disclaimer the novel should have come with: Don’t take this book too seriously, and it will entertain you, seriously." ~ Lisa Christie
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reed (2021). This is certainly one of the hot books of summer 2021 and is popping up on nearly every reviewer’s “best of” list. Not only does it seduce readers into the winning setting of sunny, beachy coastal California (what more cold you ask for in a summer read??) — but Jenkins Reed really knows how to keep the pages turning. Prepare yourself for some enjoyable time-travel back to the year 1983 when on one day, four “twenty-something” year-old siblings are preparing for the family’s annual blow-out summer party. This year it goes up in smoke (you learn this early on in chapter one) but not before we come to understand the complicated, painful, and often fraught history of this larger-than-life, famous, fictional Malibu family. It’s a treat to follow Malibu as a character, too, from its sleepy beach town beginnings in the 1950’s through to its more glitzy persona of the 1980’s. (Previously reviewed on the Book Jam by KJ Dell'Antonia.) ~ Lisa Cadow
Good Company by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney (2021). Imagine that as you prepare to launch your daughter on the afternoon of her high school graduation, you find the wedding ring your husband supposedly “lost“ over ten years ago hidden in the back of a filing cabinet. What you thought you understood about your life, your marriage, and your own next chapter is upended. Thus begins “Good Company,” a thoughtful new book about marriage, friendship, and motherhood by the author of the novel “The Nest.” I was eager to pick up this up given how much I loved her first novel and it didn’t disappoint. It takes readers back and forth in time between characters’ present-day acting careers and lives rooted in Los Angeles, the beginnings of their careers and nascent relationships in New York City, and an annual summer theater camp for adults (“Good Company”) in the Adirondacks. Sweeney has a gift for creating interesting and realistic characters and for compassionately exploring with them and through them the choices and challenges we face in life. ~ Lisa Cadow
Olympus Texas by Stacey Swann (2021). Consider this novel as Dallas of 1970's television meets Edith Hamilton's Mythology. I thought this story (a first novel) of a dysfunctional Texas ranching family might collapse under the weight of its conceit - linking family members to Greek gods and their distinctive traits. The novel's matriarch is named June and keeps cows. Her husband Peter has many children with June and many other women. Two of these children are twins - Artie, a hunting guide, and Arlo, a musician. The wayward son- March - is a man with a volatile temper. The most beloved son is a kind unattractive body shop owner married to the most beautiful girl in Texas. And yet, this novel did not collapse -- even if sometimes things were stretched. The cleverness of Ms. Swann's conceit was a superb diversion from the early days of post-pandemic life (although lately it appears those days were a false start). Enjoy no matter where in the pandemic we are currently living. ~ Lisa Christie
These Women by Ivy Pochoda (2020). I loved this novel describing life in Los Angeles as prostitutes are being attacked and murdered. That is a weird sentence to write as obviously (hopefully obviously) I am not fond of killing. What I appreciated was a frank look into the lives of the marginalized, the well crafted prose, and the story line. A local reading series paired Ms. Pochoda with Mr. Jeff Sharlet and his latest collection of essays and photos This Brilliant Darkness; you would not go wrong doing the same. ~ Lisa Christie
Northern Spy by Flynn Berry (2021). This modern-day thriller pulled me in right on page one in when we meet Tessa, a single mother of a new baby and a respected reporter for the BBC, as she is hard at work comping a story in her office in Belfast. She suddenly notices footage on one of the teleprompters of a person who looks surprisingly like her sister pulling on a black ski mask in preparation for an IRA bombing. How could this be? Her sister Marian is her best friend and she knows she has never dealt with the IRA in her life. If you’re in the mood for an excellent mystery that weaves in the fascinating volatile history and complicated politics of Northern Ireland, look no further. Northern Spy is fast-paced, full of checkpoints, spies, secret meetings, explosions and motherhood (!) so buckle your seat belts. Talk about work-life balance. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! ~ Lisa Cadow
Orchestrated Death by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (1991). Somehow for me, there is nothing as comforting as a well crafted British murder mystery. Being surrounded by kind DCIs is just bizarrely comforting. Which is a weird thing to say as each book of this genre begins ends and sustains a grisly act - murder. But alas knowing that the bad guys will get caught and there are good detectives in the world is reassuring and may be just what you need as summer ends and autumn begins. I enjoyed the first book in this series - an introduction to Bill Slider, a middle-aged, straight-arrow London cop who is investigating a dead body that changes his life (e.g., new lover, promotion, some music appreciation) - and look forward to reading the rest soon. THANK YOU Sarah Taylor of Maggie D'arcy series fame (we also recommend reading her latest mysteries - The Mountains Wild and A Distant Grave) for pointing us to this book and many others. ~ Lisa Christie
We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker (2021). Though I haven’t yet turned the final page of this suspenseful novel (I’m about 3/4 of the way through), I feel confident in saying that this is one of the best books of the summer. The characters are strong. And so memorable. There’s twelve year-old Duchess who flies off the page and into the readers’ hearts despite her anger and recalcitrance with the fierce love and protective care she offers her younger brother Robin. And there’s “Walk”, the weathered, older police inspector who’s lived in the same coastal California town his whole life and carries the friends, stories, and tragedies of his community into his work and also into his off-duty hours. This is a literary thriller that transports readers back and forth from the Pacific coast to the remote wilds of a Montanan ranch. It keeps readers guessing throughout - though not shielded from domestic dramas, violence, and estrangement - and rooting for justice, love, family, and the ties that bind to triumph in the end. ~ Lisa Cadow
We Came We Saw We Left: A family gap year by Charles Wheelan (2021). Mr. Wheelan's ability to observe himself and his family with love and humor is evident in his writing and his adventures with his family as they leave life in small town New Hampshire (our neighbor to the east - Hanover) for Colombia, Bhutan, New Zealand, and Georgia and .... For those of us who missed / are missing travel during the pandemic, this tale will inspire you and encourage you to dust off your passport as soon as safely possible. Paraphrasing a NYTimes review, you really root for and want to meet Team Wheelan. Since we can't all know them in person, this book is the next best thing. Buy it to travel vicariously through their adventures, to inspire your own next great trip, or to have a road map as you plan your own family interactions at home. ~ Lisa Christie
You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe (2020). Somehow this biography of George Washington is both simultaneously respectful and irreverent. Honestly, I don't know how Ms. Coe pulls it off; but she does. As a result, she had me turning pages very quickly as her tale of our first President's life unfolded. For example, from the start, she calls the "typical" Washington biographers "thigh men" for their fascination with Washington's strong thighs, physique, and size (of the large biographies they write). She highlights his accomplishments, his ability to overcome many obstacles, his love of freedom and the new USA, and does not shy away at all from his ownership of slaves for his personal benefit (well-known) or his various wars on Native American Tribes (I hadn't thought a lot about this). A great book for anyone looking to learn a bit more about the founding of the USA, diseases of the historical era, any of the Washington family members (i.e., wife, mom, step children, nieces, nephews), or General Washington himself. My husband heard me discussing this and recommended I try Forget the Alamo next. You might want to as well. ~ Lisa Christie
You'll Never Believe what happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar (2021). Ms. Ruffin is a comedian writer (the first Black woman writer) on Late Night With Seth Meyers. She is funny. She also is blessed with a sister who still lives in their hometown of Omaha Nebraska and has CRAZY things happen to her with regularity as a result of being a petite Black woman in Omaha. Luckily Lacey calls Amber to talk about each incident. Luckily for us they decided writing down these conversations would be a great idea. Also reviewed on the Book Jam by KJ Dell-Antonia. For those who prefer a Q&A format, try Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho (2020). The former NFL player - Acho - based this book on his podcast of the same name. ~ Lisa Christie
As we continue to settle into the "new normal," one pre-pandemic, during-pandemic and (ideally) post-pandemic tradition continues: the Book Jam's annual review of perfect summer reads. Today’s is the first of two such lists for “summer campers“ and features books for the younger literary set, specifically elementary school through young adults. We sincerely hope these recommendations help you to find the right fit for your favorite children and teens to curl up with in their tents, on the beach, by the lake, or under the branches of their favorite tree. After all, the temperatures are still warm, the days are still long and we can still camp (and read)!
Please don’t forget to look to us in two weeks for our annual adult version of Books for Summer Campers.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (2013 and assorted years). A great graphic novel series for kids. Beautifully drawn, this graphic novel (and the subsequent books in the series) follows a friendship and adventures between a somewhat awkward girl and a magic unicorn. Both learn how special they really are; something I hope they pass along to every reader to feel as well. ~ Lisa Christie
The Sea In Winter by Christine Day (2021). At this point in her life, Maisie is supposed to be auditioning for amazing ballet programs across the USA. It's been her dream, since her very first toe shoes, to be a prima ballerina. She's also supposed to be able to talk to her father. Instead a torn ACL has derailed, perhaps permanently, her ballet career, and a war took her father years before - so long ago she worries she can't really remember him anymore. Told with love and spirit and hope, and superb shout outs to the power of good therapy (both physical and mental), this tale is an excellent one for any young reader - perhaps especially those for whom "right now" is not looking very dreamlike or who is struggling to find their joy. I also greatly appreciated the glimpses of lives for some members of Native tribes on the west and east coasts, as well as descriptions of the gorgeous natural life of the Pacific Northwest. ~ Lisa Christie
The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga (2021). I picked this novel up because I LOVED Ms. Warga's Other Words for Home (previously reviewed here). I did not read the description; I just bought it while browsing one of my new favorite Indie stores - Still North Books & Bar in Hanover, NH. So when I settled in to read, I was slightly surprised I had purchased a novel based on a school shooting - not typical summer reading fare. The chapters alternate perspectives between Cora and Quinn, lifelong best friends who haven't spoken to each other since Quinn's brother killed Cora's sister, another student, a teacher, and himself in a school shooting nine months prior to the start of this novel. The plot involves time travel and overwhelming desires to make things right. It also emphasizes that everyone involved in tragedies needs help - in the form of time and people to speak with. While difficult, this novel highlights that love is possible even in the most horrific circumstances. Note: Ms. Warga finishes the novel with a list of resources to prevent gun violence and a call for adults to do better regarding guns. ~ Lisa Christie
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac (2021). This, the first children's book I've read that directly addresses the Covid-19 pandemic, is spectacular. Told in poetic verse, this story follows Malian, a young Wabanaki girl, throughout her quarantine on her grandparents' reservation while her parents remain behind in the city to work. And, she knows how to take care of things -- she stays inside to protect her grandparents rather than play with friends, she tries, despite not so great internet connections, to ZOOM with her schoolwork, and she listens carefully as her grandparents share tales of the Wabanaki past and present. When a stray dog decides he is Mailian's for her stay, it's a perfect bonus. ~ Lisa Christie
A Few Classics for Adults Who Missed Them & for ALL the New 6-12 year olds
The Boggart by Susan Cooper (1993). When Emily’s and Jess’s family inherits a Scottish castle, they travel to explore. Unbeknownst to them they also inherit a Boggart — an invisible, mischievous spirit who’s been playing tricks on residents of their castle for generations. When they accidentally trap the boggart in their belongings and take him back to Toronto, nothing will ever be the same. (we also recommend her Dark Is Rising Series and King of Shadows.) ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Frindle or Trouble-Maker or other titles by Andrew Clements (assorted years). Mr. Clements is a former school principal and his love of kids – especially the ones who end up in the principal’s office – comes through in each of his books. He treats his kid protagonists with humor and compassion and presents many real world dilemmas in each of his books for young readers. Pick one up and enjoy. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Stella By Starlight by Sharon Draper (2015). My family discovered this book on a 2015 trip to DC during a visit to Busboys and Poets on 14th Street, showing that exploring an indie bookstore can lead to amazing things. (The audiobook version was our soundtrack for the car trip back home to Vermont.) We have since recommended it to every kid we know. Stella lives in segregated North Carolina. There are stores she can enter and stores she can not; people are kind or they are not. But the Klan hasn't been around for awhile. Then late one night she and her brother see something they are not supposed to see and her world is forever changed. I also recommend Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming for a look at being a kid with brown skin in the 1960s and 1970s. The New York Times also curated a great list of other books to help you speak with kids about race. ~ Lisa Christie
Pay Attention Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (2019). Mr. Schmidt's novel is a superb look at what happens when tough things occur in life. In this case, the tough things include the unexpected death of a younger brother and a father who has found another family to love and has decided to never come back. But as Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, a butler who shows up on the family doorstep one day, continually reminds Carter, the young narrator of this gem of a book, life is difficult and one has two choices -- to be a gentleman or a bore. Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick is hanging around to ensure Carter chooses to be a gentleman. Told with humor (e.g., fabulous scenes of learning how to drink a proper tea and play cricket) and love, this tale eloquently describes how the lives of Carter, his three sisters, and his mom are forever changed when a butler arrives on their doorstep. Think of Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick as a portly male Mary Poppins who makes you walk the dog and clean the dishes and ultimately reminds all readers of the importance of how we all choose to embrace our life. I also recommend Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now and many other tales by Gary Schmidt (assorted years) ~ Lisa Christie
Look Both Ways: A tale told in ten blocks by Jason Reynolds (2020). One of my now high school son's favorite authors from elementary school was/is Jason Reynolds. This book - Look Both Ways - explores ordinary walks home, their humor, and how if you pay attention, they can be pretty spectacular - even the inevitable unsuccessful and often painful detours. (We have reviewed books by Mr. Reynolds on multiple posts; you will find him in our 2019 post of YA titles and in our diversity audits.) Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie
Anything – and we mean ANYTHING – by E.L. Konigsburg (assorted years) – Ms. Konigsburg was truly a superb gift to young readers everywhere. Her books are fun, well-written, humorous, and help kids work through the issues they face every day. Our favorites – The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler and The View from Saturday. But please have fun discovering your own. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (2021). I loved Ms. McQuiston's Red, White and Royal Blue (reviewed by the Book Jam here and here). So when I heard she had a second YA novel, I went searching for it at Still North while running errands in Hanover, NH. I had to ask for help as it was not in YA - it was placed in Romance. I say this so that you know the book gets the required happy ending of Romance novels, because at times during the tale, you can't quite see how. Let me start with words from a NPR review of this novel, "queer relationships of every form are normalized and healthy, and the characters are fully-realized people who are beautifully diverse, but also much more than their identities"; I LOVED that aspect of this complicated page turner. So, quick plot summary -- August, mere moments after arriving in Brooklyn, meets Jane on the Q line, sparks fly and the characters - August and her incredible housemates (Niko - a physic bartender, Myla, Niko's girlfriend and engineer turned sculptor, Isiah, a trust-fund kid disinherited for loving what his parents see as the "wrong" people. Note - these descriptions do a disservice to the complicated fully realized characters they are in Ms. McQuiston's hands). This book is more than a "meet-cute" on a smelly NYC subway car; it turns out that leather jacket-wearing, kissable Jane is actually a punk rocker from the 1970s who's stuck on the Q train for all of eternity. It takes all of August's formidable perseverance and her friend's skills to figure this one out. Again it's a romance - she does. Final note - this book was better than "Friends" at showing how the families you create from your friends in your 20s are incredible. ~ Lisa Christie
Frankly In Love by David Yoon (2019). This novel is one of the best YA books I have read. And, it has been gratefully received by at least four high school boys I know. I was surprised how this apparently simple (and honestly familiar) story of first love that does not meet with parental approval (hello Romeo and Juliet), as well as of navigating the final year of high school made me smile and tear-up a bit. Some plot points: Frank Li and Joy Song have been friends since childhood, attending regularly scheduled dinners with a larger group of Korean-American families in Los Angeles for as long as they have a memory of any event. As they navigate senior year, they are both in love with the wrong ("not-Korean") person. They decide to fake that they are dating each other to keep their parents happy, while still seeing their true loves. Their elaborate scheming provides the plot for this novel's terrific cast of characters. (I truly loved Frank's superb best friend.) And while Buzzfeed aptly stated, “Yoon's stellar debut expertly and authentically tackles racism, privilege, and characters who are trying to navigate their Korean-American identity”, I would argue you should read it for the fun. Give it to your favorite teen or your favorite adult in need of a smile or two (and distraction from the news). ~ Lisa Christie
Here to Stay by Sara Farizhan (2018). A great book about high school life. The main character, Bijan Miajidi, is pulled from the obscurity of JV basketball to the varsity limelight, which he hopes will help make it easier to talk to his crush Elle. Instead, he is targeted by an internet photo doctored to make him appear as a terrorist. As he tells the story of what happens next, his narrator voice is joined by his internal narrators - ESPN commentators Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan - providing color commentary and comic relief to the often difficult events of the novel. (I really loved these ESPN flavored internal monologues.) In short, Ms. Farizhan compassionately and effectively covers coming out stories, cyberbullying, pressure to get into the right colleges, sports, and racism, without preaching, in a true page-turner. ~ Lisa Christie
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani Larocca (2021). Reha is caught between the India of her parents youth and the Americaness of her own life. Further complicating her life decisions, she wants to be a doctor and faints at the sight of blood. Then she's faced with a very sick mother who is the moon to her stars. Luckily middle school brings new friends and strength she didn't know she had. ~ Lisa Christie
We Can't Keep Meeting Like This by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2021). Quinn Berkowitz's future is planned out for her She will attend the University of Washington (her only acceptance), She will take business courses. These courses will prepare her to join her family wedding planning firm full-time. The problem, she's pretty much certain (as much as one can be as they leave high school), that she does not want to be part of the family firm. A long standing relationship with Tarek of the Mansour family catering business further complicates her attempts to decide what she wants and when as she navigates the summer between high school and college. The novel frankly addresses sexuality in teens and what the transition to college does and does not do to high school friendships. Would be a great pre-teen/teen - parent book club pick. Also great for anyone looking for a Rom-Com in a book (this one has plenty of references to Sleepless in Seattle). ~ Lisa Christie
Love is a Revolution by Renee Watson (2021). Ms. Watson wrote one of my favorite books for kids in 2019 (Some Places More Than Others, reviewed here), so I was excited to see she had penned a YA novel. Nala Robertson is facing the summer between her junior and senior year of high school with a cousin/sister/friend who is motivated, popular, pretty, in love and her bestest friend Imani. Nala knows she needs to do more than visit her grandmother in her assisted living center to have activities worthy of her looming college applications. Part of the deal when she moved in with her Aunt Uncle and Imani was she would get good grades and go to college - unlike her own estranged mother. And yet, she is not sure about college. And then Tye walks into her life. He is part of Imani's activist activities. He wants the world to be a better place and acts accordingly with every aspect of his life. Nala knows she shouldn't let Tye think she is Imani-like, but she does, because Tye is fine and Tye loves the Nala who is like Imani. The problem is this Nala is a lie and the real Nala doesn't like her too much. A superb novel about becoming you, the pressures high schoolers feel as they face college, and the enhanced pressures on brown and Black teens. ~ Lisa Christie
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi (2018). This novel was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for its look at post 9/11 America through the eyes of an American High School Student, who also happens to be a Muslim. The novel begins a year after 9/11, as Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped has switched schools yet again. She's used to stares and rude comments and stereotypes. She figured out long ago how to combat them -- she's built a huge wall of defenses that no one can see behind. Then random lab partner assignments lead to Ocean James - the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know her. ~ Lisa Christie
Fat Chance Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (2021). A lovely coming of age story for all the readers out there who feel outside the norm due to body size and for all their friends who love them. Charlie is a self described fat, brown girl whose dad passed away not so long ago, whose best friend is gorgeous thin and beloved by all, whose mother was fat like her until she discovered weight loss shakes and keeps sharing the love of these shakes to an uncooperative Charlie. Complicating matters even further, Charlie is in love with the star football player, Cal - who has firmly planted her in friend land, and even that probably only for an in with Charlie's gorgeous best friend. Charlie is self-aware and completely recognizes this cliche of the fat friend in love with the star athlete who uses her for her class notes and access to beautiful friends; and, she knows things with Cal will be different when he finally sees her. Luckily Charlie has her notebook and her stories and her desire to be the best writer possible. Even more luckily Charlie has an after school job in a workspace shared by a very nice boy from her art class. Enjoy this ride through junior year of high school and enjoy Charlie and her true friends; they will give you hope for humanity. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph (2020). To begin -- this YA book is also great for adults and we think would be excellent for Book Clubs and classroom discussions for anyone interested in racial justice and becoming better anti-racists/up-standers. Written by Mr. Joseph as if he is a new friend of the reader, he walks his new friends through how comments such as "I don't see color" and other micro-aggressions and more outright racism of many, are wrong and need to end. The book is divided into chapters by themes, with a conversation between Mr. Joseph and other experts on that theme ending each chapter. Full of practical advice and lists of "people and things to know" bith throughout the chapters and helpfully compiled at the end, this book is a great place to start one's own work on being a better person and actively anti-racist. It also feels important to highlight Mr. Joseph's reminder that "that this book is a gift not an obligation" (p. 195), because "while this book is meant to be a guide for white people to understand and be better, it's important that white people also understand that it isn't the duty of Black people or people of color to explain things" (p. 194). ~ Lisa Christie
The Sky Blues by Robbie Couch (2021). This novel surprised me -- not necessarily for how it tells a tale, but for how much it packs in to a YA novel, without being too preachy. There is SO much in here -- lived experiences of Black boys, trans teens, Arab teens, gay teens, cis-gendered teens, as well as the issues of the senior year of high school, difficult parents, and great teachers. It all unfolds as you follow the story of Sky, a gay boy in upstate Michigan who is trying to survive senior year - a feat made more difficult by the fact his homophobic mother threw him out of the house when he came out to her on Christmas Day. Luckily a superb teacher, the lovely parents of his best friend Bree, and the overbearing dad of his other best friend Marshall help. And help is needed as cyber bullying stunt ensnares Sky through his unrequited his crush on a very very popular kid. As an adult, I hope you leave this novel waning to be an adult that helps LHBTQ+ kids more. As a teen reader, I hope you leave wanting to become better friends to all your friends from marginalized groups -- the teens in this novel certainly provide a road map for what that might look like. And it is all done without feeling preachy. Please read and enjoy this tale of Sky and his life in rural Michigan. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (2020). Ashley Bennett and her friends are enjoying their senior year spring in Los Angeles in 1992. They are worried about which college will accept them (Stanford? UC Berkeley?) and how often they can successfully cut classes to lay on the beach or swim in the pool of a neighboring mansion. As you may guess from the year and the location, everything changes one night when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King to death. Suddenly even though Ashley has been questioning her choices of friends for awhile and hasn't been able to cut them loose because they've been friends since kindergarten, the fact that Ashley is Black and her friends are not means Ashley is also one of "the Black kids". Her world suddenly and methodically starts to crumble: her estranged older sister is involved in the riots, her family's success as a "model Black family" is no longer enough, her so called friends spread a rumor that endangers the future of one of the other "Black kids" at her prep school, and Los Angeles is literally burning around her. The historical setting unearths questions and highlights racism with us today, perhaps providing a better way. ~ Lisa Christie
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (2020). A powerful look at life from the eyes of an incarcerated Black teen. Amal, whose name translates to hope (an important aspect for his survival), remains in jail after a fight with some white teens landed one white boy in a coma and him in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Did he throw the first punch? Yes. Did he beat a white boy into a coma - NO. And yet he sits in jail because even his character witnesses - in particular a teacher from his school - saw him as an angry Black boy. What feeds his hope? Some sage advice from some of the boys preceding him into incarceration, a poet teaching classes to any boy who "earns" the privilege, and a guest whose exploration of mistakes, misgivings, and systems reminds Amal that speaking his truth is the most important thing he can do -- and the one thing no one can take away. Told in poetry and based on the actual experiences of Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, this book will hopefully change how we view our prison system and move us to action. ~ Lisa Christie
So Summer 2021 is off to a great start -- people are getting vaccinated, festive in-person gatherings are back, and for two Book Jam posts, great authors have shared their recommendations for great summer reading. Last month we heard about some great thrillers and mysteries from Sarah Stewart Taylor, author of the Maggie D'arcy series. Today, KJ Dell-Antonia, best-selling author of The Chicken Sisters shares her wisdom, perfect books to read, and adds to our to-be-read pile. THANK YOU KJ. With no further ado ... KJ's reviews.
If there’s one thing I like ALMOST as much as reading books myself, it’s suggesting them to others. I like to think one of my superpowers is finding just the right book for any reading situation. Today I’m focused on the summer book bag, which to me requires a blend of depth and fun that can be a bit of a challenge to get just right. I like some of my summer reading fluffy and some of it to engross me a little more deeply. Here are my picks for a variety of summer reading needs. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2021). Prefer a family saga to a romance, but want to revel in the kind of fun-and-games that a romance provides? I loved, loved, loved Malibu Rising, a complicated, mulit-POV story that takes place in one day in '80s Hollywood but moves around in time to show how everyone got there. So much happens, and yet in a sense the whole thing could easily be summed up in two words, one of which is a spoiler--but that's the best kind of book. Sprawling narrative, tight core. I admit it—I haven't read Daisy Jones yet. (#TBR)—so I can’t offer a comparison. But I can tell you this one’s flat out good stuff. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Life’s Too Short by Abby Jimenez (2021). Love a good romance, but demand some serious plot to move that story along? Get frustated when the only thing in the hero or heroine's way is so very clearly the hero or heroine herself? That's always true, but let's have it be about something real, right? Abby Jiminez's Life’s Too Short is long, long, long on story, so much so that the romance ends up being the most suspense-free part of the book. Facing mortality isn’t usually a summer read topic of choice, but here it’s handled with such deft humor and humanity that you can't help but be there for it. Hard recommend. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Embassy Wife by Katie Crouch (2021). Need one big book for a long weekend and a small bag? Embassy Wife is many things all rolled into one: a satire of diplomacy, in which an Auntie Mame-like genius that is the experienced wife takes the newbie under her wing, a but-what-is-he-up to marriage thriller and a hefty fun dose of the lunacy that results when a kind of Upper East Side parenting style transplants to Namibia and co-opts more than a few Namibians... This one (by Dartmouth professor Katie Crouch) satisfies a lot of itches. The cover art is--well, it suggests to me that they didn't know what to do with it, and I can see that, but don't judge it. This is no Just-So Stories. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia (also recommended by Book Jam)
You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar (2021). Wait, what? A lighthearted, summer-worthy read about what? Here’s the deal: You: Digesting much reading about racism and your inescapable part in it OR Finally reading your own history and watching the white people around you finally get a small clue. This Book: a funny intermission that doesn't for one minute let anyone off the hook and might even go further that its more apparently serious counterparts in waking people up OR making people feel heard and seen. My opinion: it's a match made in heaven for just about any reader. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia (Seconded by Lisa Christie in our recent work with the Norman Williams Public Library)
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2021). Stay With Me is the unexpected story of a marriage invaded--by family, by expectations, by culture--and a second wife, intended to provide the offspring wife number one has failed to produce. But no one has the full story (do they ever?), and even the people who claim to be playing by the rules aren't. This book surprised me in many ways--the plot kept me guessing, and the characters were uniquely themselves. Set in an Africa that’s not filtered through Western eyes, this is a consideration of what it means when fertility comes first in a society and an inside look at marriage expectations beyond the Western bubble—and it’s also compulsively readable, unpredictable and hard to put down. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021). True Confessions: I have never read Remains of the Day. Or Never Let Me Go. When you say "major literary prize winner" to me I say "oh way over my head then" with some internal struggles with the chip on my shoulder over all the books that were mandatory reading in high school that I should probably be grateful led to my not majoring in English in college. Those were not books for me. This, however, is very much a book for me--and not only that, but a (deceptively?) easy and inviting read that almost made me wonder if the real secret of popular literary fiction is that it expresses a very simple truth that we almost didn't realize we needed to hear in a way we have never thought about. Or maybe that's not a secret? To sum up: Yes do read this, even if you're not into the AI futuristic heading-for-dystopia narrative, because it's hopeful and thoughtful and also a very entertaining exercise in seeing an unfamiliar world through even more unfamiliar eyes. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
First Comes Like by Alisha Rai (2021). The reason the east Asian re-takes on Jane Austen's stories work so well is that these are cultures in which marriage may be discussed before two individuals have even met, let alone kissed. First Comes Like is NOT an Austen re-telling, but it still has that vibe of characters who need to take their interaction very seriously and, as a result, can't easily run away or imagine they should be taking things lightly. This is a wonderful romance between people who are genuinely trying their hardest to be mature and smart about a situation they've been thrown into--and it's also fun, funny and everything you want in a romcom. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
Where the Grass is Green and the Girls Are Pretty by Lauren Weisberger (2021). Lauren Weisberger's take on the college admissions scandal? Yes please. Three POVs--the kid whose too-helpful parents pulled the scam, the wildly successful morning show anchor mother and the mother's very judgmental not-so-successful sister are part of what makes this fun--we see the antics from all sides. There's a touch of white savior that's mildly problematic, so be warned (it's not super germane to the plot but it's there) but the book is overall extremely fun and the ending satisfying. Another great beach pick. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave (2021). Once this thriller gets going, it scoops you up like a waterslide and won’t let you go. If you want to be hooked into a page-turner for a long flight or train ride, or prefer to be fully engrossed on the beach, this one’s for you: in the wake of a corporate scandal, her husband has disappeared, leaving behind the daughter that he adores but who’s never fully connected with her stepmother. Now, the two of them have to figure out who the missing man really is and what he wants them to do next—and how to do it together. It took me a few chapters to get into this one (largely, I think, because the “husband who isn’t who he says he is” genre isn’t usually for me)—but I was glad I stuck with it, because once I was in in was ALL IN. ~ KJ Dell'Antonia
THANK YOU KJ! ~ The Book Jam
Book Jam readers - you are in for a treat. Today, author Sarah Stewart Taylor reviews some superb mysteries for our summer reading. She's too modest to do it herself, so we will add her terrific Maggie D'arcy mystery series - the initial novel, The Mountains Wild and book #2, A Distant Grave, which is available for purchase and in public libraries on June 22nd - yes tomorrow, to this list. So without further ado, Sarah's picks. ~ Lisa and Lisa
OK - one more "ado" - Sarah's book launches June 23rd with a Norwich Bookstore virtual event. Just click here for details. And now, with no further ado we present Sarah's recommendations. ~ Lisa and Lisa
I love summer reading and I don’t think there’s a better genre for the long reading days of summer than mystery fiction. It’s so satisfying to become completely absorbed in a puzzle and suspicious cast of characters and so many crime narratives take place in locations I’ve always wanted to visit.
So, Book Jam readers, here I’m sharing with you some of the crime novels I’m looking forward to diving into this summer. Find a hammock or a perfect chair and dive in. All of these can be found at your favorite independent bookstore! ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
Transient Desires by Donna Leon (2021) — I love Donna Leon’s Venice-set Guido Brunetti mysteries and I am so excited to read Brunetti’s latest adventure, in which the seemingly accidental deaths of two American women leads him down a dangerous and twisted path. I am looking forward to revisiting these beloved characters and also Brunetti’s wife Paola’s inspirational cooking. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
The Killing Kind by Jane Casey (2021) — I love Irish crime writer Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan mysteries and I am so excited to read this standalone thriller about a young London barrister whose stalker may be the only one who can save her from another threat . . . ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor (Note from the Book Jam: this mystery is available to be read September 21st, but can be preordered now.)
City of Saviors: A Detective Elouise Norton novel by Rachel Howzell Hall (2017) — I love Hall’s series featuring Los Angeles homicide detective Elouise Norton, but I just realized I haven’t yet read this fourth installment. Hall is getting a lot of attention for her standalone novels (These Toxic Things will be out September 1) and I can’t wait to get caught up on the most recent “Lou” Norton novel. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor (Book Jam Note: City of Saviors is Book #4 in this series, the first three are also available from your local indie bookstore.)
The Lost Village by Camilla Sten (2021) — Despite the fact that I write murder mysteries, I’m a bit of a wimp about spooky stories that contain elements of horror or the supernatural. But I’ve heard great things about this one, featuring a documentary filmmaker who travels to an abandoned mining village to try to figure out where the village’s residents went and what happened to them. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
Red Widow by Alma Katsu (2021) — I love espionage fiction and I’ve heard great things about this novel by former CIA intelligence officer Katsu, featuring two women whose careers and lives intersect over exposed Russian intelligence assets and a possible mole in the CIA. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
These Women by Ivy Pochoda (2021) — Ivy Pochoda will be visiting the Upper Valley later this summer (see the Norwich Bookstore website for details). And, I am so excited to finally read her award-winning novel, about a cast of women from different corners of L.A. whose voices combine to create what I’ve heard is a stunning portrait of a city and a dangerous man. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby (2021) — S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was one of my — and many other readers’ — favorite reads of 2020. His new standalone novel is getting big pre-publication buzz. Two very different fathers set out on a journey to avenge the deaths of their sons, a murdered gay couple. Everyone I know who has read this novel has raved and says you should have a tissue box ready. ~ Sarah Stewart Taylor
What about you? What are you looking forward to reading this summer?
Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of the Maggie D’arcy novels, about an American homicide detective in Ireland, and the Sweeney St. George novels, about an art historian who specializes in funerary art. The first Maggie D’arcy mystery, The Mountains Wild, was on numerous best of 2020 lists and was called “perfect summer reading” by BookPage. It’s out now in paperback.
The second Maggie D’arcy novel, A Distant Grave, will be out June 22. Library Journal calls it “as intricately plotted at The Mountains Wild . . . a tense thriller” and Kirkus says that, “Taylor pulls out all the stops―subplots, threats, red herrings, warning bells―to keep the pot boiling till the end". You can find her on the web at www.SarahStewartTaylor.com.
Summer is here -- at least if today's heat in Vermont (93 degrees!) is any indicator. Summer means reading and paperbacks so you don't mind as much if they get wet after those refreshing swims. Luckily two notable hardcovers we recently read are out soon in paperback. Enjoy our recommendations as well as a few dips in a cool lake or pond. And, a delicious Maple Cremee (visit Vermont soon if you are unfamiliar with this treat) wouldn't be a bad idea either...
Want by Lynn Steger Strong (published July 2020, coming out in paperback July 2021). This is an excruciatingly modern, thoroughly unsettling, but often surprisingly funny novel told in a bold, minimalist voice. We are taken on a journey through one woman's version of motherhood/womanhood/career-hood where Elizabeth - though we don't learn her name until nearly the last page of the book, which I think gives us the sense that she could be any or every woman - is living psychologically on the edge in a one-bedroom in Brooklyn as she and her husband decide whether or not to declare bankruptcy. In her thirties with two young girls, Elizabeth is an overqualified and underemployed teacher with a PhD and a love of literature, working two jobs to help make up for her unemployed husband's lack of income (he lost his banking job in the 2008 financial crisis and hasn't landed back on his feet). It's a very quick read at 224 pages, but it has the reader thinking from page one about capitalism, downward mobility, modern friendship, and marriage. We start out early in the book on an early morning run with Elizabeth and the feeling of constant movement and just trying to keep up never dissipates. Despite the looming challenges faced by the characters and the ever-present sense of breathlessness, this story left me with a sense of hope and grace. What an excellent, relevant and important book. ~Lisa Cadow
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (first published in June 2020; coming in paperback on 15 June 2021). This novel was published to great acclaim; it was named one of the best books of 2020 by The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, NPR, The Washington Post, Tordotcom, Marie Claire, Vox, Mashable, Men's Health, Library Journal, Book Riot and LibraryReads. And yet, even knowing all that, I somehow missed reading this last year. Luckily, my fantastic neighbor lent me her copy a few weeks ago and it was my perfect Memorial Day Weekend read. Creepy house, interesting family dynamics, and just the right amount of horror for me -- a person who prefers to ignore horror movies and honestly is conveniently popping popcorn for most of the ones I see with my family. The novel begins when Noemí Taboada is sent by her father to visit her cousin at High Place, a house in the Mexican countryside and find out what is wrong after he receives a mysterious letter complaining of secrets, disturbing visions, and her English husband. Once Noemi arrives the question becomes -- will she also need to pen a letter asking for help from this house of horrors? And yet, the house may have met its match -- while Noemi is a glamorous debutante, most knowledgeable about which red lipstick works best with which gown, she's also smart, and she is not afraid. I heard it described as Bronte goes to Latin America; that's not far off. Now that it is out in paperback on June 15, it makes the perfect beach or vacation read. ~ Lisa Christie
Perhaps it's because, like most, I've spent most of the last year in my own home that now in 2021 I find myself gravitating towards books written by authors from other countries. Missing travel has propelled me to journey and imagine through stories instead. There's something that feels particularly authentic - almost even clandestine - about traveling through books, in being able to see a country through the eyes, words, and memories of a native. To me, reading a book in translation feels like having a local share a recommendation of a hidden beach or a favorite dish or like having them sit down and explain what it was like to grow up in their region. At it's best, reading a book from another country is like eavesdropping on a whole cultural conversation while also having the luxury and time to reflect on all of the obscure references. It's been through reading these four books, one of a long walk through Marseille, another of an Italian widow who lives with her favorite chicken, the third of and of an enigmatic French cemetery keeper, and a fourth of a quirky family of Russians who've settled in Germany, that I feel I've journeyed far from home with no passport or quarantine necessary. And I think it's fair to say that nothing was lost in translation. ~ Lisa Cadow
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin (2020). One of my favorite books so far this year. It's not an easy read but it's a beautiful and moving one. The setting is unlikely: a cemetery in the Bourgogne region of France. The main character, Violette Toussaint, is also unusual: she is the cemetery keeper. Throughout the novel we learn what has brought her to this métier as well as how the stories of several resting in the cemetery and those visiting them are connected. Violette is kind and trusted, many stop by her house for tea and conversation but she also keeps much about her own life hidden from the world. The slow unfolding of the story and the series of revelations up until the very last chapter lend this novel the air of a mystery. There are also many references to French music tucked into these pages, some so intriguing that I found myself taking frequent breaks from the book to explore and listen to these songs. Fresh Water for Flowers captivated European readers and was a bestseller in France and Italy during the pandemic. ~ Lisa Cadow
Three O'Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carafiglio (2021). A love letter to 1980's Marseille through an Italian author's eyes. This bulk of this story takes place over the course of two days and follows the footsteps of a father and his teenage son walking through its many neighborhoods while getting to know - and even enjoy - each other's company. The pair are in the city for the son's medical appointment and due to a specific diagnostic test, he must not fall asleep for 48 hours. Told in retrospect through the now adult son's eyes, the duo experiences the sights and sounds of this city by the sea as they visit cafes, witness a crime, meet locals and attend late night parties. A lovely coming of age story. ~ Lisa Cadow
Nives by Sacha Naspini (2021). One night, one very long phone call between a recent widow and the village veterinarian. The conversation between the two is prompted by the widow's concern for her pet chicken, Giacomina, whose presence is the only thing that can help her to sleep since her husband passed away. But suddenly her pet hen has been hypnotized by a television commercial for laundry detergent. She calls the vet for advice but soon more than the chicken is the topic at hand. The reader becomes privy to a whole lifetime lived in a Tuscan village. Secrets are revealed and lives are changed forever. Short but sweet, very funny, surprising, and also extremely serious. The whole time I was reading this I wished I could see this affecting dialogue performed on stage. ~ Lisa Cadow
My Grandmother's Braid by Alina Bronsky (2021). Another gem published by Europa Editions (the press that brought American readers Muriel Barbery's very popular Elegance of the Hedgehog), this tragicomic tale of a Russian family living in a home for refugees in Germany is told by young, endearing, and observant Max. Though his overbearing and eccentric (and anti-semtic) grandmother is convinced that he is developmentally challenged, orphaned Max is actually quite astute and shares with the reader his observations of childhood as well as of the relationship developing between his grandfather and their beautiful neighbor. A meditation on family, what it means to leave behind a life in another country and start from scratch to rebuild it in another, Bronsky offers us a fictionalized account of her own upbringing in this unique novella. ~ Lisa Cadow
The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo (2015). Cuba 1963 meant Hurricane Flora, one of the deadliest in history. As Flora bears down on the island, women take refuge at the behest of the government in the former governor's mansion. To pass the time, one of the women begins to tell the story of her family's history in Cuba and reveals more than she realizes. This story within a story discusses love, forgiveness, and Cuba's War of Independence. This novel, also from Europa Editions brings us out of this Europe-centric post for just a moment, and is one I hope all can enjoy. ~ Lisa Christie
Some may have let Mother's Day pass by without getting the mothers in their lives the perfect gift. Don't fret. Some of us mothers would honestly prefer to buy the perfect book for ourselves. This purchase might be part of celebrating and honoring our motherhood or, quite honestly, it might be just because. Just because it's Monday. Just because we don't feel like answering any more emails and would rather be whisked away by a gorgeous story. Just because finding yourself the right book at the right time is simply the best.
We have two books to recommend if one is making such a purchase as well as for anyone simply looking for a good book. Enjoy and Happy Belated Mother's Day to all.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl (2019). Speaking of buying one's self the perfect gift, I did just this very thing this morning with Save Me the Plums. And I couldn't be more satisfied with my choice. Though only twenty pages into this book that tells the tale of Reich's years at the helm of the now defunct Gourmet magazine, I already can't wait to return to it tonight. Reichl's writing is, as always, well...delicious. Whenever I start one of her books, I feel as though I've entered a wise friend's warm and fragrant kitchen to hear another interesting tale of a fascinating life spent pioneering in food and publishing. Not only is the conversation easy, interesting, and though-provoking but this friend always prepares us the perfect dishes to accompany our chat (and shares new recipes with me to take home afterwards such as 'Spicy Chinese Noodles'). Many may be familiar with Reichl's other enjoyable memoirs that have been published over the decades such as Tender at the Bone that tells of her eclectic youth and how she fell in love with cooking in the first place and Comfort Me with Apples that chronicles her early adult years in Berkeley, California as a young food writer, hippie, and restaurant reviewer. Then there's Garlic and Sapphires that describes her busy tenure as the head restaurant reviewer at The New York Times all while also raising her young son Nick. They are all three worth going back to and slowly savoring if you haven't had the chance to already. With Save Me the Plums, Reichl pulls the hungry reader in right away with descriptions of taking food tours of New York City with her father as a young girl. There are scenes from German delis and of her, not yet a teenager, cooking a whole suckling pig with what else? A recipe from an old, loved edition of a Gourmet cookbook. I'm now on the page where she's completely caught off guard at being offered the job of Editor-in Chief at Gourmet while still at The Times. Will she take it? Though I think I already know the answer, I can't wait to find out what happens next. ~ Lisa Cadow
The Searcher by Tana French (2020). Prior to The Searcher I had not yet read Ms. French, which I know is almost sacrilege. Perhaps it's because my Book Jam partner Lisa Cadow loves her so much; thus, I know she will review every Tana French book and I just don't pick them up. But for some unknowing reason I picked up The Searcher and well loved it. The Searcher has a quiet pace, that allows you to enjoy living in a small town in Ireland for awhile. This pace allows you to grow to love Cal, the ex Chicago cop who relocated to this town after his marriage fell apart - for reasons he still does not understand - and his job just got too hard after 25 years to successfully navigate and keep mentally healthy. Ms. French also allows you time to think about domestic abuse, the harm of drugs on those who use and those around the users, and starting over (as well as home repair), all while being entertained. (I emerged more empathetic and sympathetic for people in all those categories.) Well written and lovingly paced, it's just a great escape for anyone. ~ Lisa Christie
In Mid-March, almost exactly on the one year anniversary of the covid-19 stay at home practices and orders here in New England, one of our favorite bookstores did a ZOOM version of one of their favorite nights of every year - Reading Group Recommendation night.
Because they could not yet gather bookclubs and booksellers in one large room as in previous years -- Carin, Penny, and Liza just pretended their audience was in the store. They talked about a few dozen books published in the past year; and they selected fiction and nonfiction, hardcover and paperback for Book Clubs everywhere. As Liza wrote when we asked her if we could post their list on the Book Jam, "the Reading Group Recommendation evening was lots of fun. While we could not see folks in person, it was great to see everyone's name and imagine who might select which titles for their book clubs to discuss."
The upside of ZOOM, anyone could attend and there is video of the evening for those who missed it. We are trying to focus on the up side a lot these days. And yet, we still are looking forward to being able to attend events inside of our favorite bookstores soon.
The brief reviews we lifted for each of their choices from the Indie Bookstore web site can't do their reviews about each book or the evening justice. So, for those of you who wish to see Carin, Liza, and Penny "in person", a video of the event can be found here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wwRU7YmRq4. And, please remember, the reviews all came straight from The Norwich Bookstore website or Indiebound.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929). Nella Larsen's powerful, thrilling, and tragic tale about the fluidity of racial identity that continues to resonate today. Clare Kendry is living on the edge. Light-skinned, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a racist white man unaware of her African American heritage, and has severed all ties to her past after deciding to “pass” as a white woman. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African American community, and is simultaneously allured and repelled by Clare’s risky decision to engage in racial masquerade for personal and societal gain. After frequenting African American-centric gatherings together in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns into a homoerotic longing for Irene’s black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again, and she is forced to grapple with her decision to pass for white in a way that is both tragic and telling. A New York Times Editors’ Choice and now a major motion picture starring Tessa Thompson and Alexander Skarsgård. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet (2020). Named a best book of 2020 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, People, TIME, Vanity Fair and Glamour. As Jamie Thomas, Women & Children First, Chicago, IL said in IndieBound, “Brit Bennett’s second novel broke my heart. She doesn’t shy away from the sadness inherent in each character’s life, yet she left me feeling better for having met all of them. I read The Vanishing Half with a sense of hope, despite my dread that terrible things might befall the characters. Desiree and Stella’s story unfolds with a deft delicateness in a book that is astonishingly accomplished and sweeping, and yet so very intimate.”~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020). Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher's policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city's notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Douard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton (2020). As The Washington Post said in their review, “Boy Swallows Universe hypnotizes you with wonder, and then hammers you with heartbreak. . . . Eli’s remarkably poetic voice and his astonishingly open heart take the day. They enable him to carve out the best of what’s possible from the worst of what is, which is the miracle that makes this novel marvelous.” Plot recap - Eli Bell’s life is complicated. His father is lost, his mother is in jail, and his stepdad is a heroin dealer. The most steadfast adult in Eli’s life is Slim—a notorious felon and national record-holder for successful prison escapes—who watches over Eli and August, his silent genius of an older brother. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019). Kelly Brown, Magic City Books, Tulsa, OK says, “although you can read Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel over the course of one evening, there is nothing breezy about the richness of its story, nothing short about the depth of its characters, nothing quick about the way this book stays with you after you finish reading. Told through five distinct voices, Red at the Bone tracks an African-American family through time and place as an unexpected pregnancy upends and reshapes family and class expectations as well as individual trajectories. Ultimately, the novel is about legacy in every sense of the word. And since Woodson’s writing packs the emotional punch of an epic in a novella number of pages, the legacy of her book is to be read over and over and over again.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Afterlife by Julia Alverez (2020). Antonia Vegas, recently widowed and a retired English Professor, has always found solace in books and in the written word. When she discovers an illegal pregnant migrant hiding in her barn and then her older sister goes missing, her life is upended. Antonia and her three sisters all born in the Dominican Republic but having lived their lives in the US are professional women and very close. They joke and sing and laugh together always sharing their love for their heritage and each other. Her first adult novel in 15 years, Alverez has written a warm, often funny and always heartfelt tale of how we care for ourselves, our family and our fellow neighbors. — From Penny's Picks
Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (2020). "The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led." Texas 1866. All Simon the Fiddler wants to do is get to the Red River, buy some land, track down the Irish governess he fell in love with, and live his life. No cakewalk in a state and country turned upside down by the Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is about devotion and drive, steadfastness and spunk, and the power of music as a salve in a nation gone awry. Paulette Jiles (News of the World) writes her tale lyrically, unsentimentally, with humor and tension both. Just read it. — From Carin's Picks
The Vanishing Sky by L. Annette Binder (2020). A powerfully gut-wrenching and beautifully told war story from the perspective of a German family in the last months of WW2. The writing is dynamic and Binder's tale of a family with two sons; a runaway from Hitler's Youth School and the other fighting on the Eastern front, held me spellbound throughout. We seldom have the opportunity to read about innocent German families and their personal experiences of war. Binder's extraordinary novel has opened my eyes and heart and I will carry this story with me for quite awhile. — From Penny's Picks
The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (2019). There have been numerous books written about World War II over the years focused on the Holocaust and the bravery of people in many countries who risked their lives to save Jews living in their communities. This fast-paced novel centers around the true story of Trus Wijsmuller, a member of the Dutch resistance in the days before WWII, who was a key player in smuggling over 10,000 Jewish children to safety. We follow several families and their individual stories as they go from living in a free society to Nazi controlled Austria. This is an intriguing good summer read. Appropriate for young adults as well. — From Penny's Picks
House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon (2020). The New York Times Book Review states, “Elon powerfully evokes the obscurity of the past and its hold on the present as we stumble through revelation after revelation with Yoel. As we accompany him on his journey…we share in his loss, surprise, and grief, right up to the novel’s shocking conclusion.” Part family mystery, part wartime drama, House on Endless Waters is “a rewarding meditation on survival” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and a “deeply immersive achievement that brings to life stories that must never be forgotten” (USA TODAY). ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson (2021). So far my favorite of this year (ok, ok, it's early yet). It's many things (including unputdownable) -- an adventure story set in Banff and the Rockies, a coming of age tale, a love story, and a father/son saga. Beautifully written, imbued with the natural world, full of fascinating, well-drawn characters with great back stories, and totally addictive. And set in 1917, so you can escape the present! What more could you want? — From Carin's Picks
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by (2020). Benjamin "Buddy" Bess, Da Shop, Honalulu, HI says, “Sharks in the Time of Saviors is one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read. The fact that the book takes place in Hawaii makes it even more special. The author provides the reader with a unique ‘chicken skin’ experience. The book captures contemporary Hawaii’s history over the past 20+ years, including the socioeconomics of race and being Hawaiian, income disparity, housing issues, family issues, and the diaspora that affects so many families in Hawaii who are unable or unwilling to deal with the cost of living. Truly a master work of art.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019). Anderson McKean, Page and Palette, Fairhope, AL says, “Ask Again, Yes is a compelling, heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful novel. Mary Beth Keane is incredibly talented; she does not sugar coat, instead giving readers a compulsively readable family drama. I did not expect to become so completely engrossed in these characters’ stories — two families whose lives become inextricably linked by young love and personal tragedy. Their myriad mistakes and attempts to atone beautifully demonstrate the power and grace found in forgiveness.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (2019). Laura Simcox, Sunrise Books, High Point, NC says, “When a politician’s young wife hires her old school friend as a nanny for her two stepchildren, the main duty will be to keep the twins out of sight and out of trouble. That’s because the kids’ father is a senator and under serious consideration to be the next Secretary of State. But what if the children can’t control themselves? Who is the best person to take care of children who are afflicted with spontaneous combustion? Obviously, a woman with no fear of fire, nothing to lose, and nothing to gain. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, this unique novel explores family dynamics, resentment, and retribution, leaving the reader with a new perspective on motherhood and what it means to be loyal to those you love.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Migrations: A novel by Charlotte McConaghy (2019). It's the near future and entire species are dropping like flies. Frannie Shore has tagged several arctic terns -- the bird with the longest migration of all -- and is following them South. She's never been able to stay in any one place for long. But why? What is she escaping, or running towards? In alternating chapters about her past and her present journey on a fishing vessel, you learn why. This book is about motivation and love and secrets and this whole incredible natural world we take way too much for granted. And it is the debut of an enormously talented writer. Loved it.— From Carin's Picks
Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Joauad (2021). In the summer of 2010 Suleika Jaouad had just graduated from Princeton and moved to Paris. After only a few months there and just beginning a new relationship, she was diagnosed with a form of Leukemia that came with a 35% chance of survival.
In the following three and a half years, in addition to chemo, a clinical trial and a bone transplant, she documented her illness and treatment in a column for The New York Times which garnered her both acclaim and a boat load of people who wrote to her in response to the columns.
When Jaouad finished treatment in New York, she took off with her dog on a cross country trip to meet some of the people with whom she had corresponded during her treatments as well as to decide what the next chapter of her life might be.
This is a well written book that is not about cancer, but it is. Not about travel, but it is. Not about our relationships, but it is. What it is is a very good memoir about life. — From Penny's Picks
Send for Me by Lauren Fox (2021). A lovingly told story about how the emigration from Nazi Germany to America affects three successive generations of women. Fox writes of the interconnectedness of family life and the ties that bind us, one generation to another. As I read this, I held in my mind the similar stories that we are hearing now as people are entering the US from our Southern borders. Can we ever leave behind the lives we grew up in? Our families and our stories? This is a tale of heartbreak as well as of hope. Above all it is a tale of love. — From Penny's Picks
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2020). Somehow I missed this when it came out a year ago...it's now in paperback and is terrific. Set on an island off Norway in the late 1600's -- a storm at sea kills most of the men, and the grieving women have to learn how to survive by doing all their men did. But their independence (and power) attract witch-hunters...(mostly men) and the battle is joined. Not an easy book, but wonderfully written and absorbing. One of the NYT 100 best of last year... — From Carin's Picks
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (2020). The Boston Globe says, “of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life… here is a novel … so gorgeously written that it transports you."
In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” (The New Yorker). What results is a luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Memorial Drive by Nathalie Trethewey (2020). In this riveting and wrenching memoir -- so slim but so powerful -- former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer prize winner Trethewey tells of her life growing up biracial in the South and of the murder of her mother by Trethewey's manipulative and damaged stepfather. Written in precise, almost crystalline prose, Trethewey's tale packs a whallop. One of the most moving memoirs I've read in a long time.
— From Carin's Picks
The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer (2020). A “well-written, engaging detective story” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) about a rogue who trades in rare birds and their eggs—and the wildlife detective determined to stop him. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2019). Now in paperback—the intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States, featuring a new introduction by Michelle Obama, a letter from the author to her younger self, and a book club guide with 20 discussion questions and a 5-question Q&A. New york Times bestseller, Oparh's Book Club Pick, NAACP Image Award Winner. Essence's 50 most impactful Black Books of the past 50 years. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Becoming Adapted for Young Readers by Michelle Obama (2021). Michelle Obama’s worldwide bestselling memoir, Becoming, is now adapted for young readers. Most importantly, this volume for young people is an honest and fascinating account of Michelle Obama’s life led by example. She shares her views on how all young people can help themselves as well as help others, no matter their status in life. She asks readers to realize that no one is perfect, and that the process of becoming is what matters, as finding yourself is ever evolving. In telling her story with boldness, she asks young readers: Who are you, and what do you want to become? ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith (2020). Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean to submit to a new reality--or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? How do we think about them? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it? ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (2019). Curtis Sittenfeld states, "I loved this book not just from the first chapter or the first page but from the first paragraph... The voice is just so honest and riveting and insightful about creativity and life". Writers & Lovers follows Casey--a smart and achingly vulnerable protagonist--in the last days of a long youth, a time when every element of her life comes to a crisis. Written with King's trademark humor, heart, and intelligence, Writers & Lovers is a transfixing novel that explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Sea Wolf by Amity Gaige (2021). Mary Laura Philpott, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN says about Sea Wolf “Wherever you go, your anxieties go with you — even (or especially) if you go live on a boat to sail the world with your spouse and small children. Nothing will ever be the same for Juliet, Michael, and their family after their harrowing year at sea, and no reader will be the same after reading this taut, brilliant novel. I can’t stop thinking about it.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (2020). The Star Tribune reviewed this novel as “revolutionary . . . A visionary addition to American literature.” Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and reimagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it’s about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka (2020). Longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award. A wildly original, cross-country novel that subverts a long tradition of family narratives and casts new light on the mythologies—national, individual, and collective—that drive and define us. Moving from Seattle's underground to the docks of the Far North, from the hideaways of the southern swamps to the storied reaches of the Great Offshore Grounds, this novel is a tale with boundless verve, linguistic vitality, and undeniable tenderness. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
Long Bright River by Liz Moore (2020). Hilary Kotecki, The Doylestown & Lahaska Bookshops, Doylestown, PA says, "this story’s power comes not just from its beautiful writing but the reality of its characters and the incisive nature of its setting. Liz Moore has created a masterpiece that exposes the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia, highlighting the vulnerability of its victims and the sheer scope of suffering it causes. From the first page, when the murder mystery begins, readers will suffer and rejoice with the novel’s oh-so-human characters. The power of this story is a fire that will linger for a long time.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
Woodstock, VT + A Public Library + Book Clubs + A Book Store Owner + An English Teacher + The Book Jam = FUN and a great list of books to read
On an early April evening last week, the Norman Williams Public Library of Woodstock, Vermont (NWPL) hosted a night for Book Clubs heading into the spring and summer reading season. As with many events this past year, it was held over ZOOM. And though many of us dearly miss in-person events, the upside was that the Zoom platform magically allowed people from as far away as South Carolina to present and for readers from locales as far away as Chicago to attend (even though they couldn't quite hear the vernal chorus of wood frogs and peepers outside). The presenters included Kari Meutsch (owner of Yankee Bookshop), Liana Kish (a high school English teacher), and Lisa Christie (of our very own Book Jam blog). We were ably hosted by Kathy Beaird and Meg Brazill of the NWPL. (Bios appear at the end of the reviews.) What everyone - presenters and readers, both near and far - received was a fun evening of chatter about great books in addition to a rich list of what to read next with their book clubs. We share them now so that all may all benefit from the absolute fabulousness that is public library programming. We do so LOVE and appreciate local libraries and their dedicated librarians - as well as the concert of frogs currently singing us to sleep as we read.
BONUS -- If you order these books by April 31st from Yankee Bookshop, you will receive 15% off your order. Just click here.
Animal Wife by Lara Erlich (2020). Ms. Erlich’s debut collection pulls from the fairy tales we all know, but twists them on their head and investigates what might be the real life feelings of the women in these stories. Feminist reimaginings of fairy tales are not new, but these are different. This collection is definitely more realistic than most that play with this idea (I would place some of these stories in the real world, and some in magical realism). After each story I found myself wanting to turn to someone and discuss. I underlined passages, reread sections aloud that just felt so true - this writing was fantastic and I absolutely loved every story. ~ Selected by Kari
Severance by Ling Ma (2019). A debut novel, this pandemic story was written years before COVID19. What I loved about this book was the hope in such a bleak landscape. Having read a large number of post-apocalyptic novels, the reality that Ling Ma builds was just so believable and fresh. I’m not sure how it would read now that we have actually experienced (and still are in) a pandemic situation, but seeing New York City and the publishing industry through the eyes of a millennial just starting out was enough of a reason for me to want to read this book. Added bonus: readers are treated to an insider’s view of what the printing portion of publishing looks like in China. ~ Selected by Kari
A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet (2021). Absolutely hands-down the best book I read in 2020. Started it right at the beginning of lockdown, not realizing what it was actually about, and was absolutely spellbound from the beginning. It’s dark, but with hope at the end (for some, anyway). The premise is simple enough: a few families rent a summer house together - the reader follows the group of children thrown together by their parents, teen angst & drama etc. Then a storm comes - but not just any storm, it’s the Big One that changes everything. The kids are forced to band together to survive. There is so much to talk about here, especially after living through quarantine and the upheaval of the pandemic this last year - but also religion and belief, human nature, survival, generational differences. It’s simply written (almost like a fable) but amazingly profound - if sometimes difficult to swallow. ~ Selected by Kari
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn (2020). This is a family story - with a twist - of life as a native Hawaiian. The family we follow is down on their luck and about to move to the main island of Hawaii in search of better employment, etc. Before they make the move, an incident happens - a miracle even - to their middle child. What follows is a story told from multiple points of view about growing up, what it means to be part of a family, what it’s like to be Hawaiian - on the islands and the mainland, and also what it’s like to grow up surrounded by a deep mythology - and maybe even be a part of it. Beautifully written, this book draws you in and won’t let you go. ~ Selected by Kari
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2019). In an interview in the Paris Review Nicholson Baker stated that all novels are trying to answer the question: Is life worth living? Nunez said she read the interview after she had finished writing The Friend and thought Baker’s statement was so perfect and true that she included it in the opening pages. The Friend is told by by an unnamed narrator who has just learned that her mentor has died by suicide. She is both a writer and a writing instructor and her therapist suggests that writing about her grief might help. And so the novel becomes her answer to this assignment of sorts. As a dog lover, I loved watching the growing relationship between the narrator and Apollo--the 180lb Great Dane she inherits from her mentor. As an English teacher, I loved the way Nunez weaves in quotations and anecdotes from the works and lives of other writers. She moves smoothly between heartbreaking and comical scenes with Apollo and philosophical musings about life and the act of writing. While this is a story about grief, it’s also one about love, friendship and writing. And of course, how does one make one’s life worth living? ~ Selected by Liana
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (2020). This novella is set in 2019, in a small Vermont town. In the opening chapter we learn that Antonia Vega, a writing professor in Vermont, is on her way to meet her husband Sam at a restaurant. Their special dinner is to celebrate her retirement from the college. However, he dies from a heart attack en route to the restaurant. So just as she is about to embark on this new stage in life that she has imagined with him, she is alone. The title refers to both her need to reimagine
her life after his death as well as her need to keep his memory alive. While this book is about her grief, it is also about her complicated relationship with her sisters and the gifts and obligations of family. It touches upon timely topics such as immigration and raises the question: What is our responsibility to others?
After reading and listening to many interviews with Alvarez, I came across the following which I think gives a great sense of the feeling of this story: In an interview with the LA Times: “Many of my novels have a soundtrack that no one
else ever hears,” says Alvarez. “In this case, it was Leonard Cohen’s song [Anthem]
with the line ‘There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.’ … In that
brokenness and fragmentation that happens when the life you had falls apart, you hope that you end up with a larger version of yourself.”~ Selected by Liana
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021) and Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (2017), with Vida (2010) by Ms. Engel as a bonus if you need three choices. Immigration, undocumented workers, borders, border crossings, coyotes, border walls, xenophobia, citizenship, voting, all bring up emotions and images. Emotions and images that differ for everyone depending on our own lived experiences, and our exposure to people behind those words. For instance, anyone who has witnessed or participated in a naturalization ceremony is forever marked by the joy expressed there. Anyone who has known or is an undocumented worker is forever marked by the hope and fear guiding that status. The rest of us, well, we have books. And I am recommending two, OK three.
The first, Unaccompanied, is a collection of poetry authored by Javier Zamora, born in El Salvador and educated in the USA that describes in well chosen words the lives of the undocumented in the USA. The second, Infinite Country is the best book I have read this year. Infinite Country highlights what life torn between two countries involves. She shows how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but among thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly shows how all five family members in this book are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statuses in the USA. Along the way, she movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. Vida, Ms. Engel's debut provides a superb collection of linked short stories if neither of the other two picks speak to you. ~ Selected by Lisa
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald (2020). I LOVED THIS novel and no one really talks about it; so I am talking about it now. I read an advance copy in 2019 and was so excited to hand sell it to everyone when it was available for sale at the end of January 2020. Then covid happened and I was unable to convince as many people as I wished that this book should be read. So please read it.
For those who need a few more details --- a summary. This book lovingly, and with great prose and plot, reminds us that we are all legends of our own making. The heroine, Zelda, has some significant health difficulties; she knows they stem from fetal alcohol syndrome (even if she isn't exactly certain what that means). She also has a fierce determination to live her life boldly and her obsession with Vikings (the historical ones, not the football team) helps her in this quest. The plot begins with her 21st birthday party and slowly unfolds to show how she and her brother Gert navigate the honestly crappy hand life has dealt them - dead mother, absent father, abusive uncle, and poverty - just to name a few. When Gert, who is trying to both take care of the two of them and keep his college scholarship, makes some pretty poor choices, Zelda rises to the occasion with help from a superb librarian (love a book with a helpful librarian), a great social worker, and Gert's strong-minded on-again/off-again girlfriend - AK47. You will cheer for Zelda every step of the way and be a bit sad when you leave her orbit at the end. ~ Selected by Lisa
Hamnet by Maggie O'farrell (2020) paired with Hamlet by Shakespeare because why not? I’m cheating and pairing books again; but honestly in this case how could I not. In what was one of my very favorite books from 2020, Maggie O'farrell brings to life that elusive woman from Elizabethan England - no, not Queen Elizabeth - Shakespeare’s wife. Based around the fact of their son’s death from the plague (a great entry to discussions around covid 19 if your book club is ready for those), this novel explores what life might have involved for the partner of Shakespeare’s genius. Kathy Beaird reminded me during the Book Club event that William Shakespeare is never referred to by name in this novel; he is the poet or the playwright, or the husband. Debating the significance of Ms. O'farrell's choice to keep him unnamed might be a great way to begin your book club discussion of this novel. And honestly, reading this will make you want to revisit Hamlet so you might as well read them both and discuss. Bonus Hamnet is out in Paperback in May. ~ Selected by Lisa
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (2019). Having gone to college in the Boston area during the 80s, it was fun to read this novel set in Boston in 1997 with its references to familiar locations, music and events . Casey Peabody, the narrator of this story, is an aspiring writer in her early 30s, who is also a waitress in Harvard Square. She is smart and witty, and she is also grieving for her mother who passed away the year before. Both her mother’s death and a recently failed relationship have left her untethered and filled with self doubt. She is estranged from her father who does not support her choice to be a writer. King draws you into Casey’s life as she struggles between her desire to follow her passion to be a writer while also struggling to pay her rent. Casey’s story will give groups a lot to talk about in terms of the challenges of pursuing a creative life in a world that is hard on artists... How does one define success in terms of a career? And in terms of love? And what constitutes a family? ~ Selected by Liana
The Dutch House by Anne Patchett (2019). This story spans five decades and moves back and forth in time as the narrator, Danny Conroy tells us about his family. Danny’s father, Cyril Conroy, a poor Irish immigrant living in Brooklyn, creates a real estate empire for himself buying properties all over Philadelphia--his biggest source of pride is the Dutch House--a lavish and ornate home that he buys as a surprise for his family.
While Danny and his older sister Maeve adjust easily to their new lifestyle, their mother does not. The house becomes the very thing that unravels the family; and when Danny and Maeve find themselves banned from the home, they must learn to construct new homes and families for themselves. This is a story that explores tough questions such as, How do we make peace with difficult events from our childhoods? How do past events shape who we become as adults? What are we willing to forgive? ~ Selected by Liana
Think Again by Adam Grant (2021). For book clubs who like books with facts and data and thought provoking arguments and theories. Professor Grant's (Wharton) latest book illustrates we don't have to (and probably shouldn’t) believe everything we think, or internalize everything we feel. He shows how the ability to rethink and unlearn is essential to our success and more importantly our happiness. He challenges us to embrace the discomfort of doubt, to stop listening only to opinions that make us feel good, and to instead seek many, many ideas that make us think hard. He proves knowing what we don't know is true wisdom. Along the way he shares enough stories to stimulate great conversations - such as how do you make a Yankee fan a Red Sox fan too? Even if your club prefers fiction, this book would make a great change of pace. ~ Selected by Lisa
Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man by Emmanuel Acho (2020), You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin (2021), and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard (2019). So many of us are struggling with how to talk about race and perhaps more importantly how to take action around racism and/or to be anti-racist. These four books all provide great ways for starting or continuing conversations about racism and bias. Each enters those conversations differently so I wanted to give Book Clubs that are interested in discussing racism options so you may choose depending on the flavor of your group dynamics or what you feel like devouring in that particular moment.
Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (2021). Jenny Lawson is hilarious. If you haven’t read any of her previous books, that’s okay. This book is filled with essays, some more personal than others, but over the course of the book she delves into her experiences with depression and anxiety (what it’s like to live with, cures she has tried, etc.) - all while making you laugh so much that it can be embarrassing. ~ Selected by Kari
Best We Could Do: An illustrated memoir written and illustrated by Thi Bui (2018). This book is Ms. Bui's look at becoming a mother in the US, when her own parents had navigated an escape from Vietnam (she was only months old at the time). A look at how she wants to be connected to her own children, while investigating the divide that exists between herself and her own parents, and diving into what they went through when escaping with the waves of “boat people” coming after the Vietnam War. There is SO MUCH to talk about with this one - especially when you incorporate the art aspect. If you’re looking to try a new format as a group, this graphic novel is beautiful and easy to follow - unlike more complicated examples of the genre can be. ~ Selected by Kari
Untamed by Glennon Doyle (2020). My daughter who is a sophomore in college recommended this book to me. To be honest, it’s not a book I would have chosen on my own but I was curious because she doesn’t usually recommend books. It’s SO good, she said. I had never even heard of Glennon Doyle, the #1 New York Times bestselling author, or the activist , speaker, thought leader... and so had no idea what to expect. Right away Ms. Doyle pulls you in to her family and situation. She gives you a front seat view as she discovers the many layers of how she has been tamed by societal expectations. Doyle’s previous books are honest about her battles with bulimia, alcoholism, and about her path out of these addictions and her successful marriage and three children. At a writing conference for her book, Love Warrior, her whole life changes when she meets someone who helps her become the person she believes she always was meant to be. Ms. Doyle offers words of wisdom about a range of topics and just when you might find her to be too preachy, she takes you on a humble road detour where she exposes her own shortcomings sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes laugh out loud funny. I found myself pushed and pulled all the way through to the end. It will certainly give a book group a lot to talk about. ~ Selected by Liana
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (2019). This memoir by Nicole Chung is about the power of stories. The first type of story Chung explores are the stories we are told when we are young and how they shape our perceptions of ourselves--even when we might not always believe these stories. Ms. Chung grew up in a small white town in Oregon and her white parents have always been open with her about her adoption. They explained to her that her Korean parents could not provide her with a good life, and so out of love they put her up for adoption. This story of her birth parents’ sacrifice out of love, brings her comfort when over the years she wonders how they could have given her up. As an adult and expectant mother, Ms. Chung actively begins her search for her birth parents. Ms. Chung lets us into her experience and takes on her journey as she learns that not all the stories she was told about her childhood are accurate. She gives an unflinching, honest portrayal of what she uncovers and as the title suggests, the limitations of what she simply cannot uncover or ever know. While some of her discoveries are painful, there are others that enrich her life. Ms. Chung also provides insight into some of the issues surrounding adoptions and challenges some of the mainstream ideas or narratives about adoptions. Her story touches upon what it means to belong and the many definitions of family and the many ways one can create a family. ~ Selected by Liana
GENRE: SCIFI, FANTASY, MYSTERY
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (2020). If you could live forever, would you want to? What would you be willing to give up for immortality? This is the story of Adeline LaRue who as a young girl in a small town in France in the 18th century is about to be married to a man she does not love. In fact she does not want to marry or have children at all --even though that is what is expected of her. She runs from her wedding and begs the gods to help her. When one answers she makes a deal, asking for freedom and independence. While her wish is granted, she learns the cost too late. The story spans 300 years and moves to locations all over Europe and a few cities in the United States. While some readers may be disappointed that Addie doesn’t visit more places or tackle societal issues, her experience draws you in and makes you wonder how you might spend your days if they were endless? Her plight raises the questions such as, What does it take to live a life of purpose or a life of value? Do you need to leave a mark on the world? And if you don’t, does that mean your life has no value? How would you imbue them with purpose? What mark do you want to leave on the world? How do you want others to remember you? ~ Selected by Liana
Radiance by Catherynne Valente (2016). I love Catherynne Valente. Every one of her books is drastically different - in subject, in tone, in style, and even sometimes format. This book is a challenge, but so much fun along the way. It’s the 1940s, and centered around the film industry, set in an alternate version of our world (all the planets are inhabited, and Hollywood is located on the Moon). The main character is a documentary filmmaker, railing against the kind of movies that her famous father made (glossy romances & blockbuster films). She disappears while making what ends up being her final film, and the whole book is fitting the pieces together - radio transcripts, letters, screenplays, interviews (and some more narrative sections). It technically falls into a lot of science fiction sub-genres...but is also just a story about family, love, exploration and a love letter to the golden age of cinema - IN SPACE. ~ Selected by Kari
The Mountains Wild (2020) and A Distant Grave (2021) by Sarah Stewart Taylor. I recommend these two books for book clubs for five big reasons. 1) They are superbly crafted mysteries. 2) They will leave you longing to visit Ireland. 3) Ms. Taylor is a local author and I love to promote local authors; and in this case I LOVE that I can tell you to read local because these books are just REALLY good, not just because she is from Vermont. 4) The main characters - Long Island homicide detective Maggie D’Arcy and her detecting partner Dave, her daughter Lilly, her Uncle Danny, and her Irish beau Connor, are all worth investing time in getting to know. 5) Finally, Sarah will come visit ANY Book Club that buys seven or more of her books from Yankee Bookshop. So, with this selection, you can read great books and discuss them with the actual author. Hopefully, you don’t need any more reasons to pick up this series with your book club. And, I am sure I can find some. ~ Selected by Lisa
Night Diary by Veera Hiranandan (2019). A different kind of historical novel, from a very different perspective. This book looks at The Partition of India (1947), the creation of India and Pakistan, through the eyes of a 10 year old girl. Her story: she and her father need to leave their home, because they are in the land about to be Pakistan and their beliefs align more with the people of India. Because of the point of view, this book is absolutely heart-wrenching and eye-opening, all while managing to be completely appropriate for a 10 year old to read. What I love about reading books written for kids as an adult is the emotion - it’s so intense and to the point, because kids don’t have the baggage we all do everything is very straight-forward when you’re reading from their perspective. ~ Selected by Kari
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019). Written as a novel in verse, a teenage girl from the Bronx, Xiomara is struggling with the kinds of things all teenagers deal with: her body has changed without her permission, of course there’s a love interest, and then a mother with a fierce religious streak that clashes with her own view of things. Luckily, she finds poetry (particularly slam poetry) to be a way for her to find her voice and gain a better understanding of the world around her. Have you been inspired by Amanda Gorman? This is what she does that is so entrancing to watch - and Acevedo’s writing is the same kind of work that pulls you in and holds you close. ~ Selected by Kari
Fat Chance Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (2021). A lovely coming of age story for all the readers out there who feel outside the norm due to body size (or other reasons) and for all their friends who love them. Charlie is a self described fat, brown girl whose dad passed away not so long ago, whose best friend is gorgeous, thin, and beloved by all, whose mother was fat like her until she discovered weight loss shakes - shakes that she insists on sharing with an uncooperative Charlie. Complicating matters even further, Charlie is in love with the star football player, Cal, who has firmly planted her in friend land; and probably only in friend land in order to gain an in with Charlie's gorgeous best friend. Charlie recognizes this cliche of the fat friend in love with the star athlete who uses her for her class notes and access to beautiful friends. And she absolutely knows things with Cal will be different when he finally sees her. Luckily, Charlie has her notebook, her stories, and her desire to be the best writer possible. Even more luckily, Charlie has an after school job in a workspace shared by a very nice boy from her art class. Enjoy this ride through he junior year of high school and enjoy Charlie and her true friends; they will give you hope for humanity. ~ Selected by Lisa
Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim (2020). One small lie, Ok not so small, but unintentional, spirals into an adventure about the importance of family, how new friends can change your world, and finding one's true self. In this book, Yumi Chung's dreams of being a stand up comic are not understood by her parents - two hardworking US immigrants from Korea who are fighting to keep their restaurant alive and provide a better life for their two daughters. Yumi's parents send her to SAT boot camp so she can earn a scholarship and somehow she stumbles into a summer camp for comics. The novel then explores can she do both? Which side of her life wins - comic or respectful daughter? Can her parents save their restaurant? This novel is funny, heartfelt, and sad all at once. An especially great book for preteens who are trying to express their true selves without being disrespectful or ungrateful, or anyone looking for a relatable heroine. ~ Selected by Lisa
BONUS -- If you order these books by April 31st from Yankee Bookshop, you will receive 15% off your order. Just click here. So if your Book Club is debating, debate a bit faster and get a lovely and generous discount.
Liana Kish is an English teacher and loves talking about books. She has been on leave this past year and has enjoyed having extra time for gardening, baking and cross-country skiing. She is excited to participate in this event and share some titles she enjoyed during the past few months.
Kari Meutsch has over 16 years of experience helping people find just the right book. After bookselling across the country, she and her husband settled here in Woodstock in early 2017 to take over the town’s historic bookstore, the Yankee Bookshop, which has been running since 1935. Over the years, Kari has curated quite the list of favorite books and authors to share with any reader, but above all she deeply believes that stories shared and received are the seeds for empathy and change. While her current reading obsessions are just about anything to do with fairy tales or angsty teenage witches, she also loves a good nonfiction audiobook or podcast when she needs to be doing something with her hands, like a jigsaw puzzle or knitting project.
Lisa Christie, co-founder of the Book Jam, was in previous times the Founder/Executive Director of Everybody Wins! Vermont and USA, literacy programs that help children love books. She currently works as a part-time non-profit consultant, School Board member, and all-the-time believer in the power of books. She lives in Norwich with her musician husband, two superb teenage sons, and a very large dog. She often dreams of travel, especially after this year of pandemic precautions, and is grateful to have Vermont to call home.
Immigration. This one word can bring many worlds and images to mind: undocumented workers, border crossings, coyotes, walls, xenophobia, citizenship, voting... And these terms can also evoke strong emotions and images, ones that probably differ for everyone depending on lived experience and exposure to people living behind the words. For instance, anyone who has been part of a naturalization ceremony is likely forever affected by the joy experienced there. Anyone who has known or is an undocumented worker may forever be marked by both the hope and the fear guiding their lives. For many others, there are books to lend insight. Luckily two works we've read recently provide gorgeous poetry and prose and a much needed window into the lives of immigrants, both documented and undocumented. We offer these reviews with the hope that they promote understanding and also provide you with two powerful, affecting reads.
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021). I fell in love with Ms. Engel's prose and stories while reading her 2010 debut collection of connected short stories chronicling life in both Colombia and New Jersey, Vida (I can’t recommend it enough). So it was with great excitement I saw she published a novel in March 2021. And it is the best one I have read thus far this year. I was dismayed when it ended as I would never again have the chance to read it for the first time; but, I’m excited that anyone who now sees this review will next have the chance to enjoy Ms. Engel's gorgeous, sparse prose and story telling skills. With this novel, Ms. Engel illuminates the immigrant experience, including what a life torn between two countries involves. In particular, especially in light of the recent coverage of US immigration policies under both Presidents Trump and Biden, she communicates how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but rather that it entails thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly conveys how all five family members in this book each are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statutes in the USA. Along the way, Ms. Engel movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. For those who do not need plot summaries, stop here and simply seek this fabulous novel of family, loss, love, life, and immigration. Your heart will break, mend, break, and mend over and over again as you read this superb story.
For those who do appreciate a plot summary, we share more for you. The story begins with teenaged Talia breaking out of a correctional facility for girls in Colombia. She must return to Bogota in time to use a ticket to the USA - the place of her birth, but not of her childhood - that her mother has sent. The story then shifts to explore the lives of her parents - Mauro and Elena - in Bogota when they first met, in Bogota as they decide to flee Colombia's civil war and unrest, and in the USA before her birth. The novel's already acute sense of loss and musings about what makes a home, accelerates once her father is deported back to Colombia shortly after her birth. Her mother and her two older siblings - Fernando (US born) and Karina (Bogota born) remain the US because even as Elena and Karina are undocumented, Colombia is still not the safer option. Talia is sent back to Bogota to live with her grandmother as Elena can not work and care for an infant. Throughout, the novel cleverly alternates perspectives and shows each of the five family members curating their life as best they can. Mauro's feelings of despair and failure cause him to spiral to the bottom of many bottles of cheap alcohol. Talia feels the loss of her mother and the love of her grandmother. Karina is marked by fear of deportation. Fernando is bullied and worries about his undocumented sister and mom. Elena finds multiple jobs, endures abuse, and ultimately lands with her two children, in a caretaker's cottage, behind a large home, watching the owner's son.
This short novel, compacts a lot of plot and emotion in 191 beautifully written pages. Enjoy every one. (Note: my youngest son is adopted from Bogota, so I am predisposed to books about life there and life in the US for Colombian-Americans; that said, this novel is terrific.) ~ Lisa Christie
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (2017). A moving collection of poetry that illustrates the stresses, hopes, loves, and lives of undocumented immigrants in the USA. Sometimes a few well-chosen words are all that is needed to humanize a concept - in this case immigration - and show the impacts of policy on lives. We offer and example, an excerpt from To Abuelita Neli - "...You understand. Abuelita, I can' go back and return. There's no path to papers. I've got nothing left but dreams..." This collection is beautifully moving, often haunting, and always enlightening. A superb way to think a bit at a time about immigration, immigrants, the undocumented, and the power of sharing stories. ~ Lisa Christie
Periodically, the Book Jam turns over our platform to guest reviewers. We love this tradition as it means we hear about great books and it expands and diversifies the voices of the Book Jam. Today, we are thrilled to have Charlotte Cadow, Colorado College graduate, Educator, outdoor enthusiastic, and daughter of the Book Jam's Lisa Cadow. Thank you Charlotte.
This past fall, I left Wyoming to caretake at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mizpah Hut. Located 2.5 miles and 2000 vertical feet from the nearest trailhead, books, food, clothes, and sleeping bags all have to be hauled in by packboard. So, when my co-caretaker offered to share, Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, I was more than eager. Butler, having broken into a largely white, male dominated genre in the 1970s, brought a refreshing, and critical new lens to science fiction writing, and I’d heard a lot about her work in the preceding year. So, during a lull in the fall hiking traffic, I crinkled open the pages of Parable of the Sower.
Parable of the Sower (1994). Butler derived inspiration for the Parable books by forecasting what would happen if social injustice, climate change, and the inadequacies of governmental support for citizens were to intensify. Set in California, Parable of the Sower unfolds between 2020 and 2024, where everything is burning – the hills, the homes, any sense of harmony. Lauren, the protagonist, is fortunate – her family lives in a walled-in community. This banding together of households, who have strung barbed wire along the top of the fence, posted armed nightly watches, and have monthly target practice in the hills, is the new definition of normal - these protective measures are necessary to avoid the escalating chaos outside the walls. As the story unfolds, the stability of Lauren’s world dissolves. She journeys north towards land, a semblance of safety, and a future, all while navigating the power of religion, hyper-empathy, love, and loss as a young black woman in a dystopian world.
The first time I read Parable of the Sower, I was alone in the mountains, in a rumored-to-be haunted hut, in the middle of a pandemic. One morning, I awoke to a strange man standing on the fire escape outside of my unlocked door. When he twisted the knob and opened the door, I calmly told him that had the wrong entrance. With a pounding heart, I was immensely grateful of this reminder that in 2020, not all of the Parable had become a reality. In this prophetic novel, Butler questions what it means to be fundamentally human, dives into the potential implications of 1994 America, and ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of hope. ~ Charlotte Cadow
Kindred (1979). Dana is a young Black woman living in California in the 1970’s. Throughout the book, she is unexpectedly and involuntarily drawn back in time to antebellum Maryland. As the plot develops, Dana becomes increasingly intertwined in the survival of Rufus, the son of a white plantation owner, and Dana’s many-times-removed great grandfather. Through this narrative, Butler guides the reader through the implications of slavery, particularly the utter lack of autonomy possessed by enslaved people. While Dana possesses a 1970’s awareness and education, she is still subjected to the inescapable realities of slavery. She is helpless to stop Rufus from raping her many-time-removed great grandmother, to prevent beatings, or to decide when she will return to present day.
After fifteen different publishers turned down the novel manuscript, Butler successfully sent Kindred off to the press. 42 years later, I read Kindred from our cozy and comfy couch. Yet, from the moment I cracked the cover, I was transported into an expertly crafted harsh reality. I have never felt so keenly aware of how slavery operated, or the power that white plantation owners had after dehumanizing the Black population. While Butler wasn’t alive in antebellum times, she had a vision and the brilliance to remind us why understanding history is important, and that the impacts of the past perpetuate into the present. ~ Charlotte Cadow
Fledgling (2005). I’d consider this book to be more of an adult fantasy novel than a “science fiction;” perhaps a vampire book for adults. Shori awakes in a forest den after having lost most of her memory to an unknown trauma. With time, Shori’s body and mind begin to recover, and she seeks out solace in human companionship. As her social network broadens, she becomes aware of the impliations of her skin color, gender, and unique genetic identity. Butler builds on elements of the traditional vampire myths and legends, yet supplements with refreshing and provocative new characteristics, and the reader has the joy of discovering these traits are Shori herself rediscovers what it means to be “Ina.” This tantalizing tale explores themes of racism, sexism, polyamory, and fierce power dynamics.
Once again, Butler defied the perceived boundaries of science fiction. I found her prose to be imbued with a thought-provoking light from which to observe the social implications of racial relations. Her mastery of language, plot, and character development was evident as I devoured the 360 pages of text in under 24 hours. If you’re looking for a read to suck you in, tumble you around in a sea of misconceptions, and then spit you out with fresh perspectives, you should try Fledgling. ~ Charlotte Cadow
If you’re looking to learn more about Octavia Butler and her writing, check out the THROUGHLINE podcast from last month!
As February ends, our thoughts turn to Town Meeting Day, an annual event where citizens in towns across New England meet to discuss and vote on important civic matters. In our home state of Vermont, Town Meeting is experienced as a forum where people sit, stand, discuss, and vote completely in public, right next to the person disagreeing with your position. Many of the best town meetings involve sharing food together as part of this process. Some meetings involve an all-town discussion, followed by more private voting via an Australian ballot.
When we began thinking about a Town Meeting post for today, we first thought we might review a bunch of picture books that explore how to develop and use characteristics key for effective democracies (e.g., listening skills). Then, we shifted and thought that instead we might review books about topics that will be debated: climate change, immigration, education, health care. However both those ideas required being able to browse and linger in our local bookstore - the Norwich Bookstore. And, with covid, alas, that is not currently possible.
So we browsed our own home bookshelves, and came up with the idea of exploring the topic of speeches. Why speeches? Because as we enter town meeting season, and as we dream of the post covid pandemic world, we are seeking inspiration. To ensure we end up in a better place post pandemic, we will need to remember to act well and with intention. Now is a good time to reflect on how post pandemic behaviors could change. It is our hope that these speeches provide the needed inspiration. As the title of one of these collections reminds us, we are the change we seek. (Don't worry both these books are still in print and can be found by your favorite indie bookstore.)
Lend Me Your Ears: Great speeches in history edited by William Safire (1992, 1997, 2004). Former US Presidential speech writer turned columnist William Safire compiles great speeches from Demosthenes (we looked him up to confirm our assumption he was a famous Greek orator -- he was -- from the 4th century) to the era of George W. Bush. The preface describes what Mr. Safire believes makes a great speech. The many, many speeches he selected are then divided into sections, including, but not limited to a section on "memorial and patriotic speeches" which highlights Mark Twain's speech, delivered in London in 1899, celebrating the Fourth of July. The section on "inspirational speeches" includes William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech from 1950 during which he charged writers to help traits of compassion, honor, courage and sacrifice prevail in the world. In the speeches collected under "social responsibility", you will see Senator Margaret Chase Smith's "declaration of conscience" against McCarthyism that separates her form of Republicanism from Senator McCarthy's, as well as Malcolm X's call to African Americans to confront white oppression while speaking in Detroit on Valentine's Day 1965. The political speeches offer an international flair with words from Benjamin Disraeli of the UK, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, among others. As Booklist said in their review of this collection, "to teach and to please, some Greek once advised, is the function of great rhetoric, and Safire has put together [a] volume that embod[ies] those functions and their power." This would be a great gift for any upcoming graduates in your life.
We Are The Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama edited by EJ Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid (2017). This collection begins where the previous collection ended - with the Candidacy and then Presidency of Barack Obama. In this volume, two American journalists examine the speeches of Barack Obama, describing them as the force that propelled him onto the national stage, and as the way he both spoke to the national mood and changed the course of public discourse in the United States. Mr. Dionne and Ms. Reid begin this book by framing Obama’s oratorical contributions in a historical context. They then introduce each of the 27 speeches they selected to highlight, providing important context for each. Their selections include President Obama's two inaugural addresses. They also chose more poignant speeches such as his 2015 eulogy for the honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, SC - which he concluded by singing Amazing Grace, and his concession speech "Yes We Can" after losing the 2008 New Hampshire Primary. The book is beautifully produced and makes a great gift for graduates and/or others interested in Presidents, US history, or great speeches. As for the rest of us, may we read it and discover our evolving role in the change we seek.
Once again it is time to see how well we honor our promise to represent a diverse array of authors. Why? Well, because we truly believe we are what we read; and also because we truly believe that the best way to expand your horizons (when you can’t actually travel or talk to new people - hello covid restrictions) is to read books written by or about people who are different from you (in our case people of color, or people living outside the USA). It is our hope that we honor diverse authors throughout the year. We also use these audits to expose the voices we are missing in our own personal reading habits, allowing us to fill those gaps during our next year of reviews. So one quick number -- overall in 2020, 47% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (up from 28% in 2019 and 36% in 2018).
So now, some reviews of great books for Black History Month, followed by numbers from this latest audit for those of you who like data.
YA and CHILDREN'S
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (2020). A powerful look at life from the eyes of an incarcerated Black teen. Amal, whose name translates to hope - an important aspect required for his survival while incarcerated - remains in jail after a fight with some white teens landed one white boy in a coma and him in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Did he throw the first punch? Yes. Did he beat a white boy into a coma - No. And yet he sits in jail because even his character witnesses - in particular a teacher from his school - see him as an angry Black boy. What feeds his hope? It's some sage advice from some of the boys preceding him into incarceration, a poet teaching classes to any boy who "earns" the privilege, and a guest whose exploration of mistakes, misgivings, and systems reminds Amal that speaking his truth is the most important thing he can do, as well as the one thing no one can take away. Told in poetry and based on the actual experiences of Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the "Central Park/Exonerated Five", this book will hopefully change how we view our prison system and move us to action. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph (2020). To begin -- this YA book is also great for adults and I think would be excellent for Book Clubs and classroom discussions for anyone interested in racial justice and becoming better anti-racists/up-standers. Written by Mr. Joseph as if he is a friend of the reader, he walks his new friends through how comments such as "I don't see color" and other micro-aggressions, as well as examples of more overt racism, are just wrong and need to end. The book is divided into chapters by themes, with a conversation between Mr. Joseph and other experts on that theme ending each chapter. Full of practical advice and lists of "people and things to know" throughout each chapter and then helpfully compiled at the end (I currently have the songs on rotation on Spotify), this book is a great place to start one's own work on being a better person and actively anti-racist. It also feels important to highlight Mr. Joseph's reminder that "that this book is a gift not an obligation" (p. 195), because "while this book is meant to be a guide for white people to understand and be better, it's important that white people also understand that it isn't the duty of Black people or people of color to explain things" (p. 194). Enjoy his gift of this book. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (2020) and Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. In The Black Kids, Ashley Bennett and her friends are enjoying their senior year spring in Los Angeles in 1992. They are worried about which college will accept them (Stanford? UC Berkeley?) and how often they can successfully cut classes to lay on the beach or sneak a swim in the pool of a neighboring mansion. As you may guess from the year and the location, everything changes one night when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King to death. Suddenly even though Ashley has been questioning her choices of friends yet hasn't been able to cut them loose because they've been friends since kindergarten, the fact that Ashley is Black and her friends are not, means Ashley is now one of "the Black kids". Her world suddenly and methodically starts to crumble: her estranged older sister is involved in the riots, her family's success as a "model Black family" is no longer enough, her so called friends spread a rumor that endangers the future of one of the other "Black kids" at her prep school, and Los Angeles is literally burning around her. The historical setting unearths questions and highlights racism with us today. And if you or your YA fans need more information about the Rodney King murder, the riots, and their aftermath, put Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith in their hands. Using nine months of interviews with more than two hundred people, Twilight explores the impact of Rodney King's murder and the five days of riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved. Anna Deavere Smith truly is a genius and thanks to PBS, you can see her perform Twilight here. ~ Lisa Christie
Who Is? What Was? series (assorted years). We recommend these books often and do so because they offer a superb intro for chapter book readers into many people and places and events. They also keep growing in the subjects they tackle. These books are forever referred to as the bobblehead books due to their distinct illustrations in Lisa Christie's household and their lengthy list of titles provides MANY MANY opportunities to learn about people who are different from you. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
The Color of Water by James McBride (1996). I’ve wanted to read this for a long time - and now wish that I had sooner. Many of you may already be familiar with this American classic as it was first published 25 years ago. If you haven’t yet gotten to it, hopefully this review will alert you that McBride’s memoir of being a Black boy raised in 1960’s America by a white mother remains essential reading. It still resonates today on many levels as it touches on so many complicated themes (social, political, religious, and educational) and yet somehow is simultaneously imminently readable, lyrical, and even poetic. Told in chapters that alternate between his mother’s words and McBride’s own voice, this book is a sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, sometimes funny trip throughout seventy years of United States history. He wrote it when working as a journalist in his late thirties, married, and raising a family of his own, driven by the desire to understand his own mother’s complex history. This book is also a loving celebration of her, a rabbi’s daughter born in Poland in 1921 who went on to raise 12 highly accomplished children while living in Harlem and Red Hook New York after being raised in the south and converting to Christianity and starting a church. In case you’re wondering about the title, below is an excerpt of a conversation a young James McBride remembers having with his mother:
“What color is god’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color water. Water does not have a color.”
Highly recommended reading. Especially if you’re curious to know more about this talented author (and musician!) who wrote the National Book Award winning The Good Lord Bird as well as 2020’s Deacon King Kong (now being adapted for TV and also reviewed in this post). ~Lisa Cadow
Deacon King Kong by James McBride (2020). We really honestly can not review this superb book better than the Norwich Bookstore's Carin Pratt did last spring when this novel arrived on the scene. So we will just quote her directly here - Deacon King Kong is many things -- a mystery, a crime novel, a detailed portrait of a (mostly) African American urban community in New York, a love story (or two), and a farce. It is filled with "the humor of survival." (And God knows, we need that now.) McBride clearly had a ball creating the Deacon, who is a sot, a handyman, a widower who still talks to his wife, a baseball umpire and, despite his failings, a moral force in the community. It's almost impossible to paraphrase the plot(s), so I won't. Just know that McBride's formidable strengths as a storyteller and character builder (not to mention master of dialogue) shine in this blast of a book." We will add we think it would be a great Book Club pick. ~ Carin Pratt and seconded and thirded (new word) by Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour (2021). This darkly humorous fictional look at the tech industry was a perfect follow-up to the Book Jam's recent reading of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley Ms. Wiener offers an atmospheric chronicle of her gradual disillusionment with the sector. Mr. Askaripour satarizes all of that and more in this "self-help" book, narrated by Buck, An African-American 20-something picked out from behind a Starbuck counter to become an integral part of a high tech start-up. As far as Buck can tell the purpose of the start up is to sell tools that users help create the best version of themselves; but he isn't entirely sure. While both Ms. Wiener and Mr. Askaripour point out the absurdities of the start-up culture, Mr. Askaripour goes further and pointedly highlights the absurdities and insidious nature of systemic racism in corporate America and well, America. The cringe-worthy incidents Buck endures somehow don't dampen his extremely grounded sense of self and generosity of spirit, leaving you turning pages rapidly to discover what could possibly happen next and how Buck will handle it, and also wondering how you yourself can change your part in systemic racism. ~ Lisa Christie
So now to the results from our audit of books we read between February 2020 and this post. The fine print for this audit: we did not include guest columns, or "Pages in the Pub", "BOOK BUZZ", or the “3 Questions” series, because we don’t control those selections. We also excluded books written by groups such as Lonely Planet or series written by a variety of authors. Although we know some of the authors we highlighted identify as members of the LGBTQ community, we do not know the sexual orientations for all the authors we review, and thus do not audit by sexual orientation. We also do not have access to economic class statistics. Thus, our diversity audit focuses on gender and race/ethnicity.
That said, we will begin with the fact the number of books we reviewed increased to 153 books from 94 books in the 2019 audit. This is down from 202 books reviewed in 2018, and 164 in 2017.
Some significant numbers from this 2020 audit: Women authors were 65% (57% in 2019) of the authors we featured. Staying with stats regarding women, almost a quarter (21%) of all authors we featured were white women from the USA (holding steady from 21% in 2019, down from 32% in 2018), and 14% of all authors we read were white women from outside the USA (down from 20% in 2019 and up from 8% in 2018). We featured more Latina authors 11% this past year, compared to only 2% in 2019 and 4% in 2018. Only 1% were Asian women (down from 4% in 2019 and 6% in 2018). We featured more Black women in 2020 14% up from 10% in 2019 and 12% in 2018).
There was a mixed bag in terms of the ethnic diversity in the men we reviewed this year compared to previous years. White men from the USA were 17% (down from 23% the previous audit) of the authors we featured. Slightly over one in ten (13%) of the authors we featured were white men from outside of the USA (up from 8%). Exactly 5% (down from 7% previous audit) of the authors were Black men from anywhere in the world. Very few authors (1%) we featured were Asian men or Latinos (1%), none were Middle Eastern men (down from 2% last year). We did increase the number of Native American male authors we featured (2%) this year, compared to none last year.
Adding men and women together, 47% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (up from 28% in 2019 and 36% in 2018). Within the white authors there was a decrease in geographic diversity, 21% (down from 33% in 2019) of the white authors we featured were from outside the USA (16% in 2018). The largest group of authors of color were Black (24%), up from 15% in 2019 and 13% in 2018.
To sum, we improved the percentage of authors of color we reviewed: 47% of all authors reviewed in 2020, 28% of authors in 2019, 36% of authors in 2018, 32% in 2017, 26% in 2016, 23% in 2015 were authors of color. We remain curious if our percentages are greater than the percentages of authors of color published in the USA each year. And, once again, we vow to continue to review a great diversity of authors.