The Book Jam Blog
Read our latest reviews
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.