Perfect for book discussion

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

3 words: riveting, quietly dramatic, haunting

 

There’s a reason this book, first published in 1993, is still flying off the shelves today. Actually, there are lots of reasons.

I’m pretty sure we can consider it a modern classic.

Here’s why…

First, this story is sadly timeless. A doctor from an influential family has been molesting Native American women, and it’s only when he commits murder to cover it up, that his brother–the sheriff–discovers this horrific misconduct. In these days of #MeToo, this novel’s narrative is timely in a way that just hurts. But Watson’s treatment of the subject is sensitive and honest. For a book group, this is one remarkable book to discuss, because while there’s a villain, there are no true heroes. It’s complex and messy and sadly real to life.

Second, Watson’s writing style perfectly fits the story. It’s clear from the length of the book (fewer than 200 pages) and the power of the prose that he’s also a poet. Every word is carefully placed, which a reader only realizes upon reflecting later–because while you’re reading this book, you’re gonna be turning the pages fast. Watson pulls you right into the story from the start and makes you care about the characters.

David, the narrator, is a preteen boy at the time of the story’s events. But he’s telling the story from the perspective of his adult years, which adds some nice complexity to the narrative.

If you’re looking for a great book discussion book, or a fast-moving work of literary fiction, or a modern Western, or just a remarkable book to fall into… this one’s a winner.

Give this book a whirl if you like… an adult perspective reflecting on a traumatic event witnessed as a child, succinct and powerful writing, coming of age stories, #MeToo, Native Americans, modern Westerns

 

What’s the best book you’ve discussed with someone recently?

 

Royal weddings — what’s not to like?

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

3 words: sparkling, sprightly, romantic

 

The only thing that’s shocking about my liking this book is that it took me so long to read it. It’s only in the aftermath of the most recent royal wedding that I picked it up, so late to the party.

Which brings us to the following short story…

Why It Shouldn’t Have Taken Me So Long, or, My Lifelong Royal Wedding Watching Credentials

 

Royal Wedding #1

Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer

I was in elementary school, and thankfully, Charles and Diana were married in the summer, so my mom had no qualms about honoring my request to be awakened in the wee pre-dawn hours to watch the wedding on the telly. I believe I took notes (cuz that’s precisely how geeky). Then I proceeded to coax my mother into purchasing large coffee table books containing gorgeous photos of the blessed event.

Then we learned what a skunk of a husband Charles was, and so much for all that.

 

Royal Wedding #2

Prince William and Catherine Middleton

Ahhhhh… the defining moment for me was watching Kate walk down the aisle, and seeing the view from above. There were trees in the sanctuary!* It was so lovely I cried.

This marriage I have a good feeling about. I know much was made of “Wait-y Katie,” but I find it wise that they knew each other well before marrying.

This is the relationship that was the inspiration for The Royal We, although the American commoner element in the novel was eerily prescient of the arrival of Meghan Markle on the scene.

 

Royal Wedding #3

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

All I can say is: thank goodness for YouTube. Because when this wedding took place, we were on vacation in a television-free, Internet-free log cabin in the woods. The place had been reserved well in advance of a wedding date announcement, so I forewent viewing in real time. Because we live in a splendidly modern era, I watched the thing the following week, and, as a bonus, got to skip the dull preachy parts and boys’ choir. (I know: wrong. This is wrong.)

They’re a beautiful couple who had a gorgeous wedding, but I gotta say: makes me a little nervous that they knew each other less than 2 years before the wedding. Who knows? It might work. (I wish them well, but I have my doubts about this one.)

 

So if you mash up William/Kate and Harry/Meghan into a single storyline, you basically have The Royal We. A young American college student attends university in England and meets the Prince of Wales. They chum around, and then they fall in love. And the American commoner marries the prince, but only after the usual boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl business plays out.

 

It’s sparkly, it’s light, it’s stylish, it’s fun, but it’s not silly. You can read this novel and have just a hint of the guilt but all of the pleasure.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… royal weddings, rom-coms, unlikely love stories, the success of the girl next door

 

Anyone else a fanatical watcher of royals committing matrimony?

 

*there’s not a public domain photo available, but if you Google Prince William wedding trees, you can see it

Uncommon Type: uncommonly good

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks

3 words: engaging, wide-ranging, creative

 

Tom Hanks — the dude can write! Word on the street was that his new collection of short stories — his first book — had it goin’ on. And I gotta say: True.

I’ve been raving about it for the past few weeks. I plan to continue this behavior for quite some time.

The first story was funny and wry, and the second (“Christmas Eve 1953”) was so idyllic at the outset that I knew it had to have a dark side. (It did. It nearly broke my heart.)

There’s some pretty impressive range here — in perspective and voice and place and timeframe and tone.

I was especially gratified that he can write convincing female characters. He got that really right.

So the whole collection pleased me.

And then there was the story “These Are the Meditations of My Heart.” This one blew me away. It made my heart sing; it made me verklempt. It made me do a little gasp of happiness at the end, even though the ending was not dramatic. He didn’t write it for effect. But it had a profound effect on me nonetheless. The story sounds simple: A young woman buys an old typewriter and takes it to a repair shop, where the owner informs her it’s a toy and he will not fix it. Conversation ensues. At one point, I laughed out loud, and at the end there was that gasping thing. It was quite perfect.

I listened to the audiobook, which Hanks narrates himself. It was also quite perfect. The only problem was the dilemma of listening to short stories. When each one ended, I needed to give it a little breathing room. It seemed the only decent thing to do. It’s just that it’s nicer to pause between stories when reading the words on a page, because you can get up and refill your cup of coffee and swap out the laundry and then you might be ready for the next. In the car, there’s just dead air time.

Each of the stories includes a typewriter, and by the end I was in full typewriter lust mode. Having seen someone recently actually using a typewriter, I have decided my laptop suits me fine. But the romance of an old typewriter… it’s a thing.

I’m not a big reader of short stories, but these…  These are winners. Often poignant, frequently quiet, sometimes funny, always deeply human.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… celebrity authors, well-evoked characters, short stories from a variety of viewpoints, typewriters

Telling stories

(Photo by Alysa Bajenaru on Unsplash)

American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

3 words: sharp, modern, clever

 

Sometimes books actually live up to the hype. American Housewife: it can handle the hype.

Once I started listening to this audiobook, I was sold.

These stories are smart and sharp and pointed and surprising. They’re snarky and sometimes grim and sometimes hilarious and always rewarding.

The tone varies among stories, which is another thing I really like in a story collection because it shows the author’s range and keeps me wondering what’ll be next.

And Ellis seriously makes you wonder, because she’ll go from a wicked neighborly feud via email to vaguely dystopian tale of a writer hired (and forced) by Tampax to write a novel. And then there’ll be an increasingly creepy story of a woman who lives in a high-rise building, and a tale about book club initiation rites, and a really great one about an author on a reality TV show.

Given its title, I expected these stories to focus on marriage, but they really focus on the wife. In many of the stories, she stands alone.

And that’s just fine, because the women in these stories are fascinating all on their own.

For a quick dose of something bracing and thoroughly enjoyable, oh I sure hope you’ll read this book.

(And then stop back by, so we can gossip about it. I’m aching to discuss it with someone.)

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… a quick and rewarding read, clever use of words, a fair amount of snark, creative stories, the occasional dark twist, variety in tone among stories

 

My fellow readers… what book are you aching to discuss with someone?

 

Comforting and genteel… the loveliest novel

(U. S. Department of State photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

My Mrs. Brown by William Norwich

3 words: genteel, leisurely, comforting

Some books pull you in by their driving narrative. Others hold onto you because of their compelling characters. This is one of those.

For bedtime reading, I’ve rarely found a more suitable book. This story is soothing and gentle and filled with good, decent people.

Yet… there’s an intriguing plot that keeps a reader turning the pages, however leisurely.

Mrs. Brown, an unassuming salon cleaning lady, becomes taken with the idea of owning a couture suit. Actually, if we’re honest, she becomes obsessed. But not in a creepy, all-encompassing way. Instead, in a life-changing, affirming way.

It’s like she’s being reborn.

It’s a bit of a Cinderella story, but without the fanciful bits. And without the prince.

In her unlikely quest, Mrs. Brown encounters kind people who go out of their way to help her. And meanwhile, she’s also helping a young woman who becomes her friend — even though they’re living very different lives.

And there are some haters, too, because what’s a story without some conflict?

But the overall feeling is: comfort. A perfectly lovely book.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… dressmaking, novels about fashion, quiet lives, intergenerational friendships, Elinor Lipman, fulfillment of modest dreams

 

What’s the best bedtime reading you’ve encountered lately?

The Leavers left me wanting to discuss it

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

3 words: sympathetic, character study, emotional

Wow. This book packs a serious emotional punch.

I first saw it on the “Penned & Picked by Patchett” shelf at Parnassus Books in Nashville. Ann Patchett had written a shelf talker about it, and I took note.

And then she wrote about it in an article about summer reading books, so I hustled it to the top of my TBR.

And I'm here to tell you: the story is pretty darn heart-wrenching. It’s about a pregnant teenager from China who comes to America, and her life is hard. I kept wanting her to catch a break, but the hard times just kept on coming. But the book felt realistic — none of the false happy coincidences that a lesser writer would offer.

There are two storylines here: the back story of Polly, the mother, and the current-day story of Deming, her son.

When working at a nail salon, Polly was swept up in a raid and sent back to China because she had arrived without the proper documents. And her 11-year-old son never knew what had happened to her. She simply vanished.

Deming was adopted by a white couple who renamed him “Daniel,” and they tried hard to give him a good life.

Everyone is trying, but usually they’re not succeeding. There are so many dashed hopes here, yet everyone’s doing the best they can.

After reading this book, you’re going to want to discuss it. (If you can’t find someone IRL, come back here and leave a comment, and we’ll chat!)

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cross-cultural adoption, complicated and troubled lives, immigration, the Chinese-American experience, musicians

What book are you aching to discuss?

We’re All Damaged… and that’s kind of OK

(Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash)

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

3 words: wry, funny, open

This summer, our book club’s theme is Humor. And this is our lead-off book, and it was a home run.

Funny? Yes. In the things are really terrible but that makes them funnier way.

It’s set in the Midwest, so: bonus points. Living here in flyover country (don’t get me started), it always does my heart good to read a book with a solid Midwestern setting.

Andy had fled to New York after his wife left him for another man, but now his grandfather is dying, so Andy’s returned to Nebraska.

And his family’s hatched all kinds of (hilarious) new dysfunctions since he’s been gone, and he’s alienated from his best friend (aka his ex-wife’s brother), and basically his life is an unhappy mess.

Then a quirky young woman with a mysterious history pops onto the scene, and things get way more fun and way more complicated.

While his parents pursue their obsessive interests (his mom’s aiming to become a new talking head on Fox and he barely recognizes her, and his dad is preoccupied with an illegal motorcycle… and maybe something more), Andy bumbles around, trying to make things right.

Here we have a bunch of mostly good-hearted characters, all struggling in their own ways and crashing into one another and then trying to figure out the forgiveness thing.

It reminded me–in a good way–of This Is Where I Leave You. They both deal with loss and love with wry humor, and they both have the potential to make a person laugh out loud.

Give this book a whirl if you like… novels about returning home, post-divorce recovery, cringe-worthy gallows humor, quarter-life crisis, the Midwest

OK, if I’m looking for more books like this… funny about non-funny topics… Go!

Alas… that I hadn’t read it earlier

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

(Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash)

3 words: character-driven, unfolding, storytelling

Wow. I never knew I’d like this book as much as I did.

I know post-apocalyptic novels have been all the rage for a decade or more, but I kind of struggle with them. I mean, real life is hard enough, you guys! So tossing in a “this is the end of the world as we know it” scenario seems so freakin’ grim.

But I know: good drama makes a good story.

And in this book, first published in 1959, there’s some amazingly strong storytelling. It’s that good old Midcentury style, with a big story and well-drawn characters and an earnest social message.

I liked it so much.

Here’s what surprised me most: The characters really come first in this novel, even though obviously the plot’s drama is going to try to suck all the air out of the room. But the characters and their responses to a nuclear attack are believable and relatable. And while a person could dissect the story and describe each character as representing a different response to the nuclear winter, I didn’t feel like the characters were merely there to represent types. They felt too real.

So, the plot is basically this: the US and the USSR fire nuclear missiles at each other and lots of cities are destroyed, and outside the cities, people try to figure out how to survive. It’s actually pretty terrifying. If I’d read this book in middle school, back when we actually feared this crap would happen, I think I would’ve wanted to hide under the bed.

Though, ultimately this book offers some hope. There’s plenty-o-trauma, but in the end, some people actually survived.

Give this book a whirl if you like… post-apocalyptic stories, contemporary classics, Mid-Century novels, solid storytelling

So… anybody wanna talk me into tackling another post-apocalyptic book because: characters?

Audiobook so good it ruins you, doggone it

(photo credit: By Bea A Carson [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Nix by Nathan Hill

3 words: wry, family, storytelling

So this happened…

After finishing this book, I drove around resolutely dissatisfied by three audiobooks I tried to begin. Nothing worked (I will never be satisfied) because The Nix had totally spoiled me with its splendor.

As the Dear Man’s dear nephew said, “Magnum opus. That is all.”

Except: here we’re not gonna let that be all. More words!

This book is one of those big stories you just fall into, and it carries you away. I kept feeling surprised by each new turn the narrative took, but it all worked.

The tone captured me right away. When describing the way the media responded to a middle-aged woman hurling pebbles at a politician, the wry sarcasm completely delighted me. When I’m smiling out loud during the first five minutes of an audiobook, that’s a good sign.

We start with Samuel Andresen-Andersen, then meet his pebble-throwing mother, his mother’s lawyer, his worst student, his literary agent, a gamer who lives in the video game where they both spend too much time, and people from his mother’s brief (accidental) foray into the 1968 protest movement.

And there are even characters from Iowa. What more can a person ask for?

With a nicely balanced blend of cynicism and hope, this story unfolds through flashbacks and interspersed storylines.

And just when I thought I had it figured out… it surprised me one last time.

Big, literary, entertaining, and immensely satisfying.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary novels with a modern tone and sense of humor, complex family stories, narratives that interweave the past and the present, stories of 1960s counterculture, the past coming back to bite you

 

What book was so good it ruined other books for you?

 

 

Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

3 words: somber, lyrical, layered

Is it because I grew up in landlocked Iowa, that I’ve always loved novels of the sea?

An ocean setting is one of the things I most romanticize. Even when there’s really bad crap going down.

So the title of this book drew me in.

And I’ve been hearing great things about Edwidge Danticat’s books for years, so: another bonus.

The short blurb I read about this book emphasized the plotline involving a missing seven-year-old girl and the effect on the community. But really, that’s just a leaping off point to tell the stories of several people who live in her small fishing village in Haiti.

The novel is constructed as though it were several linked short stories that combine to tell the story of this village.

The central character is a widowed fisherman who is on the verge of giving his young daughter to a more well-to-do woman, so his daughter can live a better life. Then the little girl goes missing.

And that storyline would be enough, but Danticat adds several layers to the story by introducing several more characters and diving deep into their backstory. The town and its residents relationships are really at the heart of this story, which was sometimes mystical, sometimes harsh, and sometimes poignant.

Give this book a whirl if you like… interwoven stories, settings involving the sea, Haiti, and small towns where everyone knows your business

So, my fellow readers… wanna suggest some other books about the sea for me to read?