What I’ve Been Reading….

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Hot days. Cool coffee shops. I’ve finally had a good reading stretch and don’t want to be reminded that August begins this week!

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit – a retelling of Cinderella by the author of Men Explain Things to Me. This one stresses kindness and the true meaning of beauty. As I read, I thought about how much I would have loved this version of Cinderella when I was a young girl and how much I’m looking forward to eading it with students during the school year ahead. It’s exciting to read Cinderella as a young woman with power over her own life and decisions.

Turbulence by David Szalay – I heard Dwight Garner, a book critic for the New York Times, talking about this short novel on the NYT Book Review podcast and it intrigued me enough to buy it that day and read it immediately.  Sometimes it’s good to trust your instincts – and this was one of those times. Szalay’s book plays with the idea of “six degrees of separation” in a really interesting way. Plane flights are what connects these stories together, but most of the “turbulence” is on the ground.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds – Sometimes I read interviews with “book people” in which the person is asked to name a book they should have read by now, but haven’t.  Until last week, this would have been my answer. Reynolds’ books received lots of starred reviews. It won awards. I’ve read many of the author’s other titles. I reviewed one of them for School Library Journal – and yet, Long Way Down was still in my “to read” stack. As Kirkus described it in their starred review, the book is truly “astonishing.”  The story centers on Will, a 15-year-old boy who sees his brother killed on the streets. Will decides to seek revenge, but he has to go down the elevator of his apartment building first.

The New Yorker – It’s kind of strange to include this on my list of reading, but I had set aside weeks of articles and finally got through them – until a new issue arrives this week. Particularly notable was Jane Mayer’s article, “The Case of Al Franken” in which the writer thoughtfully explores the accusations against Senator Franken that led to his resignation from the U.S. Senate. It appears in the July 29 issue.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei – A graphic memoir about Takei’s family’s incarceration during the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.  I have never seen one episode of Star Trek, the show that made Takei famous, but I knew about his work as an activist. Takei’s memoir feels urgent. The story he tells of his own experience is moving, but the parallels he draws with the present are powerful reminders that every person deserves to be treated with respect and fairness.

What I finished:

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – This will be the highlight of my reading this year. A demanding and immersive novel that led me to stop between chapters to “youtube” videos about the  Kamchatka peninsula where the book takes place. Phillips’ book is, on one hand, a suspenseful story about two sisters who go missing. But to read it as a mystery is to miss what it is really about: people living in a remote and complex place, community, the lives of women, ethnicity.

And what I’m now reading:

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – I’m not far enough in to talk about this novel, but it moved to the top of my list based on Frank Rich’s glowing front page review in the New York Times Book Review.

Summer is also about bookstores!  And I was recently able to visit one of my favorites: The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

And a new one…

The Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut is a used book store that is more like a theme park for books. It’s set up like a little village and each location is stacked floor to ceiling with used books. Given the amount of stock they manage, the store is remarkably well organized. After we spent an hour (and a few dollars) there, the staff member caring for the goats gave us directions to an ice cream shop!

The Book Barn also wins the prize for the best book shop sign ever!

Happy Reading…

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Mid-Summer Update….

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I just returned from a week in Lake Placid, New York – the site of both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics and now the official training center for the Winter Games. I’ve never been on either ice skates or skis, but reading is also a good winter activity so I sought out bookstores, libraries, and museums. Lake Placid is beautiful. Nestled in the Adirondacks, the town is surrounded by Mirror Lake, a lake that looks just like its name.

I was there with my husband, son, and Ohio family which made it especially wonderful. We visited High Falls Gorge, the Adirondack Experience museum, and the Olympic sites. One afternoon they rented a boat for a two hour adventure, and I enjoyed sitting at the end of the pier and read Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. The novel is as good as promised in its many stellar reviews.

Main Street in Lake Placid has a good bookstore with many regional titles:

And a picture-perfect library a few blocks down the street:

Driving out of town, we traveled through Keene and Keene Valley, each with their own public library:

And traveling by Instagram, this poster for the National Book Festival (designed by Marian Bantjes) caught my eye:

Later this week I’ll have my first meeting of the Buttonwood Middle Grade Summer Book Group. I can’t wait to talk about The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin with the kids.

Until then, it’s back to the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia where Disappearing Earth takes place. I knew nothing about this part of far eastern Russia before reading Phillips’ novel, but the landscape’s very remoteness adds to the richness of this powerful story.

Happy Reading…

 

 

 

 

Reading on the Road….

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We were on the road for a couple of weeks and since there were lots of moving parts, I packed paperbacks rather than any of the new hardcovers waiting on my nightstand. I tossed three books into my bag thinking I was being way too optimistic about reading time, but as it turned out, I had to purchase a fourth book during our travels. Here’s what I read:

Life of David Hockney by Catherine Cusset

Cusset, a French novelist, wrote this book as both fiction and biography; the facts about the artist David Hockney are all known, but Cusset imagines what Hockney was thinking at various turning points in his life – whether about his art or his romantic relationships. I admire Hockney’s sunny paintings of California and his beautiful landscapes of his native Yorkshire so I was interested in the topic and the blending of storytelling formats. Ultimately, Hockney’s steady optimism about any new adventure was inspiring, and I was happy to understand the roots of the artist’s work more deeply. That being said, the style of the book created too much distance for me. It felt more “article” than novel.

The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald

I pivoted from Hockney’s paintings of swimming pools to a tuberculosis hospital outside of Seattle. In 1937, Betty MacDonald, best known for her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series of children’s books, spent nearly a year in a tb sanatorium. “Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life,” she writes, “is like starting downtown to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus. When you regain consciousness you remember nothing about the urgent errands. You can’t even remember where you were going.”  An odd choice of books to read, perhaps, but Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, talked enthusiastically about MacDonalds’ shocking and funny memoir, on the Book Review podcast.  After listening to Paul read an excerpt from The Plague and I, I ordered a copy.

This book was an excellent traveling companion: reliably entertaining and a dramatic reminder of how lucky many of us are to receive the medical care we have today. MacDonald writes about the other patients and the sanatorium staff with wit and sharp observations. On nearly every page, I was either laughing at one of MacDonald’s stories or squirming at the realities of medical care in the mid-1930s.

The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Kawakami’s new novel appears on several “books to read this summer” lists so into my bag it went. I’m intrigued by contemporary Japanese novels. I’d like to explain that in a really thoughtful way, but I don’t have the right words. Basically, the tone is just dramatically different from American novels (at least the ones I read). The characters feel alienated from their societies, sometimes their families, and definitely the institutions in their lives. The novels feel a bit sad which is not a ringing endorsement, I know, but it’s interesting. The Ten Loves of Nishino was no exception. It’s told in ten voices, all women who loved the same unknowable man. He’s mysterious, but the women seem to know what they want. Maybe the word I’m looking for is anonymity.  I’ve also read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. The protagonist in that novel has no identity outside of the convenience store where she works. These books feel opposite of American identity-driven stories and make me think about the way we construct our lives.

What I enjoyed most about The Ten Loves of Nishino is its scaffolding. It’s like a beautiful Faberge egg that keeps opening to new and unexpected angles.

After finishing Kawakami’s novel, I had a mini-crisis. We were in a part of France with very few English books available. Luckily, we found a store with a limited selection, but I could feel myself breathing again! I purchased a historical novel called Wake by Anna Hope. This passage from the New York Times review led me to the purchase desk:

“Hope’s unblinking prose is reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s classic memoir Testament of Youth in its depiction of the social and emotional fallout, particularly on women, of the Great War. . . . Hope reaches beyond the higher echelons of society to women of different social classes, all linked by their reluctance to bid goodbye to the world the conflict has shattered.”

400 pages – and I finished it as our plane landed back in Boston. A powerful and moving story, but really quite sad. Hope doesn’t shy away from the heartbreak of war, not only for the people fighting it, but for all those left behind.

One last thing. We saw this ad on CNN International during our trip. It is so good — I promise it will make your day:

Happy Reading!

 

Winter Reading….

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There is one bonus to being on medical leave during the winter – lots of time to read!  While I’ll be happy to return to school soon, it has been nice to look at the thermometer, remember I don’t have to go outside, and reach for my book.  Here’s what I’ve been reading for the past six weeks….

Middle England by Jonathan Coe

At over 400 pages, this novel took the longest to read. I first read about it on a few English newspaper websites, but this endorsement from the author John Boyne tipped me over into the “buy” column: “Millions of words have been and will be written on Brexit but few will get to the heart of why it is happening as incisively as Middle England.”  Maybe I was tired of reading about the dysfunction in my own country so I decided to dive into another flavor of anxiety.  What I really like about Middle England is its broad sweep. The novel begins eight years before the Brexit vote and follows a cast of characters representing multiple points of view. By the time Coe reaches the actual “stay or leave” vote, I had a deeper understanding of England – and America’s – identity crisis.

Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug

This acclaimed memoir by a German woman learning about her family’s history during WWII is an immersive experience. A blend of a graphic novel, a scrapbook, and a memoir, Krug’s book is demanding and thoughtful. It is not a traditional reading experience – rather I found myself engaging with each page visually and emotionally. I felt like I was traveling alongside the author as she uncovers her family’s story and asks hard questions. Krug understands that history exists in the grey space – she does not conclude with a list of who was right and who was wrong. History and family are more complex than that. You reach the end of her memoir shocked again at the atrocities of Nazi-era Germany and thinking about your own cultural heritage and the meaning of “home.”

Someday We Will Fly by Rachel Dewoskin

I read this young adult novel in advance of adding it to Inly’s middle school summer reading list. At the center of the story is Lillia, a fifteen-year-old Polish girl who, with her father and baby sister, escape to Shanghai during WWII. Lillia’s parents were circus performers in Poland, but during a chaotic raid, her mother disappears, leaving the rest of her family to hope for her return. As Lillia makes a new life in Shanghai, she struggles with missing her mother and trying to find ways to make money to help her family survive. The most interesting part of the book was learning about the Jewish community that lived in Shanghai during WWII. China was occupied by Japanese forces at the time, but the Japanese allowed the Jewish refugees to stay because, as Lillia’s dad explains to her, “Apparently the Japanese believe Jews are powerful…..as long as they believe we control Western governments, we should be fine. Who knew there’d be such a silver lining to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories?” A good pick for mature teenagers who enjoy historical fiction.

Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden

Continuing the young adult historical fiction segment of the list, I read Tonya Bolden’s new novel about Essie, a young African American woman living in post-Civil War Savannah. At the opening of the novel, Essie lives with her mother in a brothel. Her mother calls the men who visit “uncles,” but Essie knows there is no future with her mother, and with the support of a friend, finds a housekeeping position in a respectable boardinghouse. One of the guests, an African American woman named Dorcas Vashon, gives Essie an opportunity – to be her companion. “I seek out young women of promise,” Dorcas tells Essie. Essie takes the opportunity, renames herself Victoria, and begins a new life among the African American elite in Baltimore. This book addresses race, status, and identity – and it’s perfect for readers ages 14 and over. I really liked this one.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Since reading about the meteoric rise of Sally Rooney, the twenty-seven year old literary superstar, I’ve wanted to read both of her novels: Conversations With Friends and Normal People. Rooney’s press has been glowing. A New Yorker profile is captioned: “The Irish writer has been hailed as the first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism.” Normal People was longlisted for the Booker Prize and was the 2018 Waterstones Book of the Year. So, with that as background music, I enthusiastically jumped into Conversations With Friends.  The writing is brilliant – I was so dazzled by some of the sentences that I would stop, reverse direction, and re-read a passage. But overall, I felt like I did when I would occasionally watch Girls, the Lena Dunham HBO series: that this is a generation I don’t recognize. The novel is compelling, kind of dark, and for me, a look inside a world that is far from my experience. That’s not a complaint. I’m grateful for Rooney’s honest look at the concerns of modern twenty-somethings. I’ll recommend Conversations with Friends to people in their 20s and 30s – and those who want to better understand what it feels like to be young today.

While I’ve been out of school, Mary has sent me lots of pictures from the Library. Here are two that I love and make me excited to go back to school:

A few more days at home – time to fit in one more book from my “to read” pile….

My Year in Reading

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As regular readers know, I’ve kept a list of every book I read since 1992. No comments. No thumbs up or down. Just the title and author. I looked at Volume One (1992-1998), and the first book I recorded was Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I loved that book!  In December 1998 I read The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. That was a good one too.  Here are four of my five notebooks. One seems to be missing – and I will turn the house upside down to find it!

My average is about 60 books per year, give or take. During the school year there are lots of Inly-related books (for classes or summer reading) and books I’m reviewing for School Library Journal. The summer break is obvious because the titles become things from my own “to read” list. This year, Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, is #58 so I’ll be able to reach #60 by the time Ryan Seacrest is in Times Square counting down to 2019.

My ten favorites among the books I read this year are:

99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham (I didn’t plan to read this and absolutely loved it. It’s a novella set in 1930s Florence about a woman caught up in a scandal. So good and a quick read)

Love to Everyone by Hilary McKay

There There by Tommy Orange

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery by Liz Rosenberg

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

Educated by Tara Westover

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Technically I have not finished reading one of the books on my list. There are about 50 pages left, but from the opening chapter, I knew Love to Everyone was special. Reminiscent of novels like Anne of Greene Gables and The War That Saved My Life, the setting of McKay’s novel is WWI-era England where Clarry Penrose lives with her widowed father and brother. Clarry is born at the beginning of the 20th century, and the novel spans the course of her life which is rich in both happiness and heartbreak. Much of the heartbreak comes during WWI which initially feels “vague and distant” to Clarry. Of course, it lands on her doorstep.

McKay’s beautiful writing is part of the pleasure of reading Love to Everyone. I love this passage about the seasons:

“The long cold winter was passing. The light grew brighter, even in the Miss Pinkses’ fume-filled classrooms. The air was wet and salt-tanged from the sea. There were birds above the chimney pots and daffodils to be spotten on Miss Vane’s chilly walks, and it was spring with summer on the horizon. Summer was shining bliss. Summer was opals and topaz and lapis and diamonds flung down from the sky. Summer was Cornwall.”

A few days ago I was in Boston waiting for a friend who texted to say she would be late. No worries. My book was in my bag and I was standing in front of a Starbucks. I started reading and soon enough, the lights beaming from all of the laptops and phones faded away, and I was back in Cornwall with Clarry.

And now the books to read in 2019 begin to stack up. Last night we were at the Coop in Harvard Square and, although my “to read” list is completely unrealistic, I could not leave the store empty handed.  I remember seeing something about David Litt’s memoir of working as a speechwriter for President Obama, but a combination of two things made me buy it:

1 – I finished Becoming a few days ago and was forced to re-enter the real world. The contrast proved too great, and I wanted to jump back down the rabbit hole and return to less chaotic days.

2 – The recommendation that a staff member at the Coop wrote about the book. Those staff notes are really persuasive!

Of course, now I want to listen to David Litt on The Moth.

But first….I need to return to Clarry’s story.  Happy Reading….

 

 

 

Tommy Orange Visits Inly

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Tommy Orange, the author of the novel There There spoke at Inly last Thursday evening.

There There, longlisted for the National Book Award and a finalist for the Carnegie Medal is the debut novel by Orange, a member of the Cheyenne tribe. The novel took him six years to write, but it has made the author a new literary star. “Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Is Really That Good” reads the title of the New York Times review of There There. Another New York Times article about Orange’s describes There There as a “new kind of American epic.”  Maureen Corrigan, reviewing the novel for Fresh Air, said:

There There is distinguished not only by Orange’s crackling style, but by its unusual subject. This is a novel about urban Indians, about native peoples who know, as he says, “the sound of the freeway better than [they] do rivers … the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than [they] do the smell of cedar or sage…”

The Inly program was a conversation between Tommy and Nina McLaughlin, a columnist for the Boston Globe whose first book, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter was published in 2015. Nina wrote the Globe’s review of There There which is linked here:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2018/06/14/what-indian/2GsJ8G2XHSo6YRYUZq72IL/story.html

The conversation was rich and meaningful, mostly because Tommy and Nina were natural and genuine. It truly felt like a conversation.

Nina began by asking Tommy about the explosive end to his novel. “I knew the end before I knew the beginning,” he told her. “I knew the characters’ lives would converge at a powwow.”

Talking about his polyphonic novel, Tommy described his writing process as “auditioning voices to see who felt convincing.” Over the six years it took him to write There There, Tommy estimates that he “tried 40 or 50 characters.”

Especially lovely was the way Tommy talked about novels, which he said “can do anything.” He was moved by A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and the work of Sylvia Plath. He described their work as having “sadness with levity.” Their writing, he said, “transcended their own sadness.”  Discussing his love of polyphonic novels, he mentioned, among others, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

Nina also asked Tommy to talk about the many mirrors and reflections in There There. “Growing up,” he responded, “Native people don’t see themselves very often. We aren’t in sports or movies or television.  The mirror lets you see how you’re native.”

I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed many happy days at Inly, but this was one of the best. Tommy Orange radiates kindness and thoughtfulness from the second you meet him.  If you haven’t read There There yet, add it to your “to read” pile.

Happy Reading….

 

 

Summer Reading Photo Edition

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Summer Reading season has officially begun, and my “to be read” pile is ready.

I’ve already finished my first novel of the summer reading sprint – There There by Tommy Orange.

Orange’s highly praised novel follows the lives of twelve “Urban Indians” living in Oakland, California. All of the characters are on their way to a powwow, and their lives intersect and ultimately collide at the event. It is a powerful and memorable novel. I’ve read many glowing reviews of Orange’s novel, but these lines from the Kirkus starred review capture it best:

“What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here. In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.”

Next up – perhaps because it has the most beautiful cover (by Julie Morstad) of every book on my list!

Today I am sharing photos – of an Instagram post, a letter, and a student…

Although I’ve never been on Facebook, I’ve become a fan of Instagram. What has been most surprising is how much I’ve come to rely on it in my professional life. Because publishers and authors use Instagram to promote new books, author events, and cover reveals, Instagram has become a way to follow what’s happening. Among the bookstores and other book-centered accounts, I also follow illustrators and artists. One of my favorites is a London-based illustrator, Steve Scott.  With his permission, I’m sharing my favorite of his posts:

At the end of the school year, I receive many sweet notes from students, all of which I treasure. This is one I received this year:

It’s awesome that she thinks the books are mine, and I’m letting her look at them, but I may need to clarify that the books are actually hers, and I am the lucky caretaker. It’s also nice that we are dressed alike in her picture!

Finally, a picture that sums up the joy of summer time reading.  I’m taking a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be on a book adventure so I’ll have lots to share with you in early July!  Until then, happy reading…