Books enjoyed and anticipated in 2016

In terms of politics and world events, 2016 has perhaps not been the best year. But in terms of books, it has been stellar. I’m going to combine two Top Ten Tuesday topics: favorite releases so far this year, and most anticipated releases for the rest of the year. As usual, Linda has beat me to it and we’re anticipating many of the same titles.

Once again, this has sat half-finished in the draft folder for so long that several of the titles I was anticipating I have now read. When I started this, the two categories were more evenly balanced. Well, now you know what I was doing while I wasn’t writing blog posts.

Looking at this list, it’s almost as if all my favorite authors got together and said, “We know she has a baby (now a toddler) and reading time is precious, so let’s each publish a book this year and see if she can still read them all.” Challenge accepted! (Just one question: Why wasn’t Audrey Niffenegger invited to the party? I am going to have the teaser section of “Alba, Continued” memorized by the time she publishes the rest of the novel. Come on, Audrey…)

The Pharos Gate by Nick Bantock: I thought my precious boxed set of Griffin & Sabine books was complete, but – surprise! – there is a new one. I received a copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and am happy to say that it fits in perfectly with the other six books; the magic remains intact.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: Chris Cleave is one of my favorite authors, and I love historical fiction. This is a good book, but there is so much WWII fiction that the bar is quite high, and I think Cleave’s contemporary fiction is stronger. This one didn’t stay with me the way that Gold did.

The WonderThe Wonder by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue switches fluidly between contemporary and historical novels, and she excels at both. The Wonder is the story of Nightingale-trained English nurse Lib Wright, who takes a two-week job watching Irish eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who claims not to have eaten in four months. Is it a miracle or a hoax? Lib is sure it’s a hoax and that Anna is a liar, but she quickly comes to care for the girl, and concern at her deteriorating condition compels her to ask not how Anna is maintaining her fast, but why she feels the need to fast at all. The answer is a tangle of religious beliefs and a dark family secret.

Leave Me by Gayle Forman: A mother of four-year-old twins can’t get a break even when she is recovering from a heart attack, so she simply leaves town to find the rest and recovery she needs. Difficult to read at times, but Forman (If I Stay, Where She Went, Just One Day, Just One Year) has such compassionate for and empathy with her characters; she makes the transition from YA to adult seamlessly.

The TrespasserThe Trespasser by Tana French: I’ve been devoted to Tana French’s psychological suspense novels since In the Woods, and I’m always eager to read her new books, though I think The Likeness will always be my favorite. The Trespasser takes place largely in the police office and interview rooms rather than out on the scene; it was a touch long but never felt sluggish, as Conway and Moran dug into what was apparently a domestic murder but turned out to be more complicated than that.

The View from the Cheap SeatsThe View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman: This one sneaked up on me; it was not preceded by a lot of fanfare. I’d read a few of the pieces already but enjoyed them again, particularly “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013.” Nearly every piece in the collection is quite short, and I browsed rather than read straight through in order, so there are some pieces I missed.

Something New by Lucy Knisley: Relish is still my favorite book of hers, but this story of engagement and wedding planning is perfect for those who are in the same stage of life, particularly those with an artsy-craftsy hipster DIY style.

This Must Be the PlaceThis Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell is another of my favorite authors and I read an e-galley of this novel in a few huge gulps, the result being that I don’t remember it as well as if I’d read it more slowly. It’s the story of Daniel Sullivan and his various family members, in various parts of the world (Donegal, Paris, California, New York, Chile), at various times (from the 1980s to 2016). O’Farrell has a genius for character; I would read this again and probably enjoy it just as much.

CommonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett: On my admittedly long list of favorite authors, Patchett is firmly in the top five. Commonwealth is the story of two families who break apart and combine, leaving the children to cope with divorce, cross-country moves, and a singular tragedy. Various family members (but not all of them) narrate over a long time frame, during which their personal tragedy is made public in a famous author’s thinly fictionalized account.

On Bowie by Rob Sheffield: I was a Bowie fan without realizing it; when he died, I checked a greatest hits CD out from the library and discovered I knew plenty of Bowie songs, I just hadn’t known they were Bowie songs. Sheffield’s book is somewhere between a Bowie biography and a personal memoir – an fan’s extended paean to a cultural idol.

EligibleEligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: I had high expectations for this book (Curtis Sittenfeld! Pride & Prejudice!), and though some reviews were negative or mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did the other members of my book club. Sittenfeld brings the P&P story and characters into present-day Cincinnati, and she does it very well: with cleverness and wit and invention. She makes one or two significant changes from the original plot and characters, but remains true to the heart of the story.

Last Painting of Sara de VosThe Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith: I do love a good art history story, and this one didn’t disappoint. It takes place in three time periods: Holland in the 1630s, when the painting is created; Manhattan in the 1950s, when the painting is stolen and copied; and Sydney, Australia in 2000 when both the original and the forgery arrive at a museum show. Suspenseful and satisfying, a good choice for those who liked The Art Forger (B.A. Shapiro) or The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton).

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefavater: I have inhaled each of these four books, reading them so quickly it’s hard to remember the details. This was a satisfying conclusion to this uniquely magical quartet.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down by Anne Valente: The title snagged my attention, and the description and comp titles were enticing, so I requested and received the e-galley. For a story about a school shooting and a series of subsequent fatal house fires, I found it to be pretty slow-paced, and ended up skimming the last third just to find out who/what was causing the fires. On a political note, stories like this make our lack of national legislation on gun control even more frustrating.

Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy: Yet another of my favorite authors, Van Booy never disappoints: his poetic language, beautiful settings, and gift for bringing characters together in unexpected ways is delicate and touching.


The Muse by Jessie Burton: The second novel by the author of The Miniaturist takes place in Spain in 1936 and England in 1967. I like historical fiction in general, and Jessie Burton’s writing, and Spain in the 1930s is particularly interesting. I’m hoping to pick this up in the next month or two.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Plenty of buzz about the new novel by the author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A library copy just came in so I’ll be giving it a try soon.

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: I loved Rules of Civility so much that I was doubtful his next novel could be nearly as good, but my library colleague raved about it and it’s gotten very good reviews. I’ve just started reading and am enjoying it so far.

See also:

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2015 (7/1/15)

Best Books I’ve Read in the Second Half of 2016 (12/25/15)

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

Cover image of My True Love Gave to Me
The teen librarian at our library has been bringing up (or perhaps I should say swooning over) this story collection since she first read it, and now that I have read it as well, I have to agree that her starry-eyed state is completely justified. There’s not a dud in the bunch, and while I was looking forward to the authors I already knew (Rainbow Rowell, Gayle Forman, Kelly Link, David Levithan, and Holly Black), I really enjoyed encountering the others for the first time as well, and will probably look up some of their other books in the next few months.

For once, I read this book the way I always intend to read short story collections (but rarely do): I parceled out one or two stories at a time over the course of several days. It was a perfect way to absorb each story and let it settle before reading the next one.

In order of appearance:

“Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell: After years of New Years’ parties with the same crowd, Mags finally gets her midnight kiss with her longtime best friend, Noel.

“It’s going to get worse,” he said. “You’re going to keep changing.”
“Well, so are you,” she said.
“I never change.”
Mags laughed. “You’re a kaleidoscope. You change every time I look away.”
-Rainbow Rowell

“The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link: Miranda is the goddaughter of Elspeth Honeywell, and spends every Christmas at the grand Honeywell house. Year after year, she encounters a man – a ghost? – in the garden, but only when it’s snowing.

“Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Pena: Shy is catsitting for his boss – and slowly starving – over Christmas, when Haley, another tenant in the building, comes down to ask about a plumbing problem. She’s Shy’s age, beautiful, and a great cook, but Shy has to overcome his pride to accept her help.

“Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han: Natalie lives with her adoptive father, Santa, at the North Pole, and has a crush on one of the elves, Flynn; her Christmas wish is a kiss from him.

“There are two kinds of children. The kind who believe and the kind who don’t. Every year, it seems there are fewer in the world who do. Papa says it’s not an easy thing to ask a child to believe in what they can’t see; he says it’s its own magic. He says that if you have that magic inside you, you should protect it all your life and never let it go, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
-Jenny Han

“It’s A Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins: Marigold visits the Christmas tree lot next to her apartment building, trying to get up the courage to ask one of the guys who works there if he will voice one of her animation videos. Before coming out with her question, she accidentally buys a Christmas tree that North helps her bring home – then he helps her reorganize her whole apartment, which she and her mother haven’t bothered to unpack since they moved in (after discovering that they were Marigold’s father’s other, secret family). And then it starts to snow.

“I’ve always felt lucky to live someplace where snow is rare, you know? It’s the rareness that makes it so special.”
“That could be said about a lot of things.”
-Stephanie Perkins

“Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan: A boy dresses up as Santa to help his boyfriend’s little sister keep believing for one more year.

“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black: The narrator and her friends Penny and Wren throw a New Years’ party in her late grandmother’s trailer to trap Penny’s two-timing prep school boyfriend, but some magical guests show up as well.

“Sometimes I felt like I was waiting for my life to begin and more than anything, in that moment, I wanted to force some kind of beginning. I wanted things to be different than usual.”
-Holly Black

“What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman: The title character is regretting her decision to leave New York for the Midwest for college, but things begin to look up when she meets someone who shares her sense of humor (e.g. making fun of reindeer sweaters) at a caroling night.

“Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire: Prankster Vaughn has to save the church Christmas pageant (which he inadvertently ruined by accidentally setting fire to the church barn) and if he can impress the pastor’s daughter Gracie at the same time, well…that’s just extra motivation.

“Welcome to Christmas, CA” by Kiersten White: Maria lives in a tiny California town called Christmas; she can’t wait to graduate and move away with her savings (tips from working in the Christmas Cafe). But when the cafe gets a new chef named Ben – someone who has a knack for knowing (and cooking) exactly what each person wants to eat – Maria thinks she might stick around a little longer.

“Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter: Teen pop star Liddy Chambers swaps tickets with a stranger at an airport to escape her tyrannical manager, Derek; she flies to Oklahoma, where she pretends to be an Icelandic exchange student visiting her boyfriend Ethan and his family, who rally around her even when they know she’s a fake.

“The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor: Neve is a poor orphan whose closest friends perished in a fever last summer; her highest hope is to reach “Age” and be set free so she can settle a plot of land in Fog Cup (as gloomy as it sounds). When the town’s fire-and-brimstone preacher declares his intention to marry her, Neve begs for help from an old god – and the Dreamer answers. A bit Maggie Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races), a bit Neil Gaiman (“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”).

“Some kinds of misery make you hate the world, but some kinds make you hate yourself…”
-Laini Taylor

Cover image of Summer Days and Summer NightsThese stories are set in different places and times, real and imaginary, past and present. The characters are different as well: optimistic and pessimistic, gay and straight, poor and middle-class and wealthy, Christian and Jewish and pagan, Black and white, skeptical and romantic. (One can see why it’s YA authors who are leading the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.) All in all, it’s a pretty near perfect collection, and I’m looking forward to Stephanie Perkins’ other anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories.

Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?




Required reading

In her review of Becoming Nicole (which we are considering for next year’s Community Read), my co-worker included a few related titles: “Other books on the topic that I recommend are She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan (who was mentioned in this book as well) and Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree which has a chapter on transgender kids, and which is on my extremely short list of books that everybody should read” (emphasis added).

Most readers can get a little evangelical about their favorite books; when you read something marvelous, you want everyone else to read it too. (Or you have the opposite reaction and want to keep it to yourself, lest it become popular and therefore somehow less special. Though I suppose Harry Potter puts the lie to that logic.)

But going back to the idea of a short list of books that everybody should read…that’s a different sort of list. The books that I love and recommend are usually novels, but as a librarian, I recognize that “every book its reader, every reader his/her book”: that is, reading is subjective, and just because I love a book doesn’t mean everyone will.

The books I would prescribe to everyone, then, tend to be nonfiction; the sorts of books that expand minds, encourage deep thinking, and may require the reevaluation of one’s world view. Although it’s quite long, I’d agree with the inclusion of Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, because it gives insight into many different kinds of difference, using research and science as well as personal stories, case studies, and anecdotes. This blend of quantitative and qualitative, respectively, serves all readers well, whether you prefer numbers or stories.

Here are a few others:

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz and/or I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance (except when you shouldn’t) by Leah Hager Cohen: Being Wrong is the book Drew Gilpin Faust wished that all incoming Harvard freshmen would read, and her review is how I heard of this book. It is about ideas and beliefs, rightness and wrongness, how we err and learn (or don’t) from our errors. Schulz points out that, when using the Scientific Method, “Errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.” But people are incredibly uncomfortable with not knowing – it’s why we generally won’t let go of a belief, even if we know it’s wrong, until we can replace it with something else. Cohen’s book, essentially a long essay, is about getting more comfortable in that space. This is important both on a personal and a societal level. She writes, “Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn’t make us wishy-washy…We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don’t let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine.” Doubt has a value, and one ought to be able to change one’s mind when presented with new information – or at least consider that what you “know” may be wrong.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a short, serious essay collection. The title essay is available online (read the original essay here). Solnit connects the dots between the subtle kind of sexism that can seem almost harmless and the kind that is violent and unquestionably dangerous and damaging; it’s not that much of a leap. For more on feminism: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran; Shrill by Lindy West; Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

On a related note, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler was an eye-opening and heart-wrenching book. I wish anyone who challenges the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade would read some of these stories first.

“If we do something over and over, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over, it becomes normal.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum and “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh were on the syllabus for a Multicultural Education class I took in college, and they both helped me see some things that had indeed been “invisible” to me. This is still clearly a hot topic (the Black Lives Matter movement, etc.). Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist, above) explains the importance of acknowledging one’s privilege and the importance of valuing others’ experience:

“We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone….You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.” -Roxane Gay

The books on my list are there because they expose inequality or shine a light on difference, in the hopes of raising awareness, demystifying the other, and increasing familiarity and therefore empathy. “The other,” of course, is also subjective; the point is to read about people, places, experiences, and points of view other than your own, to understand them better. Reading this way can break down barriers, soften boundaries, widen the circle of “us” until it also includes “them.”

Reading fiction increases empathy too. One of my favorite passages in any book, one that has stuck with me since ninth grade, is from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Pigs in Heaven. A woman is at a gas station watching a stranger, who surprises her when he begins to speak to his companion in another language. Then: “This ordinary man in jeans, whose thoughts she believed she knew, opens his mouth and becomes a foreigner. It occurs to her that there is one thing about people you can never understand well enough: how entirely inside themselves they are.” We can never know other people as well as we know ourselves, but we can endeavor to try. And when we fall short, there is the Golden Rule to fall back on, and even that can be reduced to just two words. When in doubt, be kind.

“Be a little kinder than you have to.” -E. Lockhart

If you made a list of “books everyone should read,” which books would you include?

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Another version of this piece can be found on the Robbins Library blog as “Sew what? Fashion and its snags”

It surprised my friends and family when I started talking about this book, because I am not really interested in clothes – I’m certainly not “fashionable” – so why would I read a book about fashion? The truth is that I heard about this book a few times from different sources (NPR, etc.), and when I picked it up, I realized that Cline had several convincing points to make about the current state of cheap fashion.

Cover image of Overdressed

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline (2012) examines the state of “fast fashion” today, traces its evolution, and explores its impact on the garment industry, the planet, and our closets.

In short, she argues that it’s really not a good thing that we can buy a shirt for $4: consumers, garment workers, and the environment would all be better off if we made and bought less clothing, but made it well and took care of it. Though this used to be the case, it isn’t anymore. As Cline writes in her introduction, “We’ve gone from making good use of the clothes we own to buying things we’ll never or barely wear. We are caught in a cycle of consumption and waste that is unsettling at best and unsatisfying at its core.”

Cline writes, “Textiles have always had an unflattering environmental footprint, but the more pressing problem is the terrifying scale at which they are now being produced” – and the volume in which they’re being dumped in landfills. In between, underpaid workers in foreign countries make the garments, because “the demand for cheaper and cheaper garments has all but wiped out the American garment industry,” and consumers’ closets are full of things they don’t wear. Clothes become easy prey for those who are “KonMari-ing” their homes, and even most of those that are donated to Salvation Army or Goodwill end up in the trash.

Cline cites some pretty stark numbers. For example, “Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also estimates that 1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.” Clothing is cheaper than it used to be, so consumers can buy more of it, but, accordingly, it is lower-quality and doesn’t last as long.

If all this bothers you, what can you do about it? Assuming you’re not in charge of Forever 21, H&M, or Zara, Cline presents a few ideas for the average person:

  • Educate yourself about textile quality and garment construction so you can identify good quality when you see it, instead of just trusting brand names.
  • Buy the best quality you can for your money.
  • Buy secondhand clothing at thrift or vintage stores, or participate in clothing swaps.
  • Make, alter, and mend your own clothing.*
  • Recognize that “good clothing is not cheap.”

*Cline notes, “As people moved away from making their own clothes, general public knowledge of garment construction faded.” It will take some work to regain that knowledge, but I am interested in learning more – I just checked out a few books on sewing from the library, and have learned a few things already (e.g. what a French seam is). Toward the end of the book, as Cline explores the nascent “slow fashion” movement and experiments with making her own clothes, she enjoys the freedom that comes from choosing prints and patterns in her own style, instead of being confined to what’s available in stores. As someone who will wear the same clothes until they fall apart, I want clothes that are “timeless” instead of trendy; if I could make my own, I wouldn’t have to look.

Overdressed probably could have reached a wider audience in the form of a long (New Yorker-length) essay; given its length as a book, I think it actually could have been much more forceful, given that nearly everything about the fashion industry today is terrible for the environment, workers in the industry, and consumers. Today’s fashion trends aren’t improvements on yesterday’s; they’re just different. As Cline writes, “Unlike the world of technology, where rapid innovation produces improvements, innovation in fashion just produces arbitrary stylistic changes.”

Have you read anything else on this topic you’d recommend? Do you make your own clothes, or would you like to learn? More broadly, what other books have prompted you to consider making changes in your life?




I have not written here for two months – the longest gap since I’ve started this blog – but I have been reading. Here are a few of the adult fiction standouts over the past couple months.

“We have to make choices. I used to think we had time to do anything we wanted, but we can only do some of the things in any one lifetime.” -My Real Children

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Cover image of My Real ChildrenI just finished this tonight, and I loved it; it spans a century, and the part that takes place from WWI to WWII reminded me strongly of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. We begin in 2015, when Patricia is in a nursing home, “very confused.” On top of her ordinary memory problems due to aging, she remembers two separate lives. The reader wants to know which is real, of course, but both are equally real in the world of the book; only in the final pages does Patricia work it out (at least, I think she does; it’s a bit open-ended). This has been on my to-read list for a while and my book club is discussing it this month; I’m eager to hear what others thought of it

Liz had tried not to experience the doubly insulting sting of being excluded by a person she didn’t care for. Eligible

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Cover image of Eligible

I suggested this for book club also. The main appeal for discussion is to compare it to Pride & Prejudice, which some of us remembered better than others. I have adored Curtis Sittenfeld’s previous novels (Prep, American Wife, Sisterland), and had high expectations, tempered only somewhat by mixed reviews. In the end, I thought she did an excellent job adapting Austen’s story and characters, bringing them into present-day Cincinnati, New York, and California. Mr. Bennet’s quips are sharp, and Liz is observant (with one significant blind spot). Highly enjoyable, though it ends on Mary Bennet, which is a bit odd.

He considered how memories hold our lives in place but weigh nothing and cannot be seen or touched. -Father’s Day

Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy

Cover image of Father's Day

Sad and lovely as all his novels and stories are (The Illusion of Separateness, Everything Beautiful Began After, Love Begins in Winter, The Secret Lives of People in Love). Set on Long Island and in Paris, Father’s Day is the story of Harvey and her father, Jason. Harvey’s first parents were killed in a car crash when she was in first grade, and thanks to a persistent, good-hearted social worker named Wanda, Harvey is adopted by her father’s brother. Now, Jason is visiting Harvey in Paris, where she lives and works; he has come for Father’s Day, and Harvey has prepared a gift for each day of his trip. Each gift connects to a memory from their past. The final item, some official documents, are a surprise to Jason and to the reader, though Harvey herself won’t understand the significance unless Jason explains it to her; like My Real Children, there’s something of an open ending. Van Booy’s writing is beautiful and tender without being at all showy.

Why should one expect to feel the same every day, in a world that was rearranging itself by the hour? -Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Cover image of Everyone Brave is ForgivenLike Sittenfeld and Van Booy, Chris Cleave is another of my favorite authors (2016 is a good year for me in this respect, and I hear there will be a new Ann Patchett this fall!). With Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Cleave departs from contemporary fiction and delves into historical fiction, specifically the early years of World War II. Mary and Tom are in London during the Blitz, and Alistair is suffering during the siege of Malta. Unlike in Gold – my favorite of his previous novels – I did not quite feel as though the characters were wholly real. Mary’s sensibility was imperceptible from a progressive modern one, and Tom and Alistair were too perfectly British, with their dry wit, pithy quips, and good manners even in the face of bombs and starvation. Still, this is high-quality WWII fiction; it reminded me a little of Corelli’s Mandolin, perhaps just because of the Malta setting. I enjoyed it, but I hope he returns to the present in his next novel.



Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) has been on my to-read list – and on my bookshelf – for some time now. My book club chose it for our April meeting, and once I picked it up, I read it quickly; it’s written in a clear, accessible style and makes a great deal of sense. Cain draws on a large body of research and writes about her own experience as well as that of others, and this mix of data and anecdotes makes for a perfect blend.

There are plenty of differences between introverts and extroverts, but one of the main ones has to do with stimulation. How much do you need to stay in your “sweet spot” where you’re neither bored nor overwhelmed? Introverts and extroverts feel comfortable – and do their best learning and work – with different levels of stimulation (noise levels, new environments, crowds of people, etc.).

Cover image of Quiet by Susan CainCain gives a bit of history about how, especially in America, we’ve shifted from a “Culture of Character” (in which “the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable”) to a “Culture of Personality” (a focus on how one is perceived by others). The “Extrovert Ideal” is now pervasive in the workplace as well as in schools, despite the fact that 1/3 to 1/2 the population is introverted and that there are actually disadvantages* to setting up schools and offices to suit only extroverts.

Can introverts fake being extroverts in order to fit in (and get ahead)? Sure, to some extent; but, Cain writes, “We might call this the “rubber band theory” of personality….We can stretch our personalities…only up to a point.” While an open floor plan office might provide just the right level of stimulation for extroverts, it’s likely to exhaust and stress an introvert unless s/he has the opportunity to recharge by working in quiet and solitude some of the time. (Open-plan offices have also been found to “reduce productivity and impair memory” – probably not what employers are after.) Likewise, working in large groups or teams in a classroom might be great for some kids, but others will do their best work independently. (Indeed, Stephen Wozniak has said, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee.”)

*I found the following two pieces of information surprising and interesting:

(1) “…excessive stimulation seems to impede learning….the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking…turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.”

(2) “…group brainstorming doesn’t actually work….Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases. [Online collaboration is an exception.] We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own.”

A more balanced approach in schools and workplaces would benefit everyone, not just the introverts. (Cain’s section on the Wall Street crash is one example.) But if you’re an introvert and your school or workplace is set up to honor the “Extrovert Ideal,” at the very least, Quiet affirms that there’s nothing wrong with you; you just don’t happen to fit “the prevailing model.” Try to carve out “restorative niches” wherever you can, and don’t feel guilty if you’d rather be home with a book than out at a bar.