I don’t suppose I can say that I am “now reading” anything, since I can’t seem to get around to the books that I was reading only a few weeks ago, and what I do get around to reading on any given day tends to be a picture book about Christmas. Tonight’s read-aloud was a childhood favorite of mine, Bertie’s Escapade by Kenneth Grahame. (Our copy, an aged library discard, was illustrated by E. H. Shepherd of the Pooh books, which makes it even more dated and lovable than it would otherwise be.) The story is simple and wonderfully absurd: the eponymous pig and two rabbit friends venture off the farm one night in an ill-fated attempt to earn a good supper by singing carols in town. Having failed, they steal a decadent meal from the pantry of the sleeping Mr. Grahame (“a very careless man, Mr. Grahame”) and end up carousing until all hours in the pigsty. Perhaps my copy became a library discard on account of animals imbibing purloined champagne; regardless, my children find the story hysterical, and I look forward to “performing” it every year. Consider hunting up your own copy on the used book market! And read on for a diverse selection of recommendations—some enthusiastic, others more cautious—for grown-up books that know no season.
“Birthing the Mother Writer” Columnist Cassie Premo Steele writes, “I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior and was hooked by the first page. The writing is gorgeous, and the way she allows readers into the mind of her main character, the lonely mother, feels like a gift of generosity. Add to this a concern for the natural world and an understanding of living in poverty and you’ve got a Literary Mama must-read!”
“Dear Marjo” Columnist Marjorie Osterhout is in the midst of Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith and J.K. Rowling. “I was finally drawn into the mayhem and borrowed this book from my public library. I’m embarrassed to say that I expected a typical private eye novel (in other words, compelling but hackneyed). But in fact, it’s wonderfully written, and I was hooked by Chapter 2. As a reader, I’ve fallen in love with a handful of characters and actually worry about them when I’m not reading. Will Robin see through Matthew before it’s too late, despite her gorgeous engagement ring? Will Strike solve the mystery of Lula’s death without pissing all over the family fortune? Will Somé ever please stop strutting and asking for ‘tea and bicks?’ As a writer, I’m highlighting passage after passage, especially where Rowling inserts physical descriptions of her characters that actually add to the story and tell us something about the character. ‘A paunchy man with a face the color of corned beef, whose shirts were usually ringed with sweat around the armpits, his short supply of patience had been exhausted hours ago.’ All in all I’m having fun with a genre book that I’m not embarrassed to be reading, one that also provides exemplars for me as a writer.”
Kristina Riggle, Fiction Co-Editor, is proceeding with caution but proceeding nevertheless: “I’m reading (for book club) The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. I would never have picked up this book on my own. A memoir about a grown son and his mother as she dies of pancreatic cancer? No, thank you. The loss of my beloved mother-in-law to cancer was just over three years ago and still seems fresh enough that I steer clear of the topic in my leisure reading. Because this was a book club pick, however, I thought I’d give it a go. Fortunately (at least in the first quarter of the book) it’s not a grim slog, and both Schwalbe and his mother make engaging subjects– for topics other than terminal illness, too. I’m gritting my teeth over what’s to come, but sometimes the most important books turn out to be the ones we never wanted to read. We’ll see.”
Suzanne Kamata, Fiction Co-Editor, is hunkering down for the long winter: “I’ve just started reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Although I’m not too far into it, I’m already impressed by Tartt’s attention to craft and detail, and her ability to create such vastly different characters. This book features a young man named Theo who is haunted by an explosion in an art museum that took his mother’s life. At 800 pages, I think this book will take me a while, but knowing it may be another ten years or so before Tartt’s next novel, I intend to savor every page.”
Blog Editor Amanda Jaros is thoroughly engaged, despite initial misgivings, in Three Mothers, by Sonia Lambert: “It took me a chapter or two to get into the story, mainly because the book is divided into three women’s perspectives, and it keeps flipping back and forth amongst them, in seemingly no particular order. The structure is very distracting at first; once you come to know the characters, however, and understand that they are related (three generations of mothers/daughters) it becomes much more potent. Form aside, Lambert’s writing has depth and her descriptions of being a mother, being a woman, are full and powerful. She captures motherhood effortlessly. Traveling through the three stories of women at various stages of their lives turns out to be an interesting journey into a unique perspective. Now, three-quarters of the way through the book, I find myself unable to put it down, wanting to read just one more short segment, then one more, eager to find out how the intertwined lives of these mothers and daughters will end.”
Maria Scala, Senior Editor, found a gem to while away the irritable hours in an airport (or the more comfortable ones at home): “This past weekend, my husband, daughter and I found ourselves waiting an extra three hours at Toronto’s Pearson airport for a plane to Chicago. As my daughter and I took note of yet another flight delay, we headed over to a nearby shop to pick out something to read. She found the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid, aptly titled Hard Luck, and I scooped up Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s most recent short story collection Dear Life. Dear Life, indeed, I thought, as the snow squalls began. A one-and-a-half hour trip to Chicago had become an odyssey. Munro’s first story “To Reach Japan,” happened to be about a mother and daughter taking a trip across Canada by train. True to form, Munro paints a vivid and complex picture of the silent workings of the young mother’s mind. After a frightening scene in which she discovers the child missing from their train compartment, the mother realizes that she has never been truly present for her child, not until this train ride. She also faces hard facts about her marriage to her husband, an engineer who has never fully understood her poetic ambitions. Throughout, Munro weaves in telling details about the historical context surrounding the events: ‘It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was okay in that time and what was not. You might say, well, feminism was not. But then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia, and a political remark at an office party might have cost your husband his promotion . . . .’ That plane to Chicago did eventually arrive, and so my reading of Dear Life was temporarily interrupted in the hustle to get on board and make it to our destination on time. Now, safely back home, with the snow falling gently outside my window, I’m glad to dip back into the book again.”