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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Books for summer camping: Adult fiction and nonfiction

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Some people might say that we’ve now entered the “dog days of August” but here at the Book Jam we like to call this time of year the “dog-eared book days of August”. It is the season when we finally get to the books in our pile that have been beckoning, lazing with them by the lake for long periods of time, folding over pages to remind us where to return  (hence the dog ears) only when it is time for a short break from the prose.

August is when we look forward to pulling out or back packs and beach bags and filling them full of books (and maybe a clean change of clothes, too) and heading with them to the shore of some quiet sunny river to get lost in the stories and ideas that lie between the pages.

Below are 28 ideas for what you might want to put in your backpack and head to the hills with to lose yourself in after a day of hiking. Remember, the faster you set up your tent, the faster you can open up those dog-eared and well loved books.

Happy reading!

 

Books Inspired by Ancient Greeks or Shakespeare and even Henry James (Because this seems to be a trend in our reading, and continues as MacBeth by Jo Nesbo is on our bedside table for August.)

FC9780316556347.jpgCirce by Madeline Miller (2018) – This saga covers the origin, life and final decisions of Circe, the original Greek witch.  Sprinkled throughout with men, women and gods from Greek Mythology, I found myself spell bound by what would happen next – even though I technically knew. And because Circe manages to succeed alone, banished to an island, she draws the wrath of gods, slightly reminiscent of some women today. In the end this is a gripping tale centered around a dysfunctional family of rivals, love and loss, punishment, and a tribute to a strong woman living in a predominantly man’s world. (Also on the April 2018 Indie Next List.) 

FC9780525431947.jpgNutshell: A Novel by Ian McEwan (2016) — Ok the tale of Hamlet reworked for Modern Day London and told form the perspective of an unborn child?  Yes, sounds too precious, but Mr. McEwan pulls it off. It truly is more brilliant than this quick summary shows it should be.  Perhaps because the narrator allows Mr. McEwan to ponder modern problems and pleasures without seeming to lecture.  Perhaps it is because of Mr. McEwan’s lovely prose.  Whatever the reason, I highly recommend this one, while admitting a bias for Mr. McEwan’s work. (A New York Times and Washington Post notable book and previously reviewed by us a few times.)

FC9780449006979.jpgGertrude and Claudius by John Updike (2000). Yes, Hamlet, that tortured prince receives a lot of time in High School and College English Lit classes, but did you ever think about his story from the perspective of his mother and her lover/second husband?  Well luckily for us, John Updike did. The result is a well written novel that forces you to rethink the Bard’s popular tale of a Danish Prince and his doomed lover Ophelia. This is different from most of Mr. Updike’s novels – try it, you might love it.  And if you don’t believe us, try the New York Times Book review “Updike has used Shakespeare to write a free-standing, pleasurable, and wonderfully dexterous novel about three figures in complex interplay.”  

FC9780451493422.jpgMrs. Osmond by John Banville (2017) – I am a huge fan of Mr. Banvile’s The Sea, which I often describe as the perfect dysfunctional Irish family novel.  I also enjoy his mysteries under his pen name Benjamin Black. I also loved reading The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James in my early 20s just after completing my own stint in Europe. Granted I was backpacking and sleeping in tents while Isabel Archer was being wined and dined for her fortune, but I still related somehow. Thus, I picked up Mr. Galbraith’s treatise of what happens to Isabel once The Portrait of A Lady ends, with high expectations for a great story. These were met. Somehow Mr. Banville manages to capture and use Mr. James’s prose style, wry humor, and social commentary while making this sequel his own.Mrs. Osmond explores what happens when the people we love aren’t who they seemed to be, how sudden wealth changes everything, what living abroad as an American can mean, and family. As The Guardian summed, “Banville is one of the best novelists in English. . . . Mrs Osmond is both a remarkable novel in its own right and a superb pastiche.”

FC9781770413993.jpgRose and Poe by Jack Todd (2017) – I am always going to read anyone who attempts to retell The Tempest, and Mr. Todd did not disappoint. In this tale, Mr. Todd re-imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest from the point of view of Caliban (Poe) and his mother (Rose). Rose and Poe live in the woods quietly along side Prosper Thorne, a banished big city lawyer and his gorgeous daughter Miranda. When Poe appears carrying Miranda’s bruised and bloody body, he is arrested, despite lack of evidence he committed the crime; and Rose and Poe find themselves facing bitter hatred and threats from neighbors who once were friends. A timeless tale of how we stigmatize what frightens us, and the consequences of our prejudices.  

FC9781501140228.jpgHouse of Names by Colm Toibin (2017) – In this measured retelling of the story of Clytemnestra and her children, Mr. Toibin creates a sympathetic character as he reveals the tragic saga that led to her bloody actions (killing her husband). Told in four parts, Mr. Toibin portrays a murderess, her son Orestes, and the vengeful Electra, all the while playing with who deserves sympathy in the end. (Named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR.)

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Historical fiction

FC9780812985405.jpgLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017) – A fascinating look at Lincoln after his beloved son Willie dies and the USA is burning down all around him due to the Civil War.  Told in a completely uniquely gorgeous style and premise – actual historical documents describing this time and the souls of the dead interred with Willie give voice and color to the narrative. Challenging to read; fascinating to think about. (Winner of the Man Booker Prize, and an IndieNext pick.) 

FC9780062563705.jpgHalf-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker (2017) Ragnvald and Svanhild, the brother and sister duo at the heart of this novel, lead the way through an adventurous re-telling of Norway’s medieval history. For those of you looking for a saga that highlights how personalities and desires influence everything, and that uses actual historical characters and battles, Ms. Hartsuyker’s work may be the perfect summer read for you. (August 2017 IndieNext pick.) 

FC9780385542364-1.jpgThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016) – I am late to the party over this National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize winning novel. But, this tale of Cora and her life as a slave will capture your imagination and give you many reason to pause and think about race relations today. Please pick it up if you have not already. (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.) 

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General Fiction

FC9780316316132-1.jpgLess by Andrew Sean Green (2017) – This look at mid-life and lost loves is loaded with superb prose and insight.  Mr. Less makes a lovely main character to rout for, his life reflections are populated by interesting characters, and his travels abroad reminiscent of something Twain once wrote. I must admit it was not as funny for me as had been hyped, but I still liked it. Enjoy! (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, New York Times Notable Book, Top Ten pick for the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.) 

FC9781616205041.jpgYoung Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (2017) – For those of us who lived through the Bill Clinton sexual relations intern scandal, this book will seem familiar. What might not seem so familiar is the humor and candor about society’s standards contained in this light novel about how decisions we make when we are young have implications. (September 2017 IndieNext book.)  

FC9781944700553.jpgMem by Bethany C Morrow (2018) – What happens when you can choose to eliminate horrific memories? Where do they go? What happens to your life afterwards?  Ms. Morrow gives her answers to these questions in this slim look at life in 1920s Montreal. And, since Brenna Bellavance the newest bookseller at the Norwich Bookstore brought this to my attention, I will use her review and say ditto to the haunting aspect. “Elsie is not a real person. From the moment she came to exist, she has been told this repeatedly. She is merely the physical embodiment of an unwanted memory extracted from another woman, a real woman, whose face she sees every time she looks in a mirror. Except that she remembers a life she didn’t live, loves people she never met, thinks her own thoughts, and feels her own feelings. So what makes a real person….real? Exquisite and haunting, Mem has stayed with me.” (June 2018 IndieNext Book.)  

FC9780679734772.jpgThe House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros – I LOVED this once again as I read it to discuss with my 9th grader who was forced to read it for his English teacher. Bonus — he, a very reluctant reader, loved it too :)! (Thanks you Ms. Eberhardt.) The trials and tribulations of the narrator as she navigates her life in NYC are deliciously unraveled by Ms. Cisneros sparse prose. Or as the New York Times reviewed ““Cisneros draws on her rich [Latino] heritage . . . and seduces with precise, spare prose, creat[ing] unforgettable characters we want to lift off the page. She is not only a gifted writer, but an absolutely essential one.”  

FC9780385349406Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (June 2013) — Yes, summer and heat go hand in hand, and currently, all over the globe, the weather is setting records for heat and discomfort. Apparently in 1976, London suffered more heat than most. So, we added a book we reviewed in 2013 to today’s post in honor of heat waves everywhere. That 1976 British heat wave is the setting for a series of events in this wonderful book about an Irish Catholic clan living in London.  The chain of events unfurls once the father of three grown children disappears, causing all the grown children to rally around their mother.  And well, his disappearance leads to a secret which when unveiled leads to a series of events that rapidly take over everything in the hot, hot heat of this long ago summer.  Enjoy!  

FC9780812996067.jpgAlternate Side by Anna Quindlen (2018) – I start this review with the confession that I miss Ms. Quindlen’s New York Times and Newsweek columns. Her insight, humor, precise prose, and hope amidst the chaos and difficulties she wrote of were a staple of my life for many years. These characteristics are evident in this summer beach read of a novel.  Nora has a great job, twins in college, a kind husband, and the perfect house on the best block in New York City – a dead end filled with people who get along. Then an incident occurs and unravels pretty much everything. Alternate Side offers a lovingly portrayed look at life in middle age with kids in college, jobs not quite what you dreamed of when you were 20, and of New York City itself.  A great beach read for anyone – especially anyone who truly loves NYC. As the New York Times stated, “Exquisitely rendered . . . [Quindlen] is one of our most astute chroniclers of modern life. . . . [Alternate Side] has an almost documentary feel, a verisimilitude that’s awfully hard to achieve.”

FC9780062484154.jpgWhatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins (2016) – I am so glad someone put this collection of short stories in my hands. The writing by Ms. Collins – a little known African American artist and filmmaker – is distinct and concise and paints vivid pictures of life in New York in the 1970s. The backstory to the collection is even better – these stories were discovered by Ms. Collins’ daughter after her death. (Best Book of 2016 by NPR and Publishers Weekly 

FC9780735212206.jpgExit West by Mohsin Hamid – I LOVED this novel.  It is concise, gorgeously written, and covers important topics – love, immigration, war.  Perfect. (Winner 2018 Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times, Ten Best Book of 2017 for the New York Times.)  

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Mysteries and thrillers and other beach reads

FC9780804114905.jpgLast Bus to Woodstock by Collin Dexter (1975) – I have been a fan of the BBC’s Inspector Lewis, Morse, and Endeavor series for years.  This is the first time I read those series’ primary source materials.  I am so glad I finally did. This was well-plotted intelligently written and fun to read.  I especially enjoyed vicariously visiting Oxford sites I have been privileged to stroll. Pick this series up (this title is first in the series), read, and perhaps then plan a trip to the UK – or watch the series. Thank you Danielle Cohen, an amazing audio-book narrator and actor, for reminding me that the books behind the BBC are great as well. Publishers Weekly agrees, “A masterful crime writer whom few others match.”

FC9780143133124.jpgThe Ruin by Dervla McTiernan (2018) – Besides having my new favorite name – Dervla, Ms. McTiernan’s debut novel introduces a great new detective series. Her main detective Cormac Reilly has a unexplained complicated past, the requisite desire for justice, and great assistance from another well-wrought detective Carrie O’Halloran and a new newbie to the Garda – Peter Fisher. The setting in Galway is part of the action and allows you to vicariously travel to some very wet time in the Irish countryside. (Also a July 2018 IndieNext pick.)   

FC9780061655517.jpgNemesis (and other titles) by Jo Nesbo (2002) – Somehow I missed this instalment in the Harry Hole series.  Another page-turner for mystery fans. As the nomination for the Edgar Nominee for Best Novel of the Year states — “The second Harry Hole novel to be released in America–following the critically acclaimed publication of The RedbirdNemesis is a superb and surprising nail-biter that places Jo Nesbo in the company of Lawrence Block, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, and other top masters of crime fiction. Nesbo has already received the Glass Key Award and the Booksellers’ Prize, Norway’s most prestigious literary awards. Nemesis is proof that there are certainly more honors in this extraordinary writer’s future”.  

FC9781616957186.jpgAugust Snow by Stephen Mack Jones (2017) – I so want to believe there is someone like August Snow – a half black, half Mexican, ex-cop with a strong sense of justice and neighborhood – looking out for Detroit. The hope this book expresses for Detroit weaves throughout the narrative and Mr. Jones’s descriptions of Detroit’s decline and partial resurgence make the city an actual character in this thriller. Yes, he makes mistakes, and wow his body count is way too high for my tastes by the end, but so few books take place in modern day Detroit, enjoy this one! (Also a Winner of the Hammett Prize, and annual award for best mystery by the International Association of Crime Writers.)  

FC9781508238607.jpgPoison by John Lescroart (2018) – I love Mr. Lescroart’s Dimas Hardy Series for the chance to relive life in San Francisco and the great cast of characters Mr. Hardy uses to always ensure justice is served.  This latest instalment continues this love affair. These are my reliable guilty pleasure.  

 

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Nonfiction

FC9780316392389.jpgCalypso by David Sedaris (2018) – Mr. Sedaris’s latest collection of essays tackles the “not-so-joyful” aspects of reaching middle age. Perhaps because of this, this collection is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his previous collections. That said, it is impossible for me to read Mr. Sedaris’s work without hearing his distinctive voice in my head, making his wry insights even funnier than they initially appear. And honestly, his perceptive commentary about life’s mundane and heartbreaking moments is superb no matter the level of humor.  I will frame his paragraph in “Leviathan” beginning “It’s ridiculous how often you have to say hello on Emerald Island” for its treatise on the fact Southerners insist on saying hello. I will then present it to my children as a constant explanation for why I say hello to complete strangers; they may never understand this trait, but they will forever have documentation of its source – my childhood in Tennessee. Pick this up and enjoy! (We suppose we should have put this in the inspired by Ancient Greeks category.) 

FC9780062838742.jpgAmateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words by Kimberly Harrington (2018) – This collection of essays features a distinctive voice (one that is often seen in The New Yorker, and McSweeney’s) that applies humor, tears, cursing, love, and unique insight to almost every aspect of motherhood/life: a failed pregnancy, relocating across the country, a request to end “mommy wars” steeped with insight from both sides, grandparents/Florida, to do lists, meal-train etiquette, participation trophies, parenting experts, plane rides with kids, and partners. You will grin throughout this collection, as each essay is graced with humor and humility. You will tear-up a bit reading many of the essays as some are poignant and unsparing (e.g., a retelling of a failed pregnancy, and/or a story of a fight over divorcing – they didn’t – that uses FB “likes” to score points). Quick note: we found this book because one of its chapters was a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times. (Previously reviewed in mother’s day picks.)

FC9780143125471-1.jpgThe Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013) – Not sure why I never got around to reading this, but I am so glad I finally did. What a terrific tale of triumphing – ultimately over Hitler, but also over horrendous parents, poverty and low expectations.  

FC9780399588174.jpgBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) – Funny, sad, and amazingly moving memoir about growing up a biracial child in South Africa during and just after Apartheid. Mr. Noah is insightful and honest as he dissects his life and his choices and the choices that were made for him. Each chapter begins with an overview of life in South Africa that relates to the subsequent story from his own life. (Named on the best books of the year by NPR, New York Times, Esquire, Booklist.) 

FC9780062684929.jpgUnbelievable by Katy Tur (2017) – An up front and personal account of the 2016 presidential race from a MSNBC and MBC reporter who followed Trump from the time when everyone thought his candidacy was a long shot all the way through his election. As Jill Abramson said in a New York Times book review – “Compelling… this book couldn’t be more timely.” (The author was the recipient of the 2017 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.)   

FC9781608197651.jpgMen We Reaped by Jessmyn Ward (2013) – This coming of age memoir shows what it is like to grow up smart, poor, black and female in America. Ms. Ward’s starting point is a two year period of time shortly after she graduated college during which five boys who she loved and grew up along the Mississippi Coast with experience violent deaths. (Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath also play a role in this drama.) Her prose illuminates these dead young men and the people who loved/still love them; it also exposes the people behind the statistics that almost one in 10 young black men are in jail and murder is the greatest killer of black men under the age of 24. And while the material is brutal, the memoir is not; it is insightful, introspective, beautifully written, and important. At some point Ms. Ward states that the series of deaths is “a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.” We are glad she found her voice and told her story. And, we hope to see it on a big screen near you soon. (On the October 2013 IndieNext list.) 

And, One final note — this post is our last for a while as it is is time for our annual “Gone Readin’ hiatus”. We look forward to bringing you great reviews of superb books at some point in late September.

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imgresAfter our last post, a few subscribers wrote us looking for “happy” stories. They were clear these should not be poorly written tales or romance novels or self-help, but just great books that as you close their last pages you feel good about the world.

Since these requests came from parents (each mentioned they read with their kids), we picked “happy books” as our theme for our annual Mother’s Day gift guide.  Don’t worry, if you are not a Mom or someone in need of a Mother’s Day gift for the moms in your life, these are all very good books we frequently recommend to many readers with great results. So, please pick one (or two) for yourself and/or your mom, and enjoy a well-told tale that will leave you feeling happy.

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Books That Just Leave You Feeling Good When You Close Their Pages

Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda (2007) . Truly an original, uplifting (though it may not seem so at first!) book set in modern-day France and translated beautifully. It is a story of friendship and connection despite the busy life that swirls all around us. And, most importantly for this post, it leaves you feeling good about life. Basically, who would not want to spend time in a Parisian flat with memorable characters? We promise you will enjoy every moment you spend with this novel. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (2011) – While the title refers to the sisters in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, this story is actually about three very modern-day siblings, Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia (they grew up with a Shakespeare professor for a father, hence their names). The tale begins with them all returning home to Ohio from their rather messy adult lives to help care for their ailing mother. Their uncanny ability to quote the Bard at every twist and turn makes for fun, smart dialogue, but it is their very present day struggles that make this story relevant. There is some romance, but most of all it is the sisters’ love for and understanding of each other that makes this book endearing. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

Funny Girl by Nick Hornsby (2015) – A fun look at life in 1960s Britian through the eyes of a gorgeous girl who just wants to be funny.  Mr. Hornsby delivers in this tale of a group of people (two male writers, a male producer and a funny girl) who meet and create an iconic BBC sitcom, and then must deal with all the fame that it brings. Fans of “I Love Lucy” or BBC sitcoms will be charmed, as will fans for Mr. Hornby’s humor and wit.

Zorro by Isabel Allende (2005).  While Ms. Allende is best known for magic realism, this novel offers a more straight forward narrative than found in most of her books. Ms. Allende’s account of the legend begins with Zorro’s childhood and finishes with the hero. We think you will just have fun with this book. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2015) – As people who love bookstores and booksellers, it is hard not to like this charming novel about a bookseller and his store, the love found when a baby is left among his shelves, and the love life of one of his publishing reps. We recommend this to anyone in need of a story that leaves you smiling, or for anyone needing a book to give someone who loves a sentimental tale (e.g., your Mom). ~ Lisa Christie and Lisa Cadow

A Little Less “Happy”, but Truly Great Books 

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2008) – Many characters intersect in this tale of New York and love and life and redemption. Beginning in August 1974 as a man walks a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers, this ambitious and well done novel follows the stories of many New Yorkers, including, but not limited to, an artist, an Irish monk, a group of mothers mourning their military sons, and a prostitute. This won the National Book Award, please read it to discover why for yourself. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell (2002) – A look at China and USA through the eyes of a young woman whose life is greatly affected her American father’s fascination with China. Not necessarily light, but truly a great, great “coming of age” book. We have been recommending this to men, women and young adults for years and have never had a disgruntled customer.  One all male book club declared it led to their best discussion book ever. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

Unusual and Interesting Books – Fiction and Non-fiction

How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston (2012) – Through truly funny and often painful humor,  Mr. Thurston makes readers think hard about their own racist tendencies.  He even has a focus group, with a token white person, to help him think through many of the items he discusses.  Whether you agree with him or not, for me, any time I am thinking about how I could better interact with the world, I am truly appreciative of the source that started me thinking about improving my actions. Bonus – this book makes you laugh out loud. ~ Lisa Christie

The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea (2005) – This saga, written in gorgeous/lyrical prose, with a bit of magical realism, shows a history of Mexico that until this book was unknown to me. Reach for it when you are looking for a reason to sit down with an engrossing book for a few days. ~ Lisa Christie

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As part of our mission to promote authors, the joy of reading, and to better understand the craft of writing, we’ve paired with the The Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont to present an ongoing series entitled “3 Questions”.  In it, we pose three questions to authors with upcoming visits to the bookstore.  Their responses are posted on The Book Jam during the days leading up to their engagement.  Our hope is that this exchange will offer insight into their work and will encourage readers to attend these special author events and read their books.

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Since we were just given the last minute opportunity to feature an exciting author, we are inserting a bonus post this month featuring Nicholas Dawidoff, author of Collision Low Crossers: A Year inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, among other works.  (This book was extremely well reviewed by  for the New York Times last month.)  Mr. Dawidoff also writes for The New Yorker and has been a Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri and Anschutz distinguished fellow.  He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn.

Mr. Dawidoff will appear at the Norwich Bookstore at 7 pm on Wednesday, January 22nd to discuss Collision Low Crossers.  As part of his research, for an entire year he lived with the New York Jets, from early-morning quarterback meetings to edgy late-night conversations. He had a security code, a locker, and a desk in the scouting department.  As a special treat during his Norwich Bookstore visit, Mr. Dawidoff will be joined by Tom Powers, his friend and mentor, who will interview him on the process of investigative reporting for this book and how he was able to gain access to the Jets.

Reservations are recommended. Call 802-649-1114 or email info@norwichbookstore.com to reserve your seat.

1.What three books have helped shape you into the author you are today, and why?

Most of every NFL game is “played” during the week in private team facilities where coaches create and then teach the game plan to their players. These game plans are complex and remain forever secret outside the team, so the essence of the sport is inaccessible to those who watch it.  Furthermore, the game as played live is so fast that the nuances are difficult to follow.  That players wear masks is one of many more features of the sport that has created a distancing effect.  Football is now the single most popular entertainment in America, and yet those who watch it don’t really see it.  These are also among the reasons that football, in contrast to the more intimate sport of baseball, has always been a challenging subject for writers.  By all but living with an NFL team, I hoped to bring people who liked football–and people who might–closer to this big, mysterious public spectacle.

As I just wrote in the latest of the weekly New Yorker essays about football that I’ve been contributing to the magazine leading up to the Super Bowl, the most insightful books about the game are not really football books per se.

  • A football team has many familial elements (surrogate) and so Ian Frazier’s wonderful study of America through the prism of his own forebears, Family, was often on my mind as I wrote.
  • Planning a football game is an immersive, time-consuming, often-frustrating creative act, and the book that most captures the experiences of those game-planning NFL coaches I knew as they sought to build something they considered tactically beautiful was James Lord’s account of having his likeness painted by one of the world’s great artists–A Giacometti Portrait.
  • Finally, John Williams’ vivid study of buffalo hunters on the Kansas and Colorado prairies, Butcher’s Crossingis a classic American novel that captures many qualities of football from the earned intuition necessary to master an arduous and risky landscape to the book’s penetrating reflections on the nature of profound failure.
  • When I began my project, the consensus would be that the best football book ever written was George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, which came out fifty years ago.  Paper Lion remains a timeless book because it teems with portraits of interesting people who are placed in tension-filled and often very funny moments of narrative conflict.    

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.jpg2.What author (living or dead) would you most like to have a cup of coffee with and why?

So many!  Who wouldn’t want to pun with Shakespeare (and once and for all prove that he alone did it all?!)  Who wouldn’t want to share, well, tea, with Virginia Woolf (and tell her, in the most deferential way, that all was not lost, she’d soon mean so much to many readers, perhaps especially women like my own mother.)  Coffee in a thermos aboard a river raft with Twain? (Tom Sawyer remains among my favorite books.)  Coffee (with a little snort of bourbon splashed in) with Faulkner?  How to decide? Okay! I choose Samuel Johnson in an eighteenth century London coffeehouse. Not only was he the greatest non-fiction prose writer of his time, he remains (because of Boswell’s Life of Johnson) literature’s peerless conversationalist. And there’s even slim possibility that this most humane of writers would enjoy it.  As he said, “If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself alone.

3. What books are currently on your bedside table?

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As part of our mission to promote authors, the joy of reading, and to better understand the craft of writing, we’ve paired with the The Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont to present an ongoing series entitled “3 Questions”.  In it, we pose three questions to authors with upcoming visits to the bookstore.  Their responses are posted on The Book Jam during the days leading up to their engagement.  Our hope is that this exchange will offer insight into their work and will encourage readers to attend these special author events.

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Today’s post features Douglas Bauer, recipient of the Public Library Foundation of Iowa’s Outstanding Writer award, and winner of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in both fiction and creative nonfiction.  He lives in Boston and teaches literature at Bennington College.

Mr. Bauer will visit the Norwich Bookstore at 7 pm on Friday, October 11th to read from his book — What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death. A review by Margot Livesey, of this memoir in the form of essays, states, “Doug Bauer circles his own life, that of the farm boy who discovers cities, and those of his parents who didn’t, with piercing intelligence and lucidity.”  Please call 802-649-1114 or e-mail info@norwichbookstore.com for more information or to make a reservation to hear Mr. Bauer on October 11th.

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1.What three books have helped shape you into the author you are today,  and why?
There are of course so many more than three. So in that spirit I’ll say:
1. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I read it in high  school.  I was in the thrall of Scout’s narrative sensibility, at once  preternaturally wise and yet as confused by life as her age would  dictate.  And she’s unwittingly so damn funny in places.
2. Beyond the Bedroom Wall, by Larry Woiwode.  This novel showed me that writing about  life in small towns on the Great Plains — in other words, my native  terrain — could be as compelling, complex and mysterious as any other landscape, urban or rural, physical or psychological.
3. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell.  I’m sure it’s  sentimental to the point of indigestion, and I don’t know how old I was when I read it.  Nine? Ten? But I remember lying on the couch, utterly absorbed, brought to tears several times by the ill treatment of the horse, and experiencing my ten-year-old’s version of the hold that story can have on you, when the world on the page becomes the world.
2.What author (living or dead) would you most like to have a cup of coffee with and why?
That’s tricky.  In some sense it implies the  understandable wish to meet genius.  But genius is so often intimidating.  I can’t imagine enjoying a cup of coffee with, say, Shakespeare, or  Tolstoy.  I mean, what would one say after, “Would you mind passing the sugar?”.  Chekhov, on the other hand, no mean genius to be sure, seemed from all I’ve read about him, from biographers and his own letters, to be a man of such surpassing humanity and daily kindness that I could fathom teleporting myself back to an outdoor table at his villa and feeling comfortable enough to have a conversation.  I might even feel so comfortable I’d  feel emboldened to say, “Anton? Stick to the short stories”.
   
3.What books are currently on your bedside table?
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I read and was pretty much astonished by her earlier Thomas Cromwell novel, Wolf Hall. So now I’m reading the second of what purports to be a trilogy.

The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal, by John Cheever.  The  grace of Cheever’s prose and his relentless wit, leavening the barrenness and confusion of contemporary life as he saw and lived it, these two facets are among the many I adore in Cheever’s work.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo. The opening of this novel is a brilliant novella  devoted to the famous 1951 New York Giants/Brooklyn Dodgers playoff  game, which ended when the Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit a home run–“The shot heard round the world.” — that  barely cleared the very short Polo Grounds left field fence.  I’m just beginning a novel that has a historical baseball element in it and I wanted to see what I might steal from DeLillo’s.

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They say no man is an island but sometimes you just really want to read a book that takes place on one. All three titles below (plus a bonus review) meet that criteria. So with leaves falling all around and temperatures dropping, curl up and set sail with a good story that transports you to several very different islands in some faraway oceans, both real and some imagined. Have a nice trip, take a bookmark, and don’t forget to catch the ferry home when you’re done reading.

The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman (July 2012). As its title suggests, this story takes place far out to sea on a remote Australian island where Tom, a lighthouse keeper, and his wife Isabelle are stationed. Everything changes one day when a rowboat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying baby. Having tried for years to conceive a child, this offering from the sea seems to be the answer to Isabelle’s prayers. Despite Tom’s reservations, she convinces him they should claim the baby as their own. They name her Lucy and the drama is set in motion as the reader learns of the effect that decision will have on many families as well as on future generations.  This is a book about profound love, loss, and how choices shape our lives. Stedman’s writing is excellent, believable, and “unputdownable”. I loved the landscape of this book, from the windswept rock out in the ocean to the western coast of 1920’s Australia where there were fortunes to be made and rugged individuals carving out a country in the post WWI era. I will remember this book and its characters for a long time. Highly recommended. ~Lisa Cadow

The Vanishing Act by Mette Jacobsen (September 2012). This book, too, is set on a tiny, yet unnamed island with only a handful of quirky inhabitants – and it’s story is also shaped by a body washing up on shore. It’s been a year since Minou’s mother disappeared, walking out of the front door of their cottage in her best dress with an umbrella in hand never to be seen again. Minou doesn’t quite believe that she’s dead and spends much of her days reconstructing her memory, considering her beautifully painted murals, remembering her role in the island’s circus, and trying to solve the mystery of where her mother could be. When Minou finds the body of a boy on the beach, she and her father, a fisherman and philosopher, carry it back to their house and carefully watch over it until a boat can arrive to remove it to the mainland. In the meantime, the two tell the boy their secrets, wishes, and thoughts. A novel of love and loss, and healing, Vanishing Act reads has a timeless, dreamlike s quality to it and reads like a fable or an old-fashioned fairy tale. The writing is excellent, the concept unique, and the overall effect truly poetic. Very different. Very good. A GEM.~Lisa Cadow

 Both these books reminded us of perhaps the most famous of all stories about bodies being washed up on shore – Shakespeare’s The TempestIn this play, a storm washes the live bodies of noblemen onto an island populated by Prospero, a sorcerer and Miranda, his daughter. The tempest that brought the newcomers to this island unveils a tempest of betrayal, secrets and love. ~ Lisa Christie

 

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor (1989) – This island post seemed like the perfect time to revisit a book that I read so very long ago and loved. This gem?  Mama Day – the tale of an island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina that is part of neither, but whose pull is powerful even on those who leave – uses plain but powerful prose to create a memorable and engrossing novel.  Woven around the stories of a young couple – George and Cocoa who meet and love in New York City and Cocoa’s great-aunt Mama Day – Mama Day explores notions of family, community, and love, with a little voodoo sprinkled in.  Over twenty years after publication the book still resonates; as the Washington Post proclaimed in their review years ago – “This is a wonderful novel, full of spirit and sass and wisdom, and completely  realized.”  ~ Lisa Christie

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Don’t worry, there still remains time to put those now waning but still (!) extra daylight hours to good use with Part Two of our Summer 2012 Picks.  As in the last Book Jam post, our criteria remain that summertime reads should optimally:

1) Not require too much work from the reader (hence our title – “Summertime and the Reading is Easy”);

2) Be placed in an “estival” – just a fancy word for having to do with summer – setting;

3) Elicit a chuckle or two.

So with these in mind, some further suggestions from us to inspire your summer reading. Have fun riding the waves, hiking those mountains, swinging in hammocks and turning those pages.

For a Summer Setting:

 The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt (2003). This is an “oldie-but- goodie” as it was published in 2003 but it’s lost none of its ability over the past decade to deliver a dose of summer nostalgia and insight into the meaning of vacation, memory, and family dynamics. The reader can practically feel the breezes from Buzzard’s Bay fluttering across the pages of this memoir of a family and it’s beloved beach house. Author Colt masterfully tells not only the story of a multi-generational experience in this eleven bedroom shingled behemoth on the shores of Wings Neck, Cape Cod but also of the history and psychology of summer pilgrimages since the time of Thoreau. Sadly, the time has come for the Colts to sell this treasure as the upkeep and maintenance has become too much of an expense and complications for the fourth generation to bear. A true classic to keep  on the bookshelf next to the bowls of sea glass and piles of shells. ~Lisa Cadow

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan (2011). You can’t get any closer to the beach than with this novel that illustrates how a summer home can fill the hearts and minds of the family that inhabits is pine walls for half a century. Sullivan does an excellent job creating three generations of female characters whose hopes, dreams, and fears collide on the coast of Maine one year in late June. Young Maggie is pregnant, Ann Marie seemingly has it all but feels lonely and aimless in her empty nest, and matriarch Alice is still haunted by a night that changed the course of her life over sixty years ago. Need I say it? Maine is a great beach read. ~Lisa Cadow

For a Chuckle:

The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart (04 August 2012) – As with Ms. Stuart’s previous book – The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise – quirky and oh-so British characters drive the plot of this novel. In Pigeon Pie, Princess Alexandrina is left homeless and penniless by the sudden death of her father, the Maharaja of Brindor. Luckily, there are “grace-and-favor homes” in Hampton Court Palace for downtrodden royalty and Queen Victoria offers one to the Princess. Though the Palace is rumored to be haunted, initially all is well, the princess is befriended by three eccentric widows, the dampness of the quarters can be withstood with a stiff upper lip, her favorite servant – Pooki – comes along, and, well, they have a roof overhead. However, all gets complicated when Pooki bakes a pigeon pie for a picnic and the truly, truly insufferable General-Major Bagshot dies after eating a piece or two or three. When the coroner finds traces of arsenic in his body, Pooki becomes the #1 suspect. However, the Princess is not going to lose her dearest friend and unique discoveries and encounters abound. Bonus for reading it this summer?  The London setting will enhance any Olympic watching. ~ Lisa Christie

For when you need to escape your family vacation with a great book about one as dysfunctional as your own”

Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (May 2011) – I know the other Lisa reviewed this for our previous Shakespeare inspired post, but this may have been my favorite read this summer, so I am putting it in here as well. What caught my attention in a way that differed from the other Lisa’s?  As someone who has always been slightly fascinated by the influence of birth order on personality development, I loved that aspect of this fun, well-written book. It’s plot? Three diverse and interesting twenty-something sisters and their lives when they each return (for their own unique reasons) to their hometown to live for awhile with their parents. Why are they back home? Due to various failures of their post-collegiate lives to meet their desires, and a need to deal with their Mom’s cancer. Bonus? The Shakespeare references. ~ Lisa Christie

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And with this list, we sign off for the entire month of August to read more books ourselves and to find some superb new selections for you.

May you all have great, just can’t put this book down moments during your end-of-summer reading. See you after Labor Day with some great new selections.

~Lisa and Lisa

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AIDS & Literature (Plus More Details about Grassroot Soccer and Its Work to Eliminate HIV/AIDS)

Our earlier post, “Africa: Part One,” was inspired by Grassroot Soccer (GRS) and listed important, memorable books set in Africa.  GRS uses the game of soccer to educate, inspire, and mobilize communities to stop the spread of HIV and create an AIDS free generation, focusing most of its work in Africa.

Now, in an attempt to better understand the AIDS epidemic which has so effected that continent, we recommend two books that angle in on this devastating disease.  Please note that in the titles we’ve paired below, AIDS is depicted as an illness afflicting homosexual white men and both are set (or begin) several decades ago in the United States.

The typical HIV/AIDS patient today is very different.  According to the GRS web site (2008 report by UNAIDS):

  • Worldwide, 33 million men, women, and children are infected with HIV.
  • 2.7 million became newly infected in 2007 (roughly 7400 every day)
  • 45% of all new infections occur among 15-24 year-olds.
  • Less than 40% of young people have comprehensive HIV/AIDS knowledge.
  • 67% of people living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.

But no matter who HIV/AIDS afflicts and no matter where they live, the disease and its effects on sufferers and their families remains the same. We believe the following selections will help the reader better understand AIDS and the history of the epidemic through though the lens of literature.

In One Person by John Irving (May 2012) – There are books that you read that are just great stories and keep you turning pages because it is important to discover what happens next.  There are books that while you are reading them remind you of places you have been and people you have encountered.  There are books that remind you people can be amazing, and that progress in improving the way humans treat one another is possible.  There are books that inspire you to ponder what you can do to help the world be a better place.  There are books that illustrate the power of literature to make one think.  This book did all of these things for me.

The story of William/Bill Abbot/Dean, a boy growing up in a rural Vermont town housing an all-boys academy, having “crushes on all the wrong people” is a novel at its best.  Narrated by a 70-ish year old Bill, as he reflects upon his life, the plot covers his life from his early teens to present day.  You watch him navigate high school, live as an adult, and learn about the mysteries surrounding his birth.  Warning –the mysteries about and the coincidences surrounding his father are among the weaker plot points in the novel; so please breeze by them in order not to miss the power of this book.

I enjoyed most of the characters populating this novel, even those of a less savory nature.  I smiled at the fact that great literature (i.e., Madame Bovary, The Tempest, works by James Baldwin and the Bronte sisters) is an important aspect of the plot.  And yes, because of Bill’s bi-sexual identity and his multiple partners, and the span the novel encompasses, you know from the first page that AIDS will impact his life as an adult in the 1980s. That knowledge does not ruin the plot and the pages dealing with that epidemic are among the most powerful in this book.  To say much more would give too much away.  Please read it an enjoy. ~ Lisa Christie

And the Band Played On: Politics, people and the AIDS epidemic by Randy Shilts (1987) – When first published, this book dramatically changed and framed how AIDS was discussed.   Shilts’ expose revealed why AIDS was allowed to spread unchecked while most institutions ignored or denied the threat, and he is often harsh in his reporting.  While the data and the portraits of the AIDS epidemic differ tremendously today (e.g, infected women; the epidemic on the African continent), this powerful story of AIDS when it became part of the US conversation about sexually transmitted diseases, remains important.  A 20th anniversary edition (2007) is available, and a movie based upon the book can be viewed on DVD. ~ Lisa Christie

BONUS PICK: For those readers looking for insight into the epidemic today, our friend Rob Adams at Grassroot Soccer also recommends Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin. This book discusses how Africa became the epicenter of this disease and why the implications for the world are vast. Neither Lisa has yet finished his recommendation, but we are grateful we have started this important book.

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