Subtitled “How Six Novels taught me love, friendship, and the things that really matter,” A Jane Austen Education is partly the story of how William Deresiewicz, now a well-regarded Austen scholar, evolved from being dismissive, to being a true fan.
There are chapters devoted to Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. It’s a close textual study of the best kind, not overly academic and pedantic. He explains why Austen has endured. Not because of the quaint period film adaptations, but because form and style drive Austen’s message.
Long passages in Emma are devoted to trivial matters and gossip. Austen skewers the mundane conversation of characters like Miss Bates, and the cruelty of Emma. She forces readers to confront in themselves easy and cavalier meanness.
Entwined in the literary criticism, is memoir. Deresiewicz movingly relates how the novels changed his life for the better. Austen’s message of compassion and kindness improved his relationships.
This all sounds like it would be a tough and boring slog, but it’s actually very accessible – especially for English lit (and Austen) geeks. If you didn’t know what the big deal was before, this is an enlightening read. If you were already a devotee, you’ll enjoy it even more.
If you’re waiting for the new Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, why not dip into the Tyler archive? Old friends like the charmingly odd Leary family are the center of The Accidental Tourist.
Macon, the travel writer who hates to leave home, moves in with his siblings when he breaks his leg. Macon, along with Rose, Charles and Porter resume their comfortable routines, including a card game so intricate only the three brothers and sister can master it.
Written in 1985, the absence of cell phones and answering machines allow Macon to leave his marital home and go off the grid. The Learys often ignore the ringing landline, so those looking for Macon are forced to show up at the door.
Air travel prior to 9/11 is also charmingly free of TSA regulations. Macon writes a series of books for the business traveler, and the chief goal is to replicate one’s home environment. His desire for order and quiet set him up for a collision with Muriel, who is a dog trainer, among other things. She’s Macon’s equal in eccentricity – but on the other end of the spectrum. She’s outgoing and confessional, with considerably fewer boundaries than the Learys.
Though the tone is sometimes comic, there’s an undertone of sadness and complexity. In the recent past, Macon’s son was killed in a shoot-out at a fast food restaurant. Muriel has had to struggle all her adult life to patch together a life for herself and her young son.
Tyler’s gift is to create fascinating characters and then let them bounce off each other in unpredictable ways.
Deep in the bowels of the library are the remnants of a once vast collection of old magazines. One title we still own back to 1857, is The Atlantic Monthly.
Leafing through a 1945 volume provides a glimpse of what was on the minds of Americans. These issues were published when the outcome of World War II was still uncertain. The war permeates every part of the magazine – illustrations, articles, stories and advertisements. Articles include “France Without the Gestapo,” poems by “Sergeant” John Ciardi. Almost every product or service references the war or patriotism, including ATT &T, real estate ads, and of course war bonds.
Jumping back to 1875, a volume of the Atlantic Monthly included ten “Rules and Regulations Presented to the Davenport Library Association” directed to “members and ticket holders.” Patrons could check out one book at a time and keep it for two weeks. Fines were ten cents per week or “fraction of a week when the book is so retained.”
Rule #7 states that “persons entitled to draw books must not loan them outside of their immediate family. Any violation is…sufficient to forfeit their ticket.” (Sorry, Uncle Fred, you can’t look at the new Mark Twain bestseller I just checked out!)
Rule #8 warns that “books lost, defaced or injured while out…[will be] charged to the person whose ticket they were drawn.” (Injured?)
And, lastly, “all books must be returned to the library on or before the 20th of April of each year; books not then returned will be charged to the holder.” There are intriguing stamps every few years from 1930 to 1988 in the front of these volumes. Are they dates of an inventory?
Such artifacts are fascinating time capsules of the eras – both of the wider world that Davenport was a part of, as well as the nuts and bolts of the workaday life of the library.
What Alice Forgot is a great novel for audio, due in large part to the wonderful narrator, Caroline Lee.
Lee’s lilting, open Australian accent is critical to understanding Alice’s character. The 1998 Alice is wonderfully innocent, quirky and enthusiastically in love with her husband.
The 2008 amnesiac Alice, who is living ten years in the past, is, in her own mind, still that person. She gradually begins to put together the puzzle of her new identity. To the listener, it’s almost like a mystery. You wonder who the new Alice is and how she got that way. Like Alice, you’re also relying on what people are telling Alice, and no more. Both Alice and the reader/listener are frustrated when it seems other people are withholding information.
Liane Moriarty’s breezy style keeps the story light, while delving into the darker sides of Alice and her family’s journey over the last decade. Life has gone on; there have been births, deaths and marriages. Alice confesses to her sister that she has no idea how to feed and take care of her children, or any children for that matter. She speculates that a diet of sausages would probably be popular.
Elizabeth, her older sister, is a great foil; she had always been Alice’s protector and support which allowed Alice to be the funny, spacey one. One of the mysteries is why they had grown apart. The many well-drawn characters make this rather long audiobook absorbing to the end.
Save Me by Kristyn Lewis is compulsively readable. I’m trying to pin down in my own mind what it is that makes it impossible to put down once you start reading. Maybe it’s the contrast of the confessional style and the sudden vulnerability of the main character with her previously almost perfect life. Daphne is someone who’s always been very controlled and successful at everything she did.
A high achieving doctor, with a perfect Martha Stewartesque home, garden and career, she, on the surface, doesn’t seem like someone you’d warm up to right away. After her husband and childhood sweetheart confesses that he’d had an affair, her predictable life and all her assumptions are blown apart. A car accident changes the trajectory of the story and the usual expectations of this type of novel. Family and friends are quick to give Daphne advice about whether or not she should leave her husband, and Lewis shows the complexity of any decision Daphne may make.
As a second time novelist, Lewis is very accomplished and assured. I can’t think of any passages or sentences that seemed false or clunky. Part of the appeal is the setting. You get a feeling of Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina in a natural, unforced way.
This was marketed to book groups, and I would predict spirited discussions about the choices Daphne struggles with.
A key to good readers advisory is to be able to remember titles and authors. One of my favorite audiobooks is I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron. The problem is that I can never remember this title. Not only do I keep checking it out, thinking I haven’t listened to it before, I also fail to remember the title when I’m telling staff and patrons what a great Book-on-CD it is.
And it really is. Ephron read the book herself and she has a marvelous voice and impeccable timing. Particularly interesting, I thought, were the stories about her early career in newspaper and magazine journalism. She isn’t shy about dishing about the legendary writers and publishers she worked with, whose names I can’t recall (except for Katie and Phil Graham of the Washington Post).
She also has some handy tricks for social situations in which names (or whether you, in fact, really know a person) escape you.
Recommendation: check the box marked “Reading History” in your library account, and you’ll always have a record of what you’ve checked out.
Elliott Holt’s first book, You Are One of Them, is the story of friendship and of the momentous changes in Russia in the 90’s.
The first part of the book is about the friendship of Sarah and Jennifer, 10-year-olds in Cold War Washington D.C. Like the real-life Samantha Smith, Sarah writes to Yuri Andropov, asking for peace between the two nations. Jennifer decides to write a letter as well, and her’s is the one that attracts the attention of Andropov and the world media.
The friendship doesn’t survive and neither does Jennifer, who dies in a plane crash.
The second part of the book is about Sarah’s time in Moscow just after the Soviet Union breaks up. She tries to track down Jennifer, after receiving a letter saying that Jennifer is alive and living in Russia.
The book has a lot to recommend it – the depiction of the life in the 80’s in suburban Washington, D.C., and the adolescent friendship of the two girls. Holt does an excellent job in painting a picture of what it was like for Muscovites and “New Russians” as they desperately try to adapt to consumerism in a chaotic new market economy.
A couple things are bothersome, though. Sarah is rudely unrelenting in her criticism of the way things are done in Russian business and social life. And the ending, to me, is disappointing. To say more would be a spoiler.
Tornados are featured in several recent books – from literary fiction to genre mysteries.
In Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos, a tornado is the catalyst for the trajectory of the lives of several people. A 1978 storm takes the life of a mother; many years later the dysfunctional siblings gather for a funeral.
The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum is another story about the effects of tornados on a family. A sister joins a group of storm chasers in order to locate her mentally ill brother, who is a storm chaser, himself.
A 1963 tornado in Oklahoma changes the lives of four people in crisis in Five Days in May by Ninie Hammon.
There are rumors of a movie of The Breathtaker by Alice Blanchard. Set again in Oklahoma, this is a fast-paced thriller about a police chief who realizes that foul play, rather than the storm is the cause of death for several deaths. The murders mount as the tornado season progresses.
In other books, a tornado is not the driving force in the narrative or psychology of characters, rather it’s a convenient plot point.
The Riesling Retribution by Ellen Crosby is a mystery that begins with a skull discovered after a tornado.
Similarly, in A Bad Day for Pretty by Sophie Littlefile a body is found in the aftermath of a tornado.
The Intercept is Dick Wolf’s first book. Unsurprisingly, it feels like the start of a long-running series. The master of the successful drama, Wolf is the creator of Law & Order and its many spin-offs.
Jeremy Fisk is an NYPD detective who works in the Intelligence Division, where police officers comb through bits of information from surveillance cameras, email and other computer data in order to uncover terrorist plots.
When a group of passengers and crew foil an airplane hijacking, the new heroes are sucked into a media and pr machine. Some bask in the limelight and some are desparate to avoid it.
After chasing a few false leads, Fisk begins to suspect that the original attempt is a distraction and another bigger plot is the ultimate goal.
Fast-paced and full of insider information about terrorism and forensics, Wolf writes with an assurance and cool confidence well suited to the thriller genre.
Elizabeth Berg’s newest is about Cece, a motivational speaker, and her friendships, Tapestry of Fortunes has a romantic thread but mostly it’s about Cece and her best friend, Penney, and later about a new set of friends.
Cece decides to make changes in her priorities – travel more, work less, and downsize. She sells her house and moves into a house with three other women.
The book is also about change and renewal when one’s circumstances take an unexpected turn. Cece and her roommates take a road trip in order to deal with unresolved relationships – driving from Minneapolis to Winona and Des Moines and Cleveland, stopping along the way to visit diners, bowling alleys and oddball museums.
Berg writes with customary directness and immediacy.The reader gets a motivational boost and a bit of bibliotherapy, too.