The Ravenous Reader Turns to Romance

Sometimes the Ravenous Reader is really the Romantic Reader.

Sometimes I just need to read an old-fashioned, feel-good love story with a happy ending.

Sure, the heroine might suffer some heartache along the way.

There might be misunderstandings, even a few broken dreams.

But in the end, everyone gets to have the thing that makes them the happiest.

Sigh.

What’s not to like about that?

So I’ve been gobbling up Maryann McFadden’s The Book Lover. This pretty paperback came in the mail awhile ago, and somehow got buried at the bottom of a stack of review books. My friend mentioned reading it, and called it a “really sweet story about books and love.”  It tells the story of two women – a young writer mourning the loss of her infant son, and an older woman who owns a bookstore in a small New Jersey town – whose lives intersect in ways that benefit them both. It’s a book about having dreams and holding on to them, about losing love but finding it again, about the support of friends and how that can change a life. It’s well written, charming, and uplifting, the kind of book that’s hard to put down because you want to find out what will happen to these people you’ve come to care about.

I’ve got about 25 pages left to go, so I’m about to take a break from my morning’s work, make a cup of tea, and curl up on this rainy afternoon and see how it all turns out.

Typical Tuesday

Despite the heat, we’re managing to maintain our summer routine chéz Ravenous Reader. And that’s a good thing, because I do very well with routines. I am as much a creature of habit as my two little dogs, and when the apple cart of my regular schedule gets upset, my mood quickly goes a-kilter too.

Woman Reading, by Adrian Paul Allinson

Am I imagining it, or are my routines becoming even more important as I get older? It seems harder to recover on those days when I have to get up early and thus miss my morning coffee-and-a-book hour. And if there’s not time to get my usual two mile walk in, I feel sluggish and out of sorts.

Earlier this month I was reading Anna Quindlen’s new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. In it she talks about her morning routine, so I was happy to know I’m not the only one who thrives on starting the day with a familiar pattern.

This is how the days begin for me now: I rise at 6:00 a.m., which would have been as improbable to my younger self, who would roll over and go back to sleep with unconsidered ease, as would those evening when I think idly, Is nine-thirty too early to go to bed? (No.) I go down to the kitchen, make enough coffee for several people even though I am the only one who drinks it, make the same breakfast every morning, either Greek yogurt with a little granola blended in or a whole-grain bread with almond butter. I read the paper and do the New York Times crossword puzzle. Then I power walk for an hour, almost exactly four miles, either in Riverside Park on on a hilly look at the house in the country.

Upsetting the opposite end of the day has the same ill effects as a messed up morning. I like to watch about an hour’s worth of tv before bed, something frothy and fun, or a good family drama. During the summer when all my favorite shows are on hiatus or in reruns, I sometimes don’t have those choice. I don’t do well with reading at night – not before I intend to go to sleep anyway. I’ve conditioned myself to fall asleep with a book at night,  so I’d better be in bed and ready before I start to read.

It’s all about conditioning, our regular routines. We find pleasant ways to start and end the day, and it’s comforting to have those rituals to look forward too. Luckily, today was a typical Tuesday. I got up at 7:00 a.m., made the coffee, and went out to the back porch with my book (The Book Lover, by Maryann McFadden). It was hot, but bearable, and I drank both cups out there happily reading with the birds wake up chatter for background music. I had my 30 minute exercise routine in front of the televsion (and underneath the ceiling fan), then walked the dogs on a shady and abbreviated (because the temperature was already 88) version of their morning constitutional. After all this I have breakfast, which is always the same, too. Whole grain toast with peanut butter, banana and some other fruit (today it was melon) and orange juice.

So the day got off to a good start. Typical, uneventful, and just how I like it.

How about you? Do you have typical and comforting ways to start and end your day?

The Sunday Salon: All A-Twitter

Rarely have I read so many good books in a row as I’ve read this summer.

The Sandcastle Girls.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

Today, I’m adding The Chaperone to that list.

I loved this story of a Wichita matron in the 1920’s who spends a summer in New York chaperoning a young Louise Brooks (who became a star of silent movies). But the book is really Cora Carlisle’s, a woman with an unfolding story far more complex than I ever imagined when we first meet her in her corsets and high necked dress. And Laura Moriarty unfolds that story in such a masterful way, pulling the reader in and making you long for more on every page.

I finished it this morning, and haven’t yet chosen my next selection. I was excited to receive a copy of The Baker’s Daughter in the mail on Monday. I’ve been wanting to read this, and may choose it next. You have to be careful after reading a book you really love, don’t you? It’s so easy for things to fall flat.

In other bookish news, the airwaves were all a-twitter with some wonderful news for two of my favorite authors. Beth Kephart’s newest book, Small Damages, received a shining review in The New York Times this week, and was listed (along with Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls) as one of Publisher’s Weekly best books of the week.

I was vicariously thrilled for both of them, and it was also great fun to see Twitter and Facebook streams suddenly light up with people passing these accolades around. Sort of the cyber equivalent of tossing confetti and toasting with champagne.

So, here’s you you, Beth and Chris. Thank you for sharing your wonderful words with all the rest of us.

TLC Book Tours: Shout Her Lovely Name

Life is messy. But Natalie Serber’s collection of short stories, Shout Her Lovely Name, bravely delves right into the messy lives of family relationships, particularly those of mothers and daughters, and exposes them with empathy and affection.

In addition to being linked thematically, several of the stories follow the lives of the same characters, Ruby and her daughter Nora. We meet Ruby as a child, see her grow to adulthood and become a mother, and then watch the cycle occur again in Nora’s tumultuous life. The stories all reveal the characters ache for connection, as they explore their uneven and sometimes desperate attempts to achieve it.

Serber’s writing is sharp and sometimes acerbic. She marvelously captures every era, from the 1970’s to the present, and places the reader squarely into each place. I don’t often read short story collections, but I enjoyed the way these were linked both in theme and in character, making them read almost like a novel.

Serber’s story is a familiar one. “I imagined I would be a teacher like my mother, or maybe I would write for magazines,” she says,”but what I really wanted to do was to stay at home with my children, and I did.  I gardened, cooked, volunteered at their school.  When my youngest entered preschool, I took a writing class and then I took another.  Soon I gave up gardening and took up early rising until my morning shufflings—making coffee, letting the dog out, writing at my desk—woke the household at five.  With my kids in elementary school I wrote in coffeehouses and at the library, in the parking lot where I waited for them after school.”

Now, facing “the empty nest,” she has released another bird into the sky – this interesting and well written collection of stories about  motherhood. A fitting debut, I think, and one that should soar.

I have a copy of this collection to give away. If you would like a copy of this book, leave a comment below. A winner will be chosen at random on Sunday, July 15, 2012.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

The Sunday Salon: All A-Swelter

Like much of the country, we’ve been in the midst of a heatwave. For days now I’ve avoided opening the door or even the curtains, saying frequent prayers to the gods of electricity and freon, that they might continue to bless my house with the gift of cool air, thinking with great pity of those who are not so graciously blessed and must find other ways to keep survive.

Truthfully, I’ve not been fit for much these days except lying on the sofa bolstered by books and magazines. I lapped up Anna Quindlen’s new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Let me tell you, reading her thoughts on middle age was akin to sitting down with an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in 30 years. From there I took on Natalie Serber’s collection of short stories, Shout Her Lovely Name, which was in some ways a disturbing dissection of the relationship between mothers and daughters, but nevertheless I was appreciative of Serber’s ability to go right to the secret heart of her characters and lay it bear.

Now I’m reading the magnificent work of art that is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Somehow I’ve managed to miss reading this book for all these years (it was first published in 1980!!) and came across a brand new copy hiding away in the basement bookstack. It is a heart-wrenching beauty of a book, every sentence a poetic masterpiece that traces the legacy of loss and insecurity and makes your heart cry out for comfort and protection. Not light summer reading, certainly, but the kind of book that feeds the soul.

Today I will venture out, happy that a cool breeze has blown through during the night, to meet with friends and see the musical Wicked (another cultural phenomenon I seem to have missed until now).

Happy reading, and stay cool!

TLC Book Tours: An Unmarked Grave

When we arrived at the next station, I found lines of gassed men waiting for their turn to be seen. Bandages across their eyes helped some of the pain and was a distinctive marker. They had a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of them, stumbling along, tripping if no one warned them of uneven ground, at the mercy of orderlies and sisters who guided them.

We bathed their skin and did what we could for their lungs. The worst cases would die painfully, the less damaged would linger in a misery that was frightful.  An Unmarked Grave, by Charles Todd

One would think being a nursing sister in the trenches of France during WWI would give Bess Crawford enough to worry about. But somehow, this intrepid young woman seems to find herself embroiled in one mysterious and dangerous situation after another. In An Unmarked Grave, the fourth installment in Charles Todd’s excellent series, Bess is herself the target of a killer, on who has killed three others – among them a family friend, and member of Bess’ father’s regiment – and will stop at nothing to carry out his nefarious plan.

Each of the books in this series takes the reader deeper into the history of WWI, and with this one set in 1918, the characters are faced not only with the dangers of battle but the deadly infestation on the Spanish Influenza, which struck down men, women, and children by the score. For this reader, the actual mystery sometimes is secondary to the fascinating picture Todd creates of this period in history.

I also enjoy a series with recurring characters who continue to develop personally as the books go on. In this fourth book, Bess’ relationship with Simon Brandon, her father’s faithful and illustrious batman (the orderly of a British Military officer), begins to develop. When Simon is wounded, Bess acknowledges to herself at least just how important he is to her life as the dawning awareness of her feelings is brought to the fore.

The Bess Crawford mysteries are a worthy collection in the growing literature about WWI. With the popularity of the Downton Abby television series (which is also set during this time period) the interest in this cataclysmic event has grown. These books provide another way of informing readers of this very important period in Western history. I highly recommend them for lovers of historical fiction and mystery.

The mother son writing team of Charles Todd

GIVEAWAY: I have a copy of An Unmarked Grave and A Bitter Truth to giveaway to a Bookstack reader. Leave a comment below for an opportunity. Winner will be chosen at random on July 4, 2012. (US entries only, please.) 

Charles and Caroline Todd are a mother and son writing team who live on the east coast of the United States. Caroline has a BA in English Literature and History, and a Masters in International Relations. Charles has a BA in Communication Studies with an emphasis on Business Management, and a culinary arts degree that means he can boil more than water. Caroline has been married (to the same man) for umpteen years, and Charles is divorced.

Charles and Caroline have a rich storytelling heritage. Both spent many evenings on the porch listening to their fathers and grandfathers reminisce. And a maternal grandmother told marvelous ghost stories. This tradition allows them to write with passion about events before their own time. And an uncle/great uncle who served as a flyer in WWI aroused an early interest in the Great War.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

The Sunday Salon: In Celebration of the Ordinary

I’m celebrating an ordinary day on this summer Sunday.

Girl in a Hammock, Winslow Homer

With nothing on my calendar this weekend, I’m happily languishing in my leisure like I would a hot bubble bath on a cold winter day. I spent much of yesterday morning on the back porch, finishing Nicole Bernier’s novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. After lunch, with the mercury hovering near 90 degrees, I traded the back porch chair for the living room sofa, where I spent a good part of the afternoon with the latest Bess Crawford mystery, An Unmarked Grave.

I love an ordinary day above all else. Puttering around the house, reading, playing with the dogs, trying a new recipe for dinner  – that’s my idea of a good time. Sounds boring to some, but for me it’s heaven on earth. Simple, ordinary pleasures. I don’t take them for granted, because I don’t always have time to indulge in them or appreciate them.

There has been some recent media coverage in celebration of the ordinary, especially in terms of the expectations we place on our young people. Earlier this week I read an article in Newsweek by David McCullough Jr., whose recent commencement speech to the graduates of Wellsley High School has caused something of a kerfluffle. “You’re not that special,” he told those high school seniors who were all poised to take the world by the tail and shake it.

You see, if everyone is special, than no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another – which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality – we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.

What McCullough was trying to say is that no one of us is more “special” than the next. We each have gifts to offer, and they don’t all have to revolve around the highest SAT scores or the championship trophy. It’s perfectly okay to live an ordinary life, have an ordinary family, raise ordinary children. He’s right when he says that “loving accolades more than genuine achievement” is detrimental to the welfare of our society. Our ultimate achievement lies not in honors or awards – monetary or otherwise – but in fulfilling our own measure of happiness with a spirit of selflessness and empathy.

McCullough’s remarks at that commencement have made him rather famous. I wonder if parents are getting tired of this relentless responsibility they’ve undertaken in recent generations, this unceasing process of making sure their offspring’s “specialness” is rewarded. This demand to insure that children are poised to achieve their ultimate best leads families into all sorts of frantic activities, almost from the time a child is born. It’s not enough now to make sure kids are fed, clothed, healthy and well mannered. Nope,  they also have to be in the 95% percentile in every subject, all while learning soccer, improvisational dance, horseback riding, and Chinese. That’s a huge burden for parents who are embroiled in their own version of the 21st Century Ultimate Achievers Pageant.

Makes me exhausted just thinking about it.

It’s so much nicer to lay back in the summer sun with a good book and a glass of lemonade. I may not get famous doing it, but that’s alright. I’ll just revel in my ordinary old happiness.

That’s plenty special enough for me.

* For Further Reading:

Redefining Success and Celebrating the Unremarkable, New York Times, Business Day, June 29, 2012

The ‘Busy Trap,” by Tim Kreider, an OpEd piece in The New York Times, July 1, 2012

My friend Beth Kephart talks about extricating herself from the busy-ness trap today, too

The Sunday Salon.com

Reading Spaces

Seating nook in the bedroom of our new house. We’ll need comfier chairs, I think 🙂

We bought a new house over the weekend, and one of the features my husband and I instantly loved was the corner nook between two windows in the master bedroom. We envisioned two cozy chairs with a small table between and an ottoman for propping your feet. We imagined ourselves there in the mornings, lingering over our coffee with books in hand. I see myself retreating there of an evening, when Jim is absorbed in television, settling in with magazines or the iPad.

I can read just about anywhere. When I was little, the neighbors joked about my habit of reading while walking to school, and I’m sure my mother lived in fear that I would fail to look up from the page and check traffic before crossing the street. Before the days of cell phones, I carried books in my purse to read while standing in line at the grocery store. I’ve been known to snatch a few paragraphs while waiting a stop lights.

Even though I can fall deeply into my book no matter where I am, I love reading most when I can ensconce myself into one of those special spaces that seem to lend themselves just to reading. Spaces like the tiny attic room in the house where we lived when I was born, like my childhood bedroom where I could sprawl on the bed surrounded by stuffed animals, like the back porch of our house here, where I spent many hours reading while my infant son napped peacefully inside and now sit on summer mornings with my little dog at my feet.

So I’m excited to have this new reading space to enjoy, wondering which books will be read there over the years and what memories will be attached to them. Of course now that we’ve bought the house there will be all the legal issues and paperwork to deal with. Hopefully it will go smoothly, because the housing market has simply exploded around here lately, with multiple people bidding on the same properties, necessitating calls to places like lawyers.com. I don’t anticipate the need for intellectual property law, but one never knows.

With reading being such an important part of my life, reading spaces are always special.

How about you? Where are some of your favorite reading spaces?

Simply Reading: The Bitter Truth

Seems I’m stuck in a somewhat historical mode with my reading lately.

First The Sandcastle Girls, centered around the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century, then The Green Shore, which looks at the lives of a Greek family affected by a military junta which occurred in the late 1960’s.

And now The Bitter Truth, the third Bess Crawford mystery, in which this intrepid WWI nursing sister finds herself embroiled in a very interesting domestic situation involving an aristocratic military man, his wife, his extended family, and a long dead child.

I find this to be my favorite of the Bess Crawford series so far. Perhaps I’m finally warming up to Bess, getting to know her quirks a little bit better. She’s a strong woman, and I love the way she stands up to priggish men like Roger Ellis, the main character in this book. Women were still very much dominated by the male species, but Bess will have none of it, and follows her own standard no matter the cost.

I admire that in any woman and frankly wish I had a bit more of that kind of moxie.

As in each of these novels, Bess spends a bit of time talking about her entry into the nursing profession, and how the need for nurses (brought about by WWI) enabled so many women to enter professional life who might not have had an opportunity to do so. Social custom made it impossible for intelligent women of a certain class to “work.” Unlike the 21st century female, who begins thinking eagerly about professions at a very early age, attends many a CollegeWeekLive college fair or college finder event, and plans her future based on what she wants to do, not what society prescribes for her. A benefit of a horrible war, but at least something good came of it.

As I race through this engaging mystery, I’m glad to know I have a copy of the newest installment, An Unmarked Grave, waiting in the wings.  (Watch for my review on July 2, 2012, as part of the TLC Book Tours.)

Simply Reading: The World Without You

In the social media surrounding the book blogging world, people often celebrate “book birthdays” – the day a book is released to the public.

Today, Joshua Henkin’s novel The World Without You was born.

I was privileged to read an ARC of the novel several months ago, but decided to honor it on it’s actual birthday so you could readily get your hands on it.

The World Without You is the story of a modern family who gather at their summer home in the Berkshires on July 4, 2005, to memorialize their only son, Leo, a journalist who was kidnapped and killed while on assignment in Iraq. The novel looks at the way this event has affected each member of Leo’s family – his parents who struggle to make their 40 year marriage continue working;  his three sisters (Clarissa who is dealing with infertility, Lily, an angry, hot tempered attorney; and Noelle, a born-again Orthodox Jew who has traveled from Israel with her husband and four children); and his wife, Thisbe, who brings Leo’s three year old son from California for this event.

As you might imagine, tensions abound in this very disparate group of people, bound together by blood and grief. Henkin is very good at examining personal and family relationships, at creating characters you can identify with and not only care about, but wonder about, and looking at the way a certain event changes them. He did it extremely well in his novel Matrimony, and he has succeeded in that effort once again with The World Without You.

Happy book birthday to a fine, new novel.