I’ve written before about a group of friends with whom I have lunch once a month. This past Monday, our conversation was, as usual, lively and stimulating. Angie’s description of The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, a recent selection by her book club, reminded me of Eric Weiner’s immensely enjoyable recounting of his search for The Geography of Bliss.
Having asked her book group members what made them happy, Angie turned the question over to us. We all admitted to being immensely moved and comforted by simple, everyday acts of human kindness – including, in one particular case, compassion and support freely offered when a disturbing diagnosis was divulged. Then the to-be-expected happiness creators were named: Children! Grandchildren! Beloved pets! In a subsequent email, Angie mentioned that her group also credited music with lifting their spirits. And there is so much more; one cannot help but be grateful.
(Angie also said something – I can’t remember exactly what – about entering the realm of the sacred. She added that this was not necessarily a specifically religious sensation. This may be true for some people – but I have a vivid recollection of standing in Ripon Cathedral and seeing, out of the corner of my eye, several people receiving communion in a small side chapel. The elusive sun of northern England shone through the stained glass windows. At that instant, I felt as though an arrow from God had come straight at me.)
We were also celebrating the birthday of one among us, Ann. For her birthday, gift, she requested reading recommendations from each of us. (You can see why I’m so fond of this exceedingly enlightened group of women!) Here are Angie’s suggestions: (I too am a great fan of the ‘Bruno, Chief of Police’ series written by Martin Walker and set amid the timeless beauty of France’s Dordogne region.)
These recommendations came with Angie’s usual lively commentary. She also added an apology for not naming any British titles, one of Ann’s stated preferences (such a discerning person!). Naturally I rushed in to fill that particular void:
In addition, I suggested these:
Kay was not able to join us Monday, but she still sent along her recommendations. Her annotations are so good, I’m going to include them as well:
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai. Lucy Hull hadn’t intended to be a librarian, but when offered the job of children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, she accepted because she had no other prospects and didn’t want to live at home. This is the one element in the book that really strains credulity, because clearly she was born for this job. In fact, she is so good at it that a 10-year-old misfit, whose born-again parents keep censoring his reading, talks her into running away from home with him.
This is a wonderful, funny, sad, and engaging tale about Lucy’s flight with Ian from Missouri to Vermont. Ian can be positively obnoxious (he’s 10 after all), but their shared love affair with books and frustration with evangelical America (Ian’s mother has enrolled him in a reeducation program for possibly gay kids) is one I know I’ll read again.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively. At age 77, Charlotte has retired from a career as the sort of teacher who changes students’ lives. Though widowed, she volunteers to teach adult literacy and is fiercely independent–right up to the moment that a mugger throws her to the pavement, breaking her hip. Forced to live with her daughter and son-in-law while recuperating, she agrees to have one of her adult students come to the house for tutoring. This sets the plot in motion, changing the lives of many people around her.
I’ve always enjoyed Penelope Lively’s novels, but this one is stellar. In one sense, it’s a portrait of a born teacher who will probably go on teaching in one way or another till the day she dies.
But it also contains some wonderful reflections on what reading means to us dyed-in-the-wool bookworms:
“Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction even. She has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her–then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.”
This passage captures my own life-long affair with the book. The short novel is brimming over with such reflections, and it explains why I’ve got “How It All Began” on my Kindle to read and reread again.
(I haven’t yet read How It All Began, but I share Kay’s enthusiasm for the works of Penelope Lively.)
Wicked Autumn by G. M. Malliet. Wonderful! A cozy with a kick. The vicar served in MI5 for 15 years and is nobody’s fool, albeit a decent and kindhearted chap. The victim is a woman who bullies everyone in the Women’s Institute beyond bearing; so many people have a motive to kill her that the detective has an embarrassment of suspects on his hands. The writing is superb, a bit like a Granny Smith apple. Not too sweet, but mellow and full bodied.
(Kay’s reviews can be found on Goodreads.)
Wednesday night Angie called me. She had just finished Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. and needed to talk about it. Among other things, our conversation convinced me that McEwan’s cunning and inventive novel is going to be a great choice for book groups.
That Monday evening, while working at the research desk at the Central Branch of the library, I caught a particularly juicy readers advisory question. Having read some fiction by John Grisham and some Mary Higgins Clark, a young man declared that he wanted to read thrillers with “more depth.” Oh my, where to begin?
I told him that I have a category in my personal reading pantheon called “Thrillers with brains.” More recently, I’d written reviews of All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen and The Fear Index by Robert Harris. I had sought out these two novels out of frustration with four mysteries I’d read recently. Those mysteries had been engaging in various degrees, but their plots moved at such a glacial pace that I was left yearning for a true page turner.
Upon hearing this customer’s request, one title that came immediately to mind was William Landay’s Defending Jacob. It was not, alas, available right then at Central. Defending Jacob may be the best legal thriller I’ve ever read, but my interlocutor was only mildly intrigued. He was looking for something more along the lines of psychological suspense. (I must interject here, though, that in Defending Jacob, I encountered exceptionally acute – and astute – descriptions of mental and emotional anguish.)
At any rate – this is what I ended up giving him:
Later, after he’d left, I was annoyed at myself for forgetting Dan Fesperman, who wrote two novels of international intrigue that I greatly admire: Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son. And then there’s The Horned Man by James Lasdun, one of the most disturbing novels I think I’ve ever read. (I am currently reading a nonfiction work by this author entitled Give Me everything You Have: On Being Stalked. I am reminded once again what a superb writer James Lasdun is. I can hardly put this book down – although there are other times when I’m reluctant to pick it up. Talk about mental and emotional anguish….)
Recently, the Howard County Library System has garnered praise from the local media, both for its recent spectacularly successful “Evening in the Stacks” fundraiser, and for its overall excellence. Naturally I had to add my own two cents, in a letter to the editor.