All posts filed under: Books

Front to Backlist

Two Books About the “Other” Parent

Do fathers matter? I’m a woman married to a man who is the father of our two children, so I have an answer to that question (indubitably yes!), but that doesn’t mean my sample audience is one of proper scientific breadth or depth. Fortunately, someone else has asked that question, and answered it with good strong research. Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked by Paul Raeburn is filled with anecdotes about how and why fathers matter in the lives of boys and girls. It’s a book whose time has come. I’ve grown so weary of the term “mommy blogger” and its attendant connotations of maternity as all encompassing and all powerful. (And yes, I acknowledge that many of the best “mommy bloggers” acknowledge and celebrate their male and female co-parents; I just wish more of them did so.) If we truly desire a third wave of feminism, one that encompasses all humans, then we need to examine what male parents (straight and gay and trans) bring to the …

Feeling Your Eats: Memoirs Chronicle Life With Food

I once wrote an entire blog post about the difference between “memoirs with recipes” and “memoirs, with recipes.” It’s the latter that I prefer, books in which recipes are not the main course, but a sweet lagniappe appended to excellent, incisive writing. So when I learned that this week’s TueNight theme was “Tasty,” one book sprang immediately to mind: Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by novelist Kate Christensen, which was recently released in paperback. In her prologue, Christensen (The Epicure’s Lament, The Great Man), says: “Food is a subterranean conduit to sensuality, memory, desire, but it opens the eater to all of it without changing anything.” To change something through eating requires the eater to connect the conduit to its source — and that can be painful. No wonder Christensen’s first included recipe is called “Dark Night of the Soul Soup.” All of her appetites are addressed in Blue Plate Special, including those a lesser artist might have chosen to discreetly gloss over, like her adolescent fumblings towards domestic normalcy in a …

The Wild Outdoors: Two Books Peer Into Nature’s Dark Side

You probably don’t live in a cave, which means you’re aware of the runaway success of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. At age 26, Strayed (a surname she chose to indicate her status) illogically, and with little preparation, chose to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Coast Trail solo. I say “illogically” because of the dangers and pitfalls inherent in such an undertaking, not that Strayed had no good reason for her quest. She did: She was mourning the loss of her mother, grieving the end of her marriage and psychologically at the end of her tether. All of which is big fodder for big adventure. But what sets Wild apart from other memoirs of self-seeking treks is Strayed’s assured, calm voice — perhaps a clue as to why it took her so long (17 years) to write about the experience. The author knows she survived and also knows she learned a great deal, and she is able to prop up the reader through otherwise terrifying events involving bears, hanging …

Good Mother Going Blind: Author Nicole Kear on Her New Book Now I See You

Nicole Kear was 19 years old when she learned she was slowly going blind. Sitting in a doctor’s office in her native Manhattan, on break after her sophomore year at Yale, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that would wipe out her vision over time. Given just a decade or so of sight left, she decided to carpe diem, while keeping her disease a secret. She tore through boyfriends, traveled the world, signed up for circus school, played bartender, and moved to Los Angeles to become an actress. Meanwhile, the disease quietly took its course, first attacking her night vision, then her peripheral vision, and finally her central vision — clouding it over with cataracts, erasing depth perception and bringing on color blindness. Eventually, she married the love of her life, returned to New York and her close Italian family, settled down in Brooklyn, and started having children. And in her new role as mom she decided  to surrender her secret, ‘fess up to her kids and to herself, and start preparing for …

The 8 Types of Imperfect Moms in Literature

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone, because whether or not you’re a mother — and whether or not that’s okay with you — we all come from mothers, whether those mothers are perfect or not. That’s why my Frontlist pick this week is Robin O’Bryant’s Ketchup Is A Vegetable: And Other Lies Moms Tell Themselves, a collection of her columns from her popular Robin’s Chicks blog. Yes, O’Bryant is funny, fierce and honest, and more on her delightful writing in a moment. However, she had me at her subtitle. “Lies Moms Tell Themselves” — was there ever a more truthful phrase? In order to get through the process of childrearing, mothers have to tell themselves quite a few lies. For example: “I am ready to face another day changing this tiny tyrant’s waste-filled diapers.” (And I made that one up all by myself!) More important than anything O’Bryant has to say on potty training, breastfeeding, the chaos of the dinner hour and postpartum depression, more important even than her honesty, is the fact that she’s funny without …

Nature Or Nurture? Two Books On What it Takes to Win

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein might sound like a book about competitors like Usain Bolt and Serena Williams — but a closer read reveals that what Epstein has learned about extreme fitness can tell you a lot about your own athletic prowess. That’s because Epstein goes beyond the idea of genetic blessing and examines what kinds of training — physical and mental — support the natural gifts some athletes gain before birth. In other words, he asks, how do nature and nurture combine to create athletes so heart-stoppingly excellent that they seem like extraterrestrials? Epstein finds answers in places you might expect, like softball fields and golf courses, but he also learns from chess tournaments, virtuoso violinists and Antarctic field experiments. But what I found most scintillating in this deeply researched and engagingly written book was how many different forms of “extraordinary” there are on this earth. We all know big names like Phelps, Williams, Hamm, Jordan and others, but we shouldn’t forget that athletic excellence runs …

Books to Enhance Your Green Thumb

Much of my life that remains analog is abetted by the internet. If I want to cook old-school braised short ribs, I can order all of the ingredients online for doorstep delivery. My shelves are groaning with paper books that I’ve ordered from web sites. I can also order seeds and plants online for that most analog of activities: gardening. Yes, there are tools for gardening, both hi- and low-tech, including lawn mowers, trowels and software to organize your annuals and perennials. But eventually, every gardener has to get her hands dirty. Thank goodness! Talk about connecting with something elemental. So my frontlist pick for you this week is Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Carol Wall. Wall’s memoir of her slow, enriching friendship with a neighbor’s Kenyan gardener is the kind of book that sounds too sweet but winds up being just right. Giles Owita has more to share with Wall than plant advice, and Wall has more to give …

A New Sci-fi Novel and a Classic Get Foreign Aid

Reading today’s bestsellers can lead you back to more great books. The brand-new title I have to share with you is perfect for this week’s  theme “Help,” even if at first glance you think it might not be your type of book. The Martian by Andy Weir is pure, geeky, unalloyed sci-fi. But this new novel is also chockfull of the kind of ingenuity that any woman who has ever resorted to making dinner for guests from the contents of her pantry can appreciate. Narrator astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and told he can’t be rescued for 1,412 days. Even after he details the supplies with which he’s left, both our hero and readers instantly know they’re not enough. Fortunately, Watney is both a mechanical engineer and a botanist (before you shout “How convenient!”, remember, NASA would have wanted to send someone with the relevant skills, right?), so when life gives him lemons, he makes lemonade. In the book, life gives him potatoes, and he makes — well, you’ll have to read to …

Having It All: The Advice of Helen Gurley Brown & George Eliot

I’m not sure if I have ever paired two more different books. The first one, which comes out on January 28th, is already one of my favorite books of 2014. Since we’re only half way through one month this new year, how can that be? Put it down to a combination of an unusually talented writer (The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead), her subject (which is inarguably one of the world’s greatest books), and my own lifelong attachment to the same book. My Life in Middlemarch is Mead’s paean to George Eliot’s magnum opus, but it’s also a memoir, a meditation and an excavation. Mead, who first read Eliot’s novel at age 17, revisits it every five years or so. She has found many parallels between Eliot’s life and her own, which keeps the book lively — but the wonderful thing about this volume is that it doesn’t matter if you’ve read Middlemarch once, twice, or never. Mead’s search for meaning between two covers becomes meaningful in and of itself. Even if you don’t care about …

The Complexity of Friendship

In recent months, we’ve learned that reading fiction enhances our ability to feel empathy — and even more recently, we’ve learned that reading fiction increases our brain’s ability to make connections. Since we already knew that neural connections lead to increased empathy — bingo! Read novels, love more. I can’t imagine a book that will tug harder at your tear ducts than Perfect by Rachel Joyce, which comes out this week. Some of you may have read her last delightful and poignant novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which an Englishman in the early stages of dementia treks hundreds of miles on foot to seek forgiveness from an old friend. If you have, then you’ll know that Joyce doesn’t tell stories in the same way as anyone else. Perfect seems like one thing and turns out to be another, and that “another” packs an emotional wallop. Joyce, like her fellow British citizen J.K. Rowling, has an affinity for people at the margins — but unlike Rowling’s overly complicated and deeply dark attempt to portray those …

5 of the Coziest Winter Books

Oh, the weather outside is frightful — which means reading inside is delightful! As long as you’ve remembered to charge your e-reader, that is, because in this snowy mess you’re not going to be running out to your local indie bookstore — or any bookstore for that matter — anytime soon. But I’ve got some great, Kindle-ready recommendations that will keep you riveted to the page (or should I say screen). Here are five of the best recent books to get you through a bitterly cold week: 1. Longbourn by Jo Baker. Is your idea of heaven Season Four of “Downton Abbey?” Look no further and pick up this “downstairs” peek into the world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. You may not be surprised to learn that there’s just as much social scheming in the servants’ quarters as there is among the Bennets, but you’ll enjoy it every bit as much. 2. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. If you like to keep current with your reads, you’ll want to get a …

5 Books to Give Your Trickiest Recipients

When TueNight asked me to provide a list of five gift books, I panicked just a bit. Only five? One of my deeply held beliefs is that there are books for every reader, and readers for (well, almost) every book — when it comes to holiday gifts, it wouldn’t be untoward to have a list of 100 books, or more. But we are busy. We don’t have time during this festive season to peruse long lists. So I’ve done the perusing for you and selected what I hope are five books that will cover five especially difficult recipients. 1. For your “read that, too” friend “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton Not only is this a big, fat, glorious novel that any bookworm will love — its author is the youngest ever winner of The Booker Prize, making it one of those titles people will be chatting about at cocktail parties for months to come. Give your know-it-all pal a leg up on the literary competition! 2. For your beloved older male relative “The Great War” …

Just Like People: Dogs & Cats Get Bookish

Jon Katz writes books about dogs — lots and lots of books about dogs: Soul of A Dog, A Dog Year, A Good Dog, Dog Days and many more. He lives at a place called Bedlam Farm (also the name of his web site), sharing accommodation there with numerous dogs, a variety of livestock — and his new wife, an artist named Maria Wulf. Her intensely loyal but troubled dog Frieda is the subject of Katz’s latest book, The Second Chance Dog: A Love Story (Ballantine Books, November 12, 2013). Despite Frieda’s initial erratic behavior and refusal to go near Jon, the author used patience, determination, and “five hundred dollars worth of beef jerky” to convince his wife’s beloved canine to accept him. Katz believes we over-anthropomorphize our pets (or “companion animals,” to use the latest parlance). By attributing too much emotion and soul to domestic animals, Katz thinks we fail to understand and respect their animal nature — their real reason for being on earth. I highly recommend The Second Chance Dog to anyone who …

Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot and the

Mysteries, Christie and the Love of Books

One of the things I’m most grateful for, naturally, is the ability to read — and for that I thank my mother, who not only helped me learn to read, but kept me supplied with library books for years. It’s because of Mom that my heart still beats faster when I see card catalogs (on Etsy, repurposed as recipe-card files… I do have to live in the modern world!). But it was my mother’s sister, my Aunt Mary, who turned me on to the “hard stuff” — mystery novels. Back in the day, when we didn’t have a plethora of YA fiction, I was constantly searching for new books, authors and genres. It was Aunt Mary who had the idea of letting me read Agatha Christie’s output, when I was around 11. She gave me Ten Little Indians, and before long, I was reading every battered hardcover and worn paperback of Dame Agatha’s on our library shelves. Yes, these books are formulaic, but that was perfect for a young adolescent. Trying to out-sleuth Hercule Poirot …

The Consequences of Play

Reading today’s bestsellers can lead you back to more great books. In this installment, I’ve got a great pair of reads to help us all consider the consequences of what can start out as “play.” My au courant pick is The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, a deliciously rich batter of a novel studded with deceit and menace, instead of chocolate chips and other sweet things. The Australian author set her story in a leafy suburb of Sydney and centered it on three families with ties to a small Roman Catholic school. Wait, don’t say you’re yawning! Within this suburban bastion of Tupperware (sold by perfect wife-and-mother Cecilia Fitzpatrick) and macaroons (a vice for school secretary Rachel) lurks the unsolved murder of Rachel’s daughter Janie, which occurred decades earlier in the 1980’s. There’s also a sealed letter from Cecilia’s husband John-Paul, and Rachel’s growing suspicions that PE teacher Connor Whitby may have more to do with the murder than anyone else knows. Meanwhile, recently returned woman named Tess, fleeing marital problems in Melbourne, gets more involved …

A Random Timeline of Brave Women in Literature

My father, a good ’70s feminist type, was always very conscious about providing me with examples of fierce women protagonists.  He wanted me to see role models who were strong and courageous. He took me to see Sigourney Weaver in Alien (Of course I was traumatized; I was eight.) He gave me a copy of Robert A Heinlein’s Friday.  He made sure I knew that girls can change the world, and that I should plan on it myself. I was a bookworm, not an activist, so I ended up bonding with some brave literary characters in my reading life. Here are a few of my favorites in chronological order: 1599 Rosalind: As You Like It, Shakespeare Elizabeth I was on the throne, and Shakespeare wanted to impress her — who didn’t? — so he wrote one independent female character after another. One of the most audacious is Rosalind, a young woman banished from court after the exile of her father. She flees with two others to the Forest of Arden and disguises herself as a …

The Next “Gone Girl”

Welcome to “Front-to-Backlist,” my attempt as a book reviewer to help you find more titles to love. The concept is simple: I’ll take one or more present-day titles (sometimes bestsellers/buzzed about, sometimes not) and tell you why they’re terrific — then tell you about another book from the past that you might enjoy as well. For this first column, let me be blunt: Everyone is looking for this year’s Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn’s third novel set beach blankets ablaze last year with her incredibly suspenseful tale of a marriage gone wrong. Is there an equivalent for 2013? I think I’ve got it — but you probably haven’t heard of it yet, and that is in no small part because Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls, lives in South Africa. We’re notoriously bad in the U.S. at promoting authors who live outside of our own borders (the few exceptions, like Helen Fielding, Stieg Larsson, and Oliver Poetzsch, just prove the rule), and even though this novel of Depression-era Chicago and a time-traveling serial killer is …