Friday Book Whimsy: Best Sellers

PBS recently used we, the readers, to select their favorite book of all time. The winner was To Kill a Mockingbird. But as we learned through that process, the best books ever written are not necessarily readers’ favorites. Still, a classic book came out on top.

I came across an article from a website called Literary Hub that provided the biggest fiction bestsellers for the last 100 years according to Publishers Weekly. The website also offered other books that were published that same year, but didn’t fare as well. I found both lists to be very interesting, and offer it to you for your perusal…..

https://lithub.com/here-are-the-biggest-fiction-bestsellers-of-the-last-100-years/

Friday Book Whimsy: Clock Dance

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors. Her books — most of which take place in, or have some connection to, the author’s home town of Baltimore — always contain clever and realistic characters who manage to find some degree of contentment at the end of the day despite obstacles they face.

Having said this, her past few novels have been a bit of a disappointment, at least as compared to such classics as Dinner at the Homestead Restaurant or The Accidental Tourist. But her latest novel Clock Dance was a winner in this reader’s opinion, and left me with a degree of satisfaction that I haven’t come across in a novel since Fredrik Bachman’s Britt-Marie Was Here. Both novels present a female lead character who has spent most of her life doing what others think she should do. Until they don’t.

Young Willa Drake lives with her mother and father and a younger sister. Her mother is mentally ill, probably bipolar. When Willa is about 12 years old, her mother suddenly disappears, leaving Willa, her sister, and her kind, but rather namby pamby, father to cope.

Fast forward to her college years, where she meets, and finally agrees to marry, another student who loves her, but is pretty sure he knows what’s best for her. And having never learned to stand up for herself, she agrees. They are happy together, and have two sons. And then one night, a road rage incident results in Willa suddenly being widowed.

Fast forward once again, and Willa has remarried. Unfortunately, her sons are far away and they have grown apart. One day Willa receives a phone call and her life changes forever. She agrees to travel to Baltimore from her desert home, and becomes the caregiver to — now stay with me — her son’s ex-girlfriend’s little girl — when said ex-girlfriend is in the hospital with a broken leg. It’s only supposed to be for a short time.

But Willa’s life changes forever.

Full of the quirky characters that fans of the author have grown to love, Clock Dance is the kind of novel in which the reader — particularly if the reader is a woman — wants to shout HOO-RAY at the end of the book.

I loved this book. Welcome back to my bookshelf, Anne Tyler.

Friday Book Whimsy: Was the Ending the Same?

First posted on March 28, 2014

I often say life is too short to read a bad book. And of course, by “bad book” I mean a book I’m not enjoying. There are simply too many books out there that I want to read to spend any time reading something I don’t like. That philosophy has probably caused me to miss out on a lot of books that get better after the first 100 pages. Oh well.

Having said that, it is probably inconsistent to say that I will, however, reread a book. Using the same logic, it would appear life is too short to spend time on a book when you know how it ends. For some reason, that fact doesn’t trouble me at all.

So here is a list of 5 books that not only WOULD I reread, but frequently HAVE….

manhattanbridge01b1. I was between books one evening recently. I finished what I was reading and didn’t want to get up out of bed to download the ebook that the Mesa Public Library had notified me was available. So I went on my Nook’s library and saw with great delight that I had purchased A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith some time ago, a fact I had totally forgotten. It was like running into an old friend, right there in my own bed!

The book is about the Nolan family who lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. At the beginning of the book, Francie Nolan is 11 and the story is told primarily through her eyes. The Nolans are poor and struggling, but survive despite obstacle after obstacle, much like the tree that somehow survives in the desolate empty lot Francie sees from her bedroom window. A metaphor. Get it? I probably first read the book when I was 12 or 13, and loved it so much. I have read it many times since, but there’s nothing like the first time you read a good book, is there?

2. I was probably only 8 or 9 when I first read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Oh my heavens, did I love that book. I probably read it three or four times just during my adolescence. The first time I read the book, I can’t even begin to tell you how I cried and cried at one particular sad event. I was heartbroken.Annex - Leigh, Janet (Little Women)_01

Little Women is the story of the four March girls, who live quiet lives in New England as their father serves as a chaplain during the Civil War. They are guided lovingly by Marmee – their mother. (I seriously wanted to begin calling my mom Marmee, but knew that wouldn’t fly, even as an 8-year-old.) Each of the girls is very different. I think every girl who reads the book identifies with one of them. I identified with Meg. I wasn’t quite adventurous enough to connect in the same way with Jo. By the way, the story has been made into a movie three times – 1933, 1949, and 1994. The movie made in 1949 is far-and-away the best. The 1994 movie? Susan Sarandon as Marmee? Nooooooooooo!

3. One book that I have read, oh, I don’t know, ten or twelve thousand times is Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. From the get-go, my heart absolutely broke as I read about poor Jane’s childhood, both as the abused ward of her aunt and then as a

Comb your hair for heaven's sake! What are you, blind?

Comb your hair for heaven’s sake! What are you, blind?

student at the Lowood School. The child couldn’t get a break. Even her beloved friend Helen dies – in Jane’s arms no less. She becomes the governess for little Adele, and – yada yada yada – she and Mr. Rochester live happily ever after (despite the fact that he’s scarred from the fire, bitter, and permanently blinded.

I remember thinking that the book was the most romantic story I had ever read. After all, it isn’t like Jane was some gorgeous woman; she was just a Plain – well – Jane. Still, Mr. Rochester loved her from the very beginning. And oh, the back story! Does it get any better than that?

great plains4. I think that My Antonia was required reading when I was in high school, and I loved it immediately. It helped that the story took place in Nebraska (where my high school was located), and in fact, not even too terribly far from my home town. Willa Cather’s writing is glorious, and I frankly love all of her books. But there was something about Antonia herself that makes it my favorite.

Antonia comes with her family from Bohemia to settle in the Nebraska prairie. The Shimerda family had not been farmers in Bohemia, and have a hard time surviving in this new and terribly hard life in Nebraska. She is befriended by Jim Burton, and their friendship is a critical element of the book. I love the descriptions of the Nebraska prairie, and the development of Antonia through the years. She might be my most beloved character of all books I’ve ever read. Might be. Not committing. For a review I did of this book, click here.

5. There is actually a book I read once a year. At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon, is the story of an Episcopalian priest who lives in the North Carolina village of Mitford. It’s not exactly accurate to say the story is about Father Tim, though he is the main character. mitfordThe story is about the entangled lives of all of the quirky people who make up this town. They are caricatures, no doubt about it. Still, I love them all and I never get tired of them. But mostly I embrace Father Tim’s absolute love of God and trust in him. I love the way he turns to the Lord in all things. I read the book every year to help me learn to pray. By the way, I read the Karon’s Mitford Christmas book Shepherds Abiding every December as well.

There you have it. There are more, but these five were top of mind.  I didn’t include the Bible, because it goes without saying that it is a part of my life.

Nana’s Note: All these years later, I still agree with my list; however, I would add Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, which is perhaps my favorite book ever.

Friday Book Whimsy: Closed Casket

I vowed I wasn’t going to read any more of the books that continue the story of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. I was enormously disappointed in author Sophie Hannah’s first effort, The Monogram Murders, which I reviewed in 2016. Still, I am such an enormous fan of the Poirot mysteries that I finally caved and read the second in the series — Closed Casket.

Once again, the book features Hercule Poirot along with his sidekick, a Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool. Rather than writing it as a sequel — fans will recall that Christie famously killed off the detective in her final installment called Curtain — the series takes place prior to Christies’ books — a prequel of sorts.

In this novel, Poirot and Catchpool are invited to the home of a famous children’s book writer named Lady Athelinda Playford, and neither can figure out why they were included. Perhaps she expects a murder to take place? At least that’s what Poirot speculates.

At dinner, things become a bit clearer. The rich woman announces that she has changed her will to exclude her two grown children, a daughter and a son. This comes as a unfortunate surprise to the two children. They are further shocked to learn that she is leaving her fortune to her secretary. Joseph Scotcher has worked for Lady Playford for a number of years. What is particularly confusing about the change in beneficiary is that Mr. Scotcher has been diagnosed with Bright’s disease and has only weeks to live.

Why oh why would she leave money to a person who she will almost certainly outlive? Before the day is over, he is found dead in the parlor by Scotcher’s fiance who insists she witnesses the daughter beating him to death. However, it is impossible for her to be in two places at once, isn’t it?

Hannah’s second effort was decidedly better than her first. Nevertheless, the bar is set pretty high. The two detectives seem to stumble and bumble more than Poirot ever did under Christie’s pen. Poirot misses clues that even I got.

Still, it’s nice to have my old friend Poirot back, even if he isn’t in his finest form.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Summer I Met Jack

I have heard stories about the Kennedys my entire life. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his elegant wife Jackie were as close as Americans ever got to royalty. There was no one before or after them that created such a sensation. Americans couldn’t get enough. You either loved the Kennedys or hated them. There wasn’t a lot in between.

I was only 9 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated, so I wasn’t old enough to have strong opinions about the Kennedy family. My mother and father did, however, and they were not particular fans. They were both Republicans, but truly I believe they were more concerned with the shenanigans that were part of the family’s legacy.

The Summer I Met Jack, by Michelle Gable, is a novel based on one of the lesser known stories about John F. Kennedy as a young man. There is no doubt the author took a fair amount of liberties with the book — it is fiction, after all — but it certainly didn’t paint a good picture of the family. It did, however, tell an unusual tale.

The book is based on the true story of Alicia Darr, a young woman who purportedly came as a Jewish refugee from Poland (though she always proclaimed she came from Vienna) as part of the Displaced Persons Act just as World War II was beginning. She ended up working as a housekeeper for the Joseph Kennedy family in Hyannis Port, at their acclaimed estate on Hyannis Port, MA.

She was quite beautiful, and caught the eye of young Jack Kennedy. I believe all of the above is true, but the author takes great liberties with the remainder of the story.

Jack and Alicia fall in love and prepare to marry. Old Man Joe puts the kibash on the wedding however, and eventually Alicia moves to Hollywood where she became a minor movie starr. She ended up marrying into the Corning fortune. But oh the ANGST that happens as part of this story!

The author’s portrayal of the Kennedy family is stark and disturbing. If even half of her stories are true, this was an — shall we say — unusual family. Jack Kennedy is portrayed as completely self-absorbed and addicted to sex. The rest of the family is little better.

I didn’t particularly love the author’s writing style, finding it simplistic and almost childish. I have no idea how much truth is in the novel, but if the characters had not been Kennedys, I would have lost interest in the story long before I did.

Still, it was an angle about the Kennedy family that I had not heard, and I am as much of a voyeur as the next guy.

I can’t give this an overwhelming thumbs up, but it was an interesting portrayal of the Kennedys.

Here is a link to the book.

 

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The Glass Ocean

It is not their first rodeo when it comes to co-authoring a book for fiction-writers Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig. A couple of years ago, the three prolific novelists co-authored The Forgotten Room, a bestselling novel that I reviewed and frankly didn’t like all that much.

So, it was with some trepidation that I decided to read their newest crack at co-writing a historical novel, The Glass Ocean. I’m happy that I took the risk, because I liked this effort much more than I liked The Forgotten Room. In fact, I looked back at my review of The Forgotten Room to see if I was somewhat unfair. Book reviews are subjective, of course, but I concluded that my review was on point as far as my opinion of that book went.

Like The Forgotten RoomThe Glass Ocean is the tale of three women from different eras But this book also features a doomed ship, the Lusitania. Socialite Caroline and her husband Gil are passengers on the ship that was fated to never reach its destination, and led to the United States declaring war on Germany in 1917. The Lusitania, of course, was destroyed by the Germans, and many of the passengers who died were Americans. Gil talks Caroline into accompanying him on the ship’s maiden voyage, and she reluctantly agrees. She loves her husband, but their marriage seems to be shaky and Gil is secretive and distant. Robert Langford, a long-time friend of Caroline’s, is happy to keep her company in his stead and books passage.

In the meantime, Tess and her sister are also passengers. They are small-time con artists, but Tess is ready to go straight. Her sister convinces her that this will be their last dishonest effort, and it will change their lives. It involves a piece of music — a lost Strauss waltz which belongs to Gil and is being carried to England on the ship.

Meanwhile, fast-forwarding to this century, Sarah — who is the great granddaughter of one of the Lusitania’s porters — wants to write a book about the ship because she discovers some interesting information that would offer the world a different angle. She turns to Robert Langford’s great grandson John, who is looking for something to do since his career in Parliament has been damaged because of an unrelated family scandal.

There are secrets galore in this lively novel, and many questions about loyalty. Who are patriots and who are German spies?

Some controversy about whether the Lusitania was, in fact, carrying weapons to England as the Germans maintained or was simply a passenger ship continues to this day. The book, in fact, is unclear about the ship’s role in the war. It isn’t unclear, however, about whether the characters help or harm the war efforts.

I found The Glass Ocean to be a very interesting and informative novel.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Masterpiece

I love books that provide me with a historical perspective. I especially love when I can learn something new from a novel. I realize a reader has to take care to remember that it is a novel; still, I always hope that the author has done enough research to make a reasonable attempt to educate their audience accurately.

Author Fiona Davis has written two previous historical novesl: the first — The Dollhouse — provided the reader with a clear picture of the famous Barbizon Hotel in NYC, where young women trying to become models or actresses or secretaries could live and feel safe. Her second novel — The Address — used the famous (or infamous) Dakota Apartment on NYC’s upper west side as its location. I liked that book a bit less than the author’s first. Still, I loved what I learned about perhaps the most well-known apartments in New York.

Fiona Davis takes the reader on an artistic journey with her third novel, The Masterpiece. The star of this novel is a real-life art school that existed in the 20s and 30s in Grand Central Terminal — The Grand Central School of Art. In the late 20s, Clara Darden teaches at the school. She is the lone female teacher, and struggles to maintain respect simply because she is a woman. Fifty years later, divorced Virginia takes a job — her first following her divorce — at Grand Central Terminal in the information booth. This leads to that, and she discovers a hidden painting by Clara Darden.

The reader is taken on a journey of two women becoming independent in different ways. The Masterpiece is also the story of Grand Central Terminal, and the art school that lived within. It was the work of some committed people that prevented Grand Central from being torn down and made into condos. Sound familiar?

I liked The Masterpiece a lot better than The Address. I felt the characters were much more realistic and the back stories were more interesting. It provided a history lesson while reading a book with interesting characters.

Here is a link to the book.