Read Me a Story

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If you’re in need of a little TLC, why not have Tom Hanks tell you a story? With just a smart phone and a library card, you can listen to everyone’s favorite Bosom Buddy read an audiobook such as my current title, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.

Audiobooks are the ideal way to spend long hours driving or walking. In the past few  years, I’ve had occasion to make out-of-state trips by myself and decided to “read” a novel along the way. I listened to an Irishwoman voice the many characters in Maeve Binchey’s Minding Frankie. I loved Claire Danes’ dramatic rendering of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I’d read many years ago and wanted to revisit. I even managed to complete such must-read titles as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, all while clocking the miles.

I can listen to an audiobook while accomplishing other tasks. Chopping vegetables or folding laundry are mundane and repetitive activities that are much improved by listening to a good story. And audiobooks have even improved my fitness. If I’m listening to a gripping book such as Emma Donoghue’s Room while out walking, I am much more likely to want to walk farther and for longer periods of time. I also prefer listening to watching TV when I am on a treadmill. It’s hard to focus on a screen with my whole body in motion but easy to listen to a disembodied voice while learning about The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

The key to a good audiobook is, of course, a good reader. Sometimes authors read their own work successfully. Malcolm Gladwell has a great voice and reads all of his own books. But many authors are great at creating the written word but not so gifted at speaking it. A good reader – essentially a voice actor – can bring their work alive. Such is the case with Tom Hanks’s wonderful narration of The Dutch House.

I hadn’t been planning to read Ann Patchett’s newest novel. I’d read one of her books in the past and hadn’t loved it. But Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a piece on recommended reading, and Hanks’s audiobook was one of her suggestions. The Dutch House is a story of a family and the centrality of the house to their development, trials and tribulations. Hanks has that warm and folksy timbre to his voice with just enough sass to enliven the first person narration and the brother-sister dynamic in the book.

There is a reason that being read to is such a cherished childhood memory for so many people. The warmth of a story cascading over us, allowing our imagination to conjure worlds while safely tucked under the arm of a loved one. Currently my daughter is rereading the Harry Potter series by listening to a succession of actors and ordinary readers voice the likes of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape and the rest. I fondly remember reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to a couple of my kids when they were younger. I’m sure that listening to the series recaptures some of that childhood for my youngest.

So if you have no time to read or your eyes are just too tired at the end of the day, give an audiobook a try. In these troubled times, it can’t hurt to be lulled to sleep by the likes of Tom Hanks.

 

Finding Literary Treasure

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With public libraries being closed, I have ditched my reading wish list and started mining the contents of my home bookshelves. Over the years, I’ve collected books that have gone unread. Some were gifts, others give-aways from the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, an event I’ve attended many times. I have even ventured into my husband’s wide selection of thrillers. And what I have discovered is literary treasure I may never have found if COVID-19 had not upended life as we know it.

One of those books is Enemy Women, a Civil War story about rural Missouri and one woman swept up in the disaster of war. Paulette Jiles’ novel reminds me of the acclaimed Charles Frazier work Cold Mountain. These works describe the wreckage of lives and hopes caused by a bitter conflict that rent the nation in two and left the South in tatters. What struck me was how many rural poor, none of whom had ever seen a slave much less possessed one, suffered to preserve the way of life for rich plantation owners. Missouri was particularly fraught because its citizens were split between Union supporters and those who fought for the Confederacy. Reading Enemy Women gave me a glimpse into that history while also providing a story of fierceness, determination, and survival.

I’ve also just finished a fascinating novel by Chicagoan Eric Charles May titled Bedrock Faith. Like many other Chicago writers, May was on hand during one of the aforementioned awards dinners, and I picked up his novel as a party favor at the event. Bedrock Faith had been sitting on my bookshelf for years while I favored other titles on my reading list. The novel is set on the far south side of Chicago in a fictional middle class black enclave called Parkland. The story is set in motion by the release from prison of a notorious troublemaker named Stew Pot Reeves, who proceeds to wreak havoc on the block where he grew up. I love May’s rich depictions of various neighbors, as well as the story being told from their various perspectives. The story also builds to an exciting climax as Stew Pot’s actions go from bad to worse.

Currently I’m reading a thriller by another Chicago writer, this one a tad more famous: Scott Turow. Turow made his name with the legal thriller Presumed Innocent, a page-turning story of a prosecutor turned defendant after his colleague is found murdered. The twist at the end of Presumed Innocent is chilling, and the book was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford. After many years, Turow came out with a sequel to his bestseller simply titled Innocent. Once again his character Rusty Sabich, now an appellate court judge, is accused of murder, this time of his wife of 36 years. Turow’s thrillers are a cut above many potboilers out there because of his superior writing style. I look forward to finding out whether Rusty has it in him to beat another murder allegation.

I know I could be borrowing electronic books from my local library even as it is closed. But I am having a great time finding literary treasure in paper right in the comfort of my home. What’s on your bookshelf?

 

A Great and Terrible Beauty

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I’ve been reading a collection of gems by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich titled even the terrible things seem beautiful to me now. The title is a reference to Schmich’s mother, who towards the end of her life commented to her daughter, “You have to be old to appreciate the beauty of your life. Even the terrible things seem beautiful to me now.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about old age and mortality. Last week I mourned the loss of a friend who was born the same year I was. Just the other evening, I visited my 87-year-old mother, whose heart and mind are strong, but whose body has become frail and uncooperative. Even my own aging body has started to betray me in small ways. I’ve developed osteoporosis and chronic back pain. A stubbed toe has become a minor handicap. I watch TV with closed captioning because my hearing is not what it used to be.

We are all headed down this path toward our eventual earthly demise. We can’t imagine that the world will continue to turn when we are no longer alive in it. But of course it will. In another essay, Schmich again quotes her mother: “I keep wondering what I’m going to do with the time I have left.”

Ah, that is the question, isn’t it? Schmich posits that the answer to that question keeps changing over the course of our lives. I remember having some grandiose goals when I was in my 20s. I would ride a bike through Europe and learn to sail and write the Great American Novel. Only one of those dreams is still alive. I guess I had better get to it while I am still alive.

Yes, there have been terrible times in my life. I have experienced loss and fear and sleepless nights, physical and emotional pain, dread, anxiety. It can be a healing thing to reflect that all the terrible things have a certain beauty when seen in the context of a long life.

Thank you, Mary Schmich, for helping me meditate on the great and mysterious journey we call life.

Does Dad Need Some Daditude?

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Does your father or husband like to chuckle and/or laugh out loud occasionally? Do you need a last minute Father’s Day gift?

I’ve been listening to a wry, humorous, and heartwarming book of essays titled Daditude by Chris Erskine. Erskine is a Los Angeles Times writer whose columns are syndicated in my hometown Chicago Tribune under the title “The Middle Ages.” I’ve followed Erskine’s musings for a number of years now, and the man is great with a turn of phrase.

Erskine writes about the trials, tribulations, and joys of family, friends, and growing older. His tales about his brood of four kids and his long-suffering wife alternate with stories about a group of incorrigible drinking buddies. In Daditude, though, he has culled a selection of former columns about his family: rites of passage, holidays, childhood memories.

The tone of these essays is always one of tender bemusement. As much as he mocks some of his kids’ excesses (In one story, he claims his younger daughter renamed herself VISA, with a dollar sign for the “S.”), its clear how much he adores his kids and worships his wife, whom he affectionately calls “Posh” in his writing.

In descriptions of Christmases past and summers in LA, of dropping his oldest daughter off at college, and of shopping for the perfect valentine, Erskine notes the details – the little nuances of nature and human nature that many of us miss. For instance, he describes dressing his newborn son: “I can’t seem to thread this kid’s tiny hand through a shirt hole the size of a nostril.” Or the first cool day of fall: “The cool feels good. Like brushing your teeth. Like a snowy kiss.”

Some of the stories are even more poignant in retrospect, as the twin losses of his son and wife in the past two years had not yet happened. The book was published as Erskine’s wife was going through cancer treatment. Even in those columns that described Posh’s illness, Erskine retains some of the gentle humor and wry sense of the world that no doubt has helped him through such tragedy.

I highly recommend Daditude for fathers and mothers and anyone with a heart, really. As Erskine himself says in the foreword of the book, “I hope you devour this book shamelessly, like no one’s watching, like a big gooey pizza at midnight.”

 

A Becoming First Lady

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I had mixed emotions while reading former First Lady Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir Becoming. On the one hand, I was filled with admiration for the integrity, grace and determination Mrs. Obama has shown since her early days growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the child of blue collar workers who sacrificed everything to give their two children the best possible chance at a good life. On the other hand, I felt saddened and angry at how swiftly the improbable Obama ascendancy to the White House and the substantial progress made during Obama’s two terms in office are being dismantled and discarded by the Trump presidency.

Like many First Ladies before her, Michelle Obama was a reluctant political wife. Her main concerns as her husband campaigned first for state office, then U.S. senator, and finally for the highest office in the land were for her two daughters and their well-being. She strove to keep their lives as normal as possible and did not allow them to become pampered princesses in the White House. She also found a way to use her stature as First Lady to further the causes on which she had been spending her professional life before Barack Obama became president.

During the Obama presidency, the White House became a more inclusive and vibrant place. The many minority staff members were made to feel valued and important. Lesser known minority artists and regular citizens from less privileged backgrounds, especially children, were welcomed time and again to special events and to help with Mrs. Obama’s signature mission: helping children become healthier. Kids from a local school came regularly to tend to the giant fruit and vegetable garden initiated by the First Lady. They were able to enjoy the fruits of their labors quite literally with dishes made from the produce they harvested.

The crucible of political life was not always kind to the Obamas. Too often, mean-spirited antagonists criticized their looks, clothes, or gestures, looking for ways to cast them as “other” and not quite American. Even their teenage daughters were criticized for rightly finding the whole presidential Thanksgiving “turkey pardon” ludicrous.  Through it all, though, Michelle Obama kept her dignity and hope, reminding herself that the majority of Americans she had met in her life were good and compassionate people.

Reading Becoming made me nostalgic for a truly kindler and gentler administration. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the Obamas to relinquish the White House to the hateful man who had spent years questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and had campaigned on a divisive, racist platform.

Still, I will take a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook and choose to be hopeful. I will choose to believe, as she clearly does, that we are all still in the process of becoming – hopefully, becoming better people bringing a better world for our children.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.

Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian World

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Eggers-Simon-Atwood_CSLA2017_JustinBarbin-700x477At last week’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event in Chicago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s writing was described as “speculative fiction,” as opposed to science fiction. That distinction is an important one. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic worlds are terrifying precisely because they could actually come into being.

I have been reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction since the late Eighties, when I was introduced to her novel Cat’s Eye in a book club. Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale, however, launched her into both the public eye and the world of dystopian fiction. A book as darkly prescient as the classic 1984 and Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale imagines America as a repressive Biblical theocracy in which women are reduced to their role as bearer of children, more incubators than mothers.

With the increasing erosion of women’s reproductive rights and Trump’s recent directives concerning contraceptive coverage in health insurance, it’s frightening to see how the religious right has influenced government policy to the detriment of women’s freedoms. Yet the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale resemble women in repressive Islamic regimes as much as anything, which makes a pointed statement about the dangers of mingling church and state.

Atwood’s more recent fiction includes the MaddAddam trilogy, a glimpse into a pre- and post-apocalyptic world in which global warming has made the Earth a merciless oven, a madman has wiped out most of the world’s population with a virus, and our obsession with technology has created real world, violent “painballers,” genetically modified pigs with cunning human brains, and drones that spy on citizens.

In The Heart Goes Last, civilization has almost completely broken down, and people take refuge in a corporate nightmare where they reside in a prison for half of their time and a controlled, monitored “town” for the other half. I won’t reveal the meaning of the title, but it’s not pretty. Once again, Atwood zeroes in on our autocratic tendencies, the dangers of uncontrolled corporate greed, and our obsession with mass incarceration of our citizens.

Yes, the world painted by Margaret Atwood is surely a scary one. But there is a dark humor in her writing that make her novels so enjoyable to read even as they are scaring the bejesus out of us. Atwood, who appeared at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event as an award recipient, is a sly, funny, and acerbic woman. As much as I dread the world her dark intellect conjures, I can’t wait to read her next masterful novel.

Back to School Reading

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As kids head back into classrooms, they will undoubtedly be given plenty of reading assignments as well as suggestions for educational and wholesome titles to read on their own. But I’d like to recommend some slightly edgier children’s literature that will appeal to kids’ more devilish, irreverent side.

Everyone is familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic misbehaving kid, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. But there are plenty of other literary children who give adults – and readers – a run for their money. Even the youngest of preschoolers will appreciate the high jinks of the title character in David Shannon’s David series. Starting with No, David, Shannon portrays a high-spirited toddler who is perpetually getting in trouble. With minimal words, Shannon shows kids that they are loved no matter how exasperating they may be to their parents. Another less than perfect preschooler for young ones to relate to is Kevin Henckes’ Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse fame. In a series of picture books, Lilly learns about boundaries and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

But the queen of high-maintenance children has to be the irrepressible piglet Olivia, the creation of artist Ian Falconer. Olivia’s mother is continually sighing to her eldest, “You wear me out” while Olivia tries the patience of not only her parents but her beleaguered teacher. Being the mother of an Olivia myself, I’ve really appreciated reading about the challenges of her precocious literary doppelgänger.

Slightly older children will love the Miss Nelson books by Harry Allard. In Miss Nelson Is Back, the sweet Miss Nelson’s absence inspires her students to act up – until her alter ego, Viola Swamp, shows up. “The Swamp” also makes an appearance in Allard’s other Miss Nelson books, always as the perfect antidote to naughty behavior.

School age kids also have plenty of inappropriately funny literature to choose from. One of my son’s favorites was the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is a seriously underrated children’s author because he writes comic books about two best friends making their way through elementary school while being the bane of their principal’s existence. Of course, the presence of a superhero in “tighty whities” doesn’t help (or hurt!).

Another author who creates school-themed havoc in his books is Louis Sachar with his Wayside School series. Crazy antics and strange teachers abound in this school that extends vertically rather than horizontally. Sachar has also written numerous books for middle school children, most notably the Newberry- and National Book Award-winning Holes, in which troubled kids get sent to an ominous place called Camp Green Lake.

For generations, some of the best children’s authors have recognized that there is a dark side to the world of childhood. From violence-tinged nursery rhymes to the original very Grimm fairy tales, children’s literature gives voice to many childhood issues and fears. A master of that kind of literature was the great Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sanitized in the Seventies with the movie Willy Wonka. Dahl’s young characters are relentlessly plagued by mean or downright evil adults, even witches. Their heroic efforts to escape are a regular theme of his works.

More recently, Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler) has created a world of peril for the Baudelaire orphans, rich children whose guardian, Count Olaf, constantly schemes to get his hands on their inheritance. And of course, it goes without saying that the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are destined to become classics.

Sure, there are many inspiring works about good and wholesome children for our kids to read, among them Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But for a change of pace, these slightly more jaundiced or sometimes harrowing views of childhood can be fun to explore. And in their own ways, they can teach kids valuable life lessons.

 

 

Class Act

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I just finished the hilarious Kevin Kwan trilogy that began with Crazy Rich Asians and ended with Rich People Problems. In the satirical series, all kinds of filthy rich people jockey for social standing and look down their noses at others who might have billions but lack class.

There are the old money Singaporeans who disdain vulgar displays of wealth such as gaudy jewels, Rolls Royces, or opulent ball gowns. This old guard is considered the creme de la creme of society. Then there are the nouveau riche billionaires from mainland China, some of whom don’t care at all what others think of them while others spend billions of dollars searching for acceptance into the upper stratosphere.

Class consciousness has been part of all societies for millennia, even the so-called egalitarian country in which I reside, the United States. Having money is part of that equation, but how one acts in public, one’s manners, and one’s taste in everything from fashion to art to wine often determine one’s social standing.

The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy humorously skewers social climbers whose atrocious behavior belies their desire to be thought well of in society. Their religious and philanthropic activities are not genuine but come from an effort to position themselves among the “right” sorts of people. Without giving away any spoilers, I enjoyed the comeuppance many of these phony strivers receive by the end of Rich People Problems.

In his novels, though, Kwan shows that real class has no socio-economic boundaries. His main characters, Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young, are level-headed, intelligent, warm, and caring people whose views of others and themselves stem not from how much money or possessions someone has, but from how that person treats others. Rachel, the daughter of a single mother, has never known great wealth, yet she is rich in family and relationships that sustain her. Nick, born into the utmost wealth and privilege, is mystified when his family turns up their nose at his “common” girlfriend, Rachel. To Nick, Rachel has far more class than most of his well-bred, English-educated family will ever have.

Like other great satires, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and its sequels expose the hypocrisy behind people’s efforts to think of themselves as better than others. He proves that true class cannot be bought or bred into us, but that it comes from an intelligent and open-hearted effort to view individuals according to their innermost merits, not their stock portfolio or the family into which they were born.

 

Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.