Beyond the Bestseller–The Answer to a Book Lover’s Dilemma

My recent purchases

I’m always reading novels, memoirs, or essay collections, sometimes two books at once. Given my love of reading, it seems odd that in recent years I’ve had trouble finding books that I really enjoy.

My tastes have changed. Since 2016, I often have wanted to step back from the real world and put my brain on the rinse cycle for a few hours. Unfortunately for me, some of the books that attract critical acclaim often are challenging to read.

The stories may portray truly awful events (slavery, abuse, war crimes) so vividly that reading them leaves me drained, not recharged. Other stories feature antihero characters who are so unlikable that I don’t want to spend a week with them. Or the author may be experimenting with narrative techniques that are intellectually interesting but not emotionally satisfying.

I want escape, but not just any escape. I’m not looking for syrupy sweet, happily-ever-after novels. Instead, I prefer a believable, involving story, one in which the characters are likable or interesting enough that I can engage emotionally and care about their plight.

Finding good books has gotten harder. Zillions of books are published every year. Amazon has millions of them. The public library has thousands. So what’s the big deal?

I’ve realized that my habit of reading with Kindle (whether purchased books or books checked out from the library) has stunted my reading list. In both cases, the recommendation and search algorithms are pretty rudimentary. Just finished a novel about the Holocaust? The library’s app and Amazon’s will suggest three more Holocaust novels. Wait, noooo!

The problem is compounded by the way book marketing and promotion works. During any given month, only 20-30 books are being touted, and the same ones appear on everyone’s bestseller lists and in numerous articles with titles like, “Best Books of 2018” or “This Summer’s 10 Must-Read Books.” Obviously, there are way more than 30 new books out there!  So how can I find them?

An aha moment. Duh. At bookstores. Where they have actual books. Made of paper. Recently, I visited Magers & Quinn and quickly found several good books by award-winning writers and added more to my “Want to Read” list. The books I chose are considered to be “midlist” (which is publisher-speak for a well-written book that is not a bestseller), so none of them were mentioned in any of the reviews or blogs I consult.

What a relief! The books are out there, but I’ve been looking in the wrong places!

If you’re curious, here are three really enjoyable books I purchased recently–The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, and I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows.

 

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Looking for a Pretty Good Book?

The BookLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What attracted me? I loved her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng writes skillfully about troubled family dynamics and the subtleties of racial tension—themes that appeared in her first book. That book balances the central mystery (How and why did 16-year-old Lydia Lee die?) with character studies of her family members and boyfriend. Ng’s writing is insightful and poetic.

For me, there was the added bonus of learning about Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned community in northeastern Ohio. Although I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, at the western edge of Lake Erie, I know very little about the Cleveland area.

The premise? Little Fires Everywhere also opens with a mystery. The Richardson house, home to well-to-do parents Elena and Bill Richardson and their four teenaged kids: Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy, has been nearly demolished by fire, but no one was hurt. The family is fairly sure that rebellious Izzy set the fire, so the question is why. While Elena is watching her house smolder, her starving artist tenant, Mia Warren, and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, abruptly leave the small house Elena had rented to them.

What appealed to me? Ng does an excellent job of re-creating the idealistic, but claustrophobic, culture of Shaker Heights in the 1990s, a pre-digital age. Pagers were more common than cell phones and research was done the hard way—without the Internet—a fact that allows Mia to pull up stakes and move without a trace every 10-12 months in pursuit of Mia’s art.

Because she’s always lived a vagabond lifestyle, Pearl relishes being swept into the lives of the Richardson kids. None of the kids is aware of how Pearl interacts with the other siblings, which heightens family tensions.

Privilege and class undermine the relationships. Elena, intending to be generous, bullies Mia into cleaning house for the Richardsons, in addition to her job at a Chinese restaurant. Lexie gives Mia castoff clothes, which Pearl is happy to have, but Mia resents.

Race becomes a central issue when Mia’s friend and coworker Bebe, an impoverished Chinese immigrant, seeks to regain custody of her daughter Mei Ling, who has been adopted by the Richardson’s wealthy, childless white friends.

Much good material. But despite intriguing characters and set-up, the book strained credibility. Even allowing for being set in a pre-digital age, could Mia really disappear so completely every year or so? While the Richardson kids are more than character sketches, none of them feels fully realized. Interestingly, Izzy, who sets the novel in motion, is the least developed.

Sometimes in her effort to contrast Elena and Mia, along with the life choices they’ve made, Ng drifts into stereotyping. The book is a pretty good read but not as believable or affecting as Everything I Never Told You.

What books do YOU recommend?

Looking for a Good Book?

WordSisters is adding a new feature—a completely idiosyncratic mini book review/recommendation that will appear every now and then.

The bookThere Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

What attracted me? I’ve read several of Mary Gordon’s novels (The Company of Women, Final Payments) and think she’s a good writer, but I haven’t read anything of hers lately, so I was curious. Also I was pretty sure that Mary Gordon wouldn’t have written a romance novel, which is sort of what the title sounds like—a bit of misdirection.

The premise – When Marian, a woman in her nineties, is diagnosed with cancer, she shares her secret past with her granddaughter, Amelia. Marian is closer to Amelia than any of her other relatives, and Amelia is caring for Marian while she sorts out her life after college.

Amelia envisions that the secret past she is about to discover will be quaint and charming, perhaps involving flapper dresses and smoking. Instead, she learns her grandmother volunteered as an ambulance driver and nurse during the Spanish Civil War along with her idealistic Communist Party friends. Marian’s time in Spain has far-reaching consequences, which affect Amelia.

What appealed to me – Marian and Amelia are likable characters, and I liked the idea of their close connection. Marian’s story dominates the book and her reactions are often surprising, which made her more interesting. Amelia is less well developed but still a believable character (Gordon could have done more with her), has her own coming-of-age moment.

The plot takes some unexpected turns (that’s good), and I learned a lot about the history and politics in Spain that resulted in the atrocities perpetrated by Franco’s fascist forces as well as those committed by the resistance fighters. Aside from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War, so Gordon’s novel illuminated that time for me.

What books do YOU recommend?

Keep a Book Journal? Um, Not So Much

I have loved to read since I was in grade school—more than 50 years ago. In the intervening time I’ve gobbled up a lot books. I slowed down while my sons were growing up, but now I can read as much as I like. So much so, that I consciously limit my book intake so I can fit in all of the other things I want to do. Nonetheless, I average about four books per month. Until recently, I never kept a book journal or list of what I’ve read.

Why not? Laziness, mostly. Making a list or creating a system of tracking what I read seemed like homework. Besides, aside from me, who cares what I read? If anything, keeping a list might make me feel vaguely guilty about all that reading . . . when I could be doing something more virtuous and less fun like training for a marathon (oh wait, I’m not a runner).

Learning that Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel never caught on to using Goodreads made me feel better. I’m a Goodreads dropout too (my apologies to the dozen people who follow me).

Her article about book journals describes the various ways avid readers approach book journals. Some people record the title, author, and date the book was read to keep from accidentally repeating a book or for a sense of accomplishment. Others rate the books. The article also mentioned that a few particularly organized readers develop Excel spreadsheets—that’s so not me!

That’s why I’m surprised that in the last two years, I’ve begun making a few notes about my reading. It began as a list of books I want to read, culled from book reviews and book blogs. I’d jot my list in Notes on my phone. But after I read the book, I didn’t always delete the title (re: laziness) so the list began to grow.

My process is still hit or miss, but sometimes I add a gold star next to titles I loved in case anyone wants a recommendation. I’ll put a + next to pretty good books, +~ next to books that were good but didn’t quite work, and a ~ for so-so books. Books that I actively disliked or abandoned get a NOT symbol or a minus (these days, I’ll desert a book if I don’t love it after 50-75 pages—life’s too short). When I’m underwhelmed by a book, I occasionally jot a brief note about it, especially if I’m trying to understand why I didn’t like something that was critically acclaimed.

 

Book notes

Reading is the real pleasure. Some people enjoy making scrapbooks of their experiences or photo albums of their travels. The process enhances their enjoyment. I don’t do either one. For me, the fun is stepping into another world, a different time, or an unfamiliar culture. Getting caught up in a story. Unlike real life, I have no responsibility for the characters and no ability to intervene in their dramas. I’m just along for the ride. The experience is enough.

However, if you ever want a recommendation or my opinion, just ask—I might have a note!

You Are Invited! Finding Your Bones: Speaking the Truth with Prose, Poetry, and Spoken Word

405September 30th, 7pm at Loft Literary Center, 1011 S Washington Ave, Minneapolis, MN

Celebrate the publication of House of Fire: A Story of Love, Courage, and Transformation, a touching and provocative memoir from author, educator, and incest survivor Elizabeth di Grazia. Elizabeth will be joined by award-winning writers Christine Stark, R. Vincent Muniz Jr., and Keno Evol for a powerful evening of stories of survival, transformational poetry, and bare bones honesty. A wine and appetizer book signing reception will follow the readings.

Participant Bios

Elizabeth di Grazia is the author of House of Fire: A Story of Love, Courage, and Transformation, a memoir about her triumph over neglect, incest, and childhood trauma. Recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant and participant in the Minnesota Loft Mentor Series, she is a founder of WordSisters, a shared blog (wordsisters.wordpress.com). Her work has been anthologized in Illness and Grace/Terror and Transformation and Families: Front Line of Pluralism. She has published prose in Adoptive Families Magazine, Minnesota Parent, Adagio Verse Quarterly, Edge Life, and elsewhere.

Christine Stark

Writer, visual artist, and organizer, Christine Stark’s first novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her writing has appeared in periodicals and books, including Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prize-Winning Essays; When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience; The Florida Review, and many others. A Loft Mentor Series winner, Chris is currently completing her second novel and conducting research for a non-fiction book.

Keno Evol

Keno Evol is a blogger for Revolution News, an international group of independent journalists, photographers, artists, translators, and activists reporting on international news with a focus on human rights. Poet, essayist, spoken word performer, and educator, Keno is the board chair of the Youth Advisory Board for TruArtSpeaks ,a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating literacy, leadership and social justice through Hip Hop. His work has been published in Poetry Behind the Walls, Gazillion Voices Magazine, Black Girl In Om, and elsewhere.

Vincent Moniz Jr

An active force in the Twin Cities artistic community, R. Vincent Moniz Jr. has received numerous literary awards and fellowships for his writing and live performances. Reigning champion for the Two River Memorial Indigenous Spoken Word SLAM World competition, he has performed spoken word at Equilibrium: Spoken Word at the Loft, Intermedia Arts, Pangea World Theater, and elsewhere. An enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes located within North Dakota on Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation, he was raised in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis.

I HOPE YOU CAN JOIN US!

Other events coming up are Barnes and Noble, Maple Grove book signing on August 13th, 1-3pm, and with Su Smallen at Hamline University, Kay Fredericks Ballroom, October 21, 7pm.