Musings From A Bookmammal


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Monday Musings–My Favorite Fiction of 2014

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Click here to play along!

Musing Mondays is a weekly meme hosted by MizB that asks you to muse about one of several “bookish” questions… or you can just ramble on about anything you like that pertains to books! You can join in by clicking the graphic above. Go ahead–it’s fun!

Here’s my musing for this week–

Where did 2014 go? I can’t believe that today is the first day of the last month of the year. I’ve had a great reading year, and today I decided to reflect on my favorite fiction titles from the past eleven months (I’ve read a total 0f 98 books so far this year, and 43 of them have been fiction. My top nonfiction titles will get their own Monday Musing post later this month!).

The ten novels below are all books that stayed with me long after I finished the last page, and all are books that I recommended to others during the year. Ready? Here we go—in order of when I finished each title:

tell the wolves i'm homeI started Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt at least twice during 2013, but I never got beyond the first couple of chapters. For some reason I just couldn’t get into the story. But this novel continued to show up on “Best Of . . .” lists, so I decided to give it another try. I have no idea what made the difference, but this time I couldn’t put it down.

This novel is set during 1987. The main character is a 14-year old girl who, along with the rest of her family, is dealing with the recent death of her uncle from AIDS. She forms a secret friendship with her late uncle’s lover and, in doing so, learns to process her feelings of grief, while also starting to come to terms with her changing relationships with her parents and older sister.

This is really a beautiful book, and I can’t believe it took me so long to realize it. It captures the essence of the mid-to-late 1980s very well—and it vividly brings back the fear and ignorance that surrounded us during those early, frightening years of the AIDS crisis. It paints a great picture of those teen years when you’re trying to figure out where you fit in, or if you even want to fit in. It’s also a very moving story of working through loss. (Finished January 11, 2014)

sisterlandI liked Sisterland a lot more than I thought I would. I’d put off reading it because, although I’ve enjoyed other books by author Curtis Sittenfeld in the past, the subject matter of this book initially didn’t appeal to me. It’s billed as the story of two twin sisters who share a psychic ability–the ability to predict the future by listening to their special “senses”. I’m usually not into books dealing with any sort of paranormal activity (I guess I’m too much of a natural skeptic!) so I wasn’t in any rush to read this book. But once I decided to give it a try I found that this book is about so much more than psychic ability–it’s about family, loyalty, marriage, parenthood, betrayal, forgiving–and although the “senses” of the twin sisters do play a big role in the story, it wasn’t an overbearing plot point for me. (Finished February 11, 2014)

book of unknown americansI absolutely LOVED The Book Of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. It’s a novel about immigration, assimilation, staying true to your roots, family, unconditional love, friendship, and what we will endure to benefit those we care for. The story is told through multiple viewpoints, which is always a selling point for me, and I thought Henriquez did a great job of capturing the different voices of the characters throughout the book. I don’t understand why this book didn’t get more press—but this is one of those novels that I wanted to hand out to total strangers on street corners. (Finished June 12, 2014)

The Vacationers by Emma Straub was definitely one of this summer’s hot beach reads. Taking place over a two week period, this novel tells the story of an American family’s vacation to the island of Mallorca. The trip should be an escape from the tensions that are brewing at home in NYC, but the family finds that they can’t escape secrets, rivalries, and conflicts. The novel is made up of fourteen chapters—one for each day of the vacation—and the author does a great job of portraying the ebb and flow of the emotions of a close-knit group of people who are forced to spend most of each day together, and who find that they may not know each other as well as they assumed. I found this novel to be a relatively quick read, but also completely absorbing—and I just love the cover! (Finished July 18, 2014)

everything i never told youEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng takes place in Ohio in the 1970s and tells the story of a middle-class Chinese-American family, their relationships with each other, and how they cope with the sudden death of the middle daughter and the uncertainty regarding the cause of this death. This novel really recreates the time period well—a time when mixed marriages were an oddity and when racism was much more blatant in mid-America than it is today. Moving back and forth between the present and the past, and back and forth between the point of view of the five family members, this is a very moving story that makes the reader wonder how well we really know the ones we love. I was still thinking about the characters long after I finished the book– a sign of powerful writing. (Finished August 3, 2014)

still life with breadcrumbsAnna Quindlen is one of my “automatic authors”—I’ll read anything she writes. I adore her collections of essays—I often feel that she’s speaking directly to me–and her last novel, Every Last One, is one of the best books I’ve read in the past several years.

I really didn’t know much about the plot of this novel, and I think that’s the best way to go into it—part of the appeal of this book was that I really had no idea where the characters were headed. It tells the story of Rebecca Winter, a sixty-year-old photographer who experienced huge artistic success in her past. For various reasons, she decides to spend some time in a rental house in a small town near her NYC home-base. She forms relationships with her new neighbors and we also learn about her relationships with her elderly parents, her ex-husband, and her adult son.

It seems to me that Anna Quindlen found a new voice when crafting this novel—the narrative is unlike any of her others. The chapters—some only a few paragraphs or a page or two, many longer–move fluidly back and forth between the main characters and pivotal events. There was a lot of very subtle humor woven throughout, and I quickly decided that this was a book I really needed to savor in order to appreciate the writing. I felt invested in what happened to every character, and the dialogue rang true—which is always a deal-breaker for me. And when I got to the end, I immediately thought “I wonder what’s going to happen next!” (Finished August 16, 2014)

big little liesBig Little Lies by Liane Moriarty     The setting of this novel is an elementary school, and I usually enjoy reading novels taking place in any kind of academic setting—fortunately this book was no exception! At the beginning of the book we learn that a death has occurred during a school-sponsored event, but we don’t know who has died or what the circumstances were. As the book progresses we learn more and more about the parents involved, their children, and the secrets that are being kept from various family members and friends. Another great book covering the theme of how well we really know our friends and family. (Finished September 7, 2014)

paying guestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is an incredible novel. I found myself hiding away during my lunch hours at work to get in another chapter or two, and I even found myself reading at stoplights on a few occasions (I am NOT KIDDING!). I was completely immersed in the plot and the characters, and I found myself wondering over and over how Waters was going to resolve everything that was happening.

I completely agree with most other reviewers who say that it’s best not to share too much of the plot, so I’ll just say that this psychological thriller takes place in post WWI London. A young women and her widowed mother are forced to take in boarders (“paying guests”) for financial reasons, so they rent the upstairs of their home to a newly married couple . . . and drama and passion of all kinds ensues.

This novel weighs in at over 500 pages, but it seemed like a pretty quick read to me. I never felt bogged down with the plot or the characters, and the Waters did an excellent job of making me feel as though I was living the day-to-day life of a young women in early 1920s London. (Finished October 3, 2014)

 some luckThe premise of Some Luck by Jane Smiley was really intriguing to me—it’s the first book in what will be a trilogy spanning 100 years in the life of an Iowa farm family. This first book takes place from 1920-1953, and each chapter covers one year. Every chapter also contains the points of view from several members of the family–the husband and wife, their children (from birth into adulthood), and a few members of their extended family. As the chapters—and the years—progress, we experience the ebb and flow of their everyday lives, including births, deaths, marriages, the Depression, WWII, and many other events. I loved this book and thought it was a wonderful “slice of life” novel. I also really enjoyed the “one chapter for every year” technique because not everything that was happening to the characters was fully revealed–sometimes I had to “connect the dots” between chapters to figure out what had happened since a particular character was featured.

If you’re into stories that include big cliffhangers and huge, dramatic plot points, this may not be to your taste—but if you like a book that puts you right there beside the characters, I highly recommend it. And as a bonus, I just found out that the second book of this trilogy—Early Warning—is due to be published in May 2015. I can’t wait! (Finished October 9, 2014)

florence gordonFlorence Gordon by Brian Morton is a novel that seems to have slipped under the radar. It’s about 75-year-old Florence Gordon who lives in present-day NYC. She’s an author and a feminist icon, she’s brutally blunt with family, friends, and strangers alike, and she’s contemplating writing her memoirs. The book begins when her adult son,  his wife,  and his  college-age daughter return to New York after several years away—and Florence finds that as much as she wants to remain in solitude with her work, she becomes involved in the activities and issues that are surrounding her son and his family.

Florence was such a fascinating character to me! During the first ten pages of the book she abruptly walks out of a surprise party thrown in her honor, informing her friends and family that she’d much rather be home working at her desk. How can you not want to know more about the kind of person who can pull that off? And what a talented author Brian Morton is to be able to completely capture the personality of his main character is such a few pages!

There are over 100 chapters in this book, and they range from less than one page to a dozen pages or more. At first I thought that this would be distracting and that the technique would interrupt the narrative, but I very quickly got into the rhythm of Morton’s writing. I was thoroughly invested in each of the main characters and in the day-to-day flow of their lives—and the way that Morton chose to end the book was not at all what I was expecting. (Finished October 19, 2014)

How about you? Have you read any of these? What’s on your favorite fiction list this year? Please share!


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F is for FOUR FAVORITE FICTIONAL FEMALES–The April A-Z Challenge/Day 6

FWelcome to Day #6 of the April A to Z Challenge, where participants are challenged to create a post every day (except Sundays) corresponding to the appropriate letter of the alphabet. If you’d like to learn more, hit the badge on my sidebar.

I’ll be posting about bookish topics each day of the challenge. Here’s today’s post about some of my favorite fictional female characters in literature:

 

Like most booklovers, I have a collection of favorite fictional characters. They tend to be female, and they’re the ones I identify with the most–for a variety of reasons. Although I don’t necessarily agree with all of their (fictional) actions and opinions, they’re the ones I wish I knew in real life! Here are four of my favorites:

3932530I vividly remember reading Louise Fitshugh’s Harriet The Spy for the first time. I was in second grade, sick at home with the mumps, and my teacher brought me copy from the library to help keep me occupied. It’s one of the first chapter books I ever read on my own, and I was instantly intrigued by Harriet. I have no idea how many times I’ve read Harriet The Spy, but it’s a book that I re-read every year or so, even as an adult. Harriet wasn’t your typical female heroine back in the early 1970s, and she had a life very different from my own. She never wore a dress—she always wore blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. She lived in bustling New York City. Most of the parenting in the family was done by her nanny. She didn’t always behave. And best of all, she had a spy route and a notebook! Reading this novel inspired me to start keeping my own journal—a habit I continued for at least the next twenty years. I also had my own spy route for awhile, although, unlike Harriet, I never actually entered anyone’s home (or used their dumbwaiter!).

a tree grows in brooklynThe classic novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith is the first adult novel I remember reading—I think I was probably in sixth grade when I picked up my mom’s copy. I loved this coming of age novel, and I loved Francie Nolan. The main thing that Francie and I had in common was our love of books, although her day-to-day life was very different from my own—Francie grew up in the tenements of New York City with an alcoholic father who died young, and I remember being so fascinated with this account of one family’s life in the early 20th century. I also remember seeing the movie version of this book a few years after I read it and being so disappointed that the actress who played Francie just didn’t match up with the pictures I had inside my head!

NellNell St. John is the main character in a now out-of-print book by Nancy Thayer called (oddly enough) Nell. I loved this book when it was first published  in the late 1980s, and I still love it today. Nell is a divorced woman raising her kids near Nantucket, coping with everyday life and everyday dramas. She’s fairly unlucky in love, and she doesn’t always make the best decisions when it comes to relationships. From the first time I read this novel, I felt like Nell could be a friend– a good friend. I could picture myself reacting to her situations and problems in similar ways. I wanted to have her over for coffee! But here’s the odd part–I’ve never been divorced, I’ve never had kids, and I’ve never been to Nantucket! But something about this character connected with me on a very deep level, and that connection grows whenever I re-read it every couple of years. That’s great writing.

dive clausens pierThe Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer is one of those books that people seem to either love or hate. Very briefly, it’s the story of Carrie Bell, a young woman who is engaged to her high school sweetheart, and who eventually realizes that although she still cares for her fiancé, she’s suffocating and needs to get out of the relationship. Before she can make any moves to break off the engagement, her fiancé is left paralyzed due to a diving accident. The rest of the book deals with her choices—does she stay, or does she go? Should she think of her fiancé, or of herself? When people read this book, it seems as though they either totally connect with Carrie or they  absolutely can’t stand her. I’m in the first category—and it’s because of her flaws that I think I can identify with her so well. I know this character’s actions made me think about how far we should go to be true to ourselves, and how much we owe to the ones we love, or have loved. This is one of my favorite novels,  and Carrie is a character who has stuck in my head for many years.

How about you? Which fictional characters are your favorites? Which ones have stayed with you long after you’ve finished their books? Please share!


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The Tuesday Ten–Family Affairs

(This is my 100th post!)

People often ask me what types of books I like to read. The fact is, I read a lot of different genres—both fiction and nonfiction. But I do love to read novels, and if pressed to choose one type of novel that I enjoy the most, it would have to be contemporary, realistic, dramatic fiction about family relationships.

For this week’s Tuesday Ten, I’ve put together a list of my ten favorite books in this category. I own copies of all of these books and have read all of them more than once—there are a couple that I’ve probably read nearly ten times over the years. A few may be out of print (but definitely worth looking for at the library or in used bookstores!), and a couple are pretty recent. Most of them would be excellent book club discussion titles. Ready? In no particular order, here we go!

EveryLastOne1. I love Anna Quindlen’s essays. Her novels have been a little bit hit-and-miss for me. However, Every Last One, her most recent novel, is a book that packs a huge punch and has stayed with me for a long time. I’m not going to say too much about the plot because I don’t want to be a spoiler—briefly, it’s the story of a suburban family going through everyday rituals and routines, until one New Years’ Eve when everything changes. That’s all I’m going to say. If you admire writing that gets inside of you and won’t let go, read this book.

domestic pleasures2. I really like a lot of Beth Gutcheon’s novels, especially her older ones—it was tough to pick my favorite. But I finally decided to go with Domestic Pleasures, which was the first book by Gutcheon that I ever read. She wrote it about twenty years ago, but it remains the most authentic novel I’ve ever read about modern relationships. The dialogue in this book, whether it’s between lovers, parents and children, or estranged couples, is spot on—I can HEAR these characters in my head. As you make your way through this novel, Gutcheon’s skillful writing causes the many intertwined relationships throughout the storylines to become clearer and clearer. There are lines in this book that still make me laugh—and there are a couple of scenes that still break my heart. This is a wonderful book.

dive clausens pier3. I think that one of the marks of a great book is how much it makes us think and examine ourselves. The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer is a great book for just that reason. Very briefly, it’s the story of a young woman in the Midwest who is engaged to her high school sweetheart, and who, after college graduation, realizes that, although she still cares for her fiancé, she’s suffocating and needs to get out of the relationship. Before she can make any moves to break off the engagement, her fiancé is left paralyzed due to a diving accident. The rest of the book deals with choices—does she stay, or does she leave? Should she think of her fiancé, or of herself? I first read this novel as a book club selection, and it provoked very intense discussions when we met to talk about it. It seemed as though people either loved this book or hated it. I know that it really made me think about how far we should go to be true to ourselves, and how much we owe to the ones we love, or have loved. This is one of my favorite novels ever.

digging to america4. Anne Tyler is another author who I don’t always love—there are a few of her books that I’ve just never been able to get into. Digging To America isn’t one of them—I was hooked on these characters from the first chapter. It’s the story of two couples who are adopting baby girls from Korea—their new daughters are coming to Baltimore on the same flight, and the two adoptive couples (one American, one Iranian-American) and their extended families meet at the airport while waiting for their new children. The novel then traces the continuing relationships that these family members have with each other over the next several years. It’s a compelling story of different cultures, different parenting styles, and different customs—and it’s also a story about what it means to assimilate, and what it means to hold on to tradition.

american-wife5. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld got a lot of press when it came out in 2008—it’s widely known that the author based the plot on former First Lady Laura Bush’s life. However you may feel about Laura Bush and/or her husband, American Wife is a delicious family saga. Forever changed by her role in a tragedy that occurred during her teens, the main character is swept off her feet by a charming, wealthy son from a powerful political family, finds herself immersed in a world of privilege and drama—and eventually finds herself married to a man she simultaneously loves and disagrees with in terms of political agenda. This book really made me think about how much and what kinds of compromises are needed to make relationships work–and how much you can compromise while still staying true to yourself. This 500+ page book is perfect to sink into during these cold winter months!

family secrets6. This is the oldest novel on my list—Family Secrets was written by Rona Jaffe back in 1974. Trust me—this epic, multi-generational family saga still holds up today. Beginning in New York City in the early 1900s, it’s the story of a Jewish immigrant from Russia who eventually becomes a very  wealthy businessman. It’s also the story of his many children, their spouses, and their own children—and, most of all, it’s the story of the secrets they keep from outsiders, and from each other. You couldn’t ask for a better beach read, or a better book to take your mind off the cold, dreary days of winter!

the-pact-06-lg7. Jodi Picoult is one of my favorite authors, and The Pact is the book that started my appreciation for her writing. It’s the story of two families who have lived next door to each other for years—and the story of the son from one family and the daughter from the other who are basically destined to end up together. They’ve been soul mates since birth, and it’s no surprise to anyone when they begin dating. When they’re in high school, the daughter is found dead with the son beside her. He says it was a suicide pact that he just couldn’t complete. The police have their doubts about his role in her death. Told by alternating flashbacks with the current events, the book is partly a suspenseful detective story, partly the story of how families deal with tragedy and conflict, and partly how expectations affect us—and it’s also a story about how well we really know the ones we love.

perfect divorce8. Avery Corman wrote the novel Kramer Versus Kramer which was adapted into one of my favorite films. He’s also written several other novels and I’ve enjoyed almost all of them—but I think A Perfect Divorce is my favorite. The focus of the book is a New York City couple who find that they are gradually growing apart and eventually divorce, but stay amicably connected through their son. When their son goes off to college, he finds that his parents’ high expectations clash with his own uncertainties about his life, and he makes a series of decisions that rock his parents’ world. I think this book is a pretty accurate portrayal of parent/child relationships as well as a look at how parents and children need to balance expectations with healthy reality.

Songs for the missing9. I really like Stewart O’Nan and I wish his novels were more well-known. One of my favorites is Songs For The Missing. It’s the story of the summer that a college-aged girl disappears, and how the aftermath affects her family and friends—from the initial publicity of the disappearance, to the investigation of the details, to the struggle to maintain hope once the newspapers and TV stations move on to other stories. The narration of this story is unique in that some details are only partially explained, leaving us to fill in some of the blanks for ourselves. This is another novel that has stayed with me—I still find myself thinking about some of these characters, and that’s a sign of a great author.

this is my daughter10. Another great book club book, This Is My Daughter by Roxana Robinson tells the story of a man and woman living in NYC, both recovering from failed first marriages, who are struggling to raise young daughters, and who decide to take the plunge and create a new start and a new combined family. Their two daughters, of course, really have no say in the matter. This book promotes a lot of discussion about loyalty, compromise, and unconditional love.

Now it’s your turn! Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think? Are there any other books that you think could be added to my list? Please share!


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The Tuesday Ten— “Dear Book Lover . . .” —My Favorite Epistolary Novels

envelopesI’ve always been intrigued by authors who use the unique narrative format of the epistolary novel—telling the story through the use of fictional letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, emails, and other documents. For this week’s Tuesday Ten, I’ve put together a list of my nine favorite novels written using this technique—and one nonfiction book made up of letters that reads like a novel. (It’s my list, and I can break the rules if I want to, right?) I own copies of all of these and have read most of them many times. Some are recent, and a some were published decades ago. Ready? Here’s my list, in no particular order:

fan1. The Fan by Bob Randall

This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller brilliantly told through a series of letters, memos, telegrams (yes—telegrams!) and other correspondence. The main character is an aging (she would HATE being referred to as “aging!) Broadway star who begins receiving a series of innocent fan letters—letters that slowly turn more and more menacing as time goes on. The author does an excellent job of keeping the reader in suspense as police try to zero in on the writer of the letters before he can make actual personal contact with his target. Again, this is all brilliantly done through a narrative solely made up of notes and other fictional documents. If you like a great mystery with lots of twists, give this one a try!

woman of ind means2. A Woman of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey

Told mostly through letters from the main character—a headstrong and independent-minded woman born in the late 1800s—this novel tells not only the story of this woman’s life, but also the story of a changing America. Bess Steed Garner is portrayed as a woman who, from the very earliest of age, knows exactly what she wants—in love, in business, in leisure—and knows what she needs to do to get it. I didn’t always like this character, but I always admired her. This is not only an incredible character study, but also a wonderful portrait of everyday American life through the twentieth century. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough!

kevin3. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

This is one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read in a long time. Told through a series of letters from a woman to her estranged husband, it’s the story of her relationship with their teenaged son—who is also the murderer of nine students and staff members at his high school. It’s also the story of a woman who is wrestling with the idea that marriage and motherhood may have been a mistake for her from the beginning—and the idea that her feelings of actual dislike for her son may have driven him to commit the horrific crimes. I can’t say that this is an enjoyable read, but it is a compelling one.

84 CHaring Cross ROad4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

OK, OK . . .this one isn’t a novel—it’s nonfiction. I know it’s a series of real letters between a real writer in New York City and the real staff of a used bookstore in London during WWII. But I had to include it here because, honestly, it reads like a novel of the very best kind. If you’ve never read this book, you owe it to yourself to find a copy immediately. It’s short—less than 100 pages—but the characters come to life so vividly that you’ll think you’ve been reading about them for days. And if you’re a booklover, what’s better than reading a book about books and the people who cherish them? Trust me—read this book!

nothing but the truth5. Nothing But The Truth: A Documentary Novel by Avi

The only novel classified as Young Adult on my list, this book is still worthy of being read by an older audience. On the surface, it’s the story of a high school student who is suspended for humming the National Anthem during class and the publicity that results. On a deeper level, it’s the story of how subjective the truth can be. Told through letters, transcripts, and diary entries, this book was a Newbery Honor book in 1992 and is still taught in many classrooms today.

bernadette6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This is the newest book on this list. It made it onto countless “Best Book” lists in 2012 and just recently came out in paperback. The plot is tough to sum up—briefly, it’s the story of an admittedly eccentric woman who was once a world-famous architect, and who now lives a reclusive life in Seattle with her husband and precocious young daughter. After a series of stressful, meltdown-worthy events, she virtually disappears. The narrative is told through letters, emails, transcripts, receipts, and other documents and describes the events leading up to her disappearance as well as her daughter’s efforts to find her. It’s also a great satire about suburban parenting. I am definitely NOT doing the plot justice here—there’s a lot that goes on! I don’t laugh out loud when I’m reading very often, but parts of this book made me do just that. The ending goes off the rails a bit, but I’m willing to forgive the author for that because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much.

important artifacts7. Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton

Alright—this isn’t a novel made up of letters. But I’m including it anyway because it’s an excellent character study told through a narrative method I’ve never seen before. This book tells the story of a modern, fictional couple—from their first meeting, their first dates, their moving in together, and their breakup—all told through the pages of a (fictional) auction catalog of their personal possessions. Photos and brief descriptions of their clothing, books, knickknacks, handbag contents, photos, and other possessions create one of the most vivid portraits of two characters that I’ve ever read. Readers are left to decide for themselves why these items were placed on auction, and what happened to the original owners. I can’t say this loudly enough—I LOVE THIS BOOK. When I read it for the first time I made a complete pest of myself telling everyone I knew about it. Now I’m telling all of you—if you’ve never read this book, please hunt it down–you’re in for a unique treat!

up the down staircase8. Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

I’ve probably read this book a dozen times. It’s the classic, bestselling novel about a young high school English teacher in 1960s New York City, and the students and staff members who share her world. Are a lot of the references dated? Of course—it was written almost fifty years ago. Is the story still relevant? As a former high school teacher, I can say a resounding YES! The novel is made up of notes, letters, memos, student notebooks, assignments, and much more correspondence that occurs in a typical high school. Parts are laugh out loud funny, and parts are heartbreaking. You may have seen the movie of this book starring a very young Sandy Dennis and an equally young Richard Benjamin—the movie was fine, but it can’t compare with the book. I still use one of the phrases from this book on a regular basis when confronted with contradictory communications at my office—“Please disregard the following. . .”

whitel lies9. White Lies by Jonellen Heckler

I bought this book on a whim many years ago when I was a member of one of those “Book-Of-The-Month” clubs—and I loved it! It’s the story of three sisters and the directions their lives take over the course of about 20 years. The chapters alternate between the sisters—each chapter contains letters to and from that particular sister over a one-year period. As we read, we learn what the sisters are willing to reveal and to whom, and what they feel they need to hide about their lives. It’s a fascinating look at family relationships. I’m pretty sure this book has gone out of print, but if you enjoy a great, juicy, contemporary family saga told in a unique way, it’s worth searching for a used copy.

frankie pratt10. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel In Pictures by Caroline Preston

Another book that isn’t strictly made up of letters, this novel tells the story of an American girl in the 1920s through her college years, her post-graduation life in New York City, her travels in Paris, and her return home. The entire plot is vividly told through a fictional scrapbook consisting of photos, captions, notes, newsclippings, ads, postcards, trinkets, ticket stubs, etc. This book provides a great trip through life in the 1920s, and looking at all of the vintage memorabilia is fascinating.

Now it’s your turn! Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think? Are there any other books that you feel should be included on this list? Please share!


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Nonfiction November–Fiction and Nonfiction Partners!

become the expert

Throughout the month of November, Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness and Leslie from Regular Rumination are hosting a series of excellent posts promoting all things nonfiction. The topic of this week’s post prompt is:

Come up with a nonfiction book to pair with a fiction book. So, if you like [FICTION BOOK], then you should absolutely read [NONFICTION BOOK]!

(Please click on the graphic to find all the great  posts by other bloggers who accepted this challenge–or to add your own!) 

I found this to be a very challenging exercise-but also a very fun one! I was able to come up with several pairings covering a variety of topics–and even one triple! Ready? Here are my Fiction/Nonfiction sets:

 henry-and-clara booth-novel-david-robertson-paperback-cover-art   day lincoln was shot

Henry and Clara: a Novel by Thomas Mallon

Booth: A Novel by David Robertson

The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop

We all know the basic story behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—but the two novels I’m listing here provide a couple of different takes on the topic. The first one blends fact with fiction to recreate the truly heartbreaking story of the couple—who were also stepbrother and stepsister–who accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theater that night. I think that this fictionalized account of the events of that evening and its aftermath rivals any tragic modern romance.

The second novel tells the story of the assassination from the point of view of John Surratt, who knew John Wilkes Booth and was involved to some degree—still a controversy today—with the plot to kill Lincoln.

There are any number of nonfiction books about Lincoln’s assassination, but I’ve chosen to pair these novels with the classic The Day Lincoln Was Shot because it was one of the first nonfiction books to use the hour-by-hour, nearly minute-by-minute method of describing historical events. It’s also one of the first adult nonfiction books I ever read, and it was one of the books that forever hooked me on reading nonfiction.

charlottes-web  story of charlottes web

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims

I know I’m not alone in my love for Charlotte, Wilbur, Fern, and the rest of the wonderful characters from this classic children’s book—which, of course, isn’t just for children at all. The nonfiction book I’m pairing with it is so much more than a biography of the author—it  traces his fascinating research into the lives of spiders and the painstaking work he did to make sure that everything—and I mean EVERYTHING–included in Charlotte’s Web was exactly right. If you loved the world of this book as a child, you’ll definitely appreciate the background provided here on how that world was created.

grapes of wrath  worst hard time

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

I can still remember reading The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. (If you’ve only seen the movie, you MUST read the book–there is absolutely no comparison!) I read this epic novel in the late spring during my first year of teaching, and I can vividly recall grading papers and completing lesson plans at night—and then staying up way too late making my way to California with the Joads. I was pretty obsessed with this novel for quite awhile. My nonfiction partner—a National Book Award winner—takes a different view of this period of American history. It tells the stories of the people who opted to remain in their homes during the Dust Bowl. I’ll admit that I haven’t read this book yet—it’s been sitting on my TBR pile for several months—but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and I’m hoping to dive into it soon.

last night at the lobsterNickel

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

This novel takes place during one final shift at a restaurant that will be permanently closing its doors at the end of the night. Told from the point of view of the restaurant’s manager, it’s the ideal complement to Ehrenriech’s nonfiction book about minimum wage workers in America. I’m a big fan of Barbara Ehrenreich’s books, and I also think that Stewart O’Nan is one of today’s most underrated novelists—so these two books are a natural pair.

little house big woods  wilder life

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve read the Little House series of books—but Wendy McClure takes her love of these beloved children’s novels to a whole new level. Her book traces her quest to visit all of the key places and landmarks mentioned in the series, as well as her attempts to immerse herself in all things “Little House”, such as learning to churn butter and twist hay sticks. I love this author’s writing voice—she writes humorously yet informatively about her journey to connect with Laura and the rest of the Ingalls family. It also includes a lot of interesting information about the “real” Laura that you won’t read in the Little House books. If you ever dreamed of having a best friend like Laura, you’ll love the chance to reconnect with those Little House days in The Wilder Life.

How about you? Have you read any of these books? Are there any fiction/nonfiction pairings that you’d like to share? I’d love to read your thoughts! And don’t forget to click on the graphic above to join in the Nonfiction November fun!