September-October 2020 Book Marks
In the early days of the pandemic, I imagined myself reading books in great quantities, the way I seem to be ingesting Swedish fish. Reader, I was wrong.
All of my great ideas and intentions around creative projects never really got any lift. The paints and canvas I bought are still in a crate. The book I’m trying to write felt more like self-flagellation, ala “The Scarlet Letter’s” Reverend Dimsdale in the closet with the whip. The creativity and attention span weren’t there for me. Workdays glued to video conferences, frozen screens and speakers interrupting one another’s sentences left me drained.
The only thing that has prospered during these months has been my garden. And in that little green space I took pleasure in cutting dahlias, snipping chives and sage, pinching basil and trimming kale. I grew broccoli and cauliflower (never again, too much plant for too little output) green scallions and lettuce that kept us in salads through August. The tomatoes are still coming, all sizes and colors, although some nocturnal monster chomps a few bites out of one each night and discards it like a giant insult. But in the end, you can’t claim total satisfaction until you’ve fed your family and friends from the composted garden soil land of last year’s table scraps and yard waste.
Getting absorbed in a good book is right up there with gardening. A tale told well is its own reward. Hopefully you’ll find something of interest in this selection of new books from September and October.
And please vote. As dispiriting as this election may feel, as vitriolic as the rhetoric gets – it’s a right that Americans have fought and died defending throughout the history of our country. Go use your voice and make it count.
Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman
Great news for fans of the iconic book “Practical ” which ignited a renewed craze in magic and witches… Alice Hoffman has delivered the long-awaited prequel. At last we have answers to important questions about the origins and bloodlines of the famous Owen sisters that go back to 1600’s England. Their ancestor Maria is abandoned in a field as a baby and rescued by Hannah Owens. She recognizes the girl has a gift and begins to teach her the “Nameless Art.” Among the spells and conjurings, Maria learns the most important lesson…”Love someone who will love you back.” But when the man she loves betrays her, she follows him to Salem, Massachusetts and invokes a curse that will haunt her family well into the future. With her own incredible and magical brand of storytelling, Hoffman gives us yet another entertaining tale and hopefully another movie!
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Amanda and Clay drive their two children to a summer rental house in a remote part of Long Island to begin their much anticipated vacation out of New York City. The house is a luxurious cocoon and just as they are beginning to unwind, an elderly couple knocks at the door one evening. Claiming to be the home’s owners, they are in a panic, claiming to have fled the city after a massive black-out has plunged it into darkness.
With all communication down and no way to verify this on TV or the internet, Clay and Amanda finally agree to let them take shelter. The events happening out in the greater world force both couples to examine how bonds are shaped and strengthened in times of crisis. What happens next is a study in parenthood, race, class and the assumptions and grace that come with being human.
“Gloss” was the hottest girl band in the 80’s, think Spice Girls, complete with nicknames and spandex. Now add some pop music, drama, cult-like status and fans screaming at the concert door. Sassy Cassy, a girl from Texas with a set of pipes, was always seen as the group’s beating heart. Her rise to stardom and relationships with band members Rose, Merry, and Yumi is full of secrets and confidences that end with the band’s implosion in 2002. When news breaks that Cassy has died by suicide, the girls wonder what they could have done to help. If you are a fan of “Daisy Jones & the Six,” you’ll enjoy this fast-moving tale told from multiple perspectives and over different timelines. Lurking underneath the story is the darker tale of how pop icons rise and fall under the boot heel of the music industry’s profit machine.
Monogamy by Sue Miller
I’ve long been a fan of Sue Miller’s writing. She creates stories the way Irish grannies knit cable sweaters, slow and satisfying, constructing her character-driven plots stich by stitch. Monogamy is one such carefully constructed novel where the internal workings of the main characters, Annie and Graham, and the ebb and flow of their marriage is told both in the present and in flashbacks. Miller is able to nail those intersections of moments in a marriage where we both lean in and sometimes gaze out. Annie is a photographer who hasn’t quite fulfilled the potential she imagined in her younger years when she first met Graham, a bookstore owner in Cambridge. His first wife Freida had left him with their young son, unprepared for the emotional reality of their “open marriage” during the free-love era. Miller begins the story in the later years of Graham and Annie’s marriage, their daughter Sara grown and living in CA. They are in a comfortable groove, each settled into the back end of their lives together and ostensibly content. Graham, a large man with large appetites, is in the process of facing a hard, unflattering truth about himself, which will leave Annie unmoored and questioning her past. If you like books that move in a gentle pace but provide wonderful writing, interior dialogue and lead to contemplative moments about your own life and love, this book is for you.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
This gothic style, fantastical thriller has a little bit of everything, so much so that I don’t know where to start. It’s a little Donna Tart mixed with Edward Scissorhands, Hitchcock and some boarding school gender-bending, lesbian witchcraft and curses. If that’s not intriguing or confusing, let me try this. The heart of the story is a turn of the century Rhode Island girl’s boarding school where two heroines, also lovers, were stung to death in the school’s apple orchard by a pack of yellow jackets. Flash forward to today’s hottest young actress who signs on to make a movie from the book that’s written by a 16-year old gender-bending wunderkind. I know, it’s a lot, but the cheeky, clever writing gives a nod to “Dear Reader” as you go, filling you in with chatty footnotes and helping navigate the story within the story as well as who is who. There is enough to keep you turning pages amidst the constant buzzing of winged things, creepy bathtubs, black algae and Hollywood manipulation.
The Woman in the Moonlight by Patricia Morrisroe
In the heart of Vienna in 1800, Ludwig van Beethoven is music’s unchallenged God, the most talented piano virtuoso in this epicenter of music. Eighteen-year-old Julie Guicciardi is about to take her first piano lesson with the master. What unfolds is a relationship and passion based on his magnetic genius and her youthful curiosity and candor, a trait not often found in women of the time. Each character holds a secret, one that will ultimately destroy their perfect love story and inspire the famous composer to write his opus “Moonlight Sonata,” an ode to haunting love. Based on a true story, Morrisroe turns her accomplished non-fiction research and writing skills to this little-known aspect of Beethoven’s life to deliver an intriguing story.
Science Fiction Novella:
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
Fans of “Swamplandia,” Russell’s hugely successful literary novel, will already be familiar with her quirky, funny writing and imaginative storytelling. This novel starts with a crisis…the environment has infected human beings in such a way that our brains no longer allow us to fall asleep. The world has tumbled into a giant sleep deficit and people are dying from Insomnia. Newly created “Slumber Corps” has been created to take sleep from those who are not infected and donate it to people who desperately need the hours to recover. The mobile vans and workers are on the hunt for people like Baby A, a universal donor, uninfected with nightmares and able to sleep like, well, a baby. By attaching electrodes to collect brain waves, they can take the donations and in turn, give them to the afflicted to help save their lives. When Donor Y infects the universal pool of sleep donation, the story takes another turn. Protagonist Trish has lost her sister in the early days of the disease and now is forced to question her own motives as well as her faith in the organization’s mission. The books feels particularly relevant with today’s pandemic, but it’s just sci-fi enough to deliver humor and wry social commentary that feels like an escape.
Good Morning Monster by Catherine Gildiner
In the vein of Laurie Gottlieb’s best-seller “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” therapist and memoirist Gildiner selects five patients over the course of her career who illustrate “heroic emotional recovery.” From the young woman who was abandoned at age nine to care for her siblings to a successful musician with sexual dysfunction to a man unable to grieve the loss of his wife and daughter, these stories show how the process of therapy can heal even the deepest wound and most traumatic of experiences.
*These are books I genuinely love and am thrilled to recommend to my friends. These are Bookshop.org affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I get a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. Alternately, if you prefer to rent books at your local library or buy from your local bookstore, I very much support that!
Lee Woodruff Speaker-Author-Executive Media Trainer