Books: Big Reads, Best Reads

by anneMoore on November 23, 2015

My friend Jennifer Miller and I share a love of deep reading. Big long books that we read closely, over a week, so intimate they become part of us. Think Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, most Tom Wolfe, any Dickens’.

images-1We both loved Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and for the National Book Award, but won neither, which left us flummoxed. Here’s a book that made Jen weep for the first time since she read Anna Karenina. (I cry over Master Card “Priceless” commercials, so my tears mean little in this category.)

imagesYanagihara’s story is heartbreaking, but that’s not why we’re naming it to the first ever Milller-Moore Prize, for the best read of the year. It is worthy for breadth of story, well-drawn characters, seamless situations, unfussy writing. More than any other read this year we were besotted.

The story begins tamely, following four college friends, each ambitious in a different field, living in New York City. One is an architect, another an actor, a third is a painter and the fourth — the story’s main character — is an attorney with a crippled body and mind.

His is the story of the novel: how Jude St. Francis went from an abandoned infant to a successful lawyer. The reader learns of Jude’s harrowing youth — sex slave, hustler — but his friends, family, doctor, lovers do not, and puzzle over his self-destructive ways. (He’s a cutter, anorexic, failed suicide.)

Difficult reading, yes, but we’re invested in Jude. Can he love? Can he bear loss? Will he survive?

Once hooked by her characters there’s no giving them up. Bravo to our prize winner, Hanya Yanagihara.


Chicago: Humanities Festival 2015

by anneMoore on November 2, 2015

The fall Chicago Humanities Festival, since 1989, brings thinkers, dreamers, doers, writers, artists, performers to our city for dozens of events that stretch for more than two weeks.

imagesWe are in the thick of it. The theme this time is “citizens” and so far I’ve heard about effective altruism from moral ethicist Peter Singer, extreme weather and social infrastructure from Erik Klinenberg, the 1978 Mideast peace agreement with author Lawrence Wright, the story of Lafayette and our nation’s founding fathers with funny girl Sarah Vowell, and Marlon James on Caribbean literature. He’s the Jamaican writer who recently won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings.

images-1Some events are a chat: Lawrence Wright with radio host Mark Bazer, Marlon James with poet Roger Bonair-Agard. Others, like Singer and Klinenberg, are a university-style lecture. Vowell read from her work but cracked jokes while pointing out some things we forget: sure our country is fractured, but it’s not the Civil War. Obnoxious protestors? It’s a treasured right.

This weekend: Salman Rushdie, essayist Meghan Daum, writer Daniel Alarcon.

Tickets are typically $12; events are priceless. I’m put back in the place of a university student, lapping up wisdom, making connections, talking later with friends and family about issues raised. James talked about erasure “Mother England is not my lawrence_wright_headshotmother,” while Wright, chillingly, described the current situation in the Middle East as intractable and, in the near future, increasingly violent.

Events are held at museums, universities, concert halls all over the city and in Evanston, introducing me to old and new spaces, like the luminous Gratz Center at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

The CHF fall season continues through Nov. 8. Events are offered year round, but fall is the main event.

With bookstores in short supply, it’s a treat to pick up books at these events. (I always leave wanting more.) I’m reading Lawrence Wright’s “Thirteen Days in September,” fluid and smart, as with all IMG_2546his work. His nonfiction is an antidote to Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” a big piece of fiction I read last week that left me befuddled. Did I hate it? Love it? James Wood in the New Yorker was similarly dazzled and dismayed.

Happy fall: today it’s 72 and sunny in Chicago. Bliss.


Books: Reading/dog grief

by anneMoore on October 16, 2015

I’m always reading but I don’t always have time to post a blog about what I’ve read. Travel, work, a massive head cold, my sweet dog’s last days on earth: life.

IMG_1172I lapped up Linda Rosenkrantz’ Talk in part because I’d always wanted to do what she achieved. Rosenkrantz recorded conversations with her friends over a year, transcribed those and created a dialogue-only novel. It’s set in 1965 (though it feels more contemporary) and is a record of three brainy Manhattanites’ summer in the then sleepy Hamptons. They drink too much, gossip, stay out too late, cook, sleep around, second-guess their love affairs. Recently reissued (thank you) as a classic by New York Talk_1024x1024-1Review of Books.

Next I spent a good many days savoring Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Here’s the story: Pip Tyler is a college graduate with a boatload of debt, working for a fraud, living in an Oakland squat. She’s been raised almost off-grid by a difficult mother who won’t tell Pip where she came from. Pip is a smart, wry young woman, but she doesn’t know who she is. That’s the engine of the plot. Franzen’s cast of characters span the human spectrum: a 23754479murderer, his teenage accomplice, an heiress and the college boy she seduces, investigative journalists, a disabled writer, a schizophrenic house mate. It will take all 563 pages to unite Pip with her father, with rich detours along the way.

Not my favorite Franzen (that would be Freedom) but very satisfying.

For a work assignment I needed to read Ron Balson’s Saving Sophie, a global thriller that starts with a brazen heist in downtown Chicago. It’s not my kind of read but it held my interest: its bad guys are convincing and there’s 9781250065858never a dull moment. Too, I liked his descriptions of Chicago.

To soften the blow of losing our intrepid Cassady (when he was good he was very very good, and when he was bad, well, it was legendary) our niece Lucy brought us the beautifully composed graphic memoir Plum Dog, by Emma Chichester Clark. It’s a London-based diary told from the point of view of a whoosell (whippet/Jack Russell/poodle.) Every page is a delight: funny, real 9780553447941and wonderfully illustrated.

I’ve been reading Meghan Daum’s essays and book reviews (The New Yorker, The Atlantic) in anticipation of her Nov. 7 talk during the Chicago Humanities Festival. She’s an uncomfortable truth teller: “People who weren’t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton 9781250052933in Vogue.”

Finally, Chicago Ideas Week. The offerings can overwhelm. A thoughtful publicist (thank you Katie Keidan) curated a list of four she thought I’d enjoy. I chose “What Would Shakespeare Tweet?” Four speakers: a cochlear-implant surgeon/30 million words advocate, a lexicographer (what a job!), a linguist/journalist, a word-tone researcher and finally, the inventor of Dathrocki, a language in Game of Thrones. Ahhh: nerd heaven.

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Books: Reading Chicago

by anneMoore on September 7, 2015

I curate the literature listings in Crain’s Chicago Business quarterly Guide to Culture. I feature visits by blockbuster authors, the U.S. poet laureate, scientists, historians. For this list I am always on the lookout for Chicago-based authors.

This season I am newly and happily acquainted with three local writers.

voiceover_artist_cover_alban_fischerI read Dave Reidy’s The Voice Over Artist, a first novel set mostly in Chicago, about two brothers, the mother they lose, the father they abide, their professions (one is an improvisor, the other a voice over artist) and, most convincingly, the women in their lives.

One of the brothers, who stutters, made himself mute as a child and much of this story is Simon’s struggle to speak confidently and, eventually, professionally. The improv sections read true — Reidy credits the stage work of my friend David Pasquesi and T.J. Jagodowski — as do the tangled affairs of secondary characters.

To be published in November, it’s an impressive debut.

imagesNext I read two works by Joe Meno. Office Girl is a bittersweet tale of Chicago hipsters. Odile makes age-appropriate poor decisions (an affair with a married man, hand jobs in the office broom closet) while Jack, whose wife has left him, records sounds. “The sound of her empty gray pillow…the sound of Monday, February 2…the sound of the traffic light making its alterations overhead…” Precious? Yes, but Jack and Odile are smart and delightful as they fall in and out of love. These are fully drawn characters making their way to who they’ll become.

images-1Meno’s Marvel and A Wonder, newly published, is more my kind of read. It’s long, engaging and beautifully written, like Faulkner but also its own thing. (That is, I didn’t set it down to read Faulkner, as I do when I (try to) read Cormac McCarthy.) Meno’s story is set in Indiana, on a failing chicken farm. There, its aging owner lives with, and tries to understand, his mixed-race teenage grandson, who has been left behind by his drug-addict mother. When a white race horse comes into their possession, the story takes off, violently.

Meno told me he wrote the book as an homage to his father in law and men of that generation, men who could make and fix things with their hands. It’s a wholly satisfying read, one that will go on my Literature of the Midwest shelf, beside John Williams’ Stoner, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.

images-2Finally, I read Vu Tran’s Dragonfish. (Tran teaches writing at The University of Chicago.) This is being hawked as crime fiction — and there is plenty of violence — but it reads more like a journey of discovery by a white cop unraveling the mystery of his former wife Suzy, a Vietnamese immigrant. It’s a well plotted, enchanting read — though I’m still not sure what she was running from, or to. Loved the duffel full of cash as endnote.

A postscript, dear readers: here’s a link that illustrates the need for adult and child literacy programs, via my friends at Grammarly,

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Reading Pythonga: Part 2

by anneMoore on August 16, 2015

Do we save “big reads” for summer? More and more, I do. There’s more unbroken time, whether its outside on a cushy chaise in my Chicago backyard or on the dock/at the beach/in the boat at Lac IMG_1623Pythonga. Why more time? Simpler summer food at home and, at Pythonga, all meals come from the club. (Thank you, kitchen staff!)

Earlier this summer I swallowed whole Melville’s Moby Dick while I was in Pythonga. What a read! Exhausting, exhilarating.

More recently I brought Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with me, a book I’d read when I was 14 and didn’t remember.

imagesFourteen? Who assigned that? The Scarlet Letter gives us a tasty triangle in Puritan New England: a woman won’t name the father of her child borne out of wedlock, the returned husband won’t claim her or the child, the town’s minister falls ill from his guilt — and is “cared for” by the husband, who is a healer.

It’s not an easy read, because Hawthorne’s language is dense, but there’s an immediate urgency — how will this play out? — as well as delightful descriptions of the willful child. Hester Prynne’s transformation from victim to feminist makes for a deeply satisfying read.

images-1Next, I picked up Peter Nichols’ The Rocks, set on the sunny island of Mallorca. Its start is irresistible: two former lovers, in their 80s, run into each other on the road. They squabble, tussle, and fall into the sea together. Their paired deaths sets the story in motion, backwards 60 years through the life of the resort she runs and the farm he tends, the children they raise, various lovers. What terrible thing drove them apart? By the end we learn the brutal truth. A smart, engaging family saga.

images-2Finally, because I’d seen it listed among the best American books chosen by international writers, I took up a slender volume by E.L. Doctrow, Sweet Land Stories. I’m glad I did. There are five and each will stay with me for a long time: they’re intimate portraits of darkly misguided Americans. We meet a stylish murderess who’s always one step ahead of the law, a couple that comes to love each other after kidnapping a baby, a cuckolded husband left behind in a religious cult. Flawless.

Happy summer. It ain’t over.

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Books: Go Set a Watchman

by anneMoore on July 23, 2015

I’ve written earlier about reading on a device: sure it’s great for travel (endless titles, one gadget!) but holding a book in hand, in a public place, creates the opportunity for conversation.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanEarlier this week I was on a city bus midday, going to a doctor’s appointment. I was finishing Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the controversial early work sequel to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird.

The man across from me, a tourist from New Orleans, asked if it were good, worth reading. Yes, I said, to spend time with the grown Scout and for the time capsule of a Southern town in the mid-1950’s. Too, there are passages of great beauty. The ugly racism promoted by Scout’s father, aunt and uncle and her boyfriend is difficult to read, but made clear: these characters don’t want their way of life to change. They want racially separate schools and they want no blacks to hold office. It is cringe-worthy reading. (The older woman beside me on the bus had read the book, and said that was how it was in the South then. She added, pointing to my book, that she’d read it on a device and wished she’d bought a physical copy, for her shelves.)

Here’s the story: In her late 20’s Scout comes home to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her aging father Atticus. Brother Jem is dead, young, from the same bum heart that felled their mother. Atticus suffers from arthritis, but otherwise seems much the same man he was in Mockingbird: warm and wise. Henry, a poor boy taken in by Atticus, is now an attorney; he wants to marry Scout. Remember tomboy Scout? She’s no different here, fretting that, if she were to marry, she wouldn’t know how to wear a hat and she’d drop the babies. When Scout follows her father to a town council meeting, she is stunned — and falls ill — to learn that those she loves most are racist.

The next day Scout wakes to her new world. “On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbirds’ early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world. She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines rising to a brilliant eastern sky, and her sense would have succumbed to the joy of the morning.”

Is this a great book? No. (If you haven’t read Mockingbird, it will bewilder.) It’s mostly a sweet, funny coming-of-age story, with flashbacks to school days with Jem, Dill, and young Henry. This is a book that should be read for that story, but also for its setting, at a time when intelligent, educated people actively favored segregation.

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Reading Pythonga, 2015

by anneMoore on July 8, 2015

A friend heading to the Galapagos Islands asked my advice for a breezy read, a light but engaging page-turner. Not my kind of read, but I scanned my shelves: Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, John Kenney’s Truth in Advertising. Not light but certainly engaging, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply.

What is my kind of read? Big long books that keep me company for days, books like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

IMG_1623You’ll laugh, but my latest big book read is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or the Whale, which I somehow missed as an English major. No regrets: it’s a long, rich read that deserves an adult consumer.

Why now? I saw a stage rendition — really — that was so impressive I had to hoist the 824 page book and bring it with me to my favorite reading spot, Lac Pythonga, in Quebec.

A wise choice, as I had long hours of uninterrupted reading sitting on the dock, in a boat, on a screened porch. Its subject is whaling in general and the hunt for the great white whale Moby Dick, in particular, which will be the crews’ undoing.

Its pleasures come not only from the relentless plot; it is Melville’s writing that entices, and puts him in league with Whitman. Here, the Pequod reaches the Pacific Ocean: “When gliding by the Bashee isles we emerged at last upon the great South Sea; were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue.”

If you haven’t read, do. But give yourself space and time to absorb this full-bodied American tale.

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Books: Summer Reading

by anneMoore on June 14, 2015

Summer, and the reading is breezy.

First, Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009). I was a  fan of his 2013 Beautiful Ruins, so I picked up one of his earlier novels. I’m glad I did. Walter is a deft storyteller; I fall easily into the worlds he creates.

Financiallives_-210Key on that 2009 publication date, because in “…Poets” that’s the place Walter puts us, post-crash and well into the Internet age.

Matthew Prior is a business reporter who quits his job to create a Web site for financial news told in blank verse. At the same time, his hot wife — bored, taking care of their children — maxes out their credit cards, bing-buying on-line. When we meet them, Prior is broke and unemployed and his wife, stripped of credit, is e-flirting with her high school boyfriend. They’re about to lose their home and their marriage.

A late night trip to 7-Eleven for milk puts Prior in the company of young drug dealers, who turn him on to extremely potent weed. Could they get him more? To save his home, Prior becomes first a pot dealer and then a government informant. Nutty? Yes, deliciously so. Also: Sad, funny, spot on.

bk-oend-pg_copyI can’t recall who pointed me to Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, a beautifully written, deeply unsettling tale of a father and daughter who flee London for a hut in the German woods. How they survive is fascinating. How it all ends is disturbing, haunting. It took me days to get these people out of my system.

Kent Haruf’s Plainsong (1999) is a favorite of mine. He died last year and left a novella, Our Souls at Night. What a lovely read.

9781101875896Widowed and lonely, Addie Moore proposes to neighbor Louis Waters, also widowed, that they spend their nights together. They do, and set tongues wagging in their small Colorado town. Their grown children object, but the two carry on. Their nighttime talks reveal their lives: the death of Addie’s daughter, Louis’s affair with a fellow teacher.

When Addie’s young grandson comes to live with her, the three become a family, playing baseball, going camping, adopting a dog. Nothing happens, everything happens. Perfectly told.

PH2010020504485I discovered Sadie Jones with her latest, Fallout, set in 1970’s London theater. Her Small Wars (2009) is the story — with twists and turns — of a military officer, his wife and children, his colleagues, their friends and families, and the battle for Cyprus during World War 11.

The toll of war is fully, smartly, surprisingly realized. Bravo, Sadie Jones.

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Books: Mother’s Day

by anneMoore on May 9, 2015

When I finish a book that I’ve loved reading, my first thought is: Will Mom? My mother, like my son Evan, consumes books as though they are air, necessary for survival. She is always in a book, or five if none of them are pleasing. Unlike me, she’ll read an unlikeable book to its end.

FullSizeRenderIn the past year I’ve sent or brought her Grace Coddington’s memoir, Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, John LeCarre’s A Delicate Truth, Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. For Mother’s Day I sent her Jonathan Miles’ Want Not, with a note that she would need to get past the first chapter, which can repel. She’s not a book snob: she’ll read rom coms my sister Liza picks up in airports.

One book I won’t be sending her is T. C. Boyle’s The Harder They Come. It’s a great read, but it’s too dark for her.

Here’s the story: Sten Stensen is a recently retired high school principal cruising the Caribbean with his wife of 40 years, Carolee. A bus ride to a nature walk in Jamaica turns deadly, when Sten and his fellow tourists are held up. Sten is a big man, a Vietnam veteran, and he does what he’s been trained to do: kill the enemy.

Celebrated, Sten and Carolee resume life in their Northern California home, with a sea view, bordering a redwood forest. Sten is bothered by the death he caused, and the press it attracts. Otherwise, theirs seems a sweet life, time for coffee together or a restaurant meal and too much wine. Then we meet their twenty-something son Adam, a mentally ill self-styled survivalist drug dealer, and Adam’s love interest, an anarchist named Sara, who’s in her 40’s.

What can I say? I love a train wreck and this one ends in the largest, longest manhunt in California history.

Boyle is an engaging storyteller, and this — his fourteenth novel — is a funny, smart, moving read. It’s just not for Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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I love a good, long read. The book becomes a part of me, an extension of my arms, I panic when I don’t remember where I’ve set it.

n-ALITTLELIFE-large570At 720 pages, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is one of those reads. I carried it around for more than a week, and I loved it — though I nearly put it down, because her characters seemed so familiar to me. They are four friends from college, each ambitious in a different field, newly settled in New York City. One is an architect, another an actor, a third is a painter and the fourth — the story’s main character — is an attorney with a crippled body and mind.

His is the story of this magnificent novel, her second: how Jude St. Francis went from there (an abandoned infant found and raised by monks) to here (a Greene Street loft, a country home in Garrison, the love of his best friend). The reader learns of Jude’s harrowing youth but his friends, doctor and newly found family do not, and they puzzle over his self-destructive ways. (He’s a cutter, a failed suicide, an anorexic.)

What is he hiding? His life before: one of the monastery’s brothers persuades the young Jude to run away with him. From there, the boy becomes a sex slave. As a young teen, Jude flees a group home — and hustles to survive — but he’s captured by a sadist, who, after raping him repeatedly, runs his car over Jude.

Yes, this is difficult reading. We root for Jude over and over again: he’s a survivor, he’s whip-smart, he’s beautiful, his friends and adoptive parents adore him. But when he dares to love, as an adult, Jude is abused again, beaten and thrown down a flight of stairs.

Re-enter Willem, one of the four friends, who has become a film star. He moves in with Jude, to care for him, and falls in love with Jude. Theirs is a sweet, troubled romance.

Much happens, nothing happens: reading this book is sort of like watching the film Boyhood. No happy endings, though. Jude can’t escape his past and can’t bear his present. The book is overly long, but I didn’t want to give up any of these characters. It’s a life, richly told.

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