Big reads for uncertain times

by anneMoore on February 22, 2017

In these unsettling times, my reader friends tell me they’re reaching for fun or light or soothing reads. A comfort, for me, is a big read. Below, a few that have taken me far far away from CNN, my Facebook feed, the daily papers.

I loved C.E. Morgan’s All the Living and looked forward to a thick book from such a talented writer. Wowza! The Sport of Kings clocks in at 545 pages and covers — beautifully, lyrically — slavery, white supremacy, incest, racism, poverty, disease, ambition, horse breeding and racing. It’s a page turner; I never lost interest. A great American novel or an overwrought Gothic tale? I can’t decide.

I needed to get out of the American South, so I picked up Henry Green’s Caught, first published (and censored) in 1943, recently reissued by New York Review of Books. It’s set during the Blitz, and centers on the men in a fire brigade. Why all the fuss? Class conflicts, excessive drinking, boredom, affairs, an incestuous rape, mental illness, kidnapping. Periodically I turned back to James Wood’s introduction: why am I reading this? Because Green captured the everyday speech of the time and, instead of celebrating war, shows us the awful toll it takes on a man and his marriage.

Back to contemporary U.S. I brought Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth with me when I traveled to D.C. for the Women’s March. Every night I tried to read a few pages; nope! Tired, restless, sharing a room with three friends. On the plane ride home I finally got into the book, a sad funny read about two families joined by divorce. It’s narrated by Franny Keating, whose beautiful mother runs off with a lawyer. The six children joined by this marriage are the story of this novel. Nothing happens, everything happens. A satisfying read.

T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts is a doorstopper (507 pages) that kept me engaged, though I wasn’t sure why. It concerns the scientists who seal themselves off from the outside world and the people who monitor their survival; no one is likable. Again, why keep reading? Well, Boyle never lets me down. I knew there was some point to this story and once found, I was hooked. Motherhood is selfless, right? Not inside the dome.

I’m half way through Joyce Carol Oates’ A Book of American Martyrs: A Novel (752 pages!) It’s about an assassin for Jesus, the abortion doctor he slays and the families they leave behind. Achingly sad, an important read. I’ll let you know.

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Three friends and I headed to Washington, D.C. mid January to be a part of the Women’s March. I have a fear of crowds, but I had to do “something” about DT’s presidency. Shortly after the election, my dearest friends found a hotel room in Du Pont Circle and reasonable air fares to D.C. In their embrace, I can do anything, so I latched on to their plan. In return, I offered to book restaurants for dinner.

As I left, I thanked my husband for sending me in style. I know many women, men, children who rode buses to and from the march, the largest in U.S. history.

Four of us stayed in a spacious room at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar, a hip place with friendly help at the front door, front desk, bell hop. Highly recommend.

For breakfast, we found Emissary, a brick-walled, light-filled lower-level space serving pressed coffees, pastries, egg dishes. It was our go-to spot daily.

I’d been to D.C. many times; this was the first I’d stayed in DuPont Circle. It’s a neighborhood much like mine in Chicago, with an easy 20 minute walk to the Washington Mall.

We were wise to pre-book dinners. Not because we’d have been shut out — the area is filled with restaurants and bars — but because we had a plan. There was no “what should we eat, where should we go” at the witching hour. Thank you Open Table, and reviewers, for making it easy to make reservations within a specific area.

First, we dined at Firefly, a funky chic place built around a thick tree. The food — upscale American — was good but not great, the wine list was pricey.

Next night, we ate at a seafood spot, Pesce. Don’t be put off by modest storefront entry; inside is bright white, fresh and clean. Wide variety of dishes, excellent service.

Finally, after a long, thrilling, exhausting day at the March, we found ourselves in good hands at Ankara, a stylish place that puts out delicious Middle Eastern food. Attentive service. Don’t miss their hummus or citrus salad.

For drinks, skip the Dupont Circle Hotel bar; it could be anywhere and the service is so so. A better choice is the bar inside Carlyle Hotel, elegant and cozy. Sophisticated.

On the plane ride to D.C., we sat with a fellow marcher from Chicago who shared a project worth looking into: 12 for 12, a video collection of 12 iconic Chicago brands.

On the way home I finally had a chance to dive into Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, which starts with a bang and never lets up. About adults and children in fractured families. Sweet, funny, smart. That book was my companion for the next week, and at its close I was sorry to give up her characters.

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Books: best of 2016

by anneMoore on December 20, 2016

A very satisfying year in books. Below, my favorite reads.

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

Characters linked by the devastation of a bomb set in a crowded marketplace. They grow up and old in surprising, unsettling ways.

 

 

Christodora, by Tim Murphy

A sprawling read set in lower Manhattan, 1970’s to the near future. AIDS, class, subzero winters, art and artists, drug addiction. Dark and moving.

 

 

Eccentric Orbits, by John Bloom

Jaw-dropping story of Motorola’s development, and abandonment, of the Iridium satellite system and the retired airline executive who saved it. My favorite non fiction of the year.

 

Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers

I’m an Eggers fan; this one’s another misanthropic pleaser. The story of a woman escaping her life for Alaska with her small children in tow.

 

 

 

High Dive, by Jonathan Lee

Fact-based fiction: three people forever changed by the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England.

 

 

 

Mr. Monkey, by Francine Prose

From a musical that never goes out of style — Mister Monkey — we enter the lives of actors, the director, the author, a man and his grandson in the audience. A delightful web.

 

The Nix, by Nathan Hill

Mostly set in and around contemporary Chicago, this is a coming of age story, a love story, a satire, a terrifying on-the-ground retelling of the 1968 Chicago riots.

 

 

They May not Mean to, But they Do, by Cathleen Schine

Funny, sweet, real, heartbreaking. The family Bergman: the decline and death of Aaron, wife Joy’s grief and aging.

 

 

 

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

A seamless memoir of a young neurosurgeon’s last year of life.

 

 

 

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota

Via four characters, we experience an India each must leave and the England where they learn to survive. Beautifully told, harrowing.

 

 

 

Let us honor the life and work of Shirley Hazzard (1931 – 2016) a worldly author, both nonfiction and fiction. Her novel The Transit of Venus (1980) is one of my favorite reads, about orphaned Australian sisters who make new lives for themselves in post-war England, entangled with three men. Thematically Hazzard is in company with Henry James but I find her writing more beautiful and accessible.

 

Finally, the folks at Artsy asked me to post a link to their site. I agreed because I’m a fan of their mission, to make all the world’s art accessible via the Internet. For example, their Mark Rothko offering.

 

Happy New Year, thanks for reading.

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Reading: comfort and wisdom

by anneMoore on December 2, 2016

Here’s what I’ve been reading and liking lately.

shoppingEvicted is a thick work of nonfiction by sociologist Matthew Desmond, about tenants and landlords in a poor part of Milwaukee. The book is richly told, detailed, Dickensian. I liked the telling more than the tale, which is depressing, heartbreaking, hopeless. Women and children, the disabled, the underemployed, the drug addicted losing their homes. Housing as a human right? I’m sold.

imagesOn to a big read, The Nix, by Nathan Hill, which tells the story of a young man who must reunite with the mother who abandoned him as a child, who has resurfaced as a political terrorist. This read is a wild ride that spans continents and decades, mostly set in and around contemporary Chicago. It’s a coming of age story, a love story, a satire, a terrifying on-the-ground retelling of the 1968 Chicago riots. 620 pages, so much to like.

images-1In my post-election funk, I needed comedy. Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey was my salve. From a musical that never goes out of style — Mister Monkey — we enter the lives of actors, the director, the author, a man and his grandson in the audience. What a delightful web! Each of their stories entrances; I especially loved the grandfather in the mix with today’s fussy parents and the school teacher on a first date from hell. Sweet, funny, surprising. A rollicking read.

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Books: Recent reads

by anneMoore on October 12, 2016

Most recently I read and enjoyed Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, a modern Hamlet narrated by a full-term fetus. Trudy, the pregnant mother, has dismissed her poet husband John from his childhood home, a imagescrumbling mansion in a fashionable part of London. Taking his place? His brother Claude. Together, Trudy and Claude conspire to murder John Cairncross, inherit the house, sell it to developers, abandon the baby. Say what? asks our charming narrator. Life in the projects?

This is a tale well told from a unique vantage. (Bravo, Ian McEwan.) The fetus has opinions on wines, poetry, his parents, world affairs, his dumb uncle, the lovers’ treacherous plan. Funny and wise. Fluid.

My one gripe, and it’s a big one: none of the characters are likable. I felt nothing when John met his poisoned end, nothing when the gig is up for Trudy and Claude.

No complaints on this next read: Tim Murphy’s Christodora is my favorite of the year. I had terrible book grief when I finished: what will I read now? How will anything other book be so pleasing?

images-1It’s a sprawl of a read — my favorite kind — set in lower Manhattan, in and around the Christodora apartment building, from the 1970’s to the near future. It’s about AIDS, class, subzero winters, art and artists, drug addiction. The drug parts are hard to read.

We follow several lives: artists Milly and Jared, from their young love to their understandable mid-life hate; Hector, an AIDS activist turned junkie; Issy, who becomes an AIDS activist as she dies from the disease; Mateo, her child and eventually a junkie, adopted and raised by Milly and Jared.

It takes a little while to figure out who’s who and how they relate, but once hooked there was no putting this book down. Dark and moving. No false notes.

I’ll read anything by Dave Eggers and his latest, Heroes of the Frontier, is another misanthropic pleaser. It’s the story of a woman escaping her life, for seemingly good reasons, with her small children in tow.

9780451493804Josie, a dentist in Ohio, takes off to Alaska with kind, beautiful son Paul and small daughter Anna, who is a terror. There she rents a mobile home, and off they go! Are they ever going home? Why are the other kids going to school? This is a road-trip story, and the stops along the way are frightening and heartening, often at the same time. I liked watching Josie learn things about herself and the marriage she left behind.

This isn’t a page turner (as I’d been told); rather, it’s a deeply engaging meditation on work, family, America, adventure.

 

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Books: Summer Reads

by anneMoore on August 19, 2016

I am just returned from my favorite reading spot, our home on Lac Pythonga, where I sit with a book on the dock or the beach or Pythongastretch out on our new couch and/or reading chair with ottoman (thank you, Georgia Dent) — quiet spaces all. What a treat: to read for hours at a time in the woods, by the lake, in a space that’s off the grid. There’s no phones, no television, no Internet.

Sure, I did other things: yoga on an unscreened porch, spa treatments on the dock, hot sauna/cool lake runs, long hard swims with my friend Sharon, to and from her dock, where we’d rest a bit and chat. At night with my family we played Scrabble or Giant Jenga while Evan and Harry listened, via Sirius satellite radio, to Chicago Cubs games.

Here’s what I read and can recommend:

Eccentric Orbits, by John Bloom, is the jaw-dropping story of orbitsMotorola’s development, and abandonment, of the Iridium satellite system and the retired airline executive who saved it. My friend Joe was reading the book, too, and we’d come to breakfast sharing outrage at Motorola’s stubborn resistance to saving the system and its complicity in Iridium’s bankruptcy: shocking, like watching an animal eat its young. Joe and I agreed that the book went on too long, but otherwise, this is a deep and satisfying read.

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, part two of the four part Neapolitan novels.

ferranteI read the first of these last year and while I liked it a lot, was exhausted by the story’s everyday violence and granular telling: after 331 pages, the girls (Lila and Elena) were only 16 years old. That said, I’m glad I picked up part two, because now I’m hooked and will read all four.

What’s so compelling? The character of Lila, who marries at 16 and immediately — at the wedding! — rejects her husband. From there it’s an affair, a child by another man, and later, flight with still another man. Studious Elena goes off to college in Pisa and manages, despite her poverty, to succeed. Part Two ends on a note of hope, which will get me to Book Three.

Earlier this summer I read:

yearofrunawaysThe Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeen Sahota. This is the story of contemporary Indian immigrants in England. I loved every page and held this big book (484 pages) close. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it’s a full-bodied read that takes us, via four characters, to an India they each must leave and the England in which they must learn to survive. A fitting, rueful ending; my favorite read of the year.


They May not Mean to, But they Do
, by Cathleen Schine. I’ll read schineanything by Schine: her work is about everything and nothing and always funny, sweet, real, heartbreaking. Also, typically about New York and its people. (If you haven’t read her “Fin & Lady,” do.) This one is about the family Bergman: the decline and death of paterfamilias Aaron followed by his wife Joy’s grief and aging. Their adult children are well meaning but hilarious in their attempts to care for Joy, then outraged when Joy brings an old boyfriend into the family fold. Little girls, a wandering grandson, women in love: Schine gets everything right.

tribeI also enjoyed Tribe, by Sebastian Unger, a slender (136 page) collection of writings on homecoming and belonging. Deeply personal but expansive, historical, topical. Many dog-eared pages.

Too, I was surprised to thoroughly enjoy Clementine, by Sonia Purnell, a biography of the wife of Winston Churchill, which I read because I’d been invited to a book talk. (Thank you, Jennifer.) What a life! Clementine loved andclementine devoted herself to Winston (a fascinating, brilliant tyrant) at the expense of all else, including their children. Reads like a Mitford novel.

About Girls on Fire, by Robin Wasserman: I loved its lyric beginning and end. In between is a gruesome and not very believable “mean girls” tale.

hillbillyRight now I’m reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy. Great reporting and storytelling, about L.A. homicide detectives tasked with solving black-on-black crime. Also Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, about white Americans left behind in the post-industrial Midwest. Violent, telling.

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New York City: touring and eating

by anneMoore on July 28, 2016

The college tour continued, in New York, where we stayed in Union Square with my sister Mary Beth (thank you) and visited two of mbandmeColumbia University’s undergraduate colleges: Columbia College and Barnard College. Each deserves a day, and that’s how we toured.

We were in Morningside Heights, so we visited the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine and stjohndivpicked up pastries at The Hungarian Bakery (1030 Amsterdam Ave., at 111th St.), unchanged since I was a Barnard student in the barnardmosaic‘80s. I looked fondly at the V&T Pizzeria marquee,  also unchanged. If we hadn’t already had lunch, I’d have been happy to revisit. Some tastes never fade.

Among the places we ate well: Le Monde (2885 Broadway at 112th St.), one of eight French restaurants in the city. I’m always pleased to dine with them: excellent French food, good service, lively bistro settings.

fifthaveCloser to my sister’s place is the newly opened Union Fare  restaurant and bakery. It’s huge, stretching from 18th street to 17th street, with entrances on both. We were a table of eight and had a delicious, reasonably priced dinner, with bang up service. Don’t miss their oyster bar, charcuterie, seasonal spreads. I had the seared black bass entree, with lentils, clams, fiddleheads, fava beans and so on: yum. The next morning, we picked up caffe lattes and breakfast pastries: lavender blueberry muffins, almond croissants, soft oversized pretzels (a New York City must).

Speaking of New York treasures, we dined on Bleeker Street at John’s (Brick Oven) Pizzeria. See above, about tastes one never forgets.

tessanneAnother spot I liked a lot, Le Grainne,  is near the High Line. There I had my kind of breakfast — a giant bowl of cafe au lait and a serving of yogurt with fruit — with my college roommate and dear friend Tess, who had a croque madame alongside her bowl of coffee. Le Grainne is the New York I remember: small, tin ceiling, tight tables, a place for a leisurely meal.

I can’t recommend the High Line at that hour (Sunday noon): clogged with people and more crowded than the streets below. Do go, of course: it’s a spectacular urban space, but go early morning or after dinner.

Another thing I love about New York: the city still has bookstores. Tess needed Father’s Day gifts, so we dropped in at the well curated 192 Books.

Final shout out: to New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Hadestown, a musical (I know, I’m not a fan, but I loved this one) based on the myths, love stories both, of Orpheus and Euridyce and of Hades and Persephone. Its industrialized mill town setting (Hades’ underworld) was eerily contemporary, with his calls for building a wall. We loved the folk opera score, the musicians, and the actors’ use of the small theatre, aisles and all.

Of course I read; I’m saving reviews for next post. ‘Til then.

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Reading: Big books for summer

by anneMoore on June 6, 2016

Ah, summer. Some readers head to fluff, others head to big, long, challenging reads because summer offers unbroken stretches and quiet at the beach, by the pool, on a dock.

Here are three deep reads I can recommend.

imagesJon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015). Krakauer is the ace reporter and storyteller who has given us Into the Wild, Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, each an unsettling, deeply researched read.

Same goes for Missoula, which details four years in this Montana college town, when young women who’d been raped by football players and other students forced police, the state’s attorney and university leaders to take action. An absorbing read.

images-1Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of Isis reads like a thriller, but it’s the true story of the missteps by Presidents Bush and Obama that led to the powerful rise of al-Zarqawi.

Freed from prison in 1999, the radicalized Zarqawi aimed to create an Islamist caliphate throughout the Middle East; his terror attacks included suicide bombings and beheadings. A 2006 airstrike killed Zarqawi, but his organization lives on: when the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Zarqawi’s followers stepped in, raising the black flags of ISIS. Most interesting to me was Al-Quaeda’s initial rebuff of Zarqawi, whose leaders considered him a thug. A must read.

images-2And finally, fact-based fiction: Jonathan Lee’s High Dive, which imagines three people forever changed by the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England. The target was then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; the long-delay-timer bomb was the master work of the Irish Republican Army, then fighting for independence from England.

Lee’s magnificent story unfolds the lives of IRA bomb expert Dan, hotel manager Moose, and teenage daughter Freya. We come to know the hotel’s every day workings, the life and times of Moose (a champion diver), his motherless daughter and her teen friends, Dan’s IRA initiation and fraught home life in Belfast.

At times I thought this book too long, but now that I’ve finished I wouldn’t know where to cut. I savored this read.

Happy summer, happy reading.

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Eating, touring: U.S. road trip

by anneMoore on May 5, 2016

 

We took our daughter Alex on a college tour that began in Berkeley atriceand ended in New Orleans, with stops in between in Austin and Houston. Along with the touring, we did a lot of good eating. Here’s a report.

Our host in Berkeley did all the cooking (thank you, Carl!) so I have no restaurants to recommend, only glowing reports of outrageous views, varied and interesting architecture, lush vegetation, and the magnificent University of California campus, carlsviewwhich, like the rest of Berkeley, is tiered. If you’ve never been, include Berkeley on your next trip to San Francisco.

Next stop: Austin, where we stayed at an unexceptional Hyatt on the Colorado River, nearish to University of Texas (which we loved for its sunny campus, happy students, many swimming pools.)

A short walk from the hotel, we found Coopers Old Time Pit Bar B Que, Home of the Big Chop. There, ribs and chicken and other texasmeats are sold by the pound. Sides include a jalapeno-bacon mac & cheese (spicy and delicious), tangy coleslaw and all-you-can eat beans. Yelpers complain about dry/overcooked meats, but that wasn’t our experience. Delicous que in a comfortable, casual spot.

On to Houston, to our favorite hotel of the trip. The Lancaster is an historic hotel in downtown Houston’s Fourth Ward; they upgraded us to a two-bedroom suite, which spoiled us forever. Downtown Houston is not a lively place, but we enjoyed the hotel’s European style breakfast, excellent service and central location for touring Rice University and later, the Rothko Chapel.

Mediocre dinners downtown forced us into Houston’s sprawl, goodecowhere we found Goode Company Seafood, a high temple to Southern seafood housed in a former railroad car.  Not to be missed.

We spent the rest of our trip in New Orleans, touring Tulane University, haunting the French Quarter from our charming and centrally located hotel,  and tulanespending time in our son’s Bayou St. Jean neighborhood, which is picture-postcard New Orleans. (Thank you for hospitality and Easter dinner, Evan and Sara!) There we had a tasty po’ boy lunch at Liuzza’s by the Track and twice took a walk to City Park, looping through the Museum of New Orlean’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

Memorable dinners downtown at Luke, a Franco-German brasserie. (We were the ones swarming a tower of seafood.) On Magazine Street, we savored the seasonal French food and fine service at Lilette.  Among my souvenirs, a pound of French roast from Cafe du Monde, like no other.

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Books: Reading on the Road

by anneMoore on April 14, 2016

Two weeks of planes, trains and automobiles gave me plenty of time to read. Here’s what I liked:

images-5My sister Liza works in medicine and had two copies of Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm and so gave me one. Marsh is a British neurosurgeon and a very good storyteller. He brought me inside the heads and heart of his patients and himself and into the managed lunacy of England’s socialized healthcare system. There’s never enough beds, and he can’t operate on someone who doesn’t have a bed. A great read.

I’d never read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and if you haven’t either, don’t be shy. Published in 1983, the story holds up. It’s a novel images-1about a marriage falling apart, based on Ephron’s failed marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. Set among droll New Yorkers and Washington power brokers, the book is both very very funny (‘natch) and achingly sad. A swift read. Loved it.

I was quickly hooked by the teenage character in Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, (1951) one of the oddest reads ever. Natalie Waite is 17 and on her way out of her parent’s home, to college. As her overly-intelligent parents bicker, Natalie has a different soundtrack running through her head: she’s images-6being questioned by a policeman. “Confess, she thought, if I confess I might go free.” Later, she is the unwilling sex partner to a houseguest, but buries the event. “I will not think about it, it doesn’t matter…I don’t remember, nothing happened.” Life at college is similarly unsettling. Is all of this happening, or is Natalie losing her mind? I enjoyed this smart, spooky read.

Another creepy read was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a character images-7that will live on in my head for a very long time. In a rundown house, motherless Eileen is a slovenly young adult who cares for her alcoholic father. She works in a prison for teenage boys and pines for one of the guards. When a beautiful counselor arrives at the prison, menace follows. Moshfegh unspools this uncomfortable tale slowly, brilliantly.

I’m always looking for a New York read and lapped up Kristopher images-3Jansma’s Why We Came to the City, which follows five college friends as they marry, die, grieve, grow up. Nicely told.

Happy Spring! Next post: Eating our way through Austin, Houston, New Orleans.

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