The best movies about women — Tar and Women Talking — didn’t get much love at the box office, or at last week’s Academy Awards. 

So, let’s spread the word about new fiction I’ve loved that’s by and about women. 

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is laugh-out-loud funny. That’s not to say it’s not serious. It’s the 1960’s and Elizabeth Zott is a chemist in Los Angeles who hasn’t completed her master’s degree because she’s raped by her thesis advisor. (To escape, she stabs him with the Number 2 pencil she keeps tucked in her bun.) Trust me, this is a comedy. Elizabeth is like no other: she’s beautiful and unbending…until she bends and understandably breaks, after the death of the one man who loves her for her mind. And now she’s pregnant by him. With the help of her sentient dog, Elizabeth picks herself up and mothers — again, like no other — their precocious child. Broke, Elizabeth agrees to host a daytime cooking show, but ignores the cue cards. Instead, she teaches viewers the science of meal preparation. Empowerment! 

Someone Else’s Shoes by Jo Jo Moyes. I’ve avoided Moyes since I read — and ugly cried — Me Before You, the story of a caretaker who falls in love with a patient who insists on and succeeds in a planned death. I get a headache when I cry, so I duck well-told heartache. Anyway, I’m here to tell you that Moyes’ latest is a feminist caper without tears. Sad sack Sam picks up someone else’s bag at the gym; the sexy red shoes in it jump starts her tired life. The same day, the owner of said shoes Nisha sees her jet-set life disappear. Nisha will only get her divorce settlement if she returns those shoes. What’s so important about those heels? This is a smart romp, a joy. 

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. An assured first novel set during the 1970’s Troubles, this story is set is a village near Belfast peopled by Catholics and Protestants. There, pretty young schoolteacher Cushla lives with her gin-soaked mother and helps out at the family’s bar. Cushla aides a student’s poor Catholic family, whose father is savagely beaten. Too, she takes up with an older married Protestant man who is a barrister defending IRA members. Doesn’t Cushla deserve love? I didn’t see it coming, but her involvement with the family and the barrister causes the tragedy at the heart of this tale. Slowly, beautifully told.

Speaking of films by or about women, I attended for the first time the Athena Film Fest at Barnard College, now in its thirteen year. Over three days, the fest screens dozens of films by or about women, including student work. Each film is followed by a moderated q & a. 

We saw “The Lost King,” a 2022 Stephen Frears film starring Sally Hawkins as an amateur historian who doggedly seeks — and finds! — the unmarked grave of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king. Based on the true story of a woman who cures herself, and her marriage, by taking a chance. 

We — my dear Tess and I — steeled ourselves for a screening of “Women Talking,” which is more about the act of leaving than the reason they’re leaving (multigenerational sexual violence and mental abuse of women and girls.) It’s a visually wondrous film, with moments of laughter and silliness. I’m glad I was sitting beside Tess because the ending is so wrenching I needed to hang on to her as I wept. (Yes, I got a headache.) The moderated q & a that followed was a thoughtful, necessary tonic. 

Bravo, Barnard! I’ll be back. 

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Apologies for neglecting this site. 

I’m always reading, and I’ve watched some wonderful serial television. Let’s start with books. 

Have I mentioned that I love a train wreck? Case in point, the life of superstar television wanderer Anthony Bourdain, who killed himself — over a girl — in 2018. Newly published is the biography of Bourdain by sportswriter Charles Leershen, “Down and Out in Paradise: the Life of Anthony Bourdain.”

I inhaled this book. Leerhsen is a top notch journalist and writer. He digs deep, back to Bourdain’s “boring” childhood in Leonia, N.J. That’s one theory for Bourdain’s bad boy persona, because he was too young for Vietnam and its protests. He wanted a fight. (Yes, there’s heroin, and cocaine, and steroids…) His was not a straight path to stardom, and he gave up the love of his life to pursue it. 

This is a rich read. 

Another train wreck: a young wife in Korea is troubled by nightmares, which leads her to give up eating meat. This simple act of autonomy causes her to lose her husband, her family, and her place in the every day world. “The Vegetarian” is by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. 

Worth a read. 

Where do you find books to read? I found one on my son’s Substack, Evan’s Newsletter/EvanD/Substack. A bookseller in lower Manhattan, Evan writes about new and old books — and life — with substance and wit. I love his “Actually Pretty Good” posts about new fiction. 

In one of Evan’s posts, he called out Christopher Beha’s “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts.” This is a novel set in contemporary New York City. Columnist Frank Doyle, a society drunk, makes a racist comment about Barack Obama during a televised baseball game. Doyle’s punishment is swift: he loses his job. (He is his job.) There’s more trouble at home: wife Kit has squandered her father’s investment house; son Eddie, a veteran, makes himself penniless; daughter Margo pursues the (married) Midwestern journalist who’s assigned to write about Daddy. This is a delicious story of New York and its institutions, and a meditation on a young bride’s search for healing. 

A good long read. 

Finally, can we discuss George Eliot’s “Mill on the Floss”? I read her “Middlemarch” last summer in Vermont, on an island, with little else to do. (Bliss.) So I brought “Mill…” this year. Well! What happens to beautiful, spirited Maggie Tulliver will break your heart. I thought: that’s not fair! A few days later I realized that Eliot had laid out the truth about society’s treatment of women. Once tarnished, they will never be forgiven. 

More to come, sooner. 

Oops, I forgot to mention television. All worth a watch, in no particular order: 

“The Bear”

“The Empress” 

“The Sinner” 



At our summer place in Quebec, I can read for hours without interruption.

Recently there, I inhaled A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy, an author I read repeatedly. This one is not like his others because its heroine is not undone by men (i.e., Tess of the d’Urbervilles.) Paula Power, the only daughter of a railroad magnate, inherits Stancy Castle. The book’s opening pages reveal her spirit: about to be baptized in her father’s faith, she flees. You go, girl! This is Victorian England, so Paula can’t go far without a friend or protector. Still, she flirts with the architect she’s hired to modernize the castle and carelessly engages herself to the older Captain de Stancy in a quest to raise her status. De Stancy’s bastard son causes all kinds of trouble. More than once I thought, “how dastardly!”

This is not Hardy’s finest work. It’s repetitive and not well-rooted. (Paula decamps to the continent with a long lost uncle, who has his own ideas about Paula’s future.) Liner notes suggest that Hardy’s wife Emma wrote this one, as Hardy was ill. That said, I enjoyed this read, as well as Paula’s eventual fortitude and decisiveness. 

I look forward to new fiction by Dan Chaon, because I’ve loved his earlier novels, including You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. His novels are coiled and odd and typically set in the Midwest. His latest, Sleep Walk suffers in the same way the Hardy did. It’s all over the place geographically. That’s the point: his main character is both hunted and rootless. Bill Bear (an alias, one of many) is the offspring of a cult leader and a girl who got away. Bear was born an itinerant. A rosier life suggests itself to him in the voice of a girl who may be his sperm-bank daughter. Set in the near future, these telephone exchanges between “father” and “daughter” are the heart of this tale. There’s also lots of action and violence and a spectacular betrayal. Maybe I’m mad at all white men (in government) but the ending struck me as skeevy fantasy.

I’m a longtime fan of Japapese literature, as I studied with Donald Keene at Columbia University. Woman Running in the Mountains, by Yuko Tshushima belongs in the pantheon. The book tells the story of Takika Osaka, who (shockingly) bears a child out of wedlock. Her father is a drunk who beats her; her mother urged her to abort and then suggests giving up the child for adoption. For Takika, the child is a triumph. The boy is hers alone: she made him. This is the story of a young woman in Tokyo and its mountainous outskirts becoming her full self, as a mother, daughter, sister, lover, worker. 

Tom Perrotta writes about the American suburbs like no other. Among his gems: Little Children, The Leftovers, Mrs. Fletcher. One of his first books, Election, became one of the funniest movies ever made, starring a young Reese Witherspoon running for school president and Matthew Broderick as the teacher who rigs the election against her. In his newest, Perrotta revisits the life of that student in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Now an adult, Tracy hasn’t gone far: she’s a high school assistant principal. Surely she’ll be promoted with the principal’s retirement! Too bad for the reader that Tracy hasn’t changed. She’s cold and efficient and unloved. The secondary characters in this book — much like Election — are more interesting than Tracy. We root for them to fall in love, to free themselves from addiction.

Finally, I’m about one-third in to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. It’s slowly told, in the best way. A retired, widowed professor involves himself with African immigrants in Berlin. 

P.S. Ignore the critics. Jane Austen’s Persuasion on Netflix is a visual treat. It’s perfectly cast. The book can be tiresome. This film is a joy.

Happy summer, happy reading. 


I stopped posting book reviews sometime last year. Not sure why. I’ve been reading the whole time, as always. Maybe no read made me want to sit down and write about it. 

I’ve got one now. I’m suffering “book grief” over “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” by Tove Ditlevsen, a Danish writer (1917 – 1976) celebrated during her lifetime. Not sure why it’s a bestseller these days — a new translation? 

For whatever reason, I’m glad it fell in my lap. Her story begins quietly, just after World War 1, in a working-class neighborhood of Copenhagen. Always a misfit, little Tove discovers her inner life early, though a poetry journal. Her education stops just before high school, but she keeps writing even as she takes on work that dulls her. Editors and elders encourage, and Tove begins publishing poems and novels. Disastrously, she marries an older editor who supports her work but won’t have sex with her. (I love a train wreck.) She marries a student, they have a child and then — she’s pregnant again. The search for an abortion reads like a grimy thriller. Another unwanted pregnancy brings Tove to her third husband, a doctor who eases her pain with Demerol, then continues to feed her addiction. I’ve never read a more graphic depiction of addiction. It’s horrifying. 

I loved this read because I loved Tove. She is odd. She’s relentless in her desire to write and publish. She’s a loving mother and wife. Her descent into addiction is a twist I didn’t expect.

Another big book (580 pages) I liked was Jonathan Franzen’s “Crossroads,” about a Midwestern family in the 1960s. Associate pastor Ross Hildebrandt is husband and father. The story begins with his ridiculous pursuit of a widowed parishioner and a petty feud with the youth pastor who’s more popular with the teens. Wife Marion is overweight and in therapy. You think she’s a dull suburban mom until she relives the youthful affair she had with a married man, in L.A., which landed her in the psych ward. More nuttiness is found on the campus of University of Illinois, where their brilliant son Clem drops out and alerts the draft office of that decision. (His father, and his father’s father, are pacifists.) The other siblings indulge in drugs, alcohol, sex. This is the first of three books about this family. I’m hooked. 

I’d never read “Middlemarch” by George Eliot. It’s the favorite of many writers I admire (i.e., Lauren Groff) so I picked it from my towers of “to be read” and brought it with me to an island in Vermont. There, I had many hours of uninterrupted reading, which is what this book demands. It’s a long, delicious story. The young Dorothea Brooks, imaging herself a helpmate, attaches herself to an older clergyman who imagines himself a scholar. (Again, I love a train wreck.) It’s a passionless marriage and Dorothea falls for the clergyman’s young cousin, who is sent packing. Subplots fill out the story (it’s 835 pages) and include a good doctor who’s bad with money; a respected banker whose hypocrisy catches up with him; lovers twisted by the whims of benefactors and parents. It’s a rich read. 

Finally, I was puzzled by a newly published book that annotates Virginia Wolff’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” Was it that difficult? I’d started it years ago and put it down because the beginning is dull: Clarissa is hosting a dinner party and decides to buy the flowers herself. I thought the book was about the party. It is, and it’s also much more. Set just after World War 1, the book takes place in London in a single day. We are with Clarissa and her help and her family and her guests and we are with Septimus Smith, a veteran, who ends his life. No annotation needed.This is an accessible, devastating read. 

I’m happy to be posting again. More books, more travel, more food and cooking. More life. Let’s hope this is Covid’s last blast. 


I’ve been reading, reading, reading. So many wonderful books. Here’s a few I enjoyed recently.

When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant

Palestine before it was Israel? Yes, please. It’s 1946 and London native Evelyn Sert, 20, is newly orphaned. Her late mother’s beau gives her money to emigrate. “Did he really see me as the future of Jewish humanity? Or was he just getting rid of me?” Evelyn arrives on a tourist visa and settles in Tel Aviv, where she discovers a new world of scents and sun and foods and sex. She fails at field work but thrives at a beauty parlor. Evelyn falls for Johnny, a bad boy on a motorcycle who’s a native of Jerusalem and a spy. This novel read like a memoir. I felt like Evelyn took me by the hand and showed me the beauty and terror of Israel as it was forming.

Foregone, by Russell Banks

Banks writes about American men and women like no other. (My favorites are Continental Drift and The Darling.) His latest is Foregone. It tells the story of Leonard Fife, an American who fled the country during the Vietnam War, for Canada, where he became a celebrated documentarian. A film crew is in his Montreal apartment with the aim of documenting his process. He’s dying: noisily, uncomfortably. Fife doesn’t want to talk about process, he wants to talk about his life. The film crew indulges him, so they (and we) hear Fife’s story, which may or may not be true. He’s drugged. Is he confusing his story with his wife’s? This is a tale of abandonment (country, wives, children) and renewal. Like all Banks’ work, this read is complex but accessible.

Corrigan, by Caroline Blackwood 

Lady Caroline Blackwood is best known for her singular beauty and many marriages, to the painter Lucian Freud (“Girl in Bed” is in the British National Gallery) and to the poet Robert Lowell. Blackwood says it was Lowell who encouraged her novel writing. Corrigan is her last. It tells the story of Mrs. Blunt, a grieving widow who takes in a poor Irishman confined to a wheelchair. Corrigan (and his cause) is the tonic Mrs. Blunt needs to live again. It’s fun to see dainty Mrs. Blunt succeed as a farmer and “picker” of antiques. Corrigan is scam artist. Does she know? Does it matter? 

I started this post just after the Oscars were announced. I saw many films last year (at home). These are the movies that stayed with me. They made me think. 

The Sound of Metal

Shiva Baby 

A Promising Woman



I’ve had a hard time reading and writing lately. Not sure why. Lockdown going into a second year? Probably. I’m bored with myself because there’s not enough going on. No dinner parties, no restaurant lunches, no movie dates. No travel. I’m grateful for my husband’s presence, especially in the late afternoon and evening. We watch the news, we talk, we drink wine and make dinner. He makes me laugh and think. (This is a photo of us before we married, in 1985.)

I have been reading, of course, and watching television. Here are some I recommend.

Trio, by William Boyd. I love just about anything set in the 1960’s. So much drama! The Vietnam War, student riots, the sexual revolution, mini skirts. Boyd sets his tale in 1968, on a Brighton movie set. The trio is the film’s producer, its American starlet, and the director’s novelist wife. Each has a rich private life — I felt like I knew them intimately — that wound up unexpectedly. Talbot, the producer, is a World War Two veteran clumsily making his way of the closet. Anny, the movie star, is addled by uppers and downers and in love with her sexy co-star. Trouble for her arrives with her on-the-lam ex-husband, who’s wanted by the FBI and CIA. The novelist Elfrida is a drunk; her recovery surprises. GQ blurbed it best: “a diverting read that’s…raucus, charming, and eccentric.

What You Have Heard is True, A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, by Carolyn Forché. Sometimes I pick up a book from my piles because it’s in paperback. This is one of those. I’m glad I did. Forché, a poet, tells an astonishing story of her involvement with a revolutionary who lures her to El Salvador. This is not a romance. Leonel chooses her to tell the story of a country on the verge of civil war. This is a heart-stopping, sobering, unforgettable read. 

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron. I was impressed with Cameron’s “What Happens at Night” so I decided to read some of his earlier novels. This is a coming-of-age story set in post 9/11 Manhattan. High school senior James Sveck works in his mother’s Chelsea art gallery, lovingly spars with his co-ed sister, puts up with his distant father, and adores his grandmother. (Each character is well drawn.) James is very bight but doesn’t like his peers. He got into Brown but doesn’t want to go, because he’d be with people his age. The pain of figuring out oneself, at eighteen, is beautifully and hilariously explored.

Simone Weil, by Francine du Plessix Gray. Wowza. What a life story. Simone Weil (1909- 1934) was a French philosopher who literally died for her country. A precocious child, Weil grew up in privilege that she would later politely disdain. (She would pay her parents for the small amount of food she consumed.) Weil wrote and published and lived an alternative life, including factory work that nearly killed her. This excellent biography charts Weil’s asceticism, anorexia, dysmorphic clothing, patriotism, thinking and writing, as well as her struggle to allow herself to be baptized in the Catholic Church. (Also, her humor and generosity as a teacher.) She was influenced by Pascal’s Pens´ees. In turn, her writings influenced the philosopher and author Albert Camus. 

Nomadland, written and directed by Chlo´e Zhan, starring Frances McDormand. Is this a story about the road? Women? I think it’s a story about grief. McDormand’s Fern is newly widowed. She outfits a van and takes to the road. She’s not homeless, she tells a former student, she’s houseless. Fern takes seasonal jobs at Amazon, in the fields, cleaning bathrooms, cooking fries. Another traveler has his eye on her but we don’t know why. (The only fault in an otherwise perfect film.) Fern is prickly. She doesn’t want to be wanted. This is a beautiful, slow moving film. It has stayed with me. 


It’s the end of 2020! Goodbye, good riddance. 

Two — no, three — nice things happened before lockdown in March. First, I turned 60 in January and had a fun dance party with friends and family. That would be the last carefree time of the year. At the end of January, we got a puppy. His name is Ziggy. He is a very beautiful English Cocker Spaniel. He’s willful but sweet. It’s nice to have a dog again. Finally, beginning in January, work began on our new kitchen. It had been a year’s worth of planning, measuring, purchasing. Work finished just as lockdown began. 

I don’t want to sound tone deaf. I know that many are suffering because of the pandemic. One of my sons is a fashion photographer in New York; that industry shut down. He was fortunate to find work as a carpenter. Too, he had Covid in March. We spoke to him nightly but worried terribly, as he had very high fevers that left him hallucinating. Too, it took him weeks to feel well again. 

I’m grateful for the roof over our head, neighborhood grocers, Zoom yoga, distance cocktails this summer, long walks along the lakefront with friends. 

One plus of going nowhere is the amount of writing and reading and watching and drawing/painting I’ve done. Also, piano playing. 

My favorite new-ish eads of the year are these, in the order I read them.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker 

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli

The Equivalents: A Story of Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, by Maggie Doherty

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

What Happens at Night, by Peter Cameron

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Just Like Us, by Nick Hornby

The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante 

Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction, by David Enrich

Squeeze Me, by Carl Hiaasen

The Undying, by Anne Boyer

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart 

I wanted to love Don DeLillo’s The Silence, but did not…

These are my favorite “old” books I read this year, and recommend:

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948)

A Feather on the Breath of God, by Sigrid Nunez (1995)

The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman (1998)

The Stories of Alice Adams, by Alice Adams (2002)

The Manor (1967) and The Estate (1969), by I.B. Singer 

Reviews of all books, above, can be found at

This was a year we needed to laugh. Schitt’s Creek (I know, I’m late to the party) makes us howl. Yes, the first few episodes are not great. Get through those, and you’ll be hooked. We’re watching Bridgerton, a steamy mashup of Gossip Girl and a Jane Austen novel. It’s fab. I watched The Undoing and wish I hadn’t, but if you need a New York City glam fix, it’s your show. Haven’t finished but liking The Queen’s Gambit. Skip Industry – it’s ridiculous. I loved I Know This Much is True, even though it’s heartbreaking. Fourth season of The Crown, yes yes yes. I loved every single minute of Mrs. America for its story, acting, fashion. Unorthodox had me on the edge of my seat. 

Here’s to a better new year.


Book grief is my term for a read that gripped me and won’t let go. Once finished, its rich characters linger in my mind. Think Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Dorie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, I. B. Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story. 

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain gave me book grief. It’s the story of Shuggie, 16 and orphaned when we meet him. How did he end up alone, at that age, in Glasgow? This book is that story. It’s not a memoir but Stuart has said it hews to his life.

Agnes Campbell Bain is the boy’s mother. Agnes, a beauty, is an unforgettable character: elegant, witty, fun loving, fierce. Also a danger to herself and others. She drinks herself to death, driving away Shuggie’s father, sister, brother, suitors. We stick with her because Shuggie does. He guards his mother from suicide, drinking buddies, AA friends, “uncles”. His devotion is understandable, especially after Agnes noisily “frees” him from his father’s home. 

Two of my friends put down Shuggie Bain down after a few chapters. I get it — it’s a sad story. I’m glad I reached its end, and saw Shuggie blossom into his own person. 


Another hard read I savored is The Undying, by Anne Boyer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, in 2020. My son the bookseller pressed it on me. Thank you, Evan.

Boyer is a poet and essayist. Her subject is cancer, death, the literature of illness, treatment, the for-profit U.S. healthcare system. Her suffering made me outraged on her behalf.

The Undying is unlike any book I’ve read. The poet knows this: “After cancer, my writing felt given its full permission.” 


After that, I needed the nuttiness of a Carl Hiassen tale. Like his others, Squeeze Me is set in Florida. Angie Armstrong, a wildlife wrangler, is called to a private club in Palm Beach to remove a giant python. Inside the python is the socialite and Trump supporter Kiki Pew, whose disappearance causes a chain reaction that wrongly imprisons an immigrant — catnip for Trump and his supporters. A delicious side story is Melania’s affair with a secret service agent…

Hiassen never disappoints. A diverting read, when I needed it most. 


Another Trump book? Dark Towers, by David Enrich, is the story of Deutsche Bank’s spectacular fall from respectability. Trump is a minor player in this engrossing tale. When no other bank will loan to Trump (because he defaults), he borrows money from Deutsche Bank, and when he can’t repay it, he persuades them to loan him more money to repay the original loan. I know. My head is spinning, too. There’s much more to this “bank gone bad” story, and Enrich tells it like a thriller.


I liked Elena Ferrnate’s “Neapolitan Quartet,” so I looked forward to her latest, The Lying Life of Adults. Ferrante’s characters are so rich, so flawed, so educated, so passionate. (As my friend Deb says, with her hands, “They’re sooooo Italian.”) This novel is told by the teenage Giovanna, who lives a comfortable life in Naples. A cruel comment by her father puts Giovanna on a path to find an estranged aunt. Why are the siblings so different intellectually? Why is her aunt so poor? What drove them apart? That’s one thread of the story. Another is her parents’ divorce and recoupling with others. Also, Giovanna’s inappropriate longing for a young man betrothed to another. Like the “Neapolitan Quartet,” Ferrante takes us into the emotionally-charged life of a girl. Richly told.


After listening to it on audio, my friend Jen recommend Just Like You, by Nick Hornby. (Thanks, Jen.) I’ve liked his books, on and off, since High Fidelity. They’re smart, funny, of-the-moment reads. 

Just Like You is a delight. It’s set in London as the people of England decide to stay in or leave the European Union. Lucy, who wants England to stay, is the newly single mother of two video-gaming, potty mouthed — but very sweet — young boys. (Lucy’s ex is an alcoholic who has broken their hearts.) Lucy hires Joseph, a 22 year old black man, to babysit while Lucy tries, and fails, at dating. (Very funny.)

Joseph and the boys bond. Joseph and Lucy fall in love.

And yet… Joseph can’t possibly bring Lucy to a dance club. Joseph can’t possibly introduce her to his family. Joseph can’t possibly stay faithful. Until he can, and does. 

I loved this read. Race, inequity, unlikely families, Brexit, Trump figure in the story. Its ending is perfect. 



This has been a summer like no other. There’s been no trips to our summer place in Quebec, no Bastille Day party with dear friends in Michigan. No outings to movie theaters. Instead, I’ve been walking our beautiful lakefront, parks, and historic neighborhoods. I’ve been swimming laps at our recently re-opened health club. (Bliss, even indoors.) Streaming movies and tv series. When I read, I’m in my urban back yard, listening to the chatter of birds, the bells of St. Michael’s. For this, I’m grateful.

Here are the books I recommend: 

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. By Joyce Carol Oates. This book is more than 800 pages, and I didn’t want it to end. It tells the story of the McClaren family. (The title is from a Walt Whitman poem.) Patriarch Whitey (no joke) is grievously wounded when he interferes in a police attack on a man of color. As Whitey fades, then dies, we come to know his wife and adult children, all of whom have been damaged, in some way, by Whitey’s standards. His wife, whose aching grief is beautifully and deeply explored, eventually becomes involved with an artist of Hispanic heritage. (The daughters think he’s out for their mother’s money.) Son Thom seeks justice for his father’s death but bungles a workplace situation and beats (to death? We don’t know) one of the cops. Daughter Beverly is an unbearable busybody until we’re in her head during Thanksgiving dinner, where, for a late night course she’ll serve her husband divorce papers. Or will she? Her sister Lorene is a high school principal undone by outrageous misdeeds. (I love a train wreck.) A New York Times reviewer said it best: this is a book “in conversation with this moment.” I loved it. 

Hamnet, A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell. Did I need to read a book set during a 16th century plague? Yes, as per my friend Jennifer, who said its ending astonished her. I’m glad I took her advice, though it’s a hard read to describe. Here goes: We are in the household of William Shakespeare, his parents, his siblings, his wife and their three children. We are most often in the company of his wife Agnes, a healer most comfortable in the woods. When their daughter Judith in near death, they send for Shakespeare. By the time he arrives, from London, Judith has recovered but her twin Hamnet has died, age 8. This is the story of the family’s grief, and how that grief made its way into the making of “Hamlet”. It’s an intimate telling of a family, a marriage, the healing arts, twinship. And Jennifer was right: the ending astonishes. 

What Happens at Night, by Peter Cameron. A New York couple gets off a train in a snowy landscape and makes their way to a grand, faded hotel in an unnamed foreign city. The wife is exhausted by the journey and heads to bed; her husband goes to the hotel bar. There, things are weird. Or is it jet lag? Are the patrons there to help or harm? In the morning, the couple sets out for the orphanage, where they’ll meet the baby they’ve come to adopt. But the taxi takes them to the home of a famous healer. The wife, who’s suffering from terminal cancer, declares herself healed in the man’s presence, and won’t leave. Her intransigence presents a problem: both parents must be present to “take possession” of the baby. (Cue the bar patrons.) This is a dreamy novel that took me far, far away. (It’s also very funny.) It’s a testament to Cameron’s skill  that I cared deeply for the man, the woman, and their marriage during their odd journey.

I love me a tv series I can watch every night, ‘cuz there’s no place to go during this pandemic. Among the ones we’ve enjoyed, and highly recommend: Mrs. America, which chronicles the fight for, and against, the Equal Rights Amendment, in the 1970s. What a cast! Cate Blanchett plays Phylis Schlafly, Rose Byrne is Gloria Steinem, Tracy Ullman is Betty Friedan. John Slattery, Sarah Paulson, James Marsden and others bring this era to life. We also loved Unorthodox, the true story of an Orthodox girl who flees an arranged marriage. It’s a present-day period-piece thriller. Dr. Thorne, a 2016 series (three episodes) is a bon bon. Another we liked is Immigration Nation, which is hard to watch, but necessary. Finally, check out Zero Zero Zero. It’s a violent tale about the global drug trade. Each episode was as rich as full-length movie.


Black lives matter. These are among my favorite reads — novels, plays, poetry, nonfiction — about Black lives in America and overseas. Each is illuminating, infuriating, heartbreaking. 

Native Son, by Richard Wrignt (1940)

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

The Street, by Ann Petry (1946)  

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003) 

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange (1976)

Harlem, by Langston Hughes (1951)

We Real Cool, by Gwendolyn Brooks (1959)

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih (1966), which ends, “Help! Help!”

During this pandemic and rightful unrest, I read books that made me think about oppression, migration, motherhood and creativity, and showing up for those we love. I am so much at home, still. I read in my city garden, on my sunny deck, and in a favorite spot beside some open windows. 

Here’s what I can recommend: 


A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

Jivan is a young Muslim woman on her way to a better life than her indigent parents. She is educated, speaks English, works retail. After hours she unwinds with a cigarette — such a luxury — in a Kolkata public square. There she witnesses a train bombing, which kills nearly 100. Police do nothing to help its victims, trapped by flames. Later that night, Jivan posts on Facebook the notion that government, in its inaction, is equal to the terrorists. 

Swiftly, Jivan is jailed, tried, convicted, sentenced to death. 

Hers is one of three stories in this quickly paced tale. PT Sir is a phys ed teacher at the school Jivan attended. He’s annoyed that she dropped out, after he’d been kind and encouraging. PT Sir, also upwardly mobile, does favors for a political party and rises in its ranks, eventually allowing him to leave teaching. In his new post, can he save Jivan?

There’s Lovely, a hijara, who dreams of a film career. Jivan had tutored Lovely in English, and Lovely — a man who presents as a woman — testifies on her behalf. As Lovely’s star rises, will she save Jivan?

This read took me deep into a world I barely knew. I loved the story, and admired its telling. 

The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman

I admit to picking this up because a reviewer said it contained one of the best sex scenes ever written. Half way in — the story concerns sailors attached to a ship that’s not seaworthy, docked in a Brooklyn port — I thought, did I get this right? There’s a sex scene? And then our hero, Esteban, dreams of his dead novia, La Marta. Wowza. It’s only a page or two but rivals Joyce’s Molly soliloquy.

That said, this book is so much more than a great sex scene. Esteban and his mates, all from South America, are marooned. (The ship’s owners visit, bring food, assure them that once the ship is repaired, they’ll be on their way.) These seamen have no rights, they speak no English. When they venture off the boat, they are robbed and beaten. 

Interwoven stories of the ship’s owners — yes, you’ll want to strangle them — and a Ship’s Visitor liven the read. 

Eventually, Esteban dares to leave the boat alone, at night. In a neighborhood of immigrants, he finds kindness, love, friendship, hope. 

A great read, published in 1997. 

The Equivalents, by Maggie Doherty

Mid-career women artists, poets, writers, scholars were invited, in 1960, to apply for  paid fellowships at Radcliffe College at Harvard University. (A kind of “room of own’s own,” with others.) 

The Institute for Independent Study was the brainchild of Radcliffe president Mary Ingraham Bunting, who felt that the U.S. asked little of its women outside the home. It was “a climate of unexpectation,” at a time when women in the Soviet Union were 30 percent of its engineers and 75 percent of its doctors. The U.S., she declared, was wasting a precious resource: educated women.

With the Institute, Bunting sought to kick start the careers of scholars and artists who had been sidelined by motherhood. Most fellows had advanced degrees; if not, they were deigned “equivalent.” 

Among its first class was a group whose lives and work would thereafter be entwined: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer Tillie Olsen, artist Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda. 

Doherty captures the time and place, the personalities, the work, the place of women in society and education. She explores the competing desires of motherhood and creativity. This is nonfiction at its finest. Bravo, Maggie Doherty.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, by Lionel Shriver.

I’m a fan of her work because no matter the subject, Shriver provides a fluid read, typically about intelligent people doing questionable and sometimes awful things. This book is not as searing as, say, We Need to Talk about Kevin, but this is still a Shriver.

Serenata (ugh, that name) is the book’s unsympathetic narrator. (That’s a skill, to get and keep a reader invested in an unlikeable person.) Her recently retired husband Remington decides to train for a marathon. Wait: extreme exercise has always been her thing! Remington hires a sexy trainer and joins a group with the same goal. With her bad knees, Serenata is sidelined, reduced to spectator and provider of snacks. Also in the mix: the couple’s newly evangelical daughter and her many children. Also their drug dealer son. 

This is delicious satire. It’s fun to see this couple fall apart and find each other again. It’s set in beautiful Duchess County, New York, an area I know and love.