I’m looking forward to The Great American Read, hosted by PBS beginning on May 22. 100 books and series have been selected, and viewers will be asked to vote for their favorite book or series. Plenty of classics are on the list, as well as contemporary books, popular series for all ages, and some contemporary books. Viewers will remember much-loved books you read as a child, assigned reading titles that you actually enjoyed (or not), books familiar only because of their movies, and books you might like to read for the first time. There may be books you’ve never heard of, and books that make you wonder how they got on this list. For me, the list contains all of these categories. The only types of books I don’t see are picture books, non-fiction, plays, and biographies. Did you enjoy The Martian, or have fond memories of Charlotte’s Webb? Find out you enjoyed mysteries when assigned to read And Then There Were None in junior high? Have trouble putting down The Da Vinci Code? Cry over The Notebook? Wonder why your favorite book isn’t listed?
Here’s the list. Look for copies of the list on my June book display of The Great American Read.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This is an absorbing novel about two very different families in the planned community of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Set in 1998, the Richardsons and their four children seem to have everything, but it’s their house in flames as the book opens, with one of their children suspected of arson. 11 months earlier, Elena Richardson rented a small house to artist Mia and her teen daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl are used to moving frequently, fitting all their belongings in a VW Rabbit, buying clothes and furniture at thrift stores. Izzy Richardson spends time with Mia, wanting to learn how she makes her unusual photographs. Pearl is befriended by Moody Richardson, and is fascinated by his older siblings, Lexie and Trip. Full of secrets gradually revealed, this is a story about mothers and daughters, and different paths to motherhood. Adoption, surrogacy, unwanted pregnancy, and premature birth are all covered here. Reporter Elena’s friend is hoping to adopt an abandoned Chinese American baby, whose birth mother works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant. Everything is connected, and the author gradually peels back the layers of the characters, dazzling and sometimes stunning the reader. Deservedly popular, this is a memorable and compelling read.
Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson
A compelling, engaging read of the amazing challenge NASA accepted in the summer of 1968 to send astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders to orbit the Moon in late December on Apollo 8. While the stories of Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 are well known, the less familiar story of Apollo 8 makes for fascinating reading. Even though I knew that Apollo 8 was successful, Kurson still makes the mission suspenseful. The author met and interviewed Borman, Lovell, Anders and their families for this book, and his portrayal of the men and their wives turn them from remote historical figures into real, approachable people. Readers learn how and why the men became astronauts, and how their families coped with their dangerous jobs as test pilots and astronauts. Until NASA learned that the Soviet Union planned a flyby of the moon in 1968, they weren’t planning to send astronauts to the moon until Apollo 9 in 1969. In four months, they planned their boldest mission, which was vital in preparing for the moon landing of Apollo 11 and best remembered for photographs of the Earth and the live television broadcast on Christmas Eve. After a very turbulent and violent year, Borman, Lovell, and Anders helped end 1968 on a hopeful, triumphant note. Apollo 8, by Jeffrey Kruger is another recent book about the mission. For more from Robert Kurson, read Shadow Divers, Crashing Through, or Pirate Hunters, which will be discussed here on July 17.
Other People’s Houses by Abbi Waxman
Frances Bloom is the neighborhood carpool mom, and fits seven kids in her van every weekday morning. Then she has a couple of hours before picking up two preschoolers, usually spent running errands or doing laundry. Michael and Frances have three kids, ages 4 to 14, along with two dogs and a cat, and don’t get much alone time. Retrieving craft supplies for first-grader Kate, she learns that her neighbor Anne is having an affair. Anne ends the affair, but her husband finds out and causes a scene that has the whole neighborhood on edge. Different points of view introduce the neighbors, and even Ava, at 14 the oldest kid on the block, gets her turn, as does her brother Milo. Witty dialogue and some humor, especially at soccer games, make for a quick read, but I found this book not quite as enjoyable as her first book, The Garden of Small Beginnings.
The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure by Shoba Narayan
When Shoba, a journalist, and her husband Ram move from New York City to the southern Indian city of Bangalore, she is intrigued by the cows in her neighborhood. Shoba makes the acquaintance of Serala, the local milk lady. When her family, including two daughters, aren’t interested in drinking raw milk, Shoba boils the milk and makes yogurt and ghee. Gradually, she gets interested in the role of cows in south Indian culture, and decides to write some articles. Serala and her family guide Shoba, especially when Shoba and Ram decide to buy a cow in honor of their fathers for upcoming birthday celebrations. While I was only expecting to read about cows and dairy products, Shoba also relates the uses of cow urine and dung. A touching chapter explores the difficulty of placing a male calf in mostly vegetarian south India. In this vivid, heartwarming memoir and travelogue, Shoba, Serala and the cows are very good company.
On May 15 at 10 a.m., the Tuesday Morning Book Group will discuss The Other Alcott, by Elise Hooper. This is a biographical novel about May Alcott, the youngest sister of the author of Little Women, who travels to Europe in her quest to be a painter. Here is my earlier review.
At 7 p.m. on May 22, The Tuesday Evening Book Group will discuss Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller. This historical novel is another look at The Little House on the Prairie book from Ma’s point of view. A Library Reads pick, here’s my review.
The Crime Readers will meet at 7 p.m. at Home Run Inn Pizza in Darien on May 17 to discuss The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. The first Flavia de Luce mystery, it’s set in an English village in the 1950s. The Crime Readers are co-sponsored by the Indian Prairie Public Library. Optional dinner is at 6 p.m.
Copies of the books are available at the Adult & Teen Services Reference Desk.
Circe by Madeline Miller
In her follow-up to her 2012 novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller revisits the world of Greek myths, this time with the witch-goddess Circe. Circe, the daughter of Helios, a Titan, and a water nymph, never feels at home in her father’s halls. She is mocked for her strange voice and lacks the beauty and power of her parents and siblings. Instead, she finds herself drawn to mortals and prefers them to the vain and petty gods around her. When her latent powers are made known, she is considered a threat by Zeus and is exiled to the island Aiaia. On the island, she begins to practice pharmakeia, witchcraft using herbs and other elements to create powerful spells. She is particularly adept at transfiguration.
Circe briefly leaves Aiaia when she is summoned to Crete by her sister, Pasiphae. While at Knossos, she meets her niece, Ariadne, the inventor Daedalus, and has a memorable encounter with the Minotaur. After returning to exile, Circe is more keenly aware of her loneliness than before and throws herself into working her magic. Despite her isolation, Circe does have the odd visitor. Sometime lover Hermes comes to tell tales of the outside world. Circe’s other niece, the witch Medea, seeks her out after fleeing her kingdom with Jason. Ships of men also find their way to her island and, at first, she welcomes their company. After a sailor’s brutal betrayal, Circe transforms him and his crew into pigs. Thereafter, most men who find her island meet the same fate. One day, as foretold by prophecy, Odysseus makes his way to Circe’s shores. If you know your mythology, you already know how the story plays out. However, in Miller’s hands, the story feels fresh and utterly compelling.
Circe is a complex and sympathetic heroine. Her struggles to find her voice and wield her power are both ancient and completely of the moment. Circe may be about a goddess, but it has a lot to say about being not only a woman, but a woman with power. A particularly potent theme throughout Circe’s story is how men fear powerful women and attempt to suppress them. Miller’s vivid, evocative writing brings the Greek gods and monsters to life in a unique and fantastic way. Readers who enjoy stories about women’s lives, and those who read literary, historical, and fantasy fiction will all find something worthwhile here.