What to Read While Social Distancing

We will soon be beginning our sixth week(!) of sheltering in place with no definitive end in sight. I thought I would have gotten through my spring cleaning and buckled down to serious writing, but I’m not getting as much done as I intended to. What I am doing is reading and missing our library, but making use of my Kindle and the local bookstore (who will run books out to your car for you). Here are a couple of suggestions to read while you’re confined at home.


It’s been years, okay decades, since I’ve read Walden by Henry David Thoreau and this is a perfect time to pick it up.  An ode to solitude, he found joy in living a simple existence, free of the distractions of ordinary life. This was in 1854, but certainly sounds familiar today. He built his own cabin and raised his own food, while relishing introspection. He called it his personal experiment, observing the seasons and nature around Walden Pond.


The Martian by Andy Weir is about an astronaut stranded on Mars during a giant sandstorm who must use his ingenuity to survive. You would think he was a goner when he gets knocked out, his spacesuit is punctured…. and he is presumed dead. Highly intelligent, he perseveres by thinking creatively how to grow food and obtain water. I‘ll give away no more – it is good read about imaginative solitary confinement! The Martian was made into a movie starring Matt Damon.

Or maybe you’re ready to tackle those long novels on your to-read list by the likes of Tolstoy or Follett? If you are in to fantasy… I leave it to you dear readers to make suggestions below for everyone.

My Year in Books 2018 (Part II)

Last week I reviewed four entertaining novels: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Secrets of a Charmed Life, Honolulu and A Dog’s Purpose. Below I include some more worthy books with brief descriptions.

I’m not a big reader of nonfiction and have been disappointed in some of those with high reviews (but that’s just me). One worth mentioning however is Thailand in Perspective by James King. King is an entertaining writer who lives in Thailand and has written a trilogy of these books including: 15 weeks (Vol. 1 – free on Kindle) and Driving Thailand (Vol.2). I’ve never been there, but his writing makes me want to go. Even if you are not planning a visit this is good travel-armchair reading.

Other Novels I enjoyed last year are:

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks –a compelling story about a missionary’s daughter and a Native American student at Harvard – one constrained by his skin the other by her sex. Moving and at times triumphant; set in mid 1600’s.



The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

A charming and wise little fable. A shepherd boy travels through Spain and northern Africa in search of treasure and finds simple truths.


Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah – written in present tense, about a dysfunctional family, and in past tense is the haunting saga of WWII Leningrad. Two sisters come to understand their dynamics in a satisfying conclusion.



The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman – Enjoy the plot and the writing, full of symbolism – look for the flowers, birds and all the “opposites.” The story, set in St. Thomas, is about artist Pissarro’s extraordinary family life.



A Gentleman in Moscow – To be honest I had trouble getting through this highly acclaimed book. Amor Towles’ fans will be appalled I know, but here’s why: it is long with no page-turning plot. That said, Towles is a literary writer and I appreciated the fine writing about post-revolutionary Russia.


Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. Unusual story about strangers who band together, to escape the Black Plague wreaking havoc in a bleak, muddy landscape. The pilgrims have been compared to the Canterbury Tales, also set in the14thcentury, each has a secret. Slow but worthwhile with a surprise ending.


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is also good. A novel about two families and how each member’s life is changed by an affair between two of the parents. Bel Canto is still my favorite Patchett book.51Ix-oAS0zL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg




A Piece of the World
by Christina Baker Kline, based on the real story of Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth . I think those interested in art will like it. Orphan Train is my favorite book by her, but many would disagree with me.

Have you read any of these books?  Do you have others to recommend?

My Year in Books for 2018

I selected a number of books I read in the last year to review for this blog. They tend to lean toward historical novels with a sprinkling of multicultural ones. I am neither as prolific a reader as so many others, nor a literary critic, but as an author I am occasionally asked to review manuscripts. I can recommend these books as entertaining reads.


At the top of my assemblage are Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner, and The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

But before I say more, first a proviso: most of them are not recently published so if you are looking for new books I’m afraid by the time they make it to the top of my reading list they are no longer new!  Still a good book lasts forever.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is an extraordinary tale, full of magical realism, based on historical facts and folklore. Teresita, the 16-year-old, illegitimate but cherished daughter of a wealthy rancher becomes regarded as a healer and saint.  Urrea breathes life into his three main characters: Teresita, Tomas and Huila… and secondary fictional characters like loyal Segundo seem genuinely real too. The stage is 19th-century Mexico as civil war is fermenting in Mexico. The time and setting swept me away, along with – in spite of – the social struggles of the indigenous people. I enjoyed reading the cultural elements, the food and even all the swear words “chingado, bruto, cabron, pendejo,” that I rarely heard in my youth growing up in Latin America. Some reviewers have not liked the sprinkling of Spanish, but it does not distract from the story; rather it enriches it, especially if you know even a few words. If not, don’t feel you’ve lost the meaning. On the publisher’s page is the standard disclaimer: “the characters and events in this book are fictional” but the author’s note in the back states “Teresa Urrea was a real person,” and a relative in author’s family.

Secrets of a Charmed Life I’ve read SO many WWII stories lately that it took me awhile to pick this one up, but I did because it is by master storyteller Susan Meissner who wrote the Fall of Marigolds. Could she create another tour de force? –Yes and here it is. I found it hard to put the book down. It starts out full of hope and even joy, then fate leads us to heartache, but finally redemption. Here’s an excerpted bit of prose I found enthralling yet chilling, on the day the Blitz began (pg.147):                     “while London was going about its Saturday afternoon…hundreds of Luftwaffe pilots were climbing into their cockpits….the RAF pilots had never seen so many aircraft in the air at the same time… like a sheet of black across the sky…a (radar) WAAF couldn’t believe what she was seeing, “What is that?” … pointing to the monstrous cloud across the screen…Then the Dover radar picked up the giant shadow….oh, the chatter as they took to their radios to warn their brothers at arms that an armada from hell was streaking across the Channel toward them.”                                                            This is a story of ordinary people whose lives are forever damaged and the grief and guilt a teenager had to bear due to a moment of incaution.

Competing for top billing is Honolulu by Alan Brennert, and – a totally different genre – A Dog’s Purpose, by W. Bruce Cameron.

512pSDFUcoL._AC_US327_QL65_I met Alan Brennert at a book-reading at Orinda Books and have been a fan ever since. He weaves a heartwarming story in Honolulu about a young Korean girl who wants more in life than her confining birthright. Jin/Gem decides to become a “picture bride” and travels to Hawaii to discover her new husband is not quite how he presented himself and his life is certainly not what she imagined. Her existence is in the pineapple plantations and in canneries, where she toils – and triumphs – to better herself. As time goes on the Korean picture brides come together, help each other and finally climb out of poverty and lead comfortable and happy lives. Much research went into this accurate portrayal of Oahu. As a frequent visitor and a lover of Hawaii I really enjoyed this story as much as his Molokai.  Anyone who likes a good yarn will appreciate this novel.

517GxBFnZqL._AC_US327_QL65_A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron. This wise and magical book is about one endearing dog’s quest for his purpose through several reincarnated lives. A delightful dog story, but also at a deeper level it asks the age-old question, “why are we here?”  Bailey is astounded to find himself reborn as a boisterous puppy into the loving home of 8 yr. old Ethan.  This dog is a being so caring, affectionate and “highly evolved” he deserves sainthood, yet Bailey seems like a very real character. Does he exist somewhere?  He will make you laugh and cry and affirms that love never dies.  (Alas at least one of his lives is quite sad, but Cameron adapted a version for young readers which I bought for my granddaughter.)

Have you read any of these books?  Do you have others to recommend?

I’ll add a few other books I enjoyed this year in my next post. Meanwhile HAPPY NEW YEAR and keep reading!


End of Year Sale on e-books

READERS: Smashwords is having an End of Year Sale on e-books which runs only through January 1. “Discover tens of thousands of deep-discounted e-books from thousands of the world’s best indie authors and publishers.”

(OK there’s some junky books on the list but also some good ones, I especially noted good biographies at 75% off.) You can pick up some books for only a $1 (like mine 😉 ) to $3 – there are even some freebies.


The Best Books I Read Last Year

In the last year I read number of books I recommend. I‘ve become a little stingy with the number of stars I give a review – am I becoming jaded by the plethora of good books? Or maybe I should just give up the star system; sometimes it is like comparing apples and oranges.  All of the following are well written, but their place in my heart (rating) is based on just that. (No two people read the same book.) Fiction dominates my short list of nine, and of these, all but one are historical novels – I guess that is my favorite genre.

quiet-bookIn nonfiction my favorite book by far was Quiet by Susan Cain. The full title tells you a lot: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Carl Jung gave us the terms “introvert” for personality types drawn to the inner world of thought and feelings and “extrovert” for those drawn to the external life of people and activities. Gregarious extroverts are the life of the party because their brains are good at handling competing attention, whereas an introvert may feel overwhelmed by the noise and multitasking of the group setting and prefer one-on-one or a quiet evening at home. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert who loves or works with one, this book is enlightening. Extroverted personalities are appealing yet let’s not forget great introverts such as: Frederic Chopin, Albert Einstein, William Butler Yeats, George Orwell, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi and JK Rowlings.

 41bdVJOBoxL._AC_SX60_CR,0,0,60,60_ One highly acclaimed book I gave only four stars was The Luminaries. Here’s why:  it is no easy read and yet it is worth the effort – and that’s the gist of it.  It was more of a mental challenge than pleasure to spend time with and it is LONG.   The truth is if I had never heard of it and had not known it won a Booker Prize I probably would have put it down after 50 pages.  (I felt the same way about The Goldfinch last year – sorry fans, but where was her editor?)  It’s a commitment to get through some 850 pages of changing points of view within chapters, time jumps (wait a minute that guy was dead 100 pages ago), “telling vs. showing” and dozens of characters, each with seemingly tangential stories that the reader has to keep straight. The setting, the West Coast gold rush of New Zealand, is marvelous however. In sum, Eleanor Catton breaks all the rules -and gets away with.

Others I recommend  are The Infatuations by Javier 41A22DyqYgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Marias and Euphoria by Lily King.  (These authors are both five star writers but I base my honest opinion on how much I personally enjoyed the story.)  The Infatuations is set in Spain, and deals with death, desire, and the effects of chance and timing on outcomes. More than one infatuation is going on in this suspenseful, often dark story.  It is an intellectual novel, interesting and different, but at times pedantic with lengthy digressions.                        I love 51s2YlJboaL._AC_SX60_CR,0,0,60,60_historical fiction and have an interest in anthropology so Euphoria fit that criteria. King depicts Margaret Meade and her two lovers in the river villages of New Guinea in the 1930s and transports you in time and place; I should give it 4 1/2 stars.

wingsThe Invention of Wings, came very close to the 5 star mark. I was hesitant to read another book on the horrors and degradation of slavery, but this is a powerful novel – and based on real-life remarkable women of the time.

searchAccabadora by Michela Murgia is a little gem of a book, well-known in Italy, which won a number of European prizes. The novel takes the reader into village life in Sardinia in the 1950s.  The remarkable Bonaria is the “Accabadora” who eases the suffering of the dying, and sometimes ends it.   When her adopted child discovers this, she feels betrayed and rejects her.  A beautiful slice of life– set in a culture and place not many of us have experienced.

I’ll save my top three novels for next time – tune-in next week.

Have you read any of the above? If so do you agree/disagree?   Please share with us which books you enjoyed by commenting below.


Two Writers I would Most Like to Meet

Rats! I just found out David Sedaris is coming to our town and the tickets are already sold out. I mostly read fiction, but my two favorite nonfiction writers are both humorists: David Sedaris and Bill Bryson. They make me howl – literally! These men are incredibly witty – if asked who I  would most like to meet over a cup of coffee, it would be these two writers, preferably together. That’s not likely to happen, but fortunately I still have a number of their books yet to read.

David Sedaris

David Sedaris



Sedaris is the author of ” Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Naked”  – among other funny bestsellers and essays.


Bill Bryson wrote (among many others) “In a Sunburned Country” and my all-time favorite of his, “I’m A Stranger Here Myself” (a funny take on coming home after living abroad for many years).images

I can hardly believe our small town can book the likes of David Sedaris, but then I remember  Rick Steves, of “Europe Through the Back Door” fame came as well as Lewis Zamperini, the World War II prisoner of war, Olympic runner and subject of the book “Unbroken” now a feature film.


The library runs this Distinguished Speaker Series and someone told me we’ve also had Joyce Maynard and David Eggers. Aren’t libraries wonderful? As a person who grew up an ex-pat, without the the fantastic libraries I have access to today, I am ever appreciative and grateful.

MeTalkPrettyOneDayCover (wikipedia)

Click to see my review of  “Me Talk Pretty One Day” –  Sedaris’ hilarious book about the difficulties of learning another language.     


(Bill, I owe you one, but “The Mother Tongue” is at the top of my to read pile and I did post “I’m A Stranger Here Myself” as one of my top favorite books – see: Books I Have Known And Loved.)                

Expats note – there is (as often is the case with me) a multicultural thread to this post. Have you read Sedaris and Bryson? Who are your favorite nonfiction writers?

Reading Slowly

Hurray – I was starting to worry about the slow pace of my reading. When someone asks me to review a book I have to confess this deficit of mine (embarrassing when the person may have read my book in a matter of days). My Kindle often tells me the number of minutes to the end of the chapter I’m reading and it always takes me longer (sometimes twice as long) as their estimate; I used to say “I savor the words” but feared this was just an excuse for a slow brain.

Then I found this article by Jeanne Whalen in The Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/read-slowly-to-benefit-your-brain-and-cut-stress-1410823086)  that tells me to relax:

Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress, emphasizes the importance of deliberate slow reading. Whalen writes about a “return to a continuous, linear pattern, in a quiet environment free of distractions” –reading free of clickable links and videos, from one side of a page to another. It’s good for our brains, our absorption of information, and even our relationships with others.  “A study published last year in Science showed that reading literary fiction helps people understand others… (furthermore) regular engagement in mentally challenging activities, including reading, slowed rates of memory loss in participants’ later years.”

Jean reader ps 1011

Reading slowly increases comprehension or pleasure and helps decelerates the pace of modern life. There is a Slow Reading Club in Wellington, New Zealand.

What do you think?  Are you a speed reader or a slooow reader?  Will we be too inefficient if we slow down in a fast world?

My Year in Books with Recommendations by category

Of the books I read in 2013, I reviewed 14 books on Goodreads.com. At the top was Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants.  Closely followed by Rose Tremian’s Trepass and JT Twissel’s Flipka – two very different genres. (Interestingly the two books I am reading now are by Follett and Tremian). The longest book I tackled was nonfiction: Truman by  D. McCullough, which really gave me an appreciation of the quiet president from Missouri.


Here are my recommendations by category.

  •  Nonfiction:Truman by  D. McCullough
  • Historical: Fall of Giants and Winter of World by Follett, K
  • Mystery: Flipka, by JT Twissel
  • Literary: Trepass, by Rose Tremain  (I think I like her Music and Silence even better)
  • Most Enjoyable:  a tie between The Language of Flowers by V. Diffenbach, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by H Simons.
  •  Honorable mention: Angel Makers by J. Gregson and Molokai by Alan Brennert.


See my reviews of these and others on Goodreads.  Here is the link to my all time list of favorites: goodreads.com/review/list


You might be saying, “Hey, only one of these were published in 2013 (Flipka).”   What can I tell you?  I’ll never catch up with my “to-read” list, but you know what?  Books never grow old. Please SHARE YOUR FAVORITES by commenting below.  Here’s to making 2014 another great year of reading!

Why do we Read Fiction?

Story tellers have been honored since the beginning of human history – picture our early ancestors sitting around a fire being entertained and enlightened.

my bookshelf_ps E0138

A Section of my Bookshelf

Reading is such a pleasurable pursuit I could read for hours and sometimes do – ah but “had we but world enough, and time1”.  No one ever tells a kid to get their nose out of a book (do they?).  This seems too good to be true –that reading is not even a pleasure we need to feel guilty about indulging. 9780143038092_p0_v2_s114x16677203

I’ve often wondered why reading is praised as an intellectual pursuit while watching TV is generally considered a waste of time – not that I don’t agree in general – but mostly for the self-serving reason that I love to read.  However I have learned plenty from watching TV.  There are the nature programs, the History channel and Masterpiece Theatre (enhances9780312427085_p0_v2_s114x166 my knowledge of European history) and – I admit – pure mindless escapism.  And yet reading wins out.

The only criticism I can think of is that reading is a solitary pursuit, but even that can be countered.  Reading connects us to other people and can make us feel we are not alone in our experiences.  When we finish a good story we want to share it with others – hence the ubiquitous proliferation of book clubs and online reading groups.  Some like to read the best sellers list for the enjoyment of the discussion at the next party.

People read for many reasons. Books may be practical learning experiences, interesting, ethical, or just plain entertaining. They take us to other parts of the world and let us understand other cultures. Books can make us want to visit places – or just experience a place we may never have the opportunity to go to see.  And of course we read for escapism and let our imaginations soar – witness the enduring popularity of JRR Tolkien’s writings.

Credit to: counter-currents.com




I think perhaps the best thing about reading is that it teaches us about humanity.  John Steinbeck immediately comes to mind. He taught us compassion for the wayward son who longs for acceptance in East of Eden, the retarded man in Of Mice and Men, the prostitutes and Mack the hobo in Cannery Row and the suffering immigrants from the Dust Bowl in Grapes of Wrath.

What do you enjoy reading?  Why do like that genre?

How do you choose what to read next? Have you visited places because a book made you want to?

What are you reading now?

  1. Andrew Marvell