Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cathy says, "It's Summer. Pick Up a Book and Take Yourself Anywhere!"

Ladies and gentlemen, position your beach chair or climb into the hammock.  July is reading paradise in my book!  I've been waiting for months for these books to land on our shelves.  Each one its own delicious guilty pleasure.

Just out from Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor at the New Yorker, Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,  a true tale about two young women, one of whom was Wickenden's grandmother, unmarried, cultured graduates  of Smith College who are hired to teach school in a one room schoolhouse in the settlement of Elkhead,  Colorado in 1916.   In those days, young society women did not work, that alone was scandalous, but heading out to the Rockies was quite the daring undertaking. Nothing Daunted  paints a vivid picture of life in the west; the beauty of the landscape and the harsh living conditions, the challenges of getting from place to place and the incrediblysupportive and enterprising community they encountered during their year-long stay.   The plot to bring out attractive young women to teach in this community near Steamboat was hatched by lawyer and cattleman Ferry Carpenter, who was hoping to cultivate a stable of wives for the single men of the area, himself included.   The experience of teaching and living in the west had a profound impact on the lives of these plucky young women and the community of Elkhead and its environs was forever changed by their stay.   And next time the schools declare a snow day, think about the teachers and children walking or riding to school in waist high snow, or skiing in on barrel staves strapped to their boots.  Uphill both ways.  Really.

On to a warmer locale,State of Wonder, the new novel by Ann Patchett, best known for
her bestseller Bel Canto,  takes place deep in the Amazonian jungle.  Poison arrows,
anacondas, cannibals and an intriguing cast of characters are vividly drawn in Patchett's
heavily atmospheric novel.  You can feel the humid air in your lungs, the jungle closing in on you and the insects swarming as you compulsively turn the pages.  Research doctor Marina Singh is dispatched to the Amazon by her boss and secret lover to uncover the details of the death of her lab partner and the progress of the development of a miracle fertility drug, work overseen by  the eccentric and charismatic  Dr. Annick Swenson.  Ann Patchett is a gifted storyteller and once again delivers with State of Wonder.  Unputdownable.  That may or may not be a real word but it's apt!

A Good Hard Look  is a brilliant, engaging novel about Flannery O'Connor's final years and the odd and difficult relationships in her small southern town of Milledgeville that might very well have been models for her wonderful and disturbing fiction.  I was so moved by it and completely drawn into the characters and their deeply  flawed  humanity. I will now  go back and reread O'Connor, with different eyes and a new appreciation for her gifts and the tragedy of a life cut short.  Of course I know it's fiction, but I feel like Ann Napolitano understood and conveyed Flannery's world and her truth behind her fiction.  The novel is a gift to the reader, giving us all a new understanding of Grace.

And finally, Rules of Civility,  a sumptuous literary feast that I can't wait to share, due in late July.   Amor Towles' debut novel, set in  late 1930's New York is populated with finely drawn,  fascinating characters and vivid descriptions of the city.   Its spot on sense of  place and era is cinematic, transporting the reader, suspending time and delivering a fabulous experience.   Katey Kontent, young, single, bright and ambitious,  and her beautiful boardinghouse roommate meet the disarmingly charming young banker Tinker Grey in a jazz club on New Year's Eve and their lives are forever altered.   It's the sort of novel that as you devour it you also cast the movie in your head.  A set and costume designers dream. Simply gorgeous in every way.


(This article originally appeared on The Book Lady column of

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