Paul would have turned 70 today. I’d like to think we would have thrown him a party with family and friends, showering him with gifts and messages of love. Instead, I write through the reality that he isn’t numbering his years anymore. He is on the other side, in the presence of God, where time […]
Pick a publication — The New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, Book Riot, GeekWire, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal — and you’ll find a “Best of” list for books published in 2016 or endorsements for novels being prepped for release. As a Twitter follower of all things books-related, the plethora of lists being posted this year at first seemed silly. Then I did a little research.
Taking the long view, I realize these publications aren’t filling their features pages with evergreen stories because half their staff was on vacation for the holidays. These publications have been looking out for our best interest. It turns out, reading is more than introvert merrymaking or unproductive idleness.
Studies published last year in Yale University’s journal of Social Science & Medicine and the University of Toronto’s Trends in Cognitive Sciences reveal reading books could extend one’s lifespan by 2 years and reading fiction, specifically, could increase empathy. Of course, this doesn’t mean reading a page here and there is going to improve your life. Researchers reported lifespan increases in those who read at least 3.5 hours a week.
Why is empathy important? In general, empathy improves communication in boardrooms, on our city streets and at dining room tables. According to a Businesssolver study, employees who believe they work for empathetic employers are more likely to work longer hours, accept lower pay and stay with a company. However, while 60 percent of CEOs view their companies as empathetic, only 25 percent of employees agree.
With that in mind, perhaps you should make this the year you commit to reading that stack at your bedside or perusing the racks at your local independent bookstore. No; there’s no need to schlep through James Joyce’s Ulysses or race through J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series if those sorts of novels don’t appeal to you. Find something that suits your personality, your current state of mind or mimics (maybe even opposes) your point of view.
Perhaps this is the year you join a book club, get recommendations your local independent bookseller or participate in a Goodreads.com reading challenge, the site offers recommendations based on your previous books. Just read. Learn something. Grow.
Need more suggestions? Quartz has some tips to get you started.
The unimaginable happened. I found myself dining alone without anything to read. I considered shoving in ear buds to listen to an audiobook as I dined, although that seemed inappropriate for a number of reasons. First, I’d draped a white linen napkin across my lap and the bartender was wearing a black bow tie. Second, a writer worth her keyboard wouldn’t tune out the surrounding world when so many juicy stories are waiting to be overheard.
My mother, an avid reader who makes me appear illiterate, recommended “The Butterfly Garden” by Dot Hutchison, calling it an “interesting story with interesting characters.” When I questioned her lack of the word “good,” she said, “It’s well-written. Read it.”
Intrigued, I dropped a few of dollars on the fast-paced eBook about a man who collects butterflies for his garden. By collects, I mean he kidnaps them. By butterflies, I mean attractive, young women he tattoos with large, intricate wings. There is nothing the kidnapper, called the Gardener, won’t do for his beloved butterflies, including feeding and clothing them, providing literature for their reading pleasure, and honoring their requests for entertainment. Of course, the Gardner’s most notable “gift” is a stunningly landscaped garden in which his butterflies can frolic, yet never escape. He also sexually abuses them at will. Assisting the Gardner is his son, a stereotypical sadist who nonetheless is alarming.
Maya, a butterfly who takes her time doling out the details of her life before and during captivity, begins the tale in a FBI interrogation room. While the agents in charge of the case attempt to pry details from her faster than she’s willing to reveal them, the novel is anything but slow. It’s a page turner. Despite its gruesome storyline, I needed to know how Maya escaped the Gardner’s elaborate prison or if she was complicit in his terrifying enterprise.
In short, there’s nothing good about Hutchison’s vicious and heartbreaking “The Butterfly Garden.” Yet there’s no doubt the author cultivated a masterful plot fans of the genre will appreciate.
Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not on my bookshelves. The novel sits on the table beside my favorite spot on the sofa alongside magazines, eyeglass cleaner, a pen and a pad of paper. In other words, the novel is close at hand, just in case. Unlike most of my books, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is not unmarred. At first careful not to break the spine, I considered underlining just one passage: “But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstance were different was the only sure route to madness.” Soon though, I found myself arrowing, circling, starring, and exclamation-pointing my way through Towles’ 30 plus-year account of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s life as an un-person.
However, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is much more than an epic the reader gets to “witness.” It is a guidebook revealing how we can learn to live without and within. Living without the comforts to which we are accustomed drives some to desperation or deep depression. For some, living within means remaining in a perpetual state of meditation where few complications arise or developing a shield that prevents others from beholding their humanity and vulnerability. It means selfishness. Yet, the Count is neither selfish, desperate nor depressed, at least not for long. Instead, he is resilience.
When Count Alexander—who refuses with great wit to repent from his crime of aristocracy—is sentenced to house arrest in a hotel across the street from the Kremlin or be shot, he discovers abundance in his limitations. He is at once profoundly touched by the complicated and sweetly simple lives of those around him and touching, with his thoughtful practicality and gentlemanly considerations.
Towles has with keen intelligence and humor crafted a character study of wisdom, courage and kindness. I’ve never been sadder to finish a novel, but I look forward to reading it again, and again.
Unfortunately, besides crafting thoughtful characters and well-written sentences, there is little good in Ann Patchett’s latest novel. Starting in the mid 1960s, “The Commonwealth” covers five decades in the lives of the Keating and Cousins families.
I enjoyed the manner in which Patchett tells her epic tale and stuck with it hoping to come away with a satisfying finish. However, the few characters with sound judgement get little time in this book. An excess of alcohol at the opening christening party kicks off a slew of poor decisions, starting with the kiss that dissolves marriages, blends families, erects excuses for self-absorbed parents, and molds gun-toting, gin-drinking children. Lives go up in smoke and people die. In the end, nothing much is accomplished.