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This Must Be the Place for Great Books: Massachusetts Must-Reads

A friendly summer challenge from the Massachusetts Center for the Book: Read and discuss the 12 Must-Read titles in each category (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s/YA) before winners are announced in the fall.
The Must-Read lists are beautiful! You can print them and take them into the library or local bookstore, or post them as reminders that Massachusetts has champion writers as well as sports teams.

Book lists from the Massachusetts Center for the Book:

Print Version of Must-Read Fiction 2011
Print Version of Must-Read Nonfiction 2011
Print Version of Must-Read Poetry 2011
Print Version of Must-Read Children’s/Young Adult Literature 2011

I’m in the middle of This Must Be the Place, a first novel by Kate Racculia, an Emerson College grad living in Boston, and will be posting to the MassBook Facebook discussion REALLY soon.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé

The appealing cover, the title, and the tag line (“A hymn to fine literature”) made me check out A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (a woman, BTW), translated from the French by Alison Anderson. It is one of those quirky, clever books that maybe some readers will want to throw across the room in frustration at how much information the author holds back, but the story was intriguing in a bookish way. Although it opens with a series of crimes, A Novel Bookstore is only crime fiction in the way that Kate Atkinson‘s Jackson Brodie novels are, or Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club series is. The mystery element is a plot device, not the main focus.
Francesca, a wealthy, sad woman, and Ivan, a well-read bookstore manager, plan to open an independent bookstore, The Good Novel, that will only sell “good” novels. The books will be selected by a committee of literary novelists, so secret and anonymous that the members don’t even know who else is on the committee. Polite readers of literature, Francesca and Ivan hadn’t imagined that their idea for a store selling only fiction that is worth reading would generate bitter, violent animosity, but escalating attacks on each committee member in turn result in a police investigation.
While slowly developing the relationships between the neurotically private main characters, the author packs A Novel Bookstore full of passionate ideas about literature — raising questions such as: what makes a novel great? Who decides literary quality and how? Could a store such as The Good Novel thrive today?, etc.
Lastly, would A Novel Bookstore be sold in the mythical The Good Novel store, if it really existed? Although I wasn’t familiar with many of the French authors mentioned and did wonder about the translation of a few odd phrases, I think A Novel Bookstore would have gained a coveted spot on the shelf for new releases in The Good Novel bookstore, at least for a season or two.
Other opinions about A Novel Bookstore (mostly good):
Bookeywookey
A Common Reader
The Hungry Reader
The Washington Post — Elizabeth Hand

Hormones or Sex Hex? The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

The cover of Meg Wolitzer‘s latest novel, The Uncoupling, is an aerial photograph of houses and tree-lined streets, the scene of a “spell” that creeps over Eleanor Roosevelt High School in the suburban town of Stellar Plains, New Jersey and causes women and teenage girls — one by one over the course of a winter — to lose all desire for men. This unexplained frigidity comes over female teachers, students, administrators, and counselors suddenly, like a blast of ice-cold air, but separately and without any warning, so each thinks it has happened to her alone. The women say nothing to each other about this private change in attitude.
The women’s confused and frustrated male partners also do not confer, so no one realizes that this is a universal experience, coinciding with ongoing auditions and rehearsals for the spring play, Lysistrata, a lusty Aristophanes comedy translated from the ancient Greek. Lysistrata is about a woman who persuades married women of her town to withhold sex until their husbands stop fighting the Peloponnesian War. With its nudity and obscenity, Lysistrata struck Dory and Roby Lang, a popular English-teaching couple with a daughter at the school, as an odd choice  but no one objected and, apparently, Fran Heller, the enigmatic, new drama teacher, was modifying or deleting the most egregiously inappropriate scenes.
A funny fable with serious undertones and intellectual underpinnings, The Uncoupling would make a good pairing with Tom Perrotta’s novel The Abstinence Teacher for a book discussion. Meg Wolitzer works themes of love and desire, marriage and society, and parents and children into the novel along with touching and wryly amusing scenes of the perplexed denizens of Eleanor Roosevelt High School struggling with their Lysistrata-esque sex strike and all its repercussions.

Other opinions about The Uncoupling (mostly good):
The Book Lady’s Blog
Boston Book Bums
The Boston Globe — Laura Bennett
The Literate Housewife Review
The Washington Post
— Ron Charles

Returning to Mom & Dad’s Well-Feathered Nest

Escaping separate life crises, Lillian, Stephen, and Rachel coincidentally return at the same time to the haven of their childhood years — Mom and Dad’s house — for what turn out to be extended visits in The Arrivals, a first novel by Meg Mitchell Moore. Add in Lillian’s young daughter and baby son and Stephen’s pregnant wife Jane, chafing at being away from her job, and Ginny and William Owen’s house in Burlington, Vermont, is quickly overstuffed with dependents and their clutter.
It takes longer than you might think for brusque, efficient Ginny and the easygoing William to get over the pleasure of feeling needed again and start wondering when their kids are ever going to leave and take their hormones, anxieties, and children with them.
The tension of keeping their personal feelings and problems secret builds up slowly over the course of the summer the family is unintentionally spending together. Lives have been shaken up, for better or worse, but everyone emerges at the end, a little battered but stronger.
This is a very pleasant read for the cottage or in the back yard this summer. Recommended for reader (especially mothers and grandmothers) who enjoy women’s fiction authors like Elizabeth Berg and Claire Cook.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown also has three adult children returning to their childhood home in a college town who don’t want to explain why they’ve moved back. Ostensibly, they’re home to care for their mother who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, but her illness is an excuse, not a reason. For Bianca and Cordelia, the two younger sisters, life hasn’t worked out the way their  overly bookish, youthful selves had vaguely imagined. For Rosalind, the oldest and outwardly successful sister, life has stayed on a predictable path for so long, she’s stymied by a future that looks different from how she had imagined.
Over the course of the story, the three sisters come to accept that, despite their self-given nickname (“the weird sisters” after the witches in Macbeth) they are normal, rather than exceptional. This belated coming of age story about three sisters who, in their thirties, have made no difficult decisions yet, might be best for forgiving readers in their twenties and thirties. Older readers may get annoyed by the immaturity of the sisters AND their parents. Their father, a professor in the prestigious, local college, is a big fish in a small pond who hides from the messiness of real life behind a wall of Shakespearean quotations. (Really! He says almost nothing in the book that is not a direct quote from a play or sonnet.) their mother doesn’t emerge much from the background, since the book is from the point of view of the “adult” children, but the three sisters see her mostly as a distracted maternal presence who relied on Rosalind to mother the younger two.
Kirsten Potter narrated the audio version of The Weird Sisters very well, although the unusual, first-person plural voice of the book took a little getting used to. Rosalind (“Rose”), Bianca (“Bean”), and Cordelia (“Cordy”) are only “we” in the story, although the reader hears individual thoughts and feelings, it’s as if it’s observed by all three at the same time. The first-person plural voice seems to signify that not only are they not so different from everyone else as they had hoped, but also not as different from one other, which is not a bad thing.

The Weird Sisters also reviewed recently by:
Bibliophile by the Sea
You’ve Gotta Read This

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