What I'm Reading

I'm always looking for book recommendations. Here are some books I've read recently and enjoyed. If you have suggestions, send them to me! (ellen@ellenhartman.com)

Case Histories

For a person who doesn't like mysteries, my book recommendation page seems to include a fair number of mystery books. Case Histories isn't really about the mystery, though. It's about the people. Kate Atkinson has a way of writing characters who are both real and memorably unique. She doesn't rely on outlandish quirks to make her characters live, just deep, rich characterization coupled with haunted, but realistic back stories.

Atkinson is an excellent writer. I made my two sons sit down and listen while I read a chapter from another of her books out loud. The writing was so deft, funny, and sharp that I wanted them to experience it.

You should try some Atkinson. She's really good at this story telling stuff.

Cleaning Nabokov's House

I'll tell you up front that Leslie is both a dear friend and one of my writing group partners. So obviously my recommendation doesn't mean much. Except, I read this book about 80,000 times as Leslie worked on it in different forms and through hundreds of drafts. Despite all those read throughs, when I got my hands on a real, bound copy, I started at the beginning and laughed, cried, and loved it all over.

It's that good.

If you talk to people who've read this book, you'll hear different takes on what it's about. Probably they'll mention the lost Nabokov manuscript. They might bring up the heroine's divorce and the risks she takes to fit her life back together. They'll forget to mention the Bull Dane, which is a shame because the Bull Dane is priceless. It's entirely likely they'll give you a wink and a wicked grin and refuse to describe the heroine's "questionable business venture." I'm not giving that away either, but I guarantee you'll be enjoying your own wicked grin when you get to that bit.

Don't give in to skepticism about my motives for recommending this one. Read the book. It's rich, funny, full of detailed and original characters, and, well, there's that business venture which is too good to miss.

The Last Child

I'm a frugal person. Really, really frugal. I read an excerpt of The Last Child online and rushed out to buy it in hardcover. Hard. Cover. I do not regret one cent of the price. This is a fine, fine book.

I'm going to tell you two things about me and then you'll know two things about this book. 1.) I don't recommend books that depict violence against children. At least not the kind of violence the description of this book hints at. 2.) I love good writing.

I could tell you more about this book--about the boy narrator whose voice haunted me for days, about lending my copy to people and them thanking me, about lurking around John Hart's website in hopes his new book will arrive early so I can buy that one in hard cover, too. But I think number 2 above is really sufficient. Good writing. Go, see for yourself. (It's in paperback now.)

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

This is a slender, heart-achingly beautiful memoir. I have not read McCracken’s other work but I’m going to rectify that oversight promptly.

Here’s how the book starts:
Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child.
(This is not that book.)

This book is about losing a child and it’s about being married and about having a child and about risk and loss and love and hope and not-hope and hope again. And despite not being light, it is funny at times.

Anyone who has lost a baby knows that it’s a particular, peculiar kind of loss, the death of someone you never got to know and yet love so much. McCracken walked me through her experience and gave me back some pieces of mine. Unflinching and tender. Quite a feat to combine those two lenses and yet, it worked beautifully.

Twisted   

I loved Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. If you've read that, you know it was an intensely personal and gripping young adult novel told from the perspective of a girl who's drawn a line between herself and the world. Twisted is also a young adult book, from a guy's perspective this time. And for Tyler, it's the world that's drawn the lines around him. He's sweet and wounded and in the end magnificent as he tries to figure out exactly how someone can cross those lines and be part of life.

I loved this book. Loved this book. Loved this book. I read the Reader's Questions and the Author's Note just to spend a few more minutes inside the covers. When I realized Ms. Halse Anderson lives close to me and actually wrote the beginning of this book in a bookstore I've been to...well, stalking might be in my future. I won't even get arrested either, because all I'd need to do is hand this book to the police officers and they'd read it and start stalking her too.

Okay. I'm exaggerating. But just a little.

The Meadowlands   

The author of this book sets out to explore the Meadowlands, the swampy wetlands on the edge of New Jersey, just outside New York City. He hikes and canoes and interviews "natives" when he finds them. The stories are quirky, the landscape is sad but maybe a little hopeful. I genuinely enjoyed this "nature study" of an urban wilderness.

Ask Again Later   

This book was so funny I couldn't stop laughing even though I was on the bus and must have looked like an absolute imbecile. If I'd been on a NYC bus maybe people wouldn't have looked twice, but the typical Ithaca bus patron is a bit more level-headed than our downstate friends. Usually. Unless we're reading Jill Davis in which case we're chuckling and snorting and laughing out loud and not even caring if we look like imbeciles. If I were to complain about this book (and it's so very much my personality to complain even about the best books, sorry), I'd say I wished the emotional heart were a bit stronger. But I forgive all kinds of emotional distance if it buys me humor like this. (I do not want to hear any commentary on parallels between that statement and my approach to relationships in real life. Seriously. None.) Go. Read this book. Laugh out loud and enjoy yourself.

Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock   

I don't know why I love this book so much but I do. Could be because it's narrated by the Holy Spirit. That tickles my Catholic funny bone. Could be the convoluted plot that all comes together so precisely at the end. Could be the hot, hot married sex. Oops. This is the literary portion of my site. We won't be discussing sex scenes here. Even if they are really hot. The quote on the back from The Dallas Morning News says, "What begins as a soap opera and a whodunit becomes finally an engrossing examination of the human soul in turmoil." Yep. That's about it. Nothing beats the human soul in turmoil. Plus the, you know, hot, hot married sex.

American Gods   

Opening paragraph: Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me-enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

Don't I wish I could introduce a character with exactly that pithy, unexpected and perfect detail? Gaiman's books are smart, funny, and never what you expect. His dialogue is fantastic. American Gods is a story about a road trip and a lost love and a man who's searching for something to believe. Stardust, an earlier Gaiman novel, is now also a movie. I'd give both the movie and the book an A plus. They're different, but great.

And Ladies of the Club   

In times of great stress, I reach for this book. (Yeah, I've read it about fifteen or twenty times. I'm easily stressed.) Why? It's long, for starters. More than 1,000 pages. That means I can stay stressed for a good long while without having to worry about what to read next. But that's not the real reason I read it again and again. I love this book because it's a satisfying family saga. I care about the characters. Their heartaches seem real. The writing isn't super amazing but it's plenty good enough. There's a little love, a little death, some politics, some family stories. I'd call this book comfort food. But comfort food of the very best quality—homemade macaroni and cheese, not Pop-Tarts.

Natural Born Charmer   

I like a lot of the books Susan Elizabeth Phillips has written but this one has hands down the best first chapter I've read in forever. The first chapter was included at the end of Match Me If You Can (also a great read) and it was so good I bought Natural Born Charmer in hardback. Couldn't wait. The rest of the book didn't disappoint. Dean is a wonderful hero and the secondary characters add humor and more romance to the plot. I definitely recommend this one!

Lullaby   

I had to look his name up on Amazon to get it spelled correctly, but that was the least I could do for the man who wrote this amazing book. I couldn't begin to describe the story (if you read the book description on Amazon you'll figure out why). The writing is fierce and daring. As I was reading the last chapter I was seriously in awe of the boldness of the words and ideas. This book is not a romance and definitely not for everyone. But if you like language, warped humor (at times downright *wrong* humor), and urban legends, this book is one to try.

The Road   

I love Cormac McCarthy. I love him even more in this book where he's both easier to read and as heartbreakingly sad as ever. I'm a sucker for boys and their dads and this book has that in spades. The language is spare (it's not a long book, you'll be tempted to read it in one sitting), but the plot is thick. Some of everything happens before you read the last word. I know Oprah picked this for her book club--think she heard about it here?