My Rules for a Good Book

BooksA friend recently texted me, looking for a few book recommendations. After I texted back my current “short list” of favorites, I realized the request may fall under the heading of “careful what you ask for…”

I am a reader and always have been. In fact, when the first day of first grade came and went and I did not learn to read on that day, I was sorely disappointed and not at all sure I wanted to go back. Learning to read was my sole purpose in going to school.

Today I am one of those readers who likes to have a reading list or, better yet, a stack of books waiting, so I know what I’m going to read next. I get a little nervous if it seems I will finish one book without having another to pick up. Electronic readers have been an expensive boon for me. You can finish one book and immediately download another. And I’m embarrassed to say that I do.

Lately, I’ve had the pleasure of several good reads in a row, a few for one or the other of two book groups I participate in, others just for me. As I gathered them up to write this, I began to consider what makes a “good read.” I’m just offering three rules here. They aren’t exhaustive, but I think they are a good start.

Everyone seems to have read the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, about a young blind girl in Paris and a gifted orphan boy in Germany, growing up in the years leading up to and through WWII. They are leading meager, often lonely and always challenging lives before the war, but then are thrown into unthinkable circumstances that lead to unexpected acts of heroism.

I loved the characters, even the minor ones, some of them were charming and others unspeakably bad. I am not sure I would call this a war novel, though it’s set largely in wartime and the war plays a significant part. However, I thought it was about what makes a family (certainly not always blood), the obligations of friendship (life/death/survival) and the power of communication. Doer carefully alternates between the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner. There is enough detail and plot to bring them to life, but I never felt bogged down by it. The book covers a significant span of time, but Doer moves it along. I would describe his writing as tight, pushing the story (and the reader) forward.

One of my book groups read this, but the discussion focused largely on maybe the last third or even quarter of the novel. Doer does an interesting job of bringing his characters into the present and our discussion that morning trended to those points. However for me the journey of the two main characters was far more interesting.

Good book rule #1:
The author keeps the story moving forward rather than languishing in wordy description and unimportant detours.

Circling the Sun by Paula McClain is a biographical novel about Beryl Markham, a well-known horsewoman-turned-airplane pilot in Africa in the first half of the 20th century. I was anxious for this book’s release since I had read and loved a biography of Beryl Markham years ago, Straight on Til Morning by Mary S. Lovell, also a great read. As a pioneering aviator, Beryl Markham was the first woman to cross the Atlantic and the first person to fly from London to New York nonstop. (Paula McClain also wrote The Paris Wife about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley.)

The Markhams emigrated from England to Kenya when Beryl was very young. Her father struggled to build a business as a horse breeder and trainer, but her mother never liked Kenya and abruptly returned to England. Beryl was left to be raised by her father and the local Kipsigis tribe who shared the land. Not surprisingly, Beryl grew to be a fiercely independent, resourceful young woman, one who loved Kenya, the natives, the land, the animals and the magical ways in which they all fit. She also loved and knew horses. But that’s the thumbnail version.

Beryl was part of the expatriate community in Kenya that also included Karen Blixson and Denys Finch Hatton (Remember Out of Africa?). Many had emigrated from England and other parts of western Europe in search of economic opportunity, adventure, or to escape their past. They were proper (Remember Karen and her white-gloved servants?) and held on to tradition in a setting that was anything but tame.

I would be the first to admit that this book is not Out of Africa, but McClain does a wonderful job of capturing the African landscape, the tenacity required to survive there, and a view of the English expat community. And then, of course, there is the story of Beryl Markham. She was young and totally unprepared for the life fate thrust at her (more than once). She had nowhere near the education or resources of Karen Blixen, but boy was she brave. She had no choice.

Good book rule #2:
You root for the characters. (Bonus points for biography, which I love.)

The same book group that read All the Light We Cannot See also selected Dead Wake by Erik Larson. We picked it because Larson would be speaking at the local junior college around the same time. That may have been serendipitous to the group, but I was disappointed. A factual accounting of the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, no matter how heralded, seemed, at best, boring. I honestly have no interest in the details of ships or submarines. I had struggled through one of his earlier books, Devil in the White City, because of its Chicago setting. However, the point of this book group is to stretch our reading boundaries and delve into something we might not ordinarily choose, so I got the book.

I loved it! (And you probably saw that mini review coming.) Larson’s meticulous research and attention to detail made the diverse cast of characters on the Lusitania come alive. The ambitions of the German submarine commander, Walther Schweiger, were equally real. But I also loved the machinations of Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty of the British navy, was desperate for the US to enter the war at the same time as the Americans and President Woodrow Wilson were resisting every step of the way. And then there was the steamship line. I had to keep reminding myself that this was an actual event, a piece of history, and told by Larson in a factual way. The villains were real; I don’t think they were all German.

Good book rule #3:
You’re challenged to read something you would not normally choose, and it becomes a favorite.

So what did I recommend in reply to my friend’s text? I was pretty sure she was familiar with these three, but I had more to suggest. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin about a small town book store owner is a reader’s delight, with a wide-ranging reading list woven into the story. The Art Forger by B. A Shapiro is a mystery with enough twists to keep you reading and an interesting view of the art world’s underside.

Two others are high on my list. Now that everyone is talking about visiting Cuba, Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner is set in an American enclave in 1950s Cuba, when the US was backing Batista and Castro was gathering rebels in the hills. Finally, Out to Lunch by Stacey Ballis is pure fun, especially for foodies, about a successful Chicago cook and caterer, with the requisite colorful cast of friends and suitors, reinventing herself after the sudden death of her business partner. If nothing else, read it for the amazing recipes.

Want more ideas? Check out (Disclaimer: It’s my daughter’s blog, which she has been writing for a few years. Her taste in books is a bit broader than mine, so if you are looking for ideas, she may have lots more!)

What do you think makes a good book? What are you reading? I can use all the recommendations I can get!

See you next time!

Vincent van Gogh, Provence and Chicago

Place de la République in Arles, France.

This week my husband and I enjoyed one of those serendipitous times when a slice of our travel experience merged with our Chicago life. We went to Chicago’s Art Institute to hear a lecture and view the current exhibit on Vincent van Gogh’s three bedroom paintings. The travel part (besides taking the commuter train from Wheaton to Chicago) recalls our visit a year ago to Saint-Remy de Provence, France.

At this time last year, Steve and I were on a river cruise in Provence. (I think it may be a rule that retired baby-boomers take at least one of these cruises.) One of our first stops was in Arles, France, where van Gogh spent a considerable time, renting the yellow house where he did so much work, including the paintings of his bedroom.  (Unfortunately, the house was destroyed in WWII, although many other Arles structures survive.) The yellow house was extremely important to van Gogh, who had decided to leave Paris, where he believed the “artistic lifestyle” was unhealthy and keeping him from continuing his work.

Arles happened to be chilly and drizzly the morning we were there, and we did not have as much time to explore as I would have liked. (This is the upside/downside of a river tour, you see a lot but the price for that is having to move on to the next stop.) Arles is much more than a temporary home for van Gogh.

According to Wikipedia, historians have dated settlement in Arles to as early as 800 B.C.  The city was an important Phoenician trading port before being taken by the Romans in 123 B.C.,  expanding its influence. Constantine I built baths in Arles; Constantine II was born here. 

Arles Roman Ruins21
Roman ruins in Arles.
Arles Coliseum 21
Roman Amphitheater, Arles. In the Middles Ages, the population declined significantly; this site became a fortress, the residents living inside.

The hospital in Arles where van Gogh was confined in December 1888 and January 1889 (after the legendary ear-severing episode) was later the subject of two of his paintings.

Van Gogh’s respite in Saint-Remy

After the tour of Arles, we took a side trip to Saint-Remy where van Gogh did so much painting. At the time, the artist’s mental health was very fragile, and he asked to be sent to Saint Remy de Provence to be confined at the Asylum of Saint Paul Mausole. Van Gogh’s mental health improved here, and he enjoyed an especially productive period artistically, completing almost 150 paintings and a number of drawings from May 1889 until May 1890.

Although the monastery is probably best known for van Gogh’s stay, it is considered a masterpiece of Provencal Romanesque art. The Cloister dates to the 11th -12th Century. One wing houses a museum which retraces the period when Vincent van Gogh was committed to Saint-Paul. One room in the museum recreates the bedroom from his home in Arles that van Gogh painted.

Gardens behind the monastery feature rows of lavender. Can you imagine what they look like in bloom?
This is the beautifully spare chapel.

Back to the Art Institute in Chicago

Van Gogh actually completed three paintings of this bedroom, each just a little different in size, color and detail. Today, one painting is part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, one is housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the third in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The current exhibition in Chicago is one of the few times all three paintints have been shown together.


The Art Institute has done a remarkable job of pairing the paintings themselves with a multi media presentation of details that allow the visitor to closely examine the paintings, paying particular attention to those details that distinguish one painting from the other. I have not had an opportunity to research if or how other artists have painted subsequent versions of their own works. Monet was famous for the same scene in various lights, but that was not the intent with Van Gogh. 

If you are in Chicago or plan to be, this exhibit runs through May 10, 2016. Not surprisingly, it’s drawing record crowds, so check the website, for details on admission and useful tips for best times to visit.

Provencal bonus: Le Baux

LeBaux afar1
There’s a town here?

I could not share that day in Provence without including the rest of that side trip. After Saint-Remy, we went to the tiny, hilltop town of Le Baux. At this point I was really glad we were part of a tour. I do not think we could have found LeBaux on our own!

A diminutive fortress carved from a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles Mountains, LeBaux enjoys a long history. Traces of civilization here date to 6000 B.C. In the Middle Ages the area was a feudal stronghold. In the 15th century, the ruling lords of Baux were replaced by the barons of the Masons des Comtes de Provence. This ushered in a brief golden age for the Château, before it came under the control of the kings of France. From the 16th century on, various family feuds and wars of religion brought on the decline of the town. In 1633 Louis XIII agreed to the removal of the fortifications which, according to the townspeople, provided hiding places for rebels. In the early 19th century, bauxite was discovered here (hence the name) and extensively mined until it was exhausted in the late 20th century.

LeBaux no tourists1
Without tourists.
LeBaux tourists1
With tourists.

Today the commune or town is dedicated to tourism.  The population in the upper part of the town is just 22 and 436 in its entirety. Le Baux welcomes over 1.5 million tourists each year. Honestly, I struggle with places like this; it is now simply a tourist destination. On the other hand, it’s lovingly preserved to demonstrate history and culture. How else could we experience this?

This was just one day in Provence, which I clearly loved. I look forward to a return trip at a much slower pace. Have you been there? What did you think?

See you next time! 

My Unabashed Addiction to Pinterest

Unless you have been living under a rock or on another planet, you probably have some idea of Pinterest, a kind of online bulletin board that allows you to gather visual “pins” or images of just about anything of interest onto your own “board.” You can pin ideas for travel, organizing your bathroom, centerpieces, party favors, kids’ Halloween costumes, hairdos, wedding cakes, vacation destinations, etc., etc.

Or, you may be an avid Pinterest follower, in which case you will recognize my symptoms.

A few years ago my husband and I embarked on a gut renovation of our kitchen and the designer suggested we search around on Houzz (a similar site geared to building, remodeling and decorating) for appealing ideas. She didn’t know me well enough yet to realize that I hoard shelter magazines and, when the pile gets too tall, I go through them, tearing out pages of ideas I like. (Kind of a pre-internet Pinterest.) I had folders full of stuff to show her, but I was happy to try Houzz too. For some reason, Houzz did not really click for me, but my daughter suggested Pinterest.

What came next was a slippery slope.

I started looking at — and pinning — kitchen ideas. Then I realized that some of the bloggers I followed had Pinterest boards that I could cruise for ideas. As anyone who has spent an evening or more on Pinterest knows, one pin leads to another that leads to another. More ideas and eye candy with every click. (See my Pinterest boards here.)

Pinterest’s point and click (pin) interface is too easy. Finding images of gardens? Add another board. Kitchens invariably lead to dining rooms. Add a board. Love ironstone and transferware? I have a board for that. Two years later I have 25 boards, 1500 pins and 25 followers! And that’s just limited to decorating!

I think I have a problem. It’s such a smart system. Pinterest sends you pins you may like (it also sends stuff I never look at, thank goodness), so there’s always something new to look at. And pin! The app is right there on my iPad, but the images are bigger on my laptop. Feeling a little bored? Have a little time to kill before starting dinner? See what Pinterest is sending you. Pin, scroll. Pin, scroll. Oh, wait, what’s that smell? Dinner is burning?

I have some history with this.

Years ago when I began my magazine files, I hoped they would help me identify and develop my own style. I believe they really did. Decorating decisions have never been a huge issue for me. I always knew the look I was going for (although it has morphed considerably over the decades), and if I didn’t I would spread out the images I had stashed in one or more of those files and study them. (This is how I realized I needed to get rid of all the red/blue/yellow in my house and switch to cream and white. I realized that I was saving and loving image after image of neutral rooms!) You know the inspiration boards designers put together? They’re my version of my files and, now, my Pinterest boards. 

In all honesty, I have not spent much time editing my boards. There is a lot of duplication. You can look at them here. For example, I love everything the late Charles Faudree did and I’m sure I duplicated some of his pins on my Country French board. I have also duplicated some Amelia Handegan pins. (Interestingly, I went thru my old magazines files recently and realized I also had saved magazine shots of some of these same images.)

But I’ve also made a deal with myself about not expanding my pins beyond decorating and gardening. There is, after all, so much more to pin in cooking and quilting and fashion. I’m afraid I might not come up for air.

What I’d really like to know here is that I’m not alone. Are you into Pinterest? What are the topics of your boards? And how did you save ideas before Pinterest?

See you next time!