Category: Friday Reads

What I’ve been reading…

I’ve been very remiss in feeding the blog of late. Sorry about that. I have a good excuse, one that I hope you will approve of; it’s because I’ve been writing a new book and closing in on the finish line and have been a bit distracted. I’ll be sharing more about that in the weeks to come!

I thought I’d pop in today and recap some of the books that I’ve been reading since the last time I was here. I have in fact been reading a lot of great books, just not reporting back to you (again, sorry!). So here in no particular order are five books I read in the last few months.

I bought Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward in an airport bookstore because I was traveling for book-related stuff and ran out of reading material – which is a nightmare to those of us who look forward to uninterrupted hours in an airplane as THE BEST READING TIME in the world. I had seen this novel on some lists and knew that it had been critically acclaimed and so I bought it on a whim and quickly became engrossed in the tale. The protagonist is a young teenage boy who is a member of a particularly interesting but nevertheless flawed family. He’s been forced to grow up too soon, taking on responsibility for absent and/or negligent parents. The writing is beautiful and evocative and there are hints of magic realism that really do make the book sing. If you don’t like magic realism at all, this might not be the book for you but I loved it.

I picked up The House of Broken Angels at the San Diego Festival of Books in August after hearing its author, Luis Alberto Urrea, speak the night before the Festival began. I was entranced with his story and storytelling ability. The book is set primarily in San Diego, where I was born and raised and have come back home to. It’s based on Urrea’s own life experience about growing up in a family living on the US | Mexico border.  It begins on the eve of the patriarch’s birthday celebration. Here’s just a snippet from the back cover: “Across two bittersweet days in their San Diego neighborhood, the revelers mingle among the palm trees and cacti, celebrating the lives of Big Angel and his mother, and recounting the many inspiring tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that brought these citizens to a fraught and sublime country and allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home.” It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and beautifully written. I highly recommend.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is another book that I bought in an airport when I had run out of reading material – this seems to be a common thing with me – because it had been on the New York Times bestseller list for a year and I figured it was there for a reason. I did not know it was based on a true story, and of course once I did and once I had fallen into the pages I was completely captivated by it. Stories of the Holocaust are never easy reads but they are necessary ones if we are going to properly remember and honor the humanity of its victims. I was spellbound by this book. When I found out there was a new book by its author about one of the other characters in this book, Cilka, I put it on pre-order straight away. It’s now on my bedside table on my teetering TBR pile and I can’t wait to get to it.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson had been on my TBR stack since picking it up at the Tucson Book Festival in the spring and I’d been wanting to get to it since then. I loved the miniseries The Crown and have pretty much been a UK royalty-watcher since the early days of Princess Diana. (Side note: When we lived in England in the late 80s/early 90s I used to imagine that I’d be in London some afternoon and that I’d spy poor Di being hunted down by paparazzi and I would come to her aid and sneak her into my car and take her back to my house in Oxfordshire for a respite – like Hugh Grant does for Julia Roberts in Notting Hill – and we’d would laugh over American fig newtons I’d gotten at the commissary that we’d been able to dodge the wolves. That never happened of course). Jennifer’s book is so lovely, so well-researched and the writing is beautiful and oh, that cover! It’s a story about the wedding gown of Queen Elizabeth of course but it’s really a story about the women who embroidered it.  A great book.

Lastly I read Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict – an early copy of it for endorsement, it’s coming in January – and was so enlightened and surprised by what I learned about Winston Churchill‘s wife. I’ve always known that behind a great man is usually a great woman, whether it be a wife, sister or mother or friend, and I loved hearing about the role Clementine played in Winston‘s life, especially at the most challenging moments, when the world was at war and Britain on the brink of occupation. If you like historical fiction that is based on biographical truth you will love this book as well.

So there you have it friends, a nice little recap long overdue and I hope to be able to return next week and regale you with more book recommendations for you. Have a wonderful weekend!

Once Upon A River…

In March, a new book of mine was released into the wild and I set off to introduce it to book lovers by traveling a bit, and then I returned home to the new book I’m writing and the unruly task of having to unwrite about 25,000 words of it (which I had discovered through the insightful eyes of my agent and editor had to go). So while I’ve been neglecting the blog, and while there have been no posts on Friday where I share what I have been reading, I have in fact been reading in between book travels and travails. And I’ve been looking forward to creating some margin in my week where I can at last get back to the conversation here. I apologize for the long hiatus, and I think I remember how to do this…

I finished Diane Setterfield’s latest, an amazing book entitled ONCE UPON A RIVER, while on book tour and have been looking at its spine on my To-Be-Talked-About pile for weeks now. It was such a good book; everything that I loved about Diane’s seminal work for me, THE THIRTEENTH TALE, I found in this book. What a delight it was to rediscover why I love her writing so.

ONCE UPON A RIVER is a story of love between parent and child, and the agony of loss and the absolute delight of hope and how we navigate our journeys through both. It is set in England and the river in the title refers to the Thames; that long winding rope of water that is more than just a frame for London postcard pictures of Parliament and Westminster Abby. Setterfield’s voice comes through rich and true in the prose; it is absolutely delicious. I fell in love with that voice with THE THIRTEENTH TALE, so much so that I read that book two more times, which I never do (because so many books, so little time). I continue to mention it as among my favorite reads all these years later. For whatever reason, I did not bond with Setterfield‘s novel that followed TTT – Bellman and Black – and I had been so looking forward to it too (probably too much) – but I know that not all books are going to impact us the same way, and not all writers will either, each time we read them. I love what M. L. Stedman, the author of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS said about Setterfield’s newest: “Setterfield‘s masterful storytelling draws you in to a beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing. It lowers you into its steps and carries you along in its vividly evoked world.“

Here’s the inside scoop from the publisher: “A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can it be explained by science? Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.”

Reading a Diane Setterfield book makes me want to be a better writer, makes me want to spend more time on every page I write. Highly recommend, folks, and I promise I’ll be back more often…

 

 

Thoughts on Educated

I’ve been on the book tour trail and neglecting the blog a bit, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading, because the great thing about airplane travel is ALL THAT READING TIME! It’s the best. I can’t write on a plane (because someone will see what I’m writing as I’m writing it and I hate that) and I can’t sleep on a plane (I don’t know why, other folks do it famously, even resting their heads on their tray tables to do it, but not this girl) but I can read. And I do. I’ve got some good reads to tell you about but I’m going to spread out the love and do it one Friday at a time.

Today I want to share my thoughts on the runaway bestseller, EDUCATED, a work of non-fiction by Tara Westover. I remember seeing this book when it first came out and kind of loving that pencil drawing (could nearly smell that wood shaving/graphite combo that only an old-fashioned pencil can produce when I looked at it) and wondering what it was about. I didn’t realize it was a memoir of one woman’s growing up in a very unique, dare I say it, dysfunctional quasi-Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. It’s a book about that kind of upbringing (ultra conservative, Ruby-Ridgish, oppressively survivalist) but more than that, it’s a book about this woman’s struggle to become her own person, which many of us do within the safe guard rails of home, but not her. (Here is a short PBS video in her own words…)

Tara Westover

The reading was compelling, partly because it’s a true story and partly because Tara Westover is a gifted wordsmith. Though she never stepped inside a formal classroom until she was seventeen, she nevertheless overcame every seemingly impossible hurdle to her education. She earned a Ph.D within a decade of that first moment in real school, all while navigating her journey to discovering her place in this world, sometimes with the help of her parents and siblings, but more often despite them.

I was reminded of Jeanette Walls’ THE GLASS CASTLE, which I loved, and though the stories are different, the two books evoke the same feelings, at least for me. I love what is written about the book in the inside front cover: “EDUCATED is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes of severing one’s closest ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.”

All of us are in a classroom of some kind when we’re growing up. We are all learning to be the person we will be the rest of our adult life. It may not be a traditional room with rows of desks but learning is taking place within the environment provided to us, from the moment we take our first breath. We are born, we begin to grow, we begin to learn. I am sure there are plenty of untold sad stories out there where children raised in oppressive learning environments could not break out of them, but this is a powerful story of a young woman who did.

The problem with a book everyone loves…

A few years back, the book everyone was talking about was THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho. I saw the book everywhere; online, in bookstores, in peoples’ hands, and everyone was saying what a fantastic book it was. It was recommended to me by several people, and I was both loaned a copy (that I – gasp – still have) and gifted a copy, but for whatever reason I never got around to reading it. I always believed that someday I would, but meanwhile my reading life went on, and very busily so, with many other books.

So when one of the gals in my book club chose it for this month’s read I was actually pretty jazzed. I would no longer be able to put off reading it because I didn’t want to be a flunkatoid – that’s the title we give ourselves in my club when we fail to read the book that’s been chosen. And I had two copies to read already!  I only had to find one of them.

Perhaps the reason I’d previously put off reading it was that I had heard it was allegorical, and a bit mystical, and about a shepherd boy (who, by the way, is not really a boy at all actually, but a man.) I had heard that it was enlightening, inspiring and philosophical. I like all those things, but I usually read fiction for pleasure and nonfiction for research, and allegory for nothing. But I was ready at last to read the book everybody had been talking about and that has sold millions upon millions of copies.

Here’s the thing with a book that all the world loves; your expectations of it are extremely high. Stunningly high, at least for me. I was ready to be wowed, undone, amazed. And while I enjoyed it, I finished the book a bit underwhelmed and kind of sad. I wish now I had heard nothing about it. And I also think I should’ve kept looking for the new copy that I have somewhere here in this house and hadn’t settled for the friend’s copy which had been underlined already. I would see those underlines coming up and I would feel like I was stumbling upon someone else’s discovery. I wanted to have my own discoveries, and when you read a borrowed book with underlines already inside, you don’t get them. And I do believe this is the kind of book where you need to have them.

I came across this blog post on the author’s website (penned by a Huffington Post writer) as I was pondering why I didn’t adore the book, and I actually love what this person said about why THE ALCHEMIST resonated with so many millions of people. It offered people a blueprint for how to live a meaningful life. This writer came up with the book’s ten most powerful passages and what they teach us, and of those ten, there are six that I see now did in fact resonate with me:

Fear is a bigger obstacle than the obstacle itself
What is “true” will always endure
Embrace the present.
Make the decision
Keep getting back up
Focus on your own journey

Yes, yes, yes, I am a fan of all six of these pearls of wisdom. But in the reading I’ve discovered I don’t want to dive for pearls of wisdom by way of allegory. I did when I was a kid, but I don’t now.

I am fully of the persuasion that there are life lessons to be learned, but not all life lessons are learned the same way. My preferred learning style (I know this now) is to hear a lecture or read an essay rather than read a work of allegorical fiction. And I absolutely need to make my own highlights.

In my search to figure out why I didn’t adore the book everybody adored (I LIKED it friends. I did), I came across the article and was astounded that this book was written in only two weeks. You might also want to know that it was not a success until it was translated into English, and that it spent 300 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list. Click to read the rest of the article.

What this book’s phenomenal success tells me more than anything is that people are hungry to know their purpose in life. I find that wonderfully refreshing because it quietly speaks that at our core, we know we are more than former primordial ooze. We were made in the image of God, we absolutely do have a purpose, and our souls are restless until we discover it. I am glad this book encouraged so many to discover for themselves what it is.

And now, of course, I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thank you, Rosamunde Pilcher

My grandmother, who loved THE SHELL SEEKERS.

When I learned this morning of novelist Rosamunde Pilcher’s death, my first thought flew to my grandmother, my dad’s mom, who I spent much time with in my growing-up years. She and my Papa lived just a short drive away from my San Diego home, and my sisters and I spent our summer days at their house when we were out of school. My paternal grandmother, who was known as Grammary in the family, often took us to her local library on those long summer days, letting us poke about the shelves and check out books on her card, and she always came home with books for herself. She was yet another one of the people in my childhood years who exampled to me the love and joy of reading.

It wasn’t until my adult years, back when I was in my early thirties, when I hungered to be a novelist but didn’t think I could accomplish it, didn’t even know if it was in the realm of possibility, that she told me her new favorite novel was The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. She loved it, told me it was writing to aspire to, and gave me her copy which I still have. I read it and fell in love myself with this book that in mass market form is as thick as an Oxford dictionary. And in its own way The Shell Seekers did indeed nourish my desire to try my hand at novel-writing – even though it was another decade before I attempted it – every time I saw its ample spine on the bookshelf.

But I read it thirty years ago and all I could remember about the book besides it being Grammary’s favorite was that I loved it too. So when news of Pilcher’s passing reached me, I felt a pang of sadness – not just because a good writer had left us – but because the news reminded me of my Grammary, whose wit and jokes and cooking and hugs and love I miss.

She lived into her nineties and saw me become what I wanted to be. I’m glad for that.

And I’m glad books were important to her and our trips to her library were routine and that I have her The Shell Seekers, which is, according to Goodreads, a story “of connection: of one family, and of the passions and heartbreak that have held them together for three generations…it’s a magical novel, the kind of reading experience that comes along only once in a long while.”

Here is the premise, in case you want to know, which I had to re-read to adequately remember: “At the end of a long and useful life, Penelope Keeling’s prized possession is The Shell Seekers, painted by her father, and symbolizing her unconventional life, from bohemian childhood to wartime romance. When her grown children learn their grandfather’s work is now worth a fortune, each has an idea as to what Penelope should do. But as she recalls the passions, tragedies, and secrets of her life, she knows there is only one answer…and it lies in her heart.”

So of course now I am going to have to take it back up and re-read! I peeked to the end to see how many pages (nearly 600!) and I love again how it ends: “She paused, to turn upon him a smile the brilliance of which he had never seen before. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s a particularly lovely day.’ She went through the door. Into her kingdom, her world.”

Thanks, Ms. Pilcher.

And thank you, Grammary, for coaxing me to find my own little kingdom, in my own world. I am grateful.

And I miss you…

Ordinary Grace = extraordinary book

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted on the blog and I feel bad about that. The holidays, as they often do, got in the way of normal routines because I let them, and then in January, I began in earnest to write a new book – about which I will keep you in the loop in future posts – and I let that heady experience also keep me from feeding this blog on Fridays. I apologize.

But I’m back in the saddle today with a book recommendation. Last month (I have to say that because January is already GONE!) that I absolutely loved. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is a five-star book all the way around. The title was a new one for me and was the choice of one of the readers in the book club I am in. I was surprised – still am – I hadn’t heard of this novel because it is masterfully written and it has been out for several years.

The story is one of those where the narrator in midlife is looking back on his childhood and sharing about an experience that forever shaped him. It’s also set in Minnesota, which is where I lived for 13 years, and pretty much in the same area, so I could see, taste, touch, and feel nearly every scene. Frankie is the 13-year-old son of a small town Methodist minister. He has a younger brother, who, incidentally, was my favorite character because of his tender heart, funny lines, and aching vulnerability. Frank tells the story of a particular summer where death had hold on their little town, in many different ways – from the tragedy of a little boy playing too close to train tracks to suicide to a murder. It was a summer like no other for lots of reasons but certainly because life itself was being dealt a blow. And when life is dealt blow we who know that life is precious can’t fail to wonder what impact it will have on us. I hesitate to share more about the storyline because I do not want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say I was compelled to keep reading, and I didn’t want it to end.

But I will leave you with a quote from the book that resonated with me and I still find it echoing in my mind weeks after having read the book. The scene takes place at a funeral and Frankie‘s father is giving the message. The community is reeling from so much loss of life and he offers this bit of comfort to all those who mourn:

“When we feel abandoned, alone, and lost, what’s left to us? What do I have, what do you have, what do any of us have left except the overpowering temptation to rail against God and to blame him for the dark night into which he’s led us, to blame him for our misery, to blame him and cry out against him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken? I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night it’s still within our power to hold onto faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them.”

I’ve long known and loved the verse in the letter to the Corinthians Krueger references here, but I have never thought of those three graces – faith, hope, and love – that way; that they are ours to hold onto and ours to let go of, but that they can’t be stolen from us. Only abandoned by us. The thought still moves me. There were other portions of the book that were like this, deeply part of the story, but deeply relevant to our real lives outside the novels we read to escape them for a bit.

So there you have it. Good words to begin 2019 with. Highly recommend. Happy reading, folks…

 

Cheers for The Clockmaker’s Daughter

Nearly every time I speak to a book club or at a library event or literary festival, I get asked to name my favorite authors. I always begin that list with historical fiction author extraordinaire, Kate Morton. She is a fantastically gifted wordsmith, clever and creative, and her prose is delicious. Her novels are multi-layered in so many ways, and her characters are perfectly drawn. I’ve been looking forward to her newest, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER for months, ever since she first posted it was headed our way. I got a copy the day it was released and started reading, slowly at first – to savor it – but then voraciously when I got to the last quarter and couldn’t put it down. This one will be one of my all-time favorites of hers, like THE SECRET KEEPER and THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN – two previous books of hers that still resonate with me years after having read them.

Kate’s books always take me back to England, where I spent three glorious years as an Air Force wife, and where I fell love with the land. This story takes place in at a country house in Berkshire over a period of a century, with multiple people coming in and out of the house and bringing their individual stories with them as the leave part of their story there. I love stories where a house figures in prominently (I did something along those lines with A SOUND AMONG THE TREES and again with SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE) and I really enjoyed the chapter narrated by the gentle voice of the ghost of Birchwood Manor, a woman, not a phantom. A woman tied to the house but not with chains as much as tied to it for comfort and solace. It was the same kind of benevolent voice I gave to my ghost in A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEAN. I am not a fan of ghost stories per se, but I am a fan of stories that feature compelling characters that feel timeless to me, and if they happen to be ghosts, fine with me if they better have a good reason for it. Kate’s THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER delivers. I highly recommend.

Here is a gorgeous video of Kate describing this novel:

Get, read, and enjoy!

P.S. There are many characters, all wonderful, but it might be a good idea to keep a little note on in the inside cover as to who is who….

The best of the best

If you watched PBS’s series on the Great American Read, you already know that the Number 1 best book of 100 favorites voted in by book lovers like us everywhere was TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  PBS aired the series over a period of weeks after votes were sent in and tallied and then revealed week by week. The entire list of our favorites is included in the link above if you care to see the line-up of the most beloved books in our lifetime. (I confess I feel very good about myself for having already read a great many of them).

It’s so very hard to pick one novel out of all that I’ve ever read to crown as the BEST BOOK EVER!  I remember when I voted earlier this summer I agonized over which novel I loved best, remembered best, felt influenced by the most, would recommend in a heartbeat. I think I chose CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White because fifty years after reading this book, I still feel such affection for it and everything it tells the world about friendship and courage and hope. And yet, when TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was crowned the winner I didn’t feel sad. It is also and will probably always be a book for the times, no matter what time in which its reader is living.

Books like CHARLOTTE’S WEB and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are timeless because they aren’t truly about a pig and a spider figuring out life in a barnyard or an impressionable young girl and her attorney father figuring out life in pre-Civil Rights movement Alabama. They are books about US trying to figure out life, and not just figuring it out, but making it beautiful and safe and meaningful for everyone. They teach us, still, what it means to love your neighbor – the oldest and best precept for living there is – and what it looks like when you don’t.

I would love to hear what you think about the list of 100 books, and its crowning winner. Was your favorite in the top ten or 20? Tell me…

 

Takin’ it easy

A few years back my mom read a novel by Kate Morton, a new author on the scene. My mom loved it and told me she was certain I would too. She loaned me that book, THE HOUSE AT RIVERTON, which was Kate’s debut, and she was so very right. I did love it. I loved the gorgeous prose, the journey back in time, the English setting, the multi-dimensional characters, the layers of mystery and secrets. I knew I’d found an author to follow. Since then, I’ve waited eagerly for every book Kate Morton has released, and when a new one came out, I’d gobble it up like a starving woman the minute I had it in my hands. I’ve even had the absolute pleasure of meeting Kate (that’s her and me a few years ago in the photo above) twice at my fave local bookstore, Warwicks, when book tours brought her all the way from the UK or Australia to my neck of the woods. She is as wonderful in person as she is on paper as a storyteller. When people ask me for book recommendations or if they want to know who my favorite authors are, I always with begin Kate Morton and Kate Morton’s books.

All that is to tell you I am thrilled that on Tuesday, her newest, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER, was released here in the States and I got my copy delivered around twilight. I wanted to get into my jammies and start reading right away but there was dinner to make and This Is Us to watch, and actually, part of me wanted to savor the moment that I had an unread Kate Morton book in my possession. Once I started reading, I knew I would begin the journey to having read the latest Kate Morton book; and that is a journey that always ends with a finished book and no more from her to read. And hence, the wait for the next one, usually at least two years, sometimes three, would begin.

I’m finding that I don’t want to rush the experience this time. I’m reading the chapters slowly, enjoying a leisurely pace that is so unlike me with an author I adore. I think I’ve finally come to the point where I can appreciate a sauntering pace with a good book. I don’t saunter, ever, while on my two feet, but I am finding a sauntering pace with my Kate Morton book is quite nice. I will certainly come back here to the blog to tell you all about my thoughts on THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER, but it won’t be tomorrow or the next day or the next. It may not even be next Friday when the blog needs to be fed.

I am going to make the experience of reading it as long-lasting as I can without disrupting the pace of the story itself. This is a new way of reading a book for me. I often have to take a book slow because of life and busy-ness and exhaustion at the end of the day. But this will be different. I am going to take it slow on purpose.

If I can.

In the meantime, if you are looking for a book suggestion, have you read anything by Kate Morton?

p.s. my favorite of hers is THE SECRET KEEPER

Seeing the treasures…

I’m starting to write a new novel, one which will feature a young Irish immigrant woman as one of the protagonists. While there are Irish immigrants in my ancestral past (I’ve got McFarlands an Griffins in my blood), I’m not very familiar with the Irish immigrant experience, so I decided to read what many call the penultimate memoir on this topic, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, as I begin the research process.

I remember when this book came out more than a decade ago, and I remember it winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but for whatever reason, I missed reading it. Maybe it was because we were in transition in those years, moving from the Midwest back to southern California, or maybe it was because I was afraid of who Angela might be, and how her ashes figured into the story. It couldn’t be good, right? I might have even thought it was something along the lines of The Lovely Bones, a great book, but oh, so sad.

In any case, this was my first read. And I’m happy to share with you my thoughts but I can’t hardly do it without sharing who Angela is and why there are ashes, which translates naturally into a spoiler alert. If you’ve not read this book and want to, you might want to skip the rest of this post for now and come back after you’ve read it.

So then. I’m still pondering this book and its impact on me – I think I will be ruminating on it for a while – but it’s not hard to give it five stars. The writing is superb while being innocent and understated and packed with deeper meaning. It’s the kind of book you want to talk about with someone afterward, so it’s no wonder it was a book club favorite the year it came out. It probably still is.

Here’s an excerpt from the back cover in case you need a refresher on what this book is about: “So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy– exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling– does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.  Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank’s survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig’s head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors–yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance and remarkable forgiveness.”

And now for the spoiler. You learn from the get go that Angela is the author’s mother. So from the get-go, I expected that at any moment young Frank McCourt, who already had a tough life, was going to lose his mother. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that. But Angela is alive when the book is done. Her ashes are something other than the physical remains of her body. Sometimes when you look for something in a book that you think you should see at some point, you find in the end that something was there all along, actually everywhere.

Angela has an unbelievably hard life. The list of her woes is endless, starting with her irresponsible drunk of a husband, the deaths of several children, and her daily struggle to raise her surviving children while mired in abject poverty. And yet she has the same desire for happiness, security, and affection that everyone has.

I love this quote from Shmoop that aptly encapsulates what Frank McCourt’s mother’s ashes really were: “The ashes in the fireplace, the ashes that fall from Angela’s endless cigarettes—they’re all byproducts of Angela’s sad and hopeless life. Ashes are lifeless, they’re what’s left over when the fire goes out.”

Now that I know that, I want to read the book again and look for the ashes that I missed the first time. I love metaphors sprinkled in a story like Easter eggs, just waiting to be discovered. And I don’t like it when I zoom past those hidden treasures looking for something else.

I wonder, those of you who’ve read Angela’s Ashes, if you figured this out before you finished the book, or if you were like me and were like, “Wait. What?” at the end.

I am now vowing to be very careful every time I read any book that hints of something to be found in its title.

Which, no doubt, is every book….