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Posts Tagged ‘Jane’s Bookshelf’

Jane’s Bookshelf: Stories of Bravery & Inspiration

Friday, October 5th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

One of the things I love about reading nonfiction is that it allows me to enter the lives of people from different times and places – and to be inspired by them. How could you not be moved by Frank McCourt’s ANGELA’S ASHES with its searing details of poverty and familial love? Have you ever heard of George Dawson, a man who learned to read at the age of 98? Reading his story in LIFE IS SO GOOD is to take a journey through the 20th century as he lived it. And how could you not cheer for Debbie Rodriguez and the girls of THE KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL? I doubt many of us would have had the determination to go half way around the world to change others’ lives as Rodriguez did.Unbroken

And it isn’t just personal memoirs that offer us inspiring stories. Laura Hillenbrand’s UNBROKEN recounts the life of Louis Zamperini – incorrigible teenager, Olympic athlete, World War II POW – and his incredible journey into extremity. Along with Louis’s story, she offers us a slice of history, which makes our reading experience that much richer. Like Hillenbrand’s first book SEABISCUIT, Elizabeth Letts’s THE EIGHTY-DOLLAR CHAMPION tells the story of a horse that held America spellbound. Snowman, who was rescued from a truck bound for the slaughterhouse, went on to climb to the very top of the show jumping circuit and become a beacon of hope during the Cold War era.

CatherineGreat pbBiographies of famous men and women provide intimate portraits of the call to greatness: think of Robert Massie’s CATHERINE THE GREAT, Walter Isaacson’s STEVE JOBS, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s NO ORDINARY TIME about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, or Douglas Brinkley’s WHEELS FOR THE WORLD about Henry Ford and his founding of the Ford Motor Company. The richness of each of these works lies partly in the biographer’s ability to show us that these men and women are human like you and me, with faults and weakness that exist alongside their brilliance. And that duality, I promise you, provides for much to discuss, even debate, with your fellow book club members.

As I thought about these books, it struck me that they share a common thread: they are at heart about bravery. They are about trying something new, withstanding pain or hardship, or finding a way to succeed in the face of tremendous odds. These are themes that run through many of my favorite novels as well, which I was reminded of by Tara Conklin’s THE HOUSE GIRL, a debut novel that I just finished reading and loved (it will be published next February by William Morrow). The book interweaves the stories of two women – Josephine, a slave who attempts to escape from her master, and Lina, a corporate lawyer who discovers Josephine’s story as part of her quest to find a lead plaintiff for a slavery reparations case – who make choices that put them in danger, but also require them to figure out how to be true to themselves.

What are your favorite inspirational stories? What kind of bravery inspires you most?

Jane’s Bookshelf: Traveling Through the Pages

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

A trend here in New York City is the “staycation”, meaning you are on vacation, but aren’t travelling anywhere—at least not physically. It’s a time to do fun things close to home, get a few projects done around the house, and travel in your imagination through the pages of books. Those imaginary journeys are often much more exciting, exotic, and memorable than the trips we can take ourselves.

OrphanMaster PBI began thinking about this when I was reading Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON. Set in North Korea, this brilliant novel takes you inside this country that so few outsiders have been able to penetrate. Johnson was able to visit Pyongyang while he worked on the book, but as he shares with his editor in the interview in the paperback, he was only able to visit select places in the company of his “minders.” As I read, I was struck by how deeply immersed I was in the culture and characters—especially Pak Jun Do, the orphan master’s son of the title, whose story is chilling, haunting, and very romantic. It reminded me of two other books that take you to foreign lands: LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI, Nien Cheng’s memoir about China’s Cultural Revolution, and THIS BLINDING ABSENCE OF LIGHT, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novel about a prison in Morocco where King Hassan II sent his political enemies. These books invite you to experience life under a totalitarian regime, but even more FrenchLessonsimportant to me as a reader, they offer indelible portraits of the strength of the human spirit to survive and flourish with dignity and love.

Of course I realize that most of the time when we travel we want to go someplace that is beautiful, fun, and interesting—and we’re lucky there are lots of books that can take us to the most beloved vacation destinations. If you wish you could travel in Europe may I suggest: FRENCH LESSONS by Ellen Sussman (Paris), PRAGUE by Arthur Phillips (Prague), THAT SUMMER IN SICILY by Marlena de Blasi (Sicily), THE BIRTH OF VENUS by Sarah Dunant (Florence), RESTORATION by Rose Tremain (London), THE KITCHEN BOY by Robert Alexander (Russia), and GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland (Germany and Holland). Of course you may want to stay closer to home: OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (Maine), THE DESCENDANTS by Kaui Hart Hemmings (Hawaii), LONESOME DOVE by Larry Olive Kitteridge PBMcMurtry (Texas), DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR by Ivan Doig (Montana), NEW YORK by Edward Rutherfurd (New York), and SUMMERLAND by Michael Chabon (Seattle, Puget Sound).

I realize I’ve left out large sections of the world on my list of books and places to go. I’d love to hear from you about the books you’ve read and loved about foreign lands that have made you feel as if you’ve been far, far away even if you never left your couch or hammock! And enjoy all of your travels this summer.

Jane’s Bookshelf: The Books in My Summer Beach Bag

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

When I was a kid, summer meant long sunny days in the ocean, tons of fun with my four siblings, and lots of reading in the hammock. Those long days with few responsibilities gave me a love of summer reading that I still indulge in. Deciding what to read while on vacation can be agonizing: I want books that will keep me turning the pages, discovering new authors, or finally reading something I’ve meant to get to. Having just come back from a week at the beach, I’m excited to share my early summer reads!

My son and I read THE HUNGER GAMES together – some of it aloud and some of it by trading the book back and forth. Suzanne Collins has an incredible gift for driving a story forward; we were both utterly taken by Katniss’s prowess in the woods, strategic instincts, and fierce loyalty. I appreciated her emotional complexity more than my son did – especially when her feelings towards Peeta blossomed (which he did not approve of, but at 10 years old, love is not on your radar!) It was so much fun to discuss the moral complexity of the world Collins has created in THE HUNGER GAMES – I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy soon.

Playing Dead So many people have raved about Gillian Flynn’s writing in the past few years that I had to pick up GONE GIRL. The voices are pitch perfect and the incredible twists and turns in the plot are jaw-dropping, but so believable. Even though you know Flynn was inspired by many a true crime episode about “the missing wife,” you can’t help wondering how she transforms it into such a psychological tour de force. GONE GIRL reminded me of Julia Haeberlin’s debut novel, PLAYING DEAD, which starts with a young woman who receives a letter from someone claiming to be her mother, saying she had been kidnapped 30 years ago. What at first seems completely implausible turns out to be more deliciously complicated and suspenseful than you can imagine – plenty of great plot twists here too!

Going back to an author you haven’t read in a while is one of the pleasures of summer reading and I picked up Ann Patchett’s THE STATE OF WONDER for that very reason. I loved the worlds she creates – Minnesota in winter as compared to the Amazon jungle – but more than anything, I adored the main character, Marina Singh, who goes to find out what happened to her colleague in the jungle and comes face to face with her own memories of tragedy and heartbreak as she navigates this hot (and at times terrifying) world. In the midst of the characters’ compelling stories, Patchett also “presents an alluring interplay between civilization and wilderness, between aid and exploitation.” (Wall Street Journal)

Heat Wave And let’s not forget that summer reads are also known as beach reads—and for the quintessential beach book I turn to Nancy Thayer. Often set on Nantucket, her novels always feature wonderful female characters whose stories of family, friendship, love, and betrayal are a true delight. Every time I look at the cover of her newest paperback, HEAT WAVE, I wish I were on that beach in a red bikini! I’ll be taking another week off from work in late August – what should I take with me for my second spell of summer reading?

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