I almost always have a book in my hand when I’m standing in line at the Northstar Café, where I occasionally get dinner after my workout. Often, I get approached and conversations start because of the book. One time, the restaurant “greeter” told me about his sister who loves to read and described the tables at her house overflowing with books. And then there was the professor, who jumped out of her chair to talk with me about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a young adult novel about the capture and interrogation of a young British secret agent in Nazi-occupied France.
More recently, the girl at the register taking my order asked me if the book I had with me was any good. I was reading The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, a surprisingly addictive novel. There was a long line, so I quickly summarized the book’s plot about a 19-year-old, headstrong girl who’s getting married to a 20-year-old thoughtful young man, both from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in London. The girl taking my order seemed interested, and then she told me she had a hard time finding good books. She said her mother gave her books, but she didn’t like them.
I asked, “What kind do you like?” She said stories with romance and real life scenarios. To me, that meant no dystopian universes, vampires, zombies or fantastic thrillers, and also no romance novels (or she would’ve said “romance novels”, indicating the genre). She started to write down the Eve Harris title, and I said, “Why not let me give you a list.”
I’ll admit, the list didn’t come easily. I sensed she was a casual reader, who could easily live without reading, likely a result of not being matched with books that are right for her. It’s easier to make recommendations to a perpetual reader who can’t seem to find a good book at the moment — you can ask for favorite books they’ve read in the past, and that offers indicators. In retrospect, I should’ve asked what books her mother gave her.
I thought it best to suggest a combination of guaranteed good reads, as well as something beyond the parameters of what she might normally choose, or come across, e.g. literary novels, but they couldn’t be too intimidating in size and depth (such as Donna Tartt’s recent Pulitzer Prize winner or a Hilary Mantel door stopper). The literary novels would need to be engaging, moving and entertaining.
And so here’s what I quickly scribbled on a napkin.
Next was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, a great story of love, Hollywood drama and heart-grabbing characters, although a bit risky because of her age, which, I guessed, was in the 20’s. Beautiful Ruins takes much of its story from the filming of Cleopatra in Italy with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, way before her time.
Also, the book I was reading, The Marrying of Chani Kauffman by Eve Harris, not only because she saw it, but also because it’s a type of book she won’t likely come across, and it’s really quite good. Perhaps a bit of a risk, as I wasn’t sure if she’d be drawn into the cultural theme, but still I believed there was a good chance she might love it.
And finally, for a surprise factor, a memoir, Half a Life by Darin Strauss because of its moving, true story of how one event for an 18-year-old boy reverberated through the rest of his life. Not a thick book, plus easy to read and hard to put down. Also, I thought it would fascinate her. I believe it came to mind because I talked about it in a group-setting once with an audience in their 20’s and 30’s — and I recall the room becoming completely silent, as I explained how Darin Strauss’s story so eloquently shows us what guilt looks like, as well as forgiveness and empathy.