BETWEEN THE LINES

In honor of book groups

February 3, 2016

Tags: book groups

In honor of book groups

For many passionate readers, book groups are our reading family. Like all families, there may be a few dud selections, the equivalent of the second cousin who spends holiday dinners staring at a screen, or the uncle who farts, but we still love them. I have two book group families. One group, which has been going for over a decade, is through a local indie bookstore. I love the fact that it’s open to anyone who has read the month’s book and wants to discuss it. I also love that about 1/3 of the time we invite the author to join us.

The other group, which we call Stones and Bones, started in 1994 as a group of friends, originally convened at the Odyssey Bookshop. We chose the name because we noticed how many books we discussed that first year or two had “stones” or “bones” in the title (Stones from the River, The Bone People, Stone Diaries.) Over the past 22 years, the group has lost and gained members and has moved from meeting at the bookstore to members’ homes, but continues to offer us an opportunity to read books we otherwise probably would not have chosen, and to enjoy the books a second time through discussion. Although most meetings involve sitting around someone’s living room talking about a novel, we’ve tried different bookish activities, ranging from weekends on Martha’s Vineyard (discussing novels set there, of course) to reading poetry to each other.

In honor of this group, and all book groups, I’d like to share our twenty-two years of literary selections.

1994
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
Indian Lawyer, James Welch
Bless Me Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya
The Bone People, Keri Hulme
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez
Middlemarch, George Elliot
Sanctuary, William Faulkner
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
Jasmine, Bharati Mukhargee

1995
Meeting at the Crossroads, Brown and Gilligan
Girl Interrupted, Susana Kaysen
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy
Emma, Jane Austen
Mating, Norman Rush
Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton
House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi
In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien

1996
These Same Long Bones, Gwendolyn Parker
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams
Regeneration, Pat Barker
Philadelphia Fire, John Edgar Wideman
A Feather on the Breath of God, Sigrid Nunez
In the Time of the Butterflies Julia Alvarez
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang
Reviving Orphelia, Mary Pipher
A Very Long Engagement, S Japrisot
Taft, Ann Patchet

1997
City of coughing and dead radiators, Martín Espada
Liars Club, Mary Karr
The House on the Lagoon, Rosario Ferré
In This Dark House, Louise Kehoe
Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
What the Scarecrow Said, Steward David Ikeda
Push, Saffire
American Requiem, James Carroll
Beat Not the Bones, Charlotte Jay
My Antonia, Willa Cather
The Passion, Jeannette Winterson

1998
Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
Martin Dresler, Steven Milhausen
Tinisima, Elena Poniatowska
Solar Storms, Linda Hogan
The Weight of Water, Anita Shreve
What Girls Learn, Karin Cook
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
The Color of Water, James Bride
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie

1999
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels
Poetry potpourri, multiple poets
The Rapture of Canaan, Sherri Reynolds
Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Charming Billy, Alice McDermott
Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle
Killing Mr. Watson, Peter Matthiessen
The Romance Reader, Pearl Abraham
Ophelia Speaks, Sara Shandler
Real Boys, William Pollack

2000
The Archivist, Martha Cooley
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout
Damascus Gate, Robert Stone
A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nazar
Love of a Good Woman, Alice Munroe
The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanish Kureishi
Plainsong, Kent Haruf
The Hours, Michael Cunningham
The Wedding, Dorothy West
Waiting, Ha Jin

2001
The Pleasing Hour, Lily King
Girl with the Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness, Jane Lazarre
Half a Heart, Rosellen Brown
A Recipe for Bees, Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus
Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

2002
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
American Pastoral, Philip Roth
The Last Life, Claire Messud
All Souls, Michael Patrick MacDonald
The Map of Love, Ahdaf Soueif
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich
Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich
Empire Falls, Richard Russo
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
Women of the Silk, Gail Tsukiyama

2003
The Good German, Joseph Kanon
Loveship, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage, Alice Munroe
Caucasia, Danzy Senna
Servants of the Map, Andrea Barrett
Year of Wonders, Gwendolyn Brooks
Atonement, Ian McEwan
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
When the Elephants Dance, Tess Uriza
The Quiet American, Graham Greene

2004
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer
Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer
Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azis Nahisi
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien
Rattlebone, Maxine Claire

2005
The Photograph, Penelope Lively
The Kite Runner, Khalid Hasseni
Easter Island, Jennifer Vanderbes
Breaking the Tongue, Vyvyane Loh
Getting Mother's Body, Suzan Lori Parks
Red Dust, Gillian Slovo
No Great Mischief, Alastair MacLeod
Snow, Orhan Pamuk
Prague, Arthur Phillips

2006
Prince Edward, Dennis McFarland
Aloft, Chang Rae-Lee
Broken Verses, Kamila Shamsie
Saturday, Ian McEwan
Small Island, Andrea Levy
Abide with Me, Elizabeth Strout
Pearl, Mary Gordon
Dragon Bones, Lisa See
Purple Hibiscus, Chamamanda Ngozi Adichie
A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz
Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham

2007
The Good Wife, Stewart O’Nan
Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Karma and Other Stories, Rishi Reddi
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury
Kindred, Octavia Butler
Birds in Fall, Brad Kessler
Intuition, Allegra Goodman
Astrid and Veronika, Linda Olsson
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai

2008
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
The Post Birthday World, Lionel Shriver
Olive Kittredge, Elizabeth Strout
The Gathering, Ann Enright
In Revere, In Those Days, Roland Merullo
Those Who Save Us, Jenna Blum
Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell
Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones

2009
Ordinary Wolves, Seth Katnor
Bridge of Sighs, Rick Russo
The Air We Breathe, Andrea Barrett
March, Geraldine Brooks
Mudbound, Hillary Jordan
In the Woods, Tana French
People of the Whale, Linda Hogan
Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie

2010
Driftless, David Rhodes
The Great Man, Kate Christensen
The Soul Thief, Charles Baxter
The Believers, Zoe Heller
Into the Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
Little Bee, Chris Cleave
Martyrs Crossing, Amy Wilentz
Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
The Twin, Gerbrand Bakker


2011
The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt
American Rust, Philip Meyer
House Arrest, Ellen Meeropol
Where the God of Love Hangs Out, Amy Bloom
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Italian Shoes, Henning Mankell
Binocular Vision, Edith Pearlman
The Bells, Richard Harvell
Quiet Americans, Erika Dreifus

2012
The Call, Yannick Murphy
The Devil in Dover, Lauri Lebo
He, She, and It, Marge Piercy
In the Garden of the Beasts, Erik Larsen
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
Growing Up Delicious, Marianne Banks
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Blood, Bones and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton
End of the Affair, Graham Greene

2013
Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
The Newlyweds, Nell Freudenberger
Salvage the Bones, Jessmyn Ward
Room, Emma Donoghue
The Borrower, Rebecca Makkai
Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller
The Round House, Louise Erdrich
The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson
A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, Anthony Marra
Remembering the Bones, Frances Itani

2014
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon
Galore, Michael Crummey
We Are Water, Wally Lamb
My Own Country, Abraham Verghese
Dear Life, Alice Munro
July's People, Nadine Gordimer
White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse
She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, Jennifer Finney Boylan
Illusion of Separateness, Simon van Booy

2015
Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Jonathan Ferris
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
On Hurricane Island, Ellen Meeropol
Norwegian by Night, Derek Miller
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande & Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, Roz Chast
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
Emma and Otto and Russell and James, Emily Hooper
Honeydew, Edith Pearlman

2016 (read and/or planned)
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Among the 10,000 Things, Julia Pierpont
The Enchanted, Rene Denfield
In the Country, Mia Alvar
Mourner’s Bench, Sanderia Faye


My ten favorite novels of 2015

December 10, 2015

Like many passionate readers, I enjoy looking back at the year’s reading, and trying to pick out my favorite books of the year. This year was harder for several reasons. First of all, my second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, was published in early March, and I’ve done close to fifty events in thirty-plus cities; that means significantly less time for reading. Secondly, I’ve been a particularly picky reader, discarding about a quarter of the books I started after fifty or a hundred pages. And thirdly, I’ve been disappointed in many of the big buzz novels this year; they just didn’t work for me. But then, reading fiction is such an individual pleasure. These are the ten books that moved me most in 2015, in no particular order. I hope some of them speak to you as well.

SPEAK by Louisa Hall is told by five narrators spanning five centuries and several continents but they all explore the human need to communicate, to connect, to be understood. Each character tries to bridge gaps – between friends, lovers and non-human intelligence. This book is dark and smart and sometimes pretty disturbing. I loved it.

GIRL AT WAR, Sara Nović’s debut novel set in Croatia in 1991, is also both dark and emotionally gripping. The ten-year-old narrator Ana is our guide through the frightening realities of civil war – the shortages and bombings, suspicion and losses. The novel moves back and forth in time between 1991 and a decade later, a college student in New York, returns to Croatia to make peace with the legacy of her childhood. Strong debut work.

Karen Joy Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES was published a couple of years ago. I’m so glad I finally read it. From the first pages, 22-year-old Rosemary shares her grief at the loss of her sister, her twin, Fern. When we learn that Fern is a chimpanzee, and that the family was part of a scientific experiment, this moving and often-humorous family saga opens up into something much larger. This book gave me a lot to think about.

THE CELESTIALS by Karen Shepard was also published in 2013 but I heard the author read from it this year. I bought the book partly because she uses an omniscient narration, something I was working on, but mostly because I was so taken with her story of Chinese laborers brought to North Adams, Massachusetts in 1970 as strikebreakers. This is historical fiction at its best – an author’s imagination forging connections between past and present that offer the reader insight into the current issues of immigration, race, and xenophobia.

THE BEGINNING THINGS by Bunny Goodjohn. Tot is twelve, sizzling with an urgent crush on the wrong boy. Her mother sews to support the family after her husband’s desertion. Dan, the father of said missing husband, moves into the house on Stanley Close, newly widowed, penniless, and very fond of his drink. Tot and her “Dangrad” have always been close and share an affinity for spoonerisms. These linguistic twistings add humor to the prose and provide an oblique way for Tot and Dan to talk about their uncomfortable and difficult-to-discuss issues. Using British slang and a poet’s ear, UK-born Goodjohn weaves the Thompson voices into a cohesive and tightly paced story. I love the toughness of this book as much as I am grateful for its compassion and tenderness.

THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, Jacqueline Sheehan’s forthcoming novel, has it all: heroes and villains, death squads and family loyalties, massacres and soccer, heartbreak and redemption. This novel is both an emotionally intense mother-daughter story complicated by secrets and danger and a sizzling love story, set against the background of civil war in Guatemala and U.S. dirty tricks. Very highly recommended.

MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. The young protagonist is so beautifully brought to life; we feel the Arkansas summer heat, the struggles within her family, her religious yearnings. As the civil rights movement and school integration come to her town, Sarah guides us through an emotional landscape of change and growth. This debut novel is assured and confidant and the window it offers into our shared history is unique. Read this book.

Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem. Daniel and Matt, a gay Northampton couple, travel to Jerusalem to bury Daniel’s twin brother and his wife, killed by a terrorist bomb, and to take custody of their two young children. Frank is masterful at balancing the personal stories of her characters with the explosive political and social issues that propel the plot. Her use of an omniscient point of view works beautifully to integrate Middle East politics with parenting, sexual politics with generational negotiations. Plus, it’s a really, really good read.

DESIRE OF THE MOTH by Champa Bilwakesh follows a shorn and shunned 15-year-old widow ostracized by strict 1930’s caste customs. When Sowmya meets a devadasi and begins studying the forbidden dances, her transformation parallels the intense social, political and cultural changes in South India during the struggle for independence. The writing is lush with music, sensuality and artistic gravitas. A wonderful novel.

Simon Van Booy’s FATHER’S DAY won’t be out until April, but this novel is worth waiting for, especially if you admired THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS like I did. This book weaves in and out of time to bring us a girl named Harvey, orphaned and adopted by her felon uncle. Van Booy’s beautifully-written story of loss and hope and second chances is quiet and sad and engaging. I loved this book.

Gotta rave about this book

November 18, 2015

Tags: The Beginning Things, Bunny Goodjohn

The Beginning Things by Bunny Goodjohn
Published by Underground Voices, November 2015

Three members of the Thompson family narrate this engaging novel about endings and beginnings and how they fit together. Tot is twelve, sizzling with yearnings, hormones, and an urgent crush on the wrong boy. Her mother Elaine, sewing to support the family after her husband’s desertion, gets a job fabricating a silver spaceman suit for a male stripper who wants more than shiny cloth and quick-release Velcro fastenings. When Dan, the father of Elaine’s missing husband, moves into the house on Stanley Close, newly widowed, penniless, and very fond of his drink, Tot has a male relative to ask about her boy trouble.

Four generations of Thompsons, and Elaine’s sewing business, squeeze into a small council house. In addition to Dan, Elaine and Tot, Elaine’s older daughter Dorothy and her out-of-wedlock toddler son add to the chaos. The details of Goodjohn’s descriptions of crowding and room repurposing are both biting and tender, and the reader roots for the characters.

Tot and her “Dangrad” have always been close and share an affinity for spoonerisms. These linguistic twistings add humor to the prose and provide an oblique way for Tot and Dan to talk about their uncomfortable and difficult-to-discuss issues: his drinking and her growing understanding that her unfortunate romance skipped the “beginning things.” Tot can admit to her grandfather that a boy put his “ningers down my fickers” and she liked it a lot. He answers her questions about how to build a friendship and romance, offering a step by step approach. In return, Dan accepts her interference with “mucking fess” of his drinking problem.

With the pleasure of British slang and a poet’s ear, UK-born Goodjohn weaves the three Thompson voices into a cohesive and tightly paced story. I love the toughness of this book as much as I am grateful for its compassion and tenderness.

Disappeared in America: story and fact

November 16, 2015

Tags: On Hurricane Island, civil liberties, fiction platform, imagination and reality

Writing fiction takes you places you never expected to go. My stories and novels have transported me to cults and islands, to interrogation rooms and quarry caves, to Caribbean palace guards and gun stores and courtrooms and sacred dingles. But I thought that once imagination has brought the words to publication, the creative part was done. Turns out that’s not entirely true; there’s also room for invention and exploration in bringing books to readers.

We all know that publishing with an independent press – probably with ANY press in today’s market – requires significant author involvement in promotion. My first novel taught me to look beyond bookstore venues for readings and book-signings. HOUSE ARREST took me to libraries and house parties, to book fairs and reader retreats and conferences and book groups. I took advantage of all those additional venues when ON HURRICANE ISLAND was published. But this novel, because of its topical content, presented an unexpected opportunity: to develop a “platform.”

The idea of “platform” is usually reserved for nonfiction books. It refers to the author’s authority in a subject area and her access to a group of readers already interested in that subject. Novelists may have a fan base and literary credentials, but it’s challenging to identify new readers based on what the book is about, since fiction’s subject matter isn’t so easily identified or defined. It’s also tricky because many readers seem to read EITHER fiction or nonfiction, not both.

The plot line of ON HURRICANE ISLAND is frighteningly topical. Actually that makes me laugh, because when I started writing it seven years ago, even my husband said that the premise was possibly too unbelievable. It’s the story of an older woman, a mathematics professor, who is picked up by federal agents at an airport, hooded and cuffed and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. Snatched right out of the headlines, isn’t it? Which suggested to me that perhaps I could interest people who don’t usually read fiction but do follow the news.

This train of thought led to the “Disappeared in America” events. In each one, I partner with an attorney and/or a justice-oriented organization to explore the literary and the legal issues brought up by the novel, and the intersection of the two. Usually the event consists of a short reading from ON HURRICANE ISLAND, a response from the attorney and conversation with the audience. So far, event venues include libraries and law schools and churches; sponsoring organizations include the Center for Constitutional Rights and chapters of the National Lawyers Guild and Amnesty International. Upcoming events will be held in Amherst, MA, Springfield, MA and Ft. Lauderdale, FL – and wherever else people are interested in these issues.

I can’t claim that these events sell a lot of books, but I’ve been surprised – amazed, really – at how much I’ve learned. And how rich the conversation can be when it includes different perspectives on story and reality, on imagination and social justice.

Fiction that tells the truth: Civil rights, the Middle East, and the Rosenberg case

September 21, 2015

Tags: political fiction, Mourner's Bench, All I Love and Know, The Hours Count, Rosenberg case, civil rights, Judith Frank, Sanderia Faye, Jillian Cantor

Fiction is the best way I know to understand the world. Oh, I read the morning paper and follow online alternative media, and watch the evening news. But my deepest delving into the big issues, the messy complicated and critical issues, is through imaginative works of fiction. Of course the facts, the details of time and place and person are often changed (re-imagined) to serve the story. But if the novel works, it takes the reader across otherwise insurmountable borders of time and nation, of race and ethnicity and gender and age, to experience – “first hand” – the thorny and challenging issues facing our world.

Three recent novels took me to new/old places, and illuminated segments of the world – both historical and contemporary. MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem, as a family responds to the terrorist bomb that kills two of its members. THE HOURS COUNT, Jillian Cantor novel’s about Ethel Rosenberg, brought me home, to my own family. Each of these novels successfully bring to life an important moment in history. Each offers an experience that readers might not otherwise access.

I was thrilled to hear that MOURNER’S BENCH was being published. I met the author Sanderia Faye, about ten years ago in a Contemporary Novel writing workshop led by Dennis Lehane. It was an enormously productive week for me, but the thing I remember most was Sanderia’s chapter from this novel. Her young protagonist Sarah is so beautifully brought to life; we feel the Arkansas summer heat, the struggles within her family, her religious yearnings. As the civil rights movement and school integration come to her town, Sarah guides us through an emotional landscape of change and growth. This debut novel is assured and confidant and the window it offers into our shared history is unique. Read this book.

I’m just finishing my second reading of Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW, in preparation for leading a book group discussion. Some novels fade a bit with rereading, but not this one. Daniel and Matt, a gay Northampton couple, travel to Jerusalem to bury Daniel’s twin brother and his wife, killed by a terrorist bomb, and to take custody of their two young children. Frank is masterful at balancing the personal stories of her characters with the explosive political and social issues that propel the plot. Her use of an omniscient point of view works beautifully to integrate Middle East politics with parenting, sexual politics with generational negotiations. Plus, it’s a really, really good read.

Finally, I want to talk about THE HOURS COUNT, by Jillian Cantor. I heard about this book from a friend and contacted the author, requesting an advance copy. I did so with mixed emotions, because – as I’ve written about previously – I haven’t loved most of the fiction based on my family’s story. (I’m married to Robert Meeropol, younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.) Cantor’s story is told by Millie, a fictional character who lives in Knickerbocker Village and becomes close friends with Ethel. A mix of fact and fiction is always tricky and some of Cantor’s choices don’t make sense to me. Why name one of her characters Jake Gold, when Harry Gold was a “real” participant? Why name Millie’s son David, to be confused with the “real” David Greenglass? Why rewrite how the bomb sketch was used?

That said, I found the novel emotionally compelling. The relationship between Millie and Ethel was complex and tender. The depictions of the parenting challenges shared by the two women was well done and felt true. On a personal level, I have spent decades wondering who Ethel Rosenberg really was – reading her letters, examining photos of her, listening to stories from those who knew her. I’ve spent years writing about her as a way to try to know this woman who gave birth to my husband. Reading Jillian Cantor’s novel, I was surprised at how close I felt to this novelist’s fictionalization of my mother-in-law, whose 100th birthday, by the way, is September 28 . Thank you, Jillian, for that gift.

A dark domestic tale

September 9, 2015

Tags: In the Context of Love, Linda K. Sienkiewicz, sexual assault

IN THE CONTEXT OF LOVE is a story about love gone wrong and the long journey back. Angelica Shirrick is a young mother whose husband is in prison. In order to move forward with her life, she faces both her ruined early love affair and a web of family lies and secrets. This is dark domestic material, woven into an emotionally powerful tale. After reading the novel, I had some questions for debut author Linda K. Sienkiewicz.

Q. Several times, I found myself surprised while reading this book. Things happened that I didn’t expect. In writing the book, did your characters surprise you at any times?

A. Yes, they took some unexpected turns. Angelica, in particular, concerned me. I worried about her behavior, especially at her ten year class reunion. I knew she was falling into a deep hole and I had to be sure I could get her back out. Her husband, Gavin, was rather shady and unpredictable, and it was interesting to follow him over to the dark side. I would say Angelica's father, too, surprised me. I didn't think he'd end up being such a pivotal character.

Q. In the heart of this book is a secret, a dark secret. It’s part of what drives the plot and what keeps us turning pages. I’m curious about when you, as the writer, discovered this secret – did you always know it and construct the narrative around it? Or, did you discover it along with Angelica?

A. The secret was the inspiration for the novel. In the nineties, I'd read a Glamour magazine article about several women who had learned this devastating truth about their conception when they were young adults. Their stories, their strength, and their capacity to forgive so impressed me that I decided to write a fictional story about such a woman. I didn't know how Angelica would learn the secret, or what she would do, but exploring those questions was the challenge and joy of writing this book.

Q. One of the things I loved about your novel was your use of second person. Angelica tells this story to Joe, her first love. Joe seems present throughout the novel, and the reader feels very close to Angelica’s yearning for him. I wonder when in the writing/revision process you decided to utilize that point of view.

A. I had written a rough first draft when I had learned about first-person/second-person address from Josip Novakovich's craft book, Fiction Writers Workshop. Novakovich wondered why it isn't used much in fiction because he feels it can be an effective point of view, particularly in love stories. In fact, to my knowledge, the novels that make use of this literary device can be counted on one hand. I was so intrigued that I had to try it with my manuscript. Changing it was a monumental undertaking, but the more I worked with this point of view, the more excited I became. I even wrote my MFA thesis on second person address. I consider it to be the most intimate point of view a writer can use in fiction.

Q. I read – and was very moved by – your blog about sexual assault. Did you know from the onset that a character would experience this kind of assault? What was your emotional experience of mining such painful personal experience for literary purpose?

A. I didn't relate my own experience to the story until recently, but I'm certain that what happened to me was one of the reasons I was compelled to write such a novel; I just didn't realize it at the time. The way victims of sexual assault are shamed by society has always disturbed me. Victims are essentially silenced. For years I felt I was to blame for what happened to me, and was sure no one would believe otherwise. Being able to write about it, to say, "This happened, it wasn't right, and it hurt me," was incredibly empowering. Likewise, for the characters in In the Context of Love, speaking out is powerful and healing.

Read about Linda's experience and more about this book on her website.

Things that help

August 5, 2015

I haven't posted a blog in a while; this has been a difficult period for my family. Until recently, my elderly father lived in an independent living apartment, with help from me and from aides in the facility. In the past month, he has had three ambulance rides to the Medical Center Emergency Room, three hospital admissions with significant problems and “procedures” to address those problems, and three returns to the skilled nursing rehab part of his community. That’s a lot for a 98-year-old blind man, who is also hearing impaired. He’s exhausted and so are we.

Most of us go through similar crises with elderly or ill family members sooner or later. Eventually, most of us experience the broken U.S. health care system. They are so good at saving lives, at high tech interventions, and my father has certainly benefited from that expertise. But they are often poor at communication – between departments, between providers, with and to the patient and family. Still, there have been, there are, some amazingly kind and thoughtful and helpful individuals and we are so grateful for their caring.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I’ve been thinking about the things that have helped me during this month. Things that have offered moments of respite, even of joy, in the middle of the sorrow.

The first is wildflowers. I’m so lucky this happened in July, when Robby’s garden and the land around us is in full and glorious bloom. Coneflowers and daylilies, susies and coreopsis, poppies and balloon flowers. Even a Monarch butterfly in the milkweed patch by the kitchen window.

Second is music. I admit that in recent years I forget to listen to music; words fill my brain. But this month I’ve rediscovered the dusty CDs and the ipod shuffle and even – amazing! – an afternoon on the lawn at Tanglewood. I’ve listened to a lot of music since that first awful dash to the E.R., mostly in the car on the daily drives to and from the hospital or the nursing home. The two most healing albums have been American Beauty (Grateful Dead) and Hijos del Sol (Viva Quetzal). Go figure.

The third thing that kept me sane, or close to sane, is work. Deadlines. My laptop has been close by all month. My dad’s medical issues came as I was still on book tour, so I’ve had to reschedule a few events and figure out how to be away from home as little as possible. This crisis also occurred as I signed the contract for my next book, and worked furiously to finish the revision. The novel includes hospital and nursing home scenes and it probably didn’t hurt to have those sensory details so available. Mostly it helped to be able to lose myself in a different narrative from my own.

Finally: family (Robby and Jenn, especially) and friends. You know who you are. Thank you.

The Great Cookie Caper

June 28, 2015

Tags: resistance, cookies, retirement community

There’s a new rule at the retirement community where my dad lives: only one cookie with your fruit cup for dessert.

You’ve got to understand that this is epic for my almost 98-year-old father. Blind and mostly deaf, he makes his own breakfast and lunch, but eats his evening meal every night in the dining hall. The food is decent and the staff is pleasant and accommodating. My dad has lived there for ten years, and the wait staff all know his standing dessert order: a fruit cup and two oatmeal raisin cookies.

Until last week.

On Thursday when Robby and I show up to join him for dinner, I ask my usual question. “What’s new, Dad?”

His usual answer is, “Nothing much.”

On Thursday, he says, “Well, you won’t believe what they’ve done,” and proceeds to tell us about the new regulation. “Can you believe that?” he asks, full of indignation.

Honestly, I agree with him. My dad came of age during the Depression and never wastes food. He often requests a half-order of an item he doesn’t think he can finish. He never leaves food on his plate. But, like many residents at this establishment, he sometimes brings a bit of food back with him to his room. In case he gets hungry later.

“So,” he asks, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Maybe you and Robby can order cookies, and give them to me? That’s what my friends did last night.”

Of course. We never have dessert and would be happy to join his plan. “You know, Dad. That’s kind of civil disobedience,” I say.

He nods.

As we were finishing our main course, the waitress came over to take dessert orders. “The usual, Jack?” she asks.

“Yes,” he says. “A fruit cup and two oatmeal raisin cookies.”

She smiles. “I can only bring you one. New rule.”

“I’ll have oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert please,” I say.

“Me, too,” Robby adds.

The waitress nods and walks away, just as the two gentlemen my father eats with when he’s not with us, walk up to the table. One of them, let’s call him Arnie, looks around to make sure no one is watching, then hands me a plastic carryout box, covered with a cloth dinner napkin. In the box are three oatmeal raisin cookies.

“We take good care of your father,” Arnie says. “Plus, we still like to break the rules.”

I love that. You’re never too old to resist.

Book tour reflections

June 9, 2015

Tags: book tour, venues, On Hurricane Island

I figure I’m about halfway through the book tour for ON HURRICANE ISLAND, the active, travel-heavy promotion journey. It started with the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Asheville a month before the novel’s publication; I expect it to begin winding down in the late autumn. Of course, that’s one of the pleasures of a small press like Red Hen, which considers a book “new” for 18 months or so. Actively traveling and promoting a book for such a long time also has its challenges, and this weekend (two days “off” to visit with old friends in the Bay Area), I’ve been reflecting on the experience.

So far, I’ve done more than 30 book events, ranging from readings in indie bookstores and public libraries to book festivals and conferences and house parties and author fairs and book groups. They’ve been organized by Red Hen Press, or by my wonderful publicist Mary Bisbee Beek, or by me, following up with friends, contacts from my first novel, and suggestions from other authors. The range of venues has been wide, from the amazing Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica to a wine bar in Boston’s Back Bay to a friend’s living room. From San Antonio and Lynchburg and Albany to Oakland and Manhattan and Cambridge and Washington, D.C. Attendance has varied widely too; two people in a bookstore in a city where I knew one person (she brought a friend) to crowded auditoriums at literary festivals and colleges.

What do they all have in common? My gratitude that readers still come to hear authors read, and talk with them, and ask questions, and offer opinions. The connection I feel to readers and writers and booksellers and conference volunteers. The pleasure of meeting people who love story as much as I do, and who get it when I talk about my characters as real people. The inspiration to go home and write the next book.

"I loved this book" "I hated this book"

May 20, 2015

Tags: An Untamed State, Roxanne Gay, book group

A few days ago, a book group I attend discussed Roxanne Gay’s debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I had suggested the book for the group, and read it for a second time in preparation for the discussion. So I admit I was shocked when the first two comments were, “I hated this book.”

Me, I love this book.

I suppose I wasn’t entirely surprised, because of Gay’s subject matter. AN UNTAMED STATE is about the kidnapping and brutal sexual torture of a young woman who returns to Haiti to visit her parents. It’s not an easy book to read. It’s not a comfortable place to go. So why do I admire it so much?

For one thing, the first sentence is one of the best I’ve ever read in a novel. It sent shivers up and down my spine, hooking me immediately into the story:

“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.”

Wow.

I love that first sentence, because it tells me that this novel is about the fairy tales we like to tell ourselves, but they lie. This young woman will not live happily ever after. I love the book because the bad men – and they are very bad – are young men with hope beating in their chests. This doesn’t excuse their actions, but it certainly deepens the story. I love this book because it’s about the enormous chasm between wealth and poverty and how the fairy tale princess and her family share responsibility for the brutality of that system. I love this book because it’s about the impossible choices people make, and then must live with.

In powerful prose – no one disagreed about that – Gay shows us the tangled and terrible realities of a very ugly class and race system. I love this book because even though the princess doesn’t live happily ever after, she does survive.

Even though we disagreed about the book, it was a terrific discussion. I still love the book, and I love book groups too.