The Grown Ups — Book Review

The Grown UpsI have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had for ever closed behind them.
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

What does it mean to be a “grown-up”?  That’s one of the questions that Robin Antalek asks in her engaging coming-of-age novel, The Grown Ups. The book opens in the summer of 1997, with Suzie Epstein, Sam Turner, and their friends celebrating Suzie’s fifteenth birthday at a loosely supervised party in Rye, New York. That night, Suzie and Sam embark on a clandestine romance that will last all summer.

Right away, we know something is not right in the neighborhood: “It was the summer all the children in the neighborhood caught a virus.” Soon it becomes apparent that the grown-ups have more serious problems than the stomach flu: “The second time Mr. Epstein caused a scene in the driveway of the Epstein family home, the neighborhood was still under siege by the virus and was unusually quiet for the middle of a summer day.”

The Epsteins’ marriage is not the only troubled one in the neighborhood. Later in the summer, Sam’s mother abandons her husband and sons, leaving suddenly with no explanation. Suzie’s family moves to Boston, where her mother’s alcoholism and her father’s philandering escalate. She becomes the adult in the family, caring for her mother and her two younger brothers. Suzie desperately misses her old friends in Rye, especially her best friend, Bella Spade; out of embarrassment, she doesn’t answer their letters or phone calls.

When Bella’s mother dies of a long and mysterious illness, the old friends, now college juniors,  all reunite at her funeral. Suzie, to everyone’s surprise, arrives on the arm of Michael Turner, Sam’s brilliant and accomplished older brother. Sam, who’s had an on-again, off-again relationship with Bella, is surprised at the emotions Suzie evokes. The remaining three-quarters of the book focuses on the relationships among Sam, Suzie, Bella, and Michael, as they struggle to succeed as fully functioning, emotionally healthy adults.

Sam, in particular, fumbles his way through life, unable to commit to anyone or anything. His kindhearted father, Hunt — one of the few responsible and stable adults in the novel — shows admirable patience as Sam repeatedly makes bad decisions. Sam understands the depth of his father’s support: “If ever he had any illusion that he could survive in the world without his father, Sam was dumber than he already felt.” Of course, like all children, Sam will one day have to survive without his father’s love and guidance; isn’t that what being “grown up” is all about?

Sam is by far the most interesting and well-developed character in the novel. In an interview on Albany Public Radio, Robin Antalek says her early drafts of the book were narrated by Sam. Later, she rewrote The Grown Ups in the third person, adding the viewpoints of Suzie and Bella. The multiple perspectives add texture and depth to the book, but Suzie and Bella don’t come alive the way Sam does.

Some of the details in the novel seem inappropriate to the era. For example, the description of the mothers’ activities — hanging laundry outside, smoking cigarettes on their front stoops –sounds more like a description of housewives in the early sixties (the Madmen era) than in the late nineties.  I would have appreciated more details pointing to the passage of time — for example, references to new technology or pop culture would underscore the novel’s themes of changing and getting older.

Many things happen in 15 years — weddings, funerals, births, illnesses, triumphs and disappointments large and small — and a lot of growing up. The Grown Ups both begins and ends with a birthday party. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think it’s safe to reveal that the party in the last chapter is very different from the disastrous one in the first chapter:

They were here now, all of them. Relationships slightly rearranged, but still together. That was more than any of them would have imagined years before. They had watched their parents stumble and vowed never to do the same, only to fail one another in entirely different ways . . .

If you enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and/or Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, The Grown Ups will be up your alley.

For more reviews, check out TLC Book Tours.


10 Favorite Books About Sisters

9780061958274For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on  the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.
Christina Rossetti

Today is my sister’s birthday, and I feel very lucky to have had her love and companionship for 50 years. We grew up loving books together — one of my earliest memories is the two of us playing library, which involved me (the librarian) scolding her for making noise in the library and making her give me money from her piggybank for overdue fines. She eventually broke free of my tyranny and became a professor of Spanish literature — and the mother of four daughters, who are fortunate to have each other as lifelong friends “in calm or stormy weather.”

Some of my favorite childhood books were about sisters. I have to admit that Little Women, the most famous children’s book about sisters, left me cold when I first read it.   But I adored the Little House on the Prairie books, as well as Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. Children’s books about sisters always feature one spunky sister — Jo, of course, in Little Women; Laura in the Little House books; and Henny in All-of-a-Kind Family. And who could forget Ramona, mischievous little sister to the comparatively well-behaved Beezus?

In honor of sisters everywhere, here are 10 books I loved that explore sisterly bonds:


9780399166556HSister Mother Husband Dog by Delia Ephron
Ephron’s collection of autobiographical essays is filled with wisdom, insight, and humor. Fun fact: the youngest Ephron sister, Amy, was named after Amy March in Little Women.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch
When Sankovitch lost her beloved sister to cancer, part of her healing process involved reading one book a day for a year: “My hiatus is over, my soul and body are healed, but I will never leave the purple chair for long. So many books waiting to be read, so much happiness to be found, so much wonder to be revealed.”


Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Bruntcover
This debut novel focuses on June, a young girl mourning the loss of her beloved uncle, a painter whose last work was a portrait of her and her older sister, Greta.  Although June doesn’t always understand Greta, “she was wired into my heart. Twisted and kinked and threaded right through.”

Howards End by E.M. Forster
“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister”: That’s the opening line of Forster’s masterpiece, which returns again and again to the relationship between the Schlegel sisters.

The Girls by Lori Lansens
Rose and Ruby are not only sisters — they’re conjoined twins, living in a small Canadian town and working in the local library. Rose, the literary one, convinces her sister to tell their story.

9780385721790The View from Penthouse B by Elinor Lipman
Two middle-aged sisters join forces and move in together after one is widowed and one loses all her money in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Lipman’s books are all warm-hearted, funny, and very clever.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
The events in this beautiful, complex novel are set in motion when the younger sister makes a grievous error in judgment in an attempt to protect her older sister.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
As World War II breaks out, two Chinese sisters are sold as brides to a pair of brothers living in America.9781400033836

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
It’s a retelling of the King Lear story, set on an Iowa farm, so the relationship among these sisters is, to use a word Shakespeare wouldn’t have known, “dysfunctional.” Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia become Ginny, Rose, and Caroline.

Brooklyn by Colm Toíbín
One sister sacrifices her future and stays in Ireland in order to help her sister start a new life in America.

Two recent books that I’m looking forward to reading are Vanessa and Her Sister, biographical fiction about Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Bloomsbury Group, by Priya Parma, and The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, nonfiction by Helen Rappaport. Both have received excellent reviews.




Jazz Age January: West of Sunset & And So We Read On

24de28664bdf1f004be5425016536035“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

As I read West of Sunset,  Stewart O’Nan’s lovely, sad fictionalized account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years, I found myself wondering what Maureen Corrigan would think.

Maureen Corrigan has been NPR’s book critic for 25 years. She also reviews regularly for many national publications and is the Critic in Residence at Georgetown University. Last fall, she shared her longtime passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in So We Read on: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures. Often underappreciated and misread because of its brevity and apparent simplicity, the novel is, she says, our “Greatest American Novel”:

Gatsby‘s magic emanates not only from its powerhouse poetic style — in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly — but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans.

Corrigan, like so many of us, first encountered The Great Gatsby as a teenager. “I thought The Great Gatsby was a boring novel about rich people,” she says in her book’s introduction.”The bad news is that we read it in high school or even (shudder) junior high, when we’re much too young . . .”  Then she spends almost 300 pages explaining why she thinks The Great Gatsby is truly The Great American Novel, worth reading again and again.

“Are you tired of it yet?” my husband and close friends would ask me every so often during the time I was writing this book and, of course, rereading The Great Gatsby. I can honestly answer “No.” I don’t know how he did it, but Fitzgerald wrote a novel that shows me new things every time I read it. That, for me, is the working definition of a great book: one that’s inexhaustible.

The Great Gatsby, originally published in 1925, initially sold poorly and received mixed reviews. By the mid-thirties, not only was the country in a depression — so was Fitzgerald’s career. He suffered from a host of physical illnesses that were complicated by alcoholism; his wife, Zelda, was incarcerated in a mental hospital; and he was deeply in debt. No one at that time would have predicted that Fitzgerald’s short novel would one day be the most widely read books in the world, eventually selling more than 25 million copies.

West of Sunset opens as Fitzgerald, badly in need of money to pay for Zelda’s medical care and his daughter Scottie’s private school tuition, heads west to Hollywood to take a screenwriting job at a movie studio:

Six months at a thousand a week. He wanted to tell Zelda face-to-face, but she was in isolation . . . “Dearest Heart, he wrote. Please forgive me. I have to leave for now to pursue our fortunes. I wish there were any other way. Keep working and try to be good, and I will where I am.

9780670785957MLike so many Americans, F. Scott Fitzgerald went west in search of new opportunities. A native Midwesterner, Fitzgerald spent most of his life as a nomad. He ended up in Los Angeles in a series of hotel rooms and rental houses. The years he spent there, as a hardworking (and hard-drinking) screenwriter and “rewrite man”, are the years Stewart O’Nan re-imagines in West of Sunset.

Stewart O’Nan is a writer with a big heart. I haven’t read all his books, but the ones I’ve read all center on ordinary people coming to grips with loss and failure. F. Scott Fitzgerald is no ordinary person, but his struggles are not so different from those of Art and Marion, the couple facing divorce and bankruptcy in The Odds, Manny, the manager whose restaurant is closing in Last Night at the Lobster, and the widowed title character of Emily, Alone. West of Sunset could very well have been titled F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alone. What comes through in all these books is O’Nan’s enormous affection for his characters — characters who are trying to face life’s challenges with courage and integrity.

When Fitzgerald first arrives in Los Angeles, his employers arrange to put him up at a hotel in Santa Monica, “as if to quarantine him”. His friends Dorothy Parker (“Dottie”) and her husband, Alan Campbell (who have a “curious sort of Boston marriage . . . They both preferred younger men and fought like mongooses, yet were inseparable”) are appalled that he is staying so far west of Hollywood:

“You don’t want to be there,” Dorothy said. “It’s not near anything.”
“It’s near the beach.”
“The beach is for people who can’t read,” Alan said.

Fitzgerald tries desperately to succeed as a screenwriter, but he is repeatedly met with humiliating failure. An article in the New York Times (“Fitzgerald as Screenwriter: No Hollywood Ending”) says:

Sadly, most of his work was to no avail. Billy Wilder, Fitzgerald’s friend and admirer in his Hollywood days, always thought the notion of turning him into a screenwriter was a little misguided. He once compared Fitzgerald to ”a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job.’

What is to be found “west of sunset”? Actually, death. Once the sun sets the day is over. I think this must be what O’Nan is alluding to in his title, because a glance at a map of LA shows that Sunset Boulevard runs from east to west — so nothing is literally “west of sunset”. Fitzgerald was writing  The Love of the Last Tycoon, a novel about a dying Hollywood producer, at the time of his own death. Gatsby, ever hopeful, “believed in the green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock — to the east of his own home in West Egg. Fitzgerald shared his character’s optimism — and like Gatsby, died young and alone. (Well, not exactly alone. He did have a passionate, troubled relationship with Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist.)

And what does Maureen Corrigan think of Stewart O’Nan’s biographical novel? I was relieved to find that she reviewed it favorably in the Washington Post:

As Fitzgerald fans know, he began working on a novel about Hollywood during his tour of duty there, but a heart attack — probably his third — cut short his life and career at age 44. The Love of the Last Tycoon, even though unfinished, is a pretty fine Hollywood novel. West of Sunset is a pretty fine Hollywood novel, too, but it’s an even finer novel about a great writer’s determination to keep trying to do his best work, to keep reaching for “the silver pepper of the stars,” even at a time when he was universally dismissed as a has-been.

Now I’m going to do what Corrigan suggests — reread The Great Gatsby as an adult. I can’t find my old copy, but I do have my son’s copy from his high school years. The binding, sad to say, looks suspiciously uncracked, and I don’t see any highlighting or notes in the margins. Maybe he needs to read it for the first time?

For additional reading, I highly recommend Sarah Churchwell’s excellent book,  Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, which explores the novel’s origins by examining the events of 1922 — in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life and in the world around him. (The book was published in 1925 but was set in 1922.)

This post is part of the Jazz Age January linkup hosted by Books Speak Volumes.





Why I Hate Reading Challenges — And Why I’m Participating in One

IMG_1244I keep hearing about reading “challenges”.  Readers challenge themselves to read a certain number of books or pages in a year, or they try to read certain types of books that are outside their comfort zones. These challenges don’t appeal to me at all. I know a lot of avid readers find them fun and rewarding, but the message I get from the challenges is that reading is a chore and people need all the encouragement they can get. This message seems to start in grade school, when children are forced to read for a prescribed length of time and to read books that are of no interest to them.

The schools in our area think it’s important that children read a variety of genres, although I’ve noticed the genres assigned are mostly fiction, which doesn’t appeal to many boys. The unit we booksellers dread the most is the mystery unit. It’s a mystery to me why teachers think it’s important for third and fourth graders to read children’s mysteries! One of the schools had a requirement that the book be at least 150 pages long — and let me assure you that the mystery-hating children I was trying to help wanted to make sure that they didn’t have to read one extra page. There is a very limited supply of decent children’s mysteries that  are 150 pages long — and the teachers were quite rigid in their definition of “mystery”, as I learned when one child returned Babe & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman. The child was apparently told that he was supposed to read a mystery, not an adventure.

Anyway, I’m an adult and I can read what I want — which will never include science fiction. I’m not going to worry about reading “diversely”. What I am going to do is clean out my overcrowded bookshelves. I have many, many books (I’m not going to reveal how many) that have been languishing in my house for over a year. I came up with a pile of 12 books, all with publication dates of 2013 or earlier, that I would love to read but keep putting aside in favor of the “latest and greatest”.  I also filled a couple of bags with books that I don’t think I’ll ever read, and I will be donating those to Open Books in Chicago. I’m not going to name any names, but let me just say that graphic novels are not my thing. They give me a headache. And I’m not a huge mystery fan either; I didn’t even like Nancy Drew as a child.

Here’s my list, in alphabetical order — my challenge is to read all of them this year. Anything  on the list that doesn’t get read in 2015 gets donated. It’s a harsh world.

Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds by Ping Fu
My mother passed along this book about a Chinese immigrant who became a successful entrepreneur and it looks fascinating.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
I picked this up at a conference and forgot I had it until I started organizing my bookshelves last week.

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson
A friend lent this to me and I’m embarrassed I haven’t read it.

Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin9780307745309
I recently read a boarding school novel that got it all wrong, so I’ve been nervous about reading another one. I actually paid money for this book, so I really must read it.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
I’m fascinated by Scientology and religious cults. It was a National Book Award finalist in 2013 — and so was Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, which I don’t think I’m ever going to read, but I’m stubbornly keeping.

Housekeeping — Marilynne Robinson
I know it’s supposed to be a modern classic, but I’ve never read it. It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 1980, and was also shortlisted for the Pulitzer that year.

One Doctor: Close Calls, Cold Cases, and the Mysteries of Medicine — Brendan Reilly, MD
My mother sent me this book also, knowing how much we both enjoy reading about medicine.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier — Tom Kizzia
A true story about a sociopath in the wilderness — why haven’t I read it yet? The publisher describes it as “Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter“.

0e0597245be21f4d89eb3ae768af372aSchroder — Amity Gaige
A  well-reviewed novel about a divorced father who abducts his young daughter, loosely based on an actual case — possibly good book club material.

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda by Josh Ruxin
Another book I got at a conference — sounds intriguing!

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story — Julian Barnes
I loved The Sense of an Ending so much that I bought Barnes’s essay collection — and it’s been gathering dust ever since.

The Virgins — Pamela Erens
Somebody (who?) recommended this to me because of my love of boarding school novels.

Which one should I read first? Please advise!



This post is part of a weekly blogging event, Top 10 Tuesday.

Island Fog — Book Review and Author Interview

Island FogThe future draped before him like an island fog: dank, listless, and inscrutable. Possibly even dangerous. Only his next step was visible, nothing beyond.
“Island Fog”

The air feels more wet and more cold than even five minutes ago, a thicker texture of gray. You are in the high tide of afternoon fog.
“How Long Will You Tarry?”

Strange things happen in John Vanderslice’s Island Fog, sometimes under the mysterious cover of fog and sometimes out in the open. The eleven linked stories in Island Fog all take place on Nantucket, a small island (49 square miles) 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. The haunting, often surreal stories are tied together by the island’s unique history and geography. The collection begins with a story set in 1795, “Guilty Look”, and ends with “Island Fog”, a story that takes place in 2005. In both stories, the protagonist is nightmarishly trapped in a situation that doesn’t seem to offer any hope of escape. A respected wigmaker and bank board member is determined guilty of theft on the basis of a “guilty look”, despite the fact he has located one of the actual criminals, and a college student becomes ensnared in an unbreakable “employment contract” with a diabolical employer. The sinister undertones in these stories, and in several others, reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s dark and ominous short fiction, set in seemingly peaceful New England towns.

I was surprised to learn that Vanderslice actually wrote the six contemporary stories first. In an interview in the website Practicing Writer, Vanderslice explains how the book evolved:

So on one trip, early in the “aughts,” I began a series of stories set on the island. Contemporary stories. Writing a book was the furthest thing on my mind. I just wanted to write some stories. And I did. Six in all, and I eventually published half of them. I thought I was done.

Many years later, on a 2011 trip, I realized that Nantucket, with its rich and abiding history, is the perfect locus for historical fiction. So I started a series of historical stories. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could combine those stories with the earlier ones and make a complete Nantucket book.

Each story stands on its own, but together they form a fascinating portrait of a place and its people. Vanderslice deftly shapes a thematically unified start collection, involving characters ranging from the original Wampanoag inhabitants to English settlers of all religious persuasions, from African-American teachers and railroad workers to Jamaican immigrant shopkeepers, from wealthy vacationers to college students. And of course, Vanderslice writes about whalers and whaling widows. “Taste”, which I thought was the most powerful story, is about Gideon Mitchell, a whaler who survives after a shipwreck by resorting to cannibalism. It’s inspired by the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex, which is the subject of Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book, In the Heart of the Sea. Gideon, now employed as a night watchman, has never emotionally recovered from his ordeal: “He steps outside and lets the weather strike him as it may. He is as happy to be hit by a sour dog of a fog as he is by summer sunshine or a brisk autumn wind. Anything to wake himself. ”

After I read Island Fog — and It’s so compelling that I read it in just two sittings, first the historical stories and then the contemporary stories — I was full of questions for the author. I found a lot of information on his website; in particular, I was interested in his thoughts on historical fiction. Vanderslice is a professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and  in one of his blog posts, he recounts a discussion in class on the ways that James McBride altered history in his novel, The Good Lord Bird.

. . . I am trying to suggest (once again) the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction. The latter uses history–as faithfully as possible–but finally the historical fiction must be committed to story and character above all else. If it wants to succeed in the eyes of a reader, that is; if it wants to earn a reader’s love and admiration. Even if that means winking at the historical record and giving that record a conscious, cagey twist.

Here are the questions I asked John Vanderslice, along with his thoughtful answers.

You say in your blog that we are living in a “golden age of literary historical fiction”. I totally agree — if you were asked to list four or five of your favorite recently published historical novels, what would they be?

Good question. Of course, I don’t only read historical fiction, but it’s one of my favorite genres. I hate to mimic what so many others say, but I recently finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and I must say that book deserves every bit of praise it received. It’s a phenomenally beautiful novel, and one that delves into a curious little corner of World War Two history; mixed of course with much that is purely imagined. Again, not to sound too clichéd, but I used James McBride’s (National Book Award winning) The Good Lord Bird last semester in an Historical Fiction Workshop class I taught, and both I and the students loved it. The narrator’s voice just takes hold of you and doesn’t let you go. And what a way to bring crazy John Brown alive for an audience. I don’t think I can ever think of John Brown the same way after reading McBride’s book.

A third historical title I enjoyed recently was Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose. Another good World War Two novel, and another that investigates a tiny little corner of that war: a woman race car driver who became famous in France before the war and then, even though she was lesbian, fully cooperated with the Nazis after they invaded. It’s based on a real life case, and is vigorously brought to life by Prose.

I guess I also should mention that right now I am reading Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. I’ve read and admired Amy Bloom’s work for years, but this is the first piece of historical fiction I’ve ever read by her. In much of her fiction, Bloom focuses on gay, lesbian, and transgender characters; also characters that feel like complete outsiders in their respective communities. Even though Lucky Us is an historical novel, Bloom brings that same approach, those same writerly concerns to bear. And I appreciate that. I’m really enjoying the book so far, with its very unique perspective on old Hollywood

It’s easy to understand why you chose Nantucket as the setting for the collection, and you discuss this in another interview. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about Nantucket. What makes it different from other island communities? Have you visited since the book was published, or do you have plans to visit? Do you have any sense of how the book has been received there? 

I love Nantucket because it feels so like I’m leaving the United States when I travel there. Of course it still is the United States, but when I’m there I feel an enormous burden of modern living just remove itself from my shoulders. The landscape is serene and beautiful; the weather is moderate. Best of all, Nantucket seems determined to remain itself and not be overrun my modern Americana. There are no traffic lights, no big commercial chains, save one grocery store chain. Everything else is old-fashioned Mom and Pop places. At night there is action in town, of course, but basically it’s very quiet. And it’s just not that big of a place either. You could easily bike from one end of it to the other if you wanted to. And yet it’s just big enough for there to be new, undiscovered corners to explore every time you go back, as well as the cozy, familiar haunts to re-haunt. I’ve been to plenty of other resort towns in the US, as well as other islands. But none strikes me as so purely peaceful, even idyllic, as Nantucket.

I have not gone back since the book has been published, but I do plan on visiting this summer. I am hoping to be included in the Nantucket Book Festival, actually. And if not Nantucket’s, perhaps Martha’s Vineyard’s. . . But one way or another I intend to visit the island this summer. I can’t say I know how it’s been received there. The main newspaper on the island has been slow to bring out a review, so it’s possible most island residents aren’t even aware of it yet. But I’m scheduled to be interviewed next week on WCAI radio, the NPR station that broadcasts to the Cape and the Islands, so hopefully that will get the word out. I do know the book is in both island bookstores.

Are you part of a writers’ group? How do you balance your writing life with your academic career?

I am not part of a writing group, but in some ways my creative writing classes act as writing groups for me. I frequently give my classes prompts to work from, and they work on those prompts in class. While they write, I write, using the same prompts. I’ve generated so many stories that way! And sometimes I even workshop my stories with my classes. I must say they’ve given me some great advice over the years. And they don’t seem to mind it either. It’s extra work for them, but they seem to really appreciate when a professor is willing to share his work with them. And they also appreciate my laying myself open, willing to hear suggestions and criticisms. Yes, they are a little reluctant at first to give those suggestions and criticisms, but when they see I won’t bite their heads off for doing so, they loosen up. It’s usually a great experience all around. And sometimes too I share my published work with them as models for this or that form we may be working on. That too they appreciate, curious as they always are to see what weird things their professors have written.

Balancing writing with any career—academic or not—is going to be a challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge for any literary artist. But there are no excuses, no ways around it. You simply have to make time for the writing, no matter what that means. And it’s not as hard as one might think to make that time. Even twenty minutes a day can add up to something over time. (Not that I wouldn’t prefer an hour or two myself, as would anyone.) A few years ago I challenged myself to write creatively every single day, even if it was just a little bit. I wasn’t sure I could manage it, but I was determined to try. And I did it. For an entire year I wrote creatively every single day, even if that meant scratching off some haiku for 10 or 15 minutes while I was attending an academic conference. It was the best thing I could have done for my writing. Since then I’ve been able to write almost every day of the year, certainly more consistently than I used to, although I’ve always written pretty consistently. But I must admit that I’m a terrible creature of habit. And while that makes me not the most interesting or surprising person in the world, it means I’m able to get a lot of work done, once I make that work a habit.

As I’m sure you’re discovering, a whole new phase of a writer’s job begins when the book is published. How do you feel about that? Do you enjoy promoting the book, which involves networking and public speaking? What sort of community support have you received?

You’re right that the work only begins in earnest after you’ve published the book. There isn’t anything you can do as an author but jump right in, ready or not. (And I suspect that most authors, retiring folk that we are, aren’t ready.) Otherwise, your book, even if it’s a very good one, could simply disappear. I’ve been contacting literary journals, newspapers, websites, and book bloggers since early last summer trying to line up reviews and mentions. A lot of that work has paid off, which is very gratifying. . . Once I’m all done with this great initial push of marketing, perhaps six months from now, I’m going to have to sit back and write an article or a series of blog posts about it. It’s certainly been a fascinating and eye-opening experience. As I said to my wife the other day, “I think I know now what to do the next time I publish a book.”

Community support has been fantastic. Lots of enthusiastic praise from friends and family members, lots of curious questions. I had a big, successful book launch in Conway when the book came out. I’m still high about that night. Tomorrow night my wife’s book club will discuss the book, with me present. That’s a nerve-racking prospect for any author! But I can’t complain. The reason they decided to do the book in the first place is that they knew they could address questions directly to the author, which is a pretty rare opportunity for a book club.

The marketing has been draining at times, I admit. Trying to keep up on all the emails, trying to make sure you don’t forget to contact this person or that person. And that work doesn’t necessarily go down just because you have a publicist. Sometimes the publicist gives you work to do! But, again, I can’t complain. Putting up with the business of marketing is a very small price to pay for the benefit of having a book that you really believe in finally reach the public. And if my marketing efforts allow a couple more people the chance to know about and read the book, so much the better.

As for public speaking, I don’t mind that at all. I’m a practiced reader of my own work. I’m happy to read anytime, anywhere. So far most of my reading engagements have been in and around Arkansas. But I just did a very well-received reading in New Orleans last week. And in the spring I’m set to read at a number of venues in upstate New York. I’m really looking forward to “hitting the road” with my book.

I’m glad that John Vanderslice hit the road, metaphorically, with his blog tour — if you’d like to read more reviews, click on TLC Book Tours. Also, the publisher (Lavender Ink, a small press in Louisiana) is offering a giveaway. To enter, simply comment below. The winner will be notified by email on January 22.


10 Books to Read This Winter

A few months ago, I shared a list of 10 books to read in the fall. I’ve read most of them — and Jane Smiley and Colm Tóibín, I apologize! I’ll get to Some Luck and Nora Webster very soon, I promise. I know they’re both going to be wonderful. (I really need to read Some Luck because the second book in Smiley’s trilogy, Early Warning, is coming out in April. )

Even though I still have many, many books from 2014 (and before) in my to-read stack, the publishing industry is not going to wait for me, or anyone, to catch up. So here’s a list of 10 exciting new books with winter 2015 publication dates. Is it a coincidence that three of them have “girl” in the title? Did the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl convince publishers and authors that “girl” is the magic word? I’ve already found several intriguing “girl” books coming out this spring — Hyacinth Girls, Girl Underwater, Girl at War . . .

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98First of all, happy publication day to Christopher Scotton, whose debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, is undoubtedly going to be one of my favorite books of 2015. It’s a  coming-of-age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago. Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his veterinarian grandfather (“Pops”) in Medgar, Kentucky. Pops, whose life has brought him wisdom and an unwavering moral compass, will remind readers of Atticus Finch. Medgar is a depressed coal town facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult.9781594633669M

If you’re in the mood for a very smart, well-plotted psychological thriller, I recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (due next Tuesday, January 13). I read the entire book on one cold, rainy Sunday, thanks to a suggestion from my friend Sue at the Cottage Book Shop. The New York Times says: “The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl, the book still entrenched on best-seller lists two and a half years after publication because nothing better has come along. The Girl on the Train has Gone Girl-type fun with unreliable spouses, too.” I’m not sure I’d agree that “nothing better has come along” — what about The Headmaster’s Wife?

Tim Johnston has written a YA novel and a collection of short stories, but Descent (published today) is his first novel for adults. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving great reviews. Here’s what NPR has to say, including the inevitable Gone Girl comparison:

The premise of Descent may sound pretty straightforward: One summer morning while vacationing with her family in the foothills of the Rockies, a young girl, a high-school athlete in her senior year, goes out for a run in the higher altitudes — and disappears.

And Moby-Dick‘s about the whaling industry.

A good genre writer might have turned this into a conventional suspense novel, making us worry about the missing girl with every page that goes by — but Tim Johnston has written a book that makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky and forced. I worried about the missing girl with every page, yes. But I also suffered every torment felt by her family, father, mother, brother, and those linked to the family. So this is a thriller plus!

I’m currently reading and enjoying West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan (due January 13) about the last few years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, when he tried to rejuvenate his career by working as a Hollywood screenwriter. I think O’Nan, author of 15 novels, is a brilliant and unappreciated writer. He writes beautifully about everything from the quiet days of an elderly widow (Emily, Alone) to a diphtheria outbreak in mid-19th century Wisconsin (A Prayer for the Dying) to a bankrupt couple trying to save their marriage (The Odds).

1402298684.01.LZZZZZZZThe Magician’s Lie (due January 13), by Greer Macallister, has been described as a cross between Water for Elephants and The Night Circus – sounds intriguing! Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, calling it “top-notch”:

This well-paced, evocative, and adventurous historical novel from Macallister, a poet and short story writer, chronicles the career of America’s preeminent female stage illusionist at the turn of the 20th century, who, as the Amazing Arden, created the lurid, controversial stage act known as the Halved Man. When Arden’s husband is found murdered following her performance in Waterloo, Iowa, she falls under suspicion, particularly after she goes on the lam.

As I’ve mentioned before, I can never resist a boarding school novel. Some are excellent (Old School) and some are not (The Starboard Sea), but I read them all. The Half Brother, by Holly LeCraw, (due February 17) has an unusual perspective: it’s about a young teacher coming of age, not a student. The plot twists are truly amazing. The website The Millions just published its “Great Book Preview” for 2015, listing The Half Brother as one of its most anticipated releases:

The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory.

My friend and coworker Kathy, who has impeccable taste in books, recommends Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, (due February 3). Funny Girl, about a young TV starlet in 1960s London, is “both a heartfelt defence and a wholly convincing example of what popular entertainment can achieve”, according to the London Telegraph. I love Nick Hornby for the comments 9781594205415Hhe made recently when speaking about his new novel at the Cheltenham Literary Festival:

My real campaign is to get everybody – adult, kids, everybody – to read something that they’re loving. And if they’re not loving it, stop reading it . . . Every time we pick up a book for a sense of duty and we find that we’re struggling to get through it, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do but telly is something you want to do. It shouldn’t be like that. Novels should be like TV. It shouldn’t be hard work and we should do ourselves a favour. It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.

Girl Runner, by Carrie Snyder, (due February 3) was recommended to me by another trusted source (also named Cathy), our HarperCollins sales rep. Inspired by the 1928 Canadian Olympic women’s track team, Girl Runner is the story of female athletes in the 1920s, an era when women’s sports became popular. According to the Canadian publication Quill and Quire:

Girl Runner is a plot-driven narrative of one of those forgotten women, fictional 104-year-old Aganetha “Aggie” Smart. Now wheelchair-bound, alone and abandoned in a nursing home, Aggie asks, “Who will write my obituary?” now that everyone who knew her is gone. The ambitious and uncompromising Aggie reflects on her rich and storied life: her childhood in rural Ontario, her work at the Rosebud Confectionery factory, the friendships she forged, her brief fame as a 1920s Olympic track star and Canadian darling, and her failures and triumphs along the way.

9781250043962Doesn’t everyone sometimes dream of running off to an idyllic tropical island? (Especially if you live in Chicago and the temperature is hovering near zero . . .) The Last Good Paradise, by Tatjana Soli (due February 10) Is about a group of people who have done just that. Soli has one of the best author websites I’ve ever seen, and she introduces her latest novel with a beautiful letter:

Dear Reader:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 
Mark Twain

A successful attorney at a big Los Angeles law firm is about to open a restaurant with her chef husband. Suddenly they take off, and you find they have gone to the South Pacific with one-way tickets. How does that happen? I find it fascinating when someone starts one life to start another entirely different one, one of the most famous examples being Gauguin . . .

I know March seems far away, but I have to mention Erik Larson’s upcoming book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (due March 10). I’ve loved every one of Larson’s books (In the Garden of Beasts is his most recent, published four years ago) and I have high hopes for Dead Wake. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews has to say:

Larson once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 . . . An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. Compared to Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania (2014), also publishing to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Larson’s is the superior account.

What’s on your winter reading list?


WWW Wednesday — New Year’s Eve

What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

9781607747307First of all, based on how my clothes are fitting, I SHOULD be reading one of the zillions of diet books that magically appear on bookstore shelves this time of year. The Bulletproof Diet: Lose Up to a Pound a Day, Reclaim Energy and Focus, Upgrade Your Life  . . . The Burn: Why Your Scale is Stuck and What to Do About It  . . . 20 Pounds Younger: The Life-Transforming Plan for a Fitter, Sexier You! I’m particularly intrigued by Zero Belly Diet: Lose Up to 16 Lbs. in 14 Days! Unfortunately, the only surefire method I know for losing weight quickly is a case of the flu, and I’m trying to avoid that.

I did just read a book related to self-improvement: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. Recently published in the United States after hitting the bestseller lists in Japan and Europe, this is no ordinary guide to household management. Kondo is more of a Zen philosopher than an organizational expert. For example, most professional organizers advise clients to get rid of clothes they haven’t worn in a year. Kondo tells her readers to remove every item from their closets, determining which items “spark joy”.  New York Times writer Penelope Green tested Kondo’s advice and found it surprisingly effective:

“Does it spark joy?” would seem to set the bar awfully high for a T-shirt or a pair of jeans, but it turns out to be a more efficacious sorting mechanism than the old saws: Is it out of style? Have you worn it in the last year? Does it still fit? . . . “Sparking joy,” I realized, can be a flexible concept: That which is itchy, or too hot, is certainly joyless. So is anything baggy, droopy or with a flared leg.

Kondo advocates a certain reverence for objects, including clothing, which I found a bit peculiar:

When we take our clothes in our hands and fold them neatly, we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes . . . Clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type, and therefore organizing them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure.

She recommends thanking items when we discard them: “Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you” or “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me”.  As nutty as this sounds, the principle she’s espousing makes sense, which is to recognize that it’s OK — and even necessary ” to discard items that have outlived their purpose. Where Kondo and I really part ways is on the subject of books: “. . . Take each book in your hand and decide whether it moves you or not. Keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves, the ones you really love.” She suggests that about 30 books might be the appropriate number for a home library. (Are you laughing?)

I don’t know who would be brave enough to take Kondo’s advice about papers. She contends that nearly all papers can be filed or found electronically and that there is no need to store any papers at all: “My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away . . . After all, they will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them.” She admits that certain papers (titles, insurance policies, etc.) must be saved and recommends “putting them all in a single clear plastic folder without worrying about further organization”. I suspect Kondo wouldn’t think much of my drawer stuffed with old birthday cards.

I’m going to put some of Kondo’s advice to good use someday — maybe a dreary day in January, when I wake up with the urge to declutter. Right now, I’m in the middle of an 962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98absolutely wonderful book and I’d rather spend my free time reading, instead of thanking my clothes for their good service. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton’s debut novel, is a coming-of-age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago. Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his veterinarian grandfather in Medgar, Kentucky. Medgar is a “peeled-paint coal town” facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth is the Indies First #1 Pick for January 2015 — and it’s also the selection of the Lake Forest Book Store staff book discussion group! (The publication date is January 6.)

I’m also reading The Innovators: How a Group of Geniuses, Hackers, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson, which I’m really enjoying. I’m usually reading one real book and one e-book; the e-book usually takes me much longer to read, because I read it late at night after “lights out” and I get very sleepy . . . so The Innovators could take me a while.

9780670785957MWhat will I read next? I’m not sure, but these are the contenders, which are all January releases:

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister, billed as a cross between Water for Elephants and The Night Circus

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Hollywood.

The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family by Roger Cohen, a memoir about Cohen’s family and their adopted homelands all over the globe.

What ‘s your first 2015 book going to be?