10 Questions for Thomas Christopher Greene, Author of The Headmaster’s Wife (Plus a Giveaway!)

Headmaster's Wife-2

Paperback cover

Booksellers often fall in love with a terrific new book, only to find that the hardcover version is a tough sell. We console ourselves by saying that the book will really “take off” in paperback, and very often that’s true. Certain books, through a combination of serendipity and quality, sell enormously well in hardcover for years without being released in paperback. (Think of Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Unbroken . . .) But most paperback releases are scheduled for 9 to 12 months after hardcover publication, depending on sales. Some of those paperbacks do sell much, much better than their hardcover versions, especially those that appeal to book clubs.

Author Nichole Bernier interviewed publishers, editors, authors, and literary agents for an article in The Millions about relaunching books in paperback, learning that “A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.” Melanie Benjamin, whose paperbacks have been very popular with book club audiences, observed that “‘ . . .  almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book.'” M.J. Rose, of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, said, “‘I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got.'”

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Hardcover jacket

The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene — one of my 10 Favorite Books of 2014 – was just released in paperback. The publisher must think that ivy-covered brick buildings appeal to book clubs, because only one minor change appears on the cover: Richard Russo’s blurb has been replaced with a quote from a People magazine review. Too bad, because what Russo says is spot-on: “I read the second half of The Headmaster’s Wife with my mouth open, my jaw having dropped at the end of the first half. Thomas Christopher Greene knows how to hook a reader and land him.”

The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park. As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe.

The novel is a page-turner, with very surprising plot twists, but it’s much more than that. It’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?” I think book clubs would run out of time before they ran out of discussion material from The Headmaster’s Wife. (For my original review, which ran in March 2014, click here.)

82556136Thomas Christopher Greene was kind enough to answer some questions for me. In addition to writing fiction (The Headmaster’s Wife is his fourth novel) Greene is the president of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I’m a bookseller and the first thing I think when I finish a book that I love (such as The Headmaster’s Wife!) is: “How can I sell this book?” If you were me, what would you say about your book to a potential customer?It’s not a book that fits into a “genre” and it has a key plot point that can’t be revealed. Also — keep in mind that many, many customers, when asking for a recommendation, make sure to add that they don’t want to read anything “depressing”.

I think it’s a book that works on many levels. It’s a story about the big things—love, death and marriage. It’s also a book that people have a hard time putting down. So I would tell them leave their expectations behind and don’t start it if they have something important to do the following morning. 

It’s a sad fact that most readers of literary fiction are women. Why do you think that is? I’ve always felt men are missing out on many books they would really love for many reasons — a big one being that they were introduced to literary fiction at the wrong age with the wrong books.

Perhaps this is just more proof that women are a more highly evolved species. Kidding. I have heard that as much as 80 percent of fiction is bought by women. I honestly don’t understand it. I read a lot of fiction. And I know plenty of men who do. Perhaps it has to do with childhood roles and expectations, but I have never explored that.

Most creative writing classes and programs seem to focus on short story writing. This seems odd to me, because first, there’s almost no market for short stories anymore, and second, writing a novel is an entirely different endeavor. What’s the role of the short story in today’s literary world?

A short story is easier to teach and assess, for one. I also think that short stories can be, though not exclusively, novels in miniature. I wrote only short stories as a graduate student, and wish I had more time now to write them. It’s a more pristine and less forgiving art form than the novel. But I do think in learning to write it’s a great place to start. It teaches you about structure and economy. That said, I think short stories are feeling a renaissance right now. It’s true the market remains limited but there are fabulous writers working almost exclusively in this form.

Were you a reader as a child, and if so, what were your favorite books?9780812431025_l

I was a prolific reader and read everything. I liked mysteries. I read all of Agatha Christie, for instance, by the time I was probably in fourth grade. A book that stands out for me is My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away and lives in a tree in the Catskills.

Are there some contemporary writers you think are under-appreciated? I’m always amazed by how some books, through serendipity, take off, and others — just as good or better — seem to fly under the radar.

I don’t know about under-appreciated, but I have loved books by Anne Enright. Amazing writer. While he’s not contemporary in the sense that he is deceased, the late Andre Dubus is under appreciated by all except serious students of fiction. He is who I read when I am stuck to remind myself why I wanted to do this in the first place. His son, Andre III, is a wonderful writer in his own right and has seen more of the mainstream success his father didn’t have. His memoir Townie is one of my recent favorites.

What was the last truly wonderful book you read — one that you wanted to tell other people to read?

It’s not new but I just read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. Very smart and lovely novel. Wish I had written it.

Your “day job” is running the Vermont College of Fine Arts, which focuses on graduate education for aspiring writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and composers. How realistic is it for your graduates to make a living in the fine arts? What do you think is the state of the fine arts in our country right now?

I don’t think people should pursue fine arts degrees with employment in mind. I think, in fact, one of the great failings of the conversation around education right now, especially on the undergraduate level, is an over-emphasis on career development. The reason to go to graduate school is to become a better version of yourself, the artist you hope to be. That said, many of our graduates have become successful and renowned practitioners. Many become university professors. I think fine arts are thriving in this country, despite a contrary narrative. And part of this is because of many of the challenges of our times. When things are hard, artists are able to help make sense of the world and define the culture.

What’s your opinion of self-publishing and its place in the literary world?

I have mixed feelings about it. I have friends who choose to self-publish. I do think publishing, when done well, is a team sport though. I certainly don’t want to have to worry about designing covers or choosing fonts or distribution or copyediting. There is also a crucial curation role that publishers play.

Greene's home library

Greene’s home library

If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?

You can have a glimpse of it. While my whole house is a library on some level, the majority of the books are in the dining room by design, since two of my favorite things are books and good convivial meals. I love to cook. My wife is a closet librarian and our books are alphabetized and sorted by genre. I buy new books and only at independent stores. My wife buys used books. We have a lot of fiction. And lots of cookbooks.

What’s the biggest misconception (if there is one) that aspiring writers have? That if they can only master the craft side of fiction, the mechanics, they will find success. That is important, but always exists to serve the larger purpose of story. The only reason to write books is to tell stories to people who aren’t in the same room as you.

The publisher is offering a free paperback copy of The Headmaster’s Wife to one Books on the Table reader — U.S. entries only, please. To enter, please leave a comment or send an email (bksonthetable@gmail.com) mentioning your favorite childhood book.

 

 

 

 

Life from Scratch — Book Review (and Giveaway!)

After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.
Oscar Wilde

No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.
Laurie Colwin

6201374Sasha Martin, creator of the popular blog Global Table Adventure, didn’t set out to write a memoir about what she calls her “rough background”. Martin intended to chronicle the four years she spent cooking meals from every country in the world. She envisioned a book filled with “sweet stories about overcoming pickiness”, not one that brought back painful memories of her difficult upbringing.  But when Martin’s editor asked her what inspired her to begin her ambitious cooking project, Martin realized that Life from Scratch was going to be about much more than food:

Every time I tried to answer her, memory pushed me further and further back in time – all the way to the foods and stories of my childhood. Introspection (and lots of tears) brought me face to face with my rough and tumble childhood – the string of foster homes, the painful separation from my mother, and the tragic death of a beloved family member.

Food, specifically cooking with my mother, had been an important anchor early on but as an adult I felt disconnected from that experience. As I worked to build my own family, cooking the world had become much more than trying new food – it became a path towards healing. It was my way of working out what unconditional love and belonging meant. Reflected in the desire for my daughter to love her world, I also saw my own need to love my world and feel loved by it. After a childhood in turmoil I was hungry for peace.

Many of Martin’s early childhood memories take place in the “warm, fragrant space” of the kitchen in a tiny apartment in a working-class suburb of Boston. Martin’s eccentric mother invents creative meals from the meager groceries she’s able to obtain, using every scrap and telling Martin and her brother that “a little mold never hurt anyone”.  I was reminded of Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone, in which she dubs her unbalanced mother “The Queen of Mold”. Martin’s mother, unlike Reichl’s, is actually a good cook, serving delicacies like Hungarian crepes and a 21-layer German Tree Cake. Readers will debate whether she’s a good mother. Certainly, she faces many challenges and makes life difficult for her children — but how much of the family’s turbulence is within her control?

Martin’s mother can’t even decide what Sasha’s name will be, changing it numerous times before her tenth birthday: “Each time the Boston courts awarded my foiled and stamped name-change documents, Mom sent out calligraphic announcements to everyone she knew . . . She treated each reinvention like a festive occasion, taking us on the train to the North End , where we’d eat Italian subs to celebrate”.   Despite their poverty and chaotic home life, Sasha and her siblings feel loved, especially when they are cooking and sharing meals together: “In those days food was never just sustenance; the very act of cooking knit our disparate lives together”.  So it is devastating when the children are finally placed in a foster home — and the matter-of-fact way in which Martin describes this traumatic event makes it even more heartbreaking for the reader.

In Martin’s new home, she has every material thing she needs, in addition to safety and stability. However, she desperately misses her mother and the bond they shared through food and cooking. She’s not allowed to help prepare meals in her foster mother’s beautiful, well-equipped kitchen — “‘The kitchen’s no place for a child! Go find something fun to do!'”, she’s told.

But I wanted to cook I needed to cook. Mom had raised me with the implicit understanding that cooking is the answer to all life’s vicissitudes — not just the antidote to boredom, but also a way to ward off the darker realities of grief, separation, and loneliness. If I could just get my hands on a ball of dough or a pot to stir, I could work my way through this new life and be OK.

As I read about Martin’s struggles during her childhood and adolescence, I wanted to ask all the adults involved in raising her if they had ever considered putting her needs ahead of Sasha Martintheirs — or indeed, whether they had considered her needs and feelings at all. I was glad that I knew from the beginning that Martin would be OK — actually, more than OK.  Her generous and forgiving spirit shines through her writing on every page. Martin never preaches about “gratitude” and “positive thinking” or offers platitudes, but honestly tells a story of forgiveness and healing.  Her story, like all the best memoirs, speaks for itself.

As Molly Wizenberg says in another wonderful food memoir, My Homemade Life, “When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables, and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.”

Food is never just food. Sasha Martin found it was a way to make peace with her past and a way to connect with the world around her. Life from Scratch is heartfelt and plainspoken, inspiring us to think about the role food plays in our lives. It also contains about 30 recipes, from Dark Chocolate Guinness Cake (sounds delicious!) to Cambodian Grilled Eggs (!!!) — and Global Table Adventure features hundreds of international recipes, with beautiful photographs.

The publisher, National Geographic, is giving away one hardcover copy of Life from Scratch to a Books on the Table reader. To enter, please leave a comment below with your favorite food memoir or cookbook, or if you’d prefer, email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com. Please make sure to include your email address so I can contact you for your mailing address if you win. Sorry, but the publisher can only ship to U.S. addresses.

For more reviews of Life from Scratch, click on TLC Book Tours.

 

 

 

 

 

Life is Short — 9 Books I’m Never Going to Read

My books have been part of my life forever. They have been good soldiers, boon companions. Every book has survived numerous purges over the years; each book has repeatedly been called onto the carpet and asked to explain itself. I own no book that has not fought the good fight, taken on all comers, and earned the right to remain.
Joe Queenan

All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. . . But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.
Nick Hornby

IMG_1221Every now and then, when my bookshelves start to overflow, I get the urge to purge. I never do a very good job. Professional organizers recommend making three piles: “keep”; “toss”; and “donate”. The “toss” pile is usually very small, because I feel terrible throwing away a book unless it is truly falling apart. I can almost always fill a bag with books to donate, but I end up re-shelving dozens of books that a more ruthless culler would donate without a second thought. My rule of thumb is that I feel any ambivalence at all, the book gets to stay. I’m not listening to the advice Marie Kondo offers in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up , which is to keep no more than 30 books in a home library and to house that library in a closet.

I’ve realized that I own many books that have survived multiple purges. If I’m going to be honest, I have to admit I will never read these books. They are no longer books to be read; they are decorative objects. The question I’ve decided to ask about every unread book I own is whether I would carry it on a trip. (Keep in mind I have no problem lugging hardcover books wherever I go. I carried In the Kingdom of Ice on a two-week trip to Europe last fall and I was happy to have it with me.)

So here are 9 hardcover books I have considered reading many times but I know I will never read. I tried hard to part with at least 10, but I just couldn’t. (I have an easier time giving away paperbacks.) They’re packed in a shopping bag, ready to be dropped at the back door of the Lake Forest Library. This is the collection point for the Friends of the Library annual book sale, and there is a large sign warning potential used book thieves that security cameras are in use. I wonder if some people think that because they’re donating some books, they get to take a few as well. Those people must be even worse at cleaning out their bookshelves than I am!

If anyone thinks I’m making a big mistake getting rid of any of these books, let me know . . .

9780307958341Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
A National Book Award finalist in 2013, Book of Ages came highly recommended from a trusted source — but whenever I’m deciding what to read next, I look at its lovely cover and then choose something else.

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
A publisher sent me Thrive as part of an ill-conceived program called “Blogging for Books”.  I don’t even understand the title. What does she mean by “third metric”? I guess I would have to read the book to find out, but I’m not that curious.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François
I bought this book seven or eight years ago under the misguided impression I would want to spend any time at all (even five minutes) baking bread.  It’s never been opened.

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole
This book, about a Nigerian immigrant in New York who returns to his home country, received a lot of critical acclaim, as did its predecessor, Open City. However — and this is a deal-breaker for me — it is about an unnamed character.

The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon
Over the past few years, I’ve picked it up, put it down . . . picked it up, put it down . . . Time for The Love of My Youth to find a new home where it will be appreciated.970b55d1c222cd0f5b577d2f96aab9d5

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
How on earth did I end up with a book about vampires on my shelf, even a supposedly literary one? I did consider keeping The Historian for a minute, because I came across this quotation while flipping through the book: “It was good to walk into a library again; it smelled like home.”

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui
This 750-page book, which was written by Mao’s personal physician, was given to me in 1996. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never read it. Especially since I just skimmed the first chapter and learned more than I wanted to know about Mao’s lack of oral hygiene.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
I’ve had this book so long that the pages have turned yellow. People love this series, I know. I started it, and it’s just not for me; I hate time travel.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr.
I never intended to read this book, but I thought my husband might like it. What was I thinking? He’s not going to read an 864-page “epic biography” of Ted Williams, no matter how good it is.

Oh, and by the way — in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to add that I didn’t personally carry In the Kingdom of Ice through Holland, Belgium, and France. I took every opportunity to sneak it into my husband’s bag. I think he would say that it was worth bringing with us, because he enjoyed it as much as I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Half Brother — Book Review

9780385531955The Half Brother tells a familiar story: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher.  In the beginning of the book, Charlie Garrett is not much older than his students:

Teaching English at Abbott was my first job, right out of college . . . for me the idea of being employed at all, at a job that entailed skill and responsibility, was unreal, ludicrous. The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hand.

Many novels are set at schools, but I’ve read few that capture the essence of what goes in on the classroom as well as The Half Brother. Charlie has received no formal training as a teacher, and is initially terrified of his students. He develops a persona, “a tweedy, knowledgeable, unflappable self”, and discovers that he actually has a gift for teaching:

At the window of my classroom, looking out, I was in the prow of a landship, forging ahead with my new self, built on the scaffolding of these names; then I turned around and my own energy went forth, joined theirs, became something new and larger. I had not expected to feel my own self slowly emerging as I tried to draw out theirs. I had not expected to love anyone, is what I’m saying. Sometimes they looked at me in amazement at what came out of their mouths.

As a new teacher, Charlie is drawn to one of his students, May Bankhead, who is a “faculty brat” — the daughter of the school chaplain. They correspond with each other after May’s graduation, and when she returns to campus several years later to care for her dying father, May and Charlie finally admit to themselves what they’ve always felt for each other.

Later, May becomes a teacher at Abbott herself — and so does Charlie’s younger half-brother, Nicky. Charlie has always been protective of Nicky, who is brilliant, handsome, and popular, yet strangely vulnerable. The inevitable triangle follows– and that’s all that I can tell you about the plot of The Half Brother, because the plot twists — which do not rely on unreliable narrators — are truly surprising. Continue reading

The Last Good Paradise — Book Review

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What was this thing, the pursuit of happiness, that moved out of reach as you approached? Was the emphasis on the wrong word? Was it simply about pursuit? Did said happiness evaporate when one got within proximity of it, moving off to lure one from yet another difficult, forward location?

Tatjana Soli’s new novel, The Last Good Paradise, is a black comedy that takes place on a remote island in the South Pacific. Ann and Richard, a successful couple in their thirties, run away from Los Angeles after an unscrupulous business partner bankrupts them. They take refuge at “the most isolated, lonesome destination” Ann could find — Sauvage, a resort “sans telephone, WiFi, or electricity”. Their relaxing idyll turns into a melodrama with a quirky cast of characters.

I began reading this book with high hopes, having admired the author’s previous novels — The Lotus Eaters (about a love triangle in wartime Vietnam) and The Forgetting Tree (a family tragedy set on a California citrus ranch). I’ve always been fascinated by French Polynesia, Captain Cook’s voyages, and,seafaring stories — especially Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby-Dick. Continue reading

Girl Runner — Book Review

9780062336040And still I run: I run and run, without rest, as if even now there is time and purpose and I will gain, at last — before my spool of silence unwinds — what I’ve yet to know.

Former Olympic athlete Aganetha Smart is 104 years old at the beginning of Girl Runner, spending her final days in a nursing home where she is wheelchair-bound, unable to speak clearly, “a bit deaf — though not so deaf as they think — and not quite blind.” She has outlived everyone she’s cared about and wonders if anyone will remember her: “My achievement is to have lived long enough to see my life vanish. Who will write my obituary?”

In 1928, Aganetha was at the top of her game, a gold medalist in the 800 meter race at the Amsterdam Olympics. Her extraordinary running ability took her far away from her family’s farm in rural Canada, where she had already suffered more grief and loss than many people experience in a lifetime. From the time she was a small child, Aggie was a runner — fast and indefatigable. She was the one the family sent running for the doctor when there was an emergency on the farm.

Although Aggie Smart is a fictional character, author Carrie Snyder was inspired to create her by Canada’s real 1928 female track and field team, known as the “Matchless Six”.  The 1928 Olympics were the first at which women competed in track and field events, and it would be the last — until 1960 — at which women were allowed to participate in races farther than 200 meters. An Olympic committee blocked women from distance running, claiming that several female runners at the 1928 race dropped out, and that several others collapsed at the finish. (Film footage of the race refutes these claims; click here for an interesting article about the controversy in Runner’s World.) Continue reading

WWW Wednesday — Staff Picks

9780761178422What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

Today, at our monthly meeting, our staff discussed those very questions. Our meetings are supposed to begin at 8:00 a.m., and we rush to get through as many book reviews as possible before the store opens at 9:30.

Sheet Pan Suppers, by Molly Gilbert, has been a hit with our staff and customers, although clearly the title is a bit of a misnomer — this morning we sampled the raspberry white chocolate scones, which were delicious! (The subtitle of this great cookbook is 120 Recipes for Simple, Surprising, Hands-Off Meals Straight From the Oven, Plus Breakfast, Desserts, and Snacks Too!) I noticed that the scones sat untouched for the first half of the meeting, as our health-conscious booksellers delicately nibbled on clementines, but that somehow by the end of the meeting the scones were almost gone.

What else have we read recently?9781402298684

Last week was a great reading week for me — I finished two debut novels that I absolutely adored. The Magician’s Lie, by Greer Macallister, is a historical novel about a young, female magician (the “Amazing Arden”) at the turn of the 20th century, who is accused of murder. She is captured and interrogated by a country sheriff who has problems of his own, and during the course of one long night in a rural police station, we learn about the magician’s past. How did an aspiring dancer, born into a wealthy family, end up running a successful traveling magic show — and running for her life? It’s a terrific period piece, with a murder mystery and just a touch of the supernatural. If you enjoyed Water for Elephants, you’ll love this book.

9780399169526I can’t say enough good things about My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh (due February 10).  During the summer of 1989, the narrator of My Sunshine Away is fourteen years old and in love with his neighbor on Piney Creek Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lindy Simpson. When Lindy becomes the victim of a rape, everything changes. The narrator finds himself, along with other neighbors, interrogated about the crime:

Don’t believe what you see on the crime shows today. No single hairs were tweezed out of Old Man Casemore’s lawn. No length of rope was sent off to a lab. No DNA was salvaged off the pebbles of our concrete. And although the people of Woodland Hills answered earnestly every question that was asked of them, although they tried their best to be helpful, there was no immediate evidence to speak of.

Although My Sunshine Away is suspenseful — sometimes almost unbearably so — it’s really a coming of age story. It’s about an immature, self-centered boy becoming an adult with integrity. As he recounts the pivotal events of his youth, the narrator’s voice is authentic and compelling. At one point, he reflects on the nature of nature of memory:

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

Although I’ve never been to Baton Rouge, I felt as if I had after reading Walsh’s lyrical descriptions of this singular place. Walsh, who is the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, clearly heeds every creative writing teacher’s advice: “Show, don’t tell.” He shows us a setting and characters that are as vivid as any I’ve encountered on the page. The novel reminded me in some ways of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones — but without the murder and the accompanying trip to heaven, and with a great deal more wisdom. Continue reading