A Window Opens — Book Review

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Sometimes you just know. And so you rearrange your life around what you glimpsed through a little window that opened for one second to show you a glimpse of something you might never get to see again. Even so, you know you will never forget the view.

Alice Pearse, heroine of Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, A Window Opens, has an enviable life — a husband she’s crazy about, three great kids, a house in the suburbs, and a rewarding part-time job as the books editor of a women’s magazine. She even has a babysitter who’s a modern-day Mary Poppins, close and loving relationships with her parents and in-laws, and a best friend who owns the local bookstore. When Alice’s husband doesn’t make partner at his law firm and impulsively decides to open his own law practice (for which he has not a single client), Alice volunteers to become the family breadwinner. That involves making a deal with the devil — which in this case is Scroll, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture.

Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Alice Pearse falls down a rabbit hole and enters a strange new environment, peopled with exasperating and unpleasant characters. Alice soon discovers that Scroll, a thinly disguised version of Amazon, is the workplace from hell — especially for a book lover.  Greg, the president of Scroll (and architect of the “Paper is Poison” initiative), whose “revolutionary ideas about selling books” may not actually involve selling books at all, is thoroughly repulsive to Alice. At their first one-on-one meeting, Greg gestures to the stack of books on Alice’s desk and says:

“You really want to pollute the environment with that crap? . . . No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand. That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?”

Alice’s immediate boss, Genevieve, is more interested in how Alice reads than what she reads, asking her in an interview whether she “toggles” between her “device and carbon-based books”. Still, Alice is initially smitten with Genevieve, whom she mistakenly identifies as a fellow bibliophile. She’s flattered and intrigued when Genevieve describes Alice’s potential role at the company as the “ScrollCrier . . . someone to liaise with the publishing community at large”. After Alice joins the company, it gradually becomes clear to her that Genevieve is not her friend, and not even an effective manager :”Then it occurred to me that Genevieve might be implementing a new leadership strategy from the One Minute Manager. Befriend, then berate. Was that a thing?”

“Toggling” is one of the themes of A Window Opens — juggling roles as employee, wife, mother, friend, and daughter; switching between traditional means of connection (handwritten notes, “real” books, bookstores, in-person book groups) and modern technology (e-books, email, social media, Scroll’s “GatheringPlace”). Alice is pulled in so many directions as she “toggles” that she temporarily loses sight of what’s really important to her. Egan, who, like her novel’s protagonist, is a literary editor at a women’s magazine and a mother of three living in New Jersey, spent a year working as an editor at Amazon. In an article in the New York Times, she says, “‘That fish-out-of-water feeling was drawn from my experience at Amazon.'”

The article also mentions that the novel “is already causing a stir in the literary world, in part because it feeds into pervasive anxiety about the role of Amazon and the future of independent bookstores and publishing overall. It also arrives, coincidentally, in the midst of a debate about the work culture at Amazon.”

As I read A Window Opens, I wondered why there are so few novels that take place in office settings, given that so many people spend the majority of their waking hours in cubicles and conference rooms. Certainly, conflict abounds in offices — drama is not only found in other workplaces, such as hospitals and schools. An article in the Guardian asks, “Why don’t novels do work?”, stating that “we spend most of our lives making a living, but it’s a rare novelist that tackles this centrally important subject.” Even novels that appear to be about work actually aren’t, the article claims; “the books are set in offices, but the fulcrum of the plots tend to be about the characters’ private lives.” In her novel, Egan nicely balances (or should I say “toggles”?) the story of Alice’s career and the story of her personal life.

On the advice of early readers, Egan changed the original ending of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say anything more, but do me a favor: please read this wonderful book and let me know what you think of the ending. I’m dying to discuss it!

WWW Wednesday — Family Version

IMG_1705Yesterday we had friends visit for lunch who had never been to our lake house before. The first thing one of them said after admiring the view was, “Wow! What a great place for reading.” She’s absolutely right — there’s no better place for reading than sitting outside on a beautiful summer day with the lake and mountains in the background. There are always plenty of other things to do, especially when the sun is shining, but we all treasure our reading time.

the-new-neighbor-9781501103513_lgI just finished reading several books that are perfect for summer reading. My colleague Di recommended Leah Stewart’s The New Neighbor, a terrific page-turner about two lonely women in Sewanee, Tennessee who are both hiding painful secrets. Jennifer Young and her 4-year-old son move in near 91-year-old retired nurse Margaret Riley, and Margaret soon becomes obsessed with digging into Jennifer’s past. The New York Times says “Both women, whom we come to know in great depth, are guarding secrets and neither can afford to make friends . . . Stewart never relaxes her tight focus on these complex characters.” Stewart based the novel in part on her grandmother’s experiences as a World War II battlefield nurse.

9780553392319We Never Asked for Wings, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (out in hardcover yesterday) is, like Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, the story of a young woman in crisis.  When Letty Espinosa’s parents return to their native Mexico, Letty must finally grow up and become a parent to her teenage son, Alex, and six-year-old daughter, Luna.  Diffenbaugh does a wonderful job creating vivid and sympathetic characters. I was particularly drawn to Alex, who has always regarded his mother as more of an older sister than as an authority figure.  I passed the novel along to my mother, who enjoyed it as much as I did. I liked The Language of Flowers very much, so I was nervous when I started reading her sophomore book. Surprisingly, I liked We Never Asked for Wings even more — it’s more true-to-life, with none of the magical realism that made The Language of Flowers a less-than-perfect book for me. Vanessa Diffenbaugh will be visiting Lake Forest for an author luncheon next week, and I’m looking forward to meeting her and asking her a few questions.

9780804140034Maybe some people don’t find nonfiction books about war appropriate summer reading, but Jeff and I do! I am fascinated by the French Resistance, and Alex Kershaw’s Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris is a worthy addition to my collection of World War II books. It’s not on a par with In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, but it’s a similar story: an American family, living in occupied Paris, shows unusual courage in the direst of circumstances. American physician Sumner Jackson, his Swiss wife, Toquette, and their son, Phillip, are given the opportunity to leave France when the French surrender is imminent, but they elect to stay and join the Resistance — while living almost next door to the Parisian headquarters of the Gestapo.

51ZVQ8T7JKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Jeff is delving deeply into World War I, thoroughly absorbed in Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by British military historian Max Hastings. We heard the author speak at an event last year, and Jeff is finally getting to the book, which the New York Times calls “a highly readable narrative that should — but won’t — be the last word on the subject.” He also recently read Testament of Youth, which is author Vera Brittain’s memoir of her experiences as a nurse during World War I that led her to pacifism, political activism, and a writing career. It’s a little embarrassing that Jeff has finished the book and I have just started it, because it’s my book group’s August selection.

IMG_1697My mother wins the award for most prolific reader. (Also, most prolific crossword puzzle solver . . . actually, the only crossword puzzle solver.) She’s thrilled that our little town recently rebuilt and expanded its public library, and regularly comes home with big stacks of library books.  She’s read some excellent books, and particularly recommends You Are  One of Them, by Elliott Holt. One of my favorite authors, Maggie Shipstead, gave Holt’s debut novel a rave review:

Inspired by the story of Samantha Smith, the American schoolgirl who wrote to the Soviet premier Yuri Andropov in 1982, and asked if he intended to start a nuclear war, has the momentum of a mystery but is, more essentially, a consideration of how we are haunted by loss . . . The main thing, though, is that You Are One of Them is a hugely absorbing first novel from a writer with a fluid, vivid style and a rare knack for balancing the pleasure of entertainment with the deeper gratification of insight. More, please.

I just emailed the bookstore to order a paperback copy of You Are One of Them — I find that library books and lakeside reading don’t mix well I’ve already managed to drop one book in the water and spill coffee an another. Some of my mother’s books go back to the library unfinished. My mother feels, and I agree, that you can usually tell after a few pages if a book is worth reading.  Isn’t that the best thing about libraries? You haven’t invested anything in the book so there’s no pressure to finish. And the worst thing is that you have to take care of the books . . .

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

Bookstore Spotlight — Cottage Book Shop

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Bookstores attract the right kind of folk. Good people like A.J. and Amelia. And I like talking about books with people who like talking about books. I like paper. I like how it feels, and I like the feel of a book in my back pocket. I like how a new book smells, too.
Officer Lambiase, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry 

Lots of people retire and move to a new home, slowing down and enjoying newfound leisure time. When Sue Boucher’s husband retired last year, the Bouchers sold their house in the Chicago suburbs  and settled in a place they’ve vacationed in for years — Leelenau County, Michigan. The move also meant that Sue had to sell her beloved store, Lake Forest Book Store. Sue enjoys gardening, knitting, hiking, biking, spending time with friends and family — and of course, reading — but she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the book business.

“I never thought I’d fall in love with another bookstore,” Sue said, but fall in love she did — with one of the most charming bookstores I’ve ever seen, the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, Michigan. Housed in a log cabin that was built in 1920 and moved from its original location to its current one in 1998, the shop is packed with a wide assortment of carefully chosen books — plus puzzles, games,toys, and cards. The walls are covered with the work of local artists. Sue bought the store in the spring of 2014 from longtime owner Barbara Siepker, who was planning to retire. (Her vision of retirement apparently didn’t involve running a small business!)

11824925_10153528233884803_6439038564801579186_n“Summer is our version of the Christmas season,” Sue said, when I mentioned how busy the store was on a Monday afternoon. Glen Arbor overflows with visitors and summer residents from June through August, with a tiny local population the rest of the year. Last week — which should have been one of the store’s busiest all year —  a storm of Biblical proportions with 100 mph winds hit the town, downing hundreds of trees and causing power outages for nearly a week. The Cottage stayed open almost every day, conducting business with old-fashioned technology (lanterns) and modern technology (iPhones).

9781908313867I had fun “working” as a guest bookseller in the shop for a few hours on Monday, which meant that I put on an official Cottage Book Shop apron and walked around the store straightening shelves and chatting with customers.  I recommended some of my favorites, and  — since I know the alphabet — I was able to help a few people locate specific titles. A constant trail of families entered the store, looking for summer reading for both parents and children. “This is my favorite time to read,” a woman told me as she picked out a stack of paperbacks. “Every summer we come here for two weeks and I come here right away to stock up. It’s my first stop right after the grocery store.”

FullSizeRender-1What’s popular right now at the Cottage Book Shop? Bestsellers include A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman), The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain), Leaving Time (Jodi Picoult), The Martian (Andy Weir), Ordinary Grace (William Kent Kreuger), Lisette’s List (Susan Vreeland), The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown), and My Salinger Year (Joanna Rakoff) — all great choices for vacation reading. Local interest books are big sellers as well, including gorgeous photography books (Ice Caves of Leelenau), children’s picture books (Petoskey Stone Soup) and field guides (Birds of Michigan).

9780143127666Not surprisingly, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been selling briskly — and Sue had a great turnout for a screening of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird the night before the release of Go Set a Watchman. I haven’t read it yet . . . unfortunately, I’ve read so many articles about the book that I can’t imagine enjoying it. Too many preconceived notions can spoil the excitement of starting a brand new book. I did enjoy, and wholeheartedly recommend, Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door, a delightful account of Mills’s friendship with Harper Lee and her sister.

I suggested The Mockingbird Next Door for the September selection for the Cottage’s Book of the Month Club. (But maybe it’s not a good suggestion — maybe everyone has heard enough about Harper Lee?) Every month, club members receive a paperback in the mail. Sue and her staff try to pick high-quality books with broad appeal. The August choice is  a wonderful one — Neverhome, by Laird Hunt, a lyrical novel about a farmer’s wife who leaves her husband behind to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

I can’t wait to go back to the Cottage Book Shop — maybe in the winter, when the little log cabin will be buried in snow? I’d love to hear which bookstores you’ve visited on your vacations.

Orphan #8 — Author Interview

The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.
E.L. Doctorow

Orphan #8Orphans are as common in literature as no-good, two-timing liars and cheats are in country music. Cinderella . . . Jane Eyre . . .  Peter Pan and the Lost Boys . . .Heidi . . .Huckleberry Finn . . .  Frodo Baggins . . . Harry Potter . . . the list of brave and noble orphans who succeed against the odds is seemingly endless. Children’s literature, especially, is full of children who have lost parents. Could this be because this is every child’s greatest fear?

Kim van Alkemade’s grandfather, Victor Berger, was not technically an orphan, but he suffered the loss of his father at a young age.  In 1918, Harry Berger, a Russian immigrant working in the shirtwaist industry, ran off to Colorado, leaving Victor and his family destitute. Fannie Berger, “like thousands of parents before her, who, for reasons of death or desertion or illness, were unable to care for their children,” brought her children to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City.

Van Alkemade, an English professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, was conducting family research at the Center for Jewish Research when she discovered archives that inspired her to write Orphan #8.  “The idea of writing a historical novel was the furthest thing from my mind when I opened Box 54 of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum collection,” she writes.  But her curiosity was piqued when she read a motion approved by the orphanage’s Executive Committee: “the purchase of wigs for eight children who had developed alopecia as a result of X-ray treatments given to them at the Home for Hebrew Infants.”

Orphan #8 is the fictionalized story of one of those children, Rachel Rabinowitz, following her throughout her life as she comes to terms with her past as a subject of medical experimentation. Rachel’s struggle to become a whole human being, able to work, love, and even to forgive, absorbed me from start to finish. I’m always fascinated by stories inspired by little-known historical events, and Orphan #8 is moving and well-written. Kim van Alkemade was kind enough to answer my questions about the book and her career.

I read with interest the information on your website about how your family history inspired you to write Orphan #8. What made you decide to write the story as fiction, rather than narrative nonfiction?

There is a lot of my family history in Orphan #8 and I had considered narrative nonfiction for that story, but once I read about the X-ray treatments on the eight children I knew I wanted to imagine what life would have been like for one of these children. By weaving together bits of family history and research, I was able to create an imaginary story that had a compelling narrative arc.

For you, what is the line between fact and fiction? How much liberty do you think a writer of historical fiction can take with historical fact?

The line is: fact is fact, fiction is fiction. Orphan #8 is inspired by true events, but it is not a true story. I made up every character, the settings, the situations, all the dialogue (except for some of the things Dr. Hess says). Even the characters based on my family members are fictional creations. Yes, I incorporated a lot of research, and the main situation of a female orphanage doctor giving X-ray treatments to eight children did happen—but this novel is absolutely fiction. I include as much fact as possible, however, from how much a train ticket from New York to Denver would cost to how doctors treated breast cancer in the 1950s, because I want readers to have an authentic experience. The great thing about historical fiction is that it’s not a dissertation. I can take liberties. I can invent some things. I’m not sure what it’s like for the reader, but I suspect some things that seem very factual I actually made up (like how to make a wig) and other things that seem totally made up are factual (the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society).

What audience, if any, did you have in mind as you were writing the book? (I see the book as having crossover appeal to teenagers who are interested in exploring historical fiction.)

I think Orphan #8 is a great book for mature young adults or new adult readers. There are a couple of sexy moments, and the novel deals with some heavy subjects, so I’d have to say I had an adult audience in mind as I wrote. On the other hand, Rachel is a child or a teenager for half of the book, so I think younger readers could really relate to her.

dormitoryThe term “orphanage” seems quaint now; indeed, most of today’s “orphans” are placed in foster homes, with the goal being family reunification. What is your opinion of how contemporary social service agencies handle children who have no parents or whose parents are unwilling or unable to care for them, compared with the institutional care provided 100 years ago?

In the novel, Rachel considers this very question. Even during the years in which Orphan #8 is set, the large institutional orphanages were falling out of fashion as foster care and group homes were on the rise. The philosophy behind the huge orphanages was that children of poor immigrants were probably better off away from their parents and relatives (if they had them) because the institution could provide a clean, healthy environment that promoted Americanization. In many ways, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum really saved my family. It gave my grandpa and his brothers a stable, predictable home and because my great-grandma worked there, it kept my family together. I’m not sure what alternative my great-grandma had at that time.

Orphan #8 was published as a paperback original. How did your publisher come to this decision, and what effect do you think it will have on the success of the book?

I’m not sure how William Morrow came to this decision,but that was the plan from early on. I’m really pleased about it. Though personally I purchase many hardcover new releases, the price can be steep especially compared to an e-book, so I think paperback is the best of both worlds.

Congratulations on the selection of Orphan #8 as an Indie Next Pick! Do you have a favorite bookstore where you enjoy browsing, and if you do, what makes it special?

In Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I live, our local independent bookstore is Whistlestop Bookshop. I walked in there about a week after I’d gotten the offer for my novel, and the owner, Jeff Wood, said, “I hear we’re going to be selling your book soon.” “How did you hear that?” I asked. “Your mom was in and told me.” That’s a pretty good illustration of the role our local indie bookstore plays in our community! It really is special because everyone who works there knows the customers, it seems that everyone in town knows Jeff, and most of the time when I go in I run into someone I know.

As you undoubtedly know, a whole new phase of a writer’s life begins when the book is published. How do you feel about that? Are you looking forward to promoting the book, which involves writing and public speaking?

Well, I’m a teacher so I’m used to standing in front of people and talking, but I did want my book events to be more entertaining than a lecture, so this summer I took an improv comedy class and it was so much fun! I shed a lot of inhibitions and am thinking of ways to incorporate what I learned when I give readings. I’m really grateful to have this opportunity so even though I was very anxious about social media at the beginning, I’ve learned to embrace it because I want to do my part to promote the book. This morning I was on live television for the first time ever doing a three-minute spot about the book, and I had a good time!

Which contemporary authors (in particular, authors of historical fiction) do you most enjoy reading? When friends ask you for recommendations, what are your “go-to” suggestions?

Recently I’ve read historical fiction by Amy Bloom, Alice Hoffman, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Bernice McFadden, Nina Revoyr, Sarah Waters, David Leavitt and Laird Hunt. I still revere Mary Renault’s historical novels about Alexander the Great—my favorite is The Persian Boy.

Which books and authors have helped you develop into the writer you are today?

I re-read Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow to get up my courage to try historical fiction, and as I was preparing to do my rewrite of Orphan #8 I re-read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder to figure out how she paced the plot and Bel Canto to see how she managed the point-of-view. I also read all three of Donna Tartt’s novels in one month just as The Goldfinch was coming out. She gave me the courage to use the novel to express ideas that were important to me—and to write longer sentences.

I’m sure readers would like to hear more about your career as an English professor. Could you tell us a little about your academic interests and your favorite courses to teach? Are you part of a writers’ group? How do you balance your writing life with your academic responsibilities?

Well, as an undergraduate I was a double-major in English and History, and writing historical fiction has turned out to be a perfect blend of those life-long interests. I teach creative nonfiction, which is what my previous publications have been, as well as composition and technical writing. I enjoy the creativity and autonomy of planning a class. I do have a writer’s group that meets every month and my friends and colleagues are very generous in reading my early drafts. It really comes down to setting a goal for every day. When I am rough drafting, I do a word count, aiming for 1000 words a day. Once I start revising, it’s an hour every morning. I check it off on my calendar. I miss some days, of course, but then I feel crappy so I get back to work.

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

I just have everything alphabetical by author, unless it’s a biography. On each shelf, the books I’ve read are upright and the ones I haven’t read yet are on their side. I have the nonfiction and the fiction and the young adult all missed together. When my daughter was in school I read everything she read, so I have a lot of great young adult books. I keep all the picture books on the lowest shelf together so when I have very young visitors they can choose for themselves.

Orphan #8 has is a perfect choice for book clubs. Have you participated in a book club, either as a member or a facilitator? How do you think book groups will respond to your novel?

I am in a book club that meets at my house every other month. We’re an eclectic mix in terms of religion and background and nationality, and we read a diverse selection of contemporary fiction. My group let me practice on them by reading Orphan #8 but most of our discussion ended up being about my family because my mom is in the group, and it was her dad who grew up in the orphanage. From reading blog posts about the novel, I see there are so many ways to respond to it, I think groups will have a lot to talk about!

For reviews of Orphan #8, please visit TLC Book Tours.

August Reading

The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.
Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

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Getting ready to settle in with Shirley Jackson this afternoon.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky middle-aged person, I don’t like the fact that August has become the new September. Labor Day used to signal the end of summer, and even that seemed too early, given that September is usually the most glorious month of the year. One good thing about this unwelcome change is that more books seem to be released in August. Maybe publishers are thinking of August as the beginning of the fall season — traditionally the prime time for publication?

The trend towards shortened summers has bothered me for years (although not nearly as much as it must bother people trying to run seasonal businesses).  “Autumn creep” also annoys Ann Patchett and her staff at Parnassus Books — their blog post, Summer’s Not Over — Keep Right on Reading and Relaxing, echoes my feelings:

Do not despair. Despite all those back-to-school flyers about pencils and backpacks, summer is nowhere near over. (At least not for grownups, right?) It’s August! The sun’s out, the days are long, and every week brings a new crop of fantastic new releases in your neighborhood bookstore. So plant yourself defiantly in a hammock and insist on what’s yours: one more month of leisurely reading time. Reality can wait its turn.

9781400063369The Parnassus staff has some great book recommendations, including two of my recent favorites: The Light of the World, a beautiful meditation on loss and healing, by Elizabeth Alexander, and Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, by Robert Kurson, as well as a new novel my colleague Molly absolutely loved: Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer. The August selection for Parnassus’s First Editions Book Club is Circling the Sun, a biographical novel about Beryl Markham by Paula McLain (The Paris Wife). I enjoyed Circling the Sun very much, although some of my coworkers weren’t enamored with McLain’s writing style. It inspired me to reread sections of Markham’s memoir, West With the Night, which was one of the first books my book club read, back in 1988.

9781101873472-1I’m really excited about several books published this month. Melanie Sumner’s debut novel, How to Write a Novel (a paperback original), is a delight. I loved every page of this book, and what I enjoyed most was the voice of the 12.5-year-old (and yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will adore this smart and endearing novel — and since almost everyone loves Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, that means almost everyone will enjoy How to Write a Novel. You could also look at this book as a Harriet the Spy for grownups.

9780307268129Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox, also features a protagonist with a memorable voice. Isabel, a wife, mother, and middle school teacher, is crippled by grief and guilt when her best friend dies in a car accident. Days of Awe is a story of self-discovery, as Isabel redefines her relationships with everyone she loves. It’s by no means an unrelentingly sad book — Isabel, who makes plenty of mistakes, is filled with clever, self-deprecating humor.

9780385540049Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Admissions (available August 18) is not just another book about college admissions and the associated parental and teenage angst. This insightful and delightfully witty novel is about much more than getting into college: the secrets the members of the upwardly mobile Hawthorne family are keeping from each other, and the admissions they must make. I loved Moore’s previous books (The Arrivals and So Far Away) and I’m not sure why she hasn’t received more acclaim. Please look for a Q & A with the author on Books on the Table later this month!

a-window-opens-9781501105432_lgComing on August 25 is a book that touched my bookselling heart — it’s sort of a mashup of Goodnight June (Sarah Jio) and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. A Window Opens, by Elisabeth Egan, makes me want to gush, so I’m not going to hold back — I adored it! It’s the clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture that plans to develop e-book lounges. (At least, that’s the party line Scroll feeds our heroine, a book lover.) Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books,  the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time.

Don’t rush the end of summer — there’s still plenty of outdoor reading time!

When the Moon is Low — Book Review and Giveaway

I dare to imagine a perfect world. I dare to dream that the woman writing my story on these many pages will stop and remember that a boy by the name of Saleem Waziri is here and in search of his family. I dream that I will tell him his brother is well. I dream that we receive a letter declaring that we will not be sent away and that we will be allowed to work and go to school and stay in this country where the air is clear and life is more like metal than dust.
Fereiba, widowed mother

Saleem lived in those voids. He lived in the uninhabited spaces of night, the places where bright, cheerful faces would not be. He lived in the corners that went unnoticed, among the things people swept out the back door.
Saleem, teenage son

When the Moon is Low book coverFereiba and her family survived the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, only to suffer more under the Taliban regime. Unable to provide for her three children, since the oppressive regime prohibits her from working as a schoolteacher, Fereiba packs up her children — including a sickly infant — and embarks on a dangerous and illegal journey to join her sister’s family in London. Along the way, Saleem becomes separated from his mother and siblings and tries to find his way to freedom.

Nadia Hashimi tells the Waziri family’s story from the alternating perspectives of both Fereiba and Saleem. Fereiba’s chapters, told in the first person, lend emotional intimacy to the sweeping narrative. Fereiba’s distinctive voice allows the reader to connect and empathize with her. Saleem’s chapters, written in the third person, include not only his point of view but occasionally the points of view of various other characters. The effect of these additional perspectives is to distance the reader from Saleem. The sections of the book focused on Saleem’s experiences attempt to cover too much territory, and I found myself anxious to return to the chapters narrated by Fereiba.

Without giving away important plot points, it’s difficult to reveal much about the family’s odyssey through the Middle East and Europe. Hashimi creates sympathy for her characters along with tension that will keep readers turning the pages. Americans read frequently about the plight of illegal immigrants in the United States, but not as often about the hardships faced by refugees and immigrants in European countries. When the Moon is Low brought to mind Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, another heartbreaking story about the human cost of repressive political regimes.

Of course, the best known novels about modern-day Afghanistan are Khaled Hosseini’s — especially his debut, The Kite Runner. The Kite Runner is often credited with introducing Afghan culture to Americans; in an interview with the Atlantic, Hosseini says: “Most readers have come away with a sense of empathy for Afghanistan and its people; there’s been awareness of the richness of its culture, its heritage and its history.” Hosseini — like the fictional Saleem in When the Moon is Low — was forced to flee Afghanistan as a teenager.

Hosseini arrived in the United States knowing no English, and although he had always dreamed of becoming a writer, he never imagined he would write books in English. He acknowledges that his greatest strength is as a storyteller, not as a prose stylist:

I think my strength is in telling a story. That’s my strength. I can keep a reader’s interest. I can bring a sense of anxiety to every page; bring a sense that something’s at stake in every page . . . . I also write in a way that emotionally resonates with the audience. I want something to be at stake emotionally for every story I write . . .

My weaknesses? I have a long list. I’m well aware of my limitations as a writer. I will never be stylish. I will never have a particularly interesting prose. When I read contemporary fiction, I recognize prose that is beyond my grasp.

Nadia HashimiHashimi, too, is a gifted storyteller and a competent writer. Born in the United States, she is the daughter of Afghan immigrants. Her parents left Afghanistan in the 1970s, planning to work in the U.S. for a few years, but ended up staying permanently after it became clear it was unsafe for them to return. Her mother, an internationally trained civil engineer, was one of the first women to enroll in Kabul University’s engineering program.

In a surprising coincidence, Khaled Hosseini and Nadia Hashimi are both physicians. Somehow — in between practicing medicine, helping to manage her husband’s neurosurgery practice, writing articles for Psychology Today, and raising three children — Hashimi has had time to write two novels. The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, published in 2014, is the moving story of two Afghan girls, separated by a century, who adopt the custom of bacha posh, in which they disguise themselves as boys in order to attend school and move freely. (For a nonfiction account of this custom, I highly recommend The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, by Jenny Nordberg — just out in paperback.)

Sashimi told her college alumni magazine  that she actually began writing The Moon is Low before she came up with the idea for The Pearl That Broke Its Shell:

When the Moon Is Low was Hashimi’s first attempt at fiction. Her husband thought her idea for the story was interesting and encouraged her to explore it. . .  Hashimi got a literary agent on the strength of an early draft. “Actually, until I had an agent, I didn’t really think anything was going to come of it,” she says. “Writing was more like a hobby.”

She also had the idea for “Pearl” percolating. Eventually, she put the “Moon” manuscript aside to give the second book her undivided attention. She wrote “Pearl” in nine months — it came “in one big swoop,” she says — while she was working part time as a doctor and expecting her second baby.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell focuses on the oppression of Afghan women, both generations ago and today. Released earlier this year in paperback, it’s garnered excellent reviews, including one from Khaled Hosseini: “Nadia Hashimi has written, first and foremost, a tender and beautiful family story. Her always engaging multigenerational tale is a portrait of Afghanistan in all of its perplexing, enigmatic glory, and a mirror into the still ongoing struggles of Afghan women.”

When the Moon is Low documents the struggles of Afghan refugees, but also shines a light on the experiences of displaced people everywhere. As the author says in her acknowledgments, “This story was inspired by the masses of people all over the world in search of a place to call home.”

I have an extra copy of When the Moon is Low I would love to give away — please comment below or send me an email at bksonthetable@gmail.com, and I’ll toss names in the proverbial hat in a couple of weeks.

For more reviews, please visit TLC Book Tours.

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Why My Books Are Not Clutter

Clutter n: A large amount of things that are not arranged in a neat or orderly way : a crowded or disordered collection of things.

Clutter n: A crowded or confused mass or collection; a mass of disorderly or distracting objects or details.

IMG_1221When it comes to my books, I’ll admit to “large amount, and even to “crowded” — but definitely not to “confused” or “disorderly”. I do find them “distracting” — but isn’t that part of the point of books? My books are organized by subject and in the case of fiction, even alphabetized by author. They are lined up neatly on shelves and stacked on tables. Clutter, to my mind, is the stuff I shove in my laundry room junk drawer — mysterious cords, chargers, and hardware items. I’m also guilty of hanging on to piles of magazines. The homes featured in those very magazines don’t have overflowing baskets of House Beautiful and Veranda in their living rooms. (They also rarely have reading lights next to chairs and sofas, I’ve noticed.)

We’ve recently tried to spruce up our house, recovering furniture, replacing rugs, and adding window treatments. So I’ve been reading a lot of interior design magazines, blogs, and books. I’ve learned that there are some very big no-nos — “brown furniture” (which apparently means antiques made of wood) and “matchy matchy” frequently come up as evils to avoid. The absolute worst sin that amateur decorators can commit is failing to eliminate clutter. Clutter not only causes people to experience stress, it may contribute to obesity — according to professional organizer Peter Walsh, author of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down.

Judging from much of what I’ve been seeing, today’s ideal home looks like an upscale chain hotel, with lots of neutral colors and empty space. (In a large percentage of these homes, the designer adds “personality” by tossing a zebra skin rug over a sisal rug.)

Dominique Browning  (past editor-in-chief of House & Garden) wrote a lovely and insightful article, “Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter”, published in the New York Times a few weeks ago. She laments today’s “propaganda of divestment”, and asks, “Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?” :

It is time to celebrate the gentle art of clutter. We live, and we pick up things along the way: the detritus of adventure; the vessels of mealtimes; the books and music of a life of the mind; the pleasures of our daily romps through the senses . . . And yes, you will have bookshelves. Never enough of them. And more books, to replace all those books you gave away. That, too, is a law of nature.

9781607747307Organizational guru Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, says that “books are one of three things that people find hardest to let go”. Maybe this should tell her something. Why must we feel pressured to let go of things we would like to keep? She says the “true purpose” of books “is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves”. That’s where Kondo and I disagree. Being surrounded by my books (even those that don’t particularly “spark joy”, to use Kondo’s phrase), gives me a sense of comfort and warmth that half-empty, dust-free shelves can’t provide.

Kondo recommends placing bookcases in the closet, leaving “nothing to obstruct the line of vision”.  But books are exactly what I want in my line of vision. Just because I’ll never reread a book, cover to cover, doesn’t mean I don’t want it on my shelf. The familiar gray cover of Bonfire of the Vanities reminds me of stolen hours on the couch while my infant son napped. On the shelf above I see Gorky Park and recall reading it on a lounge chair on my honeymoon. I know without looking that The Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998, because I remember that it was one of my very first purchases with my employee discount at Lake Forest Book Store. I’ll never forget coming home from work and reading it during a power outage, by candlelight, while the children were at school.

Every now and then I reread some of my childhood favorites — most recently, I reread A Wrinkle in Time. The lines I underlined when I was 12 are the same ones I would underline now:

In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet . . . There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter . . . And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet…But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants . . . You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.

I’m glad I have this book on my shelf, even though I may never open it again. I understand a little more about what Madeleine L’Engle has to say about fate and free will than I did when I was 12, and I’m inspired to read her adult books. As our world becomes more digital, I find myself becoming more attached to physical objects that evoke memories — books, of course, but letters and photographs as well. The books I read electronically don’t seem to lodge themselves in my memory as well as the “real” books I read. A few times, I’ve actually bought the physical version of an e-book I’ve read just so I can add it to my collection.

elements-of-style-9781476744872_lgOne book I recently bought that I had already read is Elements of Style: Designing a Home and a Life, by Erin Gates. The photos didn’t show up well in the electronic version (which was a galley, anyway), and it’s a book I’ll stack on my coffee table and refer to again and again. I love that lots of the rooms Gates designs include bookcases that are filled with books, rather than with pottery and knickknacks. She has lots of great decorating tips for the amateur, and plenty of funny anecdotes also.

I’ve amassed piles of design books, including Books Make a Home, Living With Books, and Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature. My house is not “enchanted”, but it’s not cluttered either — it’s just full of books!