The Dismantling — Book Review

9780142181744If you’re in the mood for a smart, unusual thriller, The Dismantling is a terrific choice. On the surface, it’s about the illegal organ trade in the United States. I have no idea how much of this sort of criminal activity actually takes place here. As we all know, once you start researching something on the Internet, you can easily descend into a rabbit hole and emerge with no greater understanding of the original subject you were trying to investigate. That’s what happened when I typed in “black market organs” in the Google search box on my computer.

In Brian DeLeeuw’s thought-provoking novel, cash-strapped Maria Campos has little difficulty finding an organ broker online who is willing to buy a section of her liver. Medical school dropout Simon Worth has joined a shady organization called Health Solutions that matches poor and desperate people willing to sell their organs with rich and desperate people whose time on the legal transplant list is running out. Posing as the second cousin of Lenny Pellegrini, an NFL player suffering from alcoholism and severe depression, Maria travels to New York to “donate” a portion of her liver, collect a large chunk of cash, and start a new life. When things go badly awry, Simon is forced to face his painful past and decide what kind of person he wants to be in the future.

The “dismantling” of the title refers not just to the dismantling of Maria’s body when she sells her liver, but to the breakdown of her life when she suffered trauma as an adolescent. Simon’s life fell apart when he experienced tragedy as a young adult, and Lenny’s physical and mental health were destroyed when he was repeatedly injured during his football career. DeLeeuw asks the reader to consider whether lives can be reassembled after they have been stripped bare. Can there be redemption after “dismantling”?

DeLeeuw explains in an interview with fellow author Christopher Beha how he came up with the idea of using illegal transplants as a vehicle to explore themes of morality in contemporary society:

I came up with the character of Simon Worth first—a young man who is carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame, someone who feels that he is not capable of living a regular life with a regular job, friends, girlfriend. He feels defective in some way—psychically isolated—and yet he also has these large student loans to pay off from a failed attempt at medical school, so he needs to get his hands on money quickly. He can’t just retreat entirely from life. I knew I wanted take this character with very little to lose, somebody who feels as though a vital part of himself has already died, and place him in the center of a criminal underworld, turn him into an unlikely criminal.

This dovetailed with my more general desire to write an internally-focused, slow-burn crime novel. In 2008 and 2009, I started noticing articles about the organ trade popping up more frequently in mainstream newspapers and magazines; the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The idea that everything is up for sale now, that you can put a price on absolutely anything—that was of course part of the fascination. I also thought the question of individual autonomy and agency was raised here in an interesting way: should people have the right to sell parts of their bodies? Or is there something inherently unethical about the market exchange of organs?

brian-abuotThe author’s description of his novel as “slow-burn” is vivid and accurate. The novel’s action moves between the past and the present, gradually illuminating the inner lives of the characters. Asked in an interview with author Matthew Rubinstein to describe the value of “slow reveals”, DeLeeuw says:

Some novels take place only in the present, and draw their suspense from forward motion. But the novels I like most have that element, but also have a counterpoint of revealing more and more about the characters’ pasts–their back stories. There’s the interplay of the current plot with the revelation of past information. As the reader learns more about the character’s past, the present-day action takes on more resonance. For me, this push-pull between past and present helps with the book’s rhythm. I like setting up propulsive present action scenes alternating with sections going back to the past. In this novel, describing Simon’s background enriches the protagonist’s character and makes the present-day tension more understandable.

In this interview, DeLeeuw lists several authors whose books influenced him while he was writing The Dismantling: Colin Harrison (Manhattan Nocturne), Jennifer Egan (Look at Me), Donna Tartt (The Secret History), and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train). He doesn’t mention David Benioff’s  World War II thriller City of Thieves, but I wonder if Benioff (co-creator of Game of Thrones and an accomplished screenwriter) was an influence also. DeLeeuw, who recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, is a screenwriter as well as a novelist.

A fascinating subplot in The Dismantling, and one that is very topical, has to do the permanent health damage suffered by ex-NFL players. At first, Lenny seems to be an unsympathetic character, but Simon’s — and the reader’s — heart eventually goes out to this broken man. Simon reflects on the legacy of Lenny’s short career as an offensive lineman:

The rest, though, he’d had to pay for himself, with no insurance company willing to assume the future costs of such a battered consumer . . . And this was only the toll on his body. The damage to his mind had surely been subtler, more insidious. Most likely there hadn’t been one or two big hits Lenny could point to and say that’s where it all started; most likely it was the accumulation, over a decade and a half, of the routine catastrophes of each snap, stretching back to whenever teenaged Lenny had discovered the power and joy of being both the unstoppable force and the immovable object.

Lenny’s friend and benefactor, Howard Crewes, is filled with remorse for an incident that took place during his own football career. He views helping Lenny as a way to atone for his past sins, just as Simon is trying to atone for his own moral failures. Maria, on the other hand, is seeking revenge. Maria’s actions lead the reader to think about retribution and whether it is ever justified.

A thriller, by definition, is plot-driven, usually with a crime at the center of the story, but what exactly is a literary thriller? Is it just a marketing term, or does it mean something more? I think it is a thriller for people who don’t typically read thrillers — people who are more interested in character development, social issues, intellectual ideas, and good writing than a fast-paced story. If that describes you, I recommend The Dismantling.

For more reviews, please visit TLC Book Tours.

“It Takes a Genius to Make People Laugh” — 10 Funny Authors

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Give me a choice and I’ll take A Midsummer Night’s Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.
Stephen King

I think I am a pretty good seat mate on planes and trains. (Automobiles,too.) I don’t take up more than my share of the available space, I don’t initiate inane conversations, I don’t listen to loud music with improperly inserted earbuds, and I definitely do not carry and eat bags of fast food. If anyone has an explanation, please let me know why someone would sit at an airport gate, clutching a bag of greasy McDonald’s burgers and fries, and then wait to eat the cold, smelly food until an hour or so into the flight.

However, on a recent flight, I think I really annoyed the grumpy man sitting next to me. My offense? I laughed, and more than once. The first time it happened, I chuckled softly and he shifted in his seat and looked slightly irritated. The irritated look progressed to a lengthier glare, and finally he connected his headphones to his laptop. No, he did not appear to be outlining a plan for combating terrorism or putting the final touches on an important scientific presentation. He was playing solitaire.

The book that made me laugh — again and again — was The World’s Largest Man, a memoir by Harrison Scott Key about his complicated relationship with his father.  It’s Key’s first book, but he has published essays in many magazines. According to his website, Key writes with the “comic verve of David Sedaris and the deft satire of Mark Twain or Roy Blount, Jr.”, but if we’re going to make comparisons, I’d say he is more like a cross between Bill Bryson and Pat Conroy.

Key grew up in Mississippi, the bookish son of a father whose main interests were hunting, fishing, and football — and in transforming his sensitive son into a different person, one who enjoyed waking at 4 a.m. and spending the day in a deer stand:

Why couldn’t I have been born with no arms? I knew, though, even if I had no arms, Pop would have found a way for me to hunt, rigging complicated pulley systems into trees and hoisting me up in a sack, then dropping me on the animals with a knife in each foot.

Key enjoyed a special bond with his mother, an elementary school teacher. who introduced “the perverse habit of reading through the gateway drug of encyclopedias, which she begged my father to purchase from a man at the door, hoping to counterbalance our growing knowledge of firearms and axes and tractors with more peaceful, productive knowledge.” Key preferred spending the day grocery shopping with his mother to hunting with his father and brother:

I was not encouraged, generally, to go grocery shopping with Mom, because Pop knew that if you sent your sons to the grocery store too much, they might learn how to locate water chestnuts, which could lead down a dark path toward vegetarian stir-fry and the wearing of aprons and eventually marrying someone named Cecil . . . How could hunting deer ever compare to hunting vanilla ice cream, which is generally docile and will let you pour syrup on it without running away?

Although Key is a gifted humorist, The World’s Largest Man is not a nonstop laugh riot. At its heart, it’s a story about love and acceptance. Much of the book is heartbreaking and poignant. Key succeeds in showing us the contradictory aspects of his father’s deeply flawed personality — a personality that turns out to be a greater influence on him than he had ever imagined.

One of the best things about humorous books is that they lend themselves to rereading. Sometimes it’s comforting knowing that what you are about to read will tickle your funnybone.

9780670824397_xlgI adored Roald Dahl as a child, and I still do. Which of his books is the funniest? It’s hard to say, but I’m partial to Matilda, probably because she’s a bookworm;

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.
“Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?” Miss Honey asked.
“I do,” Matilda said. “Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.”

The first “grown-up” funny book I remember reading was Auntie Mame, by Patrick Dennis (a pseudonym). I found it on my grandmother’s bookshelves, and it made me laugh and laugh. It was out of print for more than 50 years, but it was reissued in 2001 and remains available.

Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Penguin Classics, called Auntie Mame “a lost classic” and said that he could not resist publishing a “laugh-out-loud” novel. He said: “There are lots of comic novels that aren’t that funny. It is very difficult to write ‘funny’ well. This one is sheer bliss.”

A lot of parents and teachers turn their noses up at Dav Pilkey‘s books, particularly the Captain Underpants seriesThat makes me sad, because my children loved Dav Pilkey. Guess what — kids and adults like different things. For example, some of the activities I remember enjoying as a child were throwing rocks in puddles with neighborhood children to see who could 9780062238498-1make the biggest splash . . . spinning in circles until I got dizzy and fell down . . . dressing my dog in pajamas. If Pilkey’s books had been available, I’m sure I would have laughed myself silly over them. What 7-year-old could resist Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, or Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants? A little potty humor ever did anyone any harm, and I think Pilkey shows kids that reading doesn’t have to be a grim and serious pursuit, accompanied by timers and worksheets, but can be entertaining and laugh-inducing.

Comic actress Ali Wentworth has published one humorous memoir, Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales, and has another one, Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales, coming out in June. They’re perfect light reading, full of wickedly witty anecdotes about Wentworth’s growing-up years, career, and current family life.

9780804140416Comedian Jim Gaffigan is the male counterpart to Ali Wentworth. His books, Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story, are hilarious when it comes to raising children and (of course) food:

There’s an old Weight Watchers saying: “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.” I for one can think of a thousand things that taste better than thin feels. Many of them are two-word phrases that end with cheese (Cheddar cheese, blue cheese, grilled cheese).

I recently reread Nora Ephron’s roman à clef about the breakup of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, Heartburn. I was worried it would seem dated, but it was every bit as clever and funny as I remembered:

Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?”
So I told her why.
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

David Sedaris‘s books are hysterically funny, but best listened to on audio. And if you ever have the chance to hear his live performance, don’t pass it up. He is extremely gracious and will spend hours after his shows personalizing books and chatting with readers. I love the stories in Me Talk Pretty One Day in which Sedaris imagines how his broken French must sound to his classmates in French class. Attempting to describe the Easter bunny, he says, “‘The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate . . . He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and foods.'”

9780307279460I think Bill Bryson‘s funniest book might be his account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods. I’m a little dubious about the upcoming movie — Robert Redford, who is almost 80, plays Bryson, who was in his 40s when he wrote the book. Also, the humor doesn’t stem as much from the events as it does from Bryson’s way with words:

Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.

Christopher Buckley is a political satirist, skewering everything from Chinese-American relations (They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?) to the tobacco industry (Thank You for Smoking) to the fiscal crisis (Doomsday). I’ve enjoyed his comic novels, but I especially liked his collection of essays, But Enough About You. According to the New York Times:

Buckley writes in a conversational style replete with deadpan asides. Perhaps he spends hours meticulously crafting each bon mot, but what he conveys in his work is the image of an assured writer amusing himself at the keyboard, expansively waving the reader over to join in the fun.

What are your favorite humorous books?

Books In and Out of Print

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Back in the Dark Ages, we used to look books up in these big, heavy volumes. They had very small print!

I can’t count how many times I’ve had to tell a disappointed customer that a book is “out of print”.

“But that can’t be!” the customer will exclaim. “It’s a wonderful book. And it just came out a couple of years ago.”

A couple of years is a long time in the fast-paced world of book publishing, where the focus is always on the next bestseller. Most books die a quiet death after their one and only printing. Bookstores return unsold volumes to publishers, and I’m sorry to tell you that eventually publishers may destroy those books.

Once, an elderly woman asked me to order a book that she said was a special favorite. I couldn’t find any listing for this book or its author (or for any variation of their names), so I finally asked her if it was an older book. “Not really,” she said. “It came out after the war.” “The war” was World War II, and I tried, without success, to convince her that it really was an old book and unavailable for us to order. I offered to do an out-of-print search, but she wanted only a brand new copy. I’m sure she thought I was a hopeless incompetent and went off to torture some other bookstore.

Unknown-1Recently, I had coffee with local author Mary Driver-Thiel, who had just published her second novel, Twelve Thousand Mornings. Our conversation meandered from Mary’s writing career to favorite new books to the literary legacy left by Mary’s mother and grandparents. Mary set up her own publishing company, Pine Lake Press, and has published both her books independently. Through self-publishing, Mary is able to maintain complete editorial control over her books — and she will decide how long they stay in print.

Mary is a third-generation author. I think she and her mother are probably the only mother and daughter who have both held readings at Lake Forest Book Store. Mary’s mother, Ginny Winter (called “Mrs. Munroe Winter” in the invitation the bookstore sent IMG_0432in 1962), wrote a series of children’s books on ballet, riding, swimming, skating, and more. Mary’s grandmother, Mary Adams Kraus, published several books of poetry. All their books are out of print, with just a few available on eBay. Mary’s grandfather, Milo Winter, was a well-known children’s book illustrator, and several of his books remain in print today.

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Mary Driver-Thiel signing books at Lake Forest Book Store.

Twelve Thousand Mornings, the engaging story of a middle-aged woman who is forced to reinvent her life (“What did a 56-year-old woman who had never had a proper job in her life do when she was left destitute?”), is off to a great start. The book, a sequel to Mary’s well-received earlier novel, The World Undone, has been popular at Lake Forest Book Store. Now Mary must transform herself from a writer into a marketer: “It’s a funny thing–when I spend months and months in solitary pursuit of a finished novel, I daydream about the launch and promo. I really do enjoy talking to people about my work.”

The literary community is divided on the question of whether the explosive growth of self-publishing is a positive development. Author Thomas Christopher Greene (who most recently published The Headmaster’s Wife with Macmillan), says has “mixed feelings” about self-publishing:

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.

Clearly, many writers are frustrated with the “curation” function that publishers, who are traditionally gatekeepers, serve. No one seems to know exactly how many books are independently published each year, but estimates range from 300,000 to 500,00 or more. How many of these are family memoirs and cookbooks or other efforts intended only for a small audience? And how many are serious literary endeavors? Again, no solid information is available.

Mary emphasizes on her website that self-publishing doesn’t mean DIY; many authors who publish independently understand, as she does, that creating a book is a “team sport”:

Yes, anyone can self-publish a book for under fifty bucks, and if it’s just for friends and family, that’s fine. But for someone who is planning to venture into the bigger world of serious writing, multiple edits for content and copy are essential. Essential, too, is hiring a high-caliber formatter to keep the widows, orphans, and dingbats under control and a professional graphic designer because a book is, indeed, judged by its cover.  There is also a world of difference between do-it-yourself publishing and independent publishing with a quality team. To quote my wise and wonderful agent, April Eberhardt, “We can and must educate authors, and the publishing world at large, that ‘indie’ and ‘self-published’ mean many different things.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing self-published authors is getting the book noticed — by booksellers, readers, and reviewers. To say the market is oversaturated is an understatement. Bookstores can stock and display only a tiny fraction of the books that are published each year. As an article in Forbes magazine harshly points out to would-be authors: “No one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe . . .on average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Yours won’t stand out.”

still-alice-9781501107733_lgEvery now and then, through a serendipitous collection of factors, a self-published book becomes wildly successful. The most recent example is Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, which she decided to publish herself after she couldn’t find an agent or publisher. In her website, Genova says:

It’s important to know that a self-published book was not my goal. I self-published because I couldn’t make any headway on the conventional road to a book deal. My self-publishing goal was to demonstrate that Still Alice had an enthusiastic and sizeable audience. I wanted to give my book a chance to wave its arms in the air and yell at the top of its lungs, to create a buzz loud enough for the literary agents and publishing houses to hear. And at the end of my self-published day, I still wanted a book deal from a traditional publishing house.

Eight years later, Still Alice is still in print, along with Genova’s three subsequent novels. (And of course, Still Alice was made into an excellent movie, with Julianne Moore winning the Oscar for Best Actress.) That’s a Cinderella story that doesn’t happen very often . . . but it’s one that I’m sure every self-published novelist knows.

10 Questions for Martha Woodroof, Author of Small Blessings

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Small pleasures; deeply enjoyed. How old was she before she recognized this as the true joy of living?
Perhaps she should write a book. Or perhaps not.
Too many people wrote books already.
Agnes Tattle

Small Blessings, just released in paperback this week, had the misfortune of being published in hardcover on the heels of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Both novels are about lonely, bookish people who find love, with the help of orphaned children who show up unexpectedly. They’re about second chances in life — and now Small Blessings, with a gorgeous new cover, has a second chance at finding its readership. It’s a truly special novel, and I’m glad I finally discovered it.

I had the pleasure of “talking” with Martha Woodroof in an online interview, and I mentioned to her that one thing that really resonated with me in the book was the loving relationship between the protagonist, Professor Tom Putnam, and his mother-in-law. Woodroof says that mothers-in-law are the “much-maligned and under-appreciated other mothers in our lives”, and she’d like to start a campaign to make sure they receive equal recognition on Mother’s Day. I’m all for that, since not only do I have a wonderful mother-in-law, I’m now a mother-in-law myself!

mother-in-lawWhen you publish a novel, lots of lovely people write to tell you who their favorite character is. And the clear frontrunner in the Small Blessings favorite character sweepstakes is – ta da! – Agnes Tattle, the protagonist’s seventy-year-old mother-in-law. And why shouldn’t she be? Agnes Tattle is a smart, tough realist. She’s taken great whacking lumps, endured tremendous grief, and yet she still remains unafraid to love her rather unconventional family with all her craggy heart.

Martha Woodroof indulged my curiosity about her writing career and Small Blessings, answering my long-winded questions in detail.

Maybe it isn’t polite to start out by talking about your age — but I think readers would like to know that you became a published novelist in your mid-sixties. I remember years ago reading a newspaper advice column (Ann Landers, maybe?) in which the advice-seeker asked if she was too old to go back to college — “I’ll be 60 when I’m done!” The advice columnist’s answer was, “And how old will you be if you don’t go?” What inspired you to write Small Blessings, and what influence did your age and life experiences have on the writing of the book?

Small Blessings may be the first novel I’ve published, but it is the third one I’ve written. I taught myself how to write novels by writing novels; which is the same way I learned how to be a restaurant owner and a public radio producer/feature reporter.

I have always wanted to get better and better at whatever I’m doing, and I’m also pretty much unafraid to fall flat on my face if the fall is educational. In that respect I am like Mavis Callahan (the mother of Small Blessings‘s female protagonist Rose Callahan) in that one of my best qualities is that I bounce.

Small Blessings is a novel about facing your small, unacknowledged fears and defying them. It tells the story of nice people who have gotten stuck denying something important about themselves. They gotten comfortable living with that denial only to have a chance at real happiness if they will dare to be fully themselves.

I, myself, learned the necessity of being who you are in the world as it actually is through much trial and much error — much bouncing, if you will! And much bouncing takes a lot of time. So I don’t think I knew what I needed to know in order to write Small Blessings until I’d done quite a lot of living myself.

And please, I never consider discussions of my age impolite. My age is part of who I am, after all.

Reading your wonderful book was such an enjoyable and satisfying experience. For one thing, the novel takes place in two of my favorite literary locales — a bookstore and a college campus. What led you to set the novel in The Book Shop?

Oh golly, while I can truly say that none of the characters in Small Blessings are based on anyone I know, The Book Shop is a flat-out tribute to The Sweet Briar College Bookstore, where I worked for about a year-and-a-half back in the nineties.

I’m a long-term recoverer from substance abuse, and that job was the first job I had in sobriety that really challenged me. Skipper Fitts, the then-Director, took me in like a homeless kitten and gave me an opportunity contribute to a college community in creative, meaningful ways. Setting Small Blessings there is, in some ways, an expression of gratitude to Skipper, to my co-workers at The Bookstore, and to the Sweet Briar College community.

Sadly, the Board of Directors has chosen to close Sweet Briar for the murkiest of reasons. The alums, faculty, and Amherst County Commonwealth Attorney have all mounted legal challenges to this decision. Here’s hoping SBC lives on!

I think people yearn for uplifting books with likable characters, and that describes Small Blessings. (I can’t tell you how many times people have told me they didn’t like a book because they found the characters unlikable.) Could you tell us a little bit about how your characters came to be?

I’m not sure I can. They were just kind of there. I got up one morning, started writing the opening scene at The Bookstore, looked around to see who was there at the time, and rolled with it.

How did the title of the book come to be? Was it the working title all along? (“He would at least have a comfortable beginning to this long tumultuous day. Small blessings.”)

As I remember, the title was right there the morning I sat down to write the first scene. It’s a phrase from my childhood that I’ve always loved.

After attending a booksellers’ conference In Seattle last year, you said, “What indie people want from me is a sense of whether my book belongs on their shelves; i.e. can they visualize actual customers to whom they can hand the novel and say with assurance, “You will love this.” You are absolutely right. If you were a bookseller like me, what would you say about Small Blessings to a potential customer?

Hmmm. I would make a rotten bookseller, I think, as I always go on about books I love.

However, since you’ve asked me to take a stab at bare-bones brevity, I would say Small Blessings is the story of a truly nice man who risks his comfort in the cause of happiness.

Who are your favorite contemporary authors? I love the description you use in your blog of “warm bath” storytellers — authors you can “sink into without fear of being surprised by hopelessness.” 

I’m rather an omnivore when it comes to reading. Really. The only thing I ask is that a book be well-written (and this includes not being self-consciously writerly), and that it tell a story that expands the range of my own experience. At the moment, I’m reading Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which I’m finding pretty yummy. After I’m done, I plan to read a new biography of Ben Franklin. And I just reread a novel (Friday Nights) by Joanna Trollope who is one of my warm bath novelists.

As you’ve already figured out, I am not much a fan of hopelessness for hopelessness’s sake in fiction. Nor am I a fan of the saccharine. Give me real (fictional) people facing real (fictional) problems!

Martha Woodroof_cred_Charles WoodroofHow have your life and writing career changed since the publication of Small Blessings?

I suppose the biggest change is in the focus of the conversations I have with people I meet. As a public radio feature reporter, I’ve spent years making people comfortable talking about themselves. But since the publication of Small Blessings, I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable talking about myself.

Are you a member of a writers’ group, and if so, what part does it play in your life and career? Do you see yourself as a part of a literary community?

I’m not a member of a formal writers’ group, but I know many writers. As we writers tend to talk about what we do and how we do it, I feel very much a part of a literary community.

Do you have a favorite bookstore, and if you do, what makes it special?

I really love any Indie bookstore, for the same reason that I love any restaurant that is chef-owned. Both have souls un-dulled by corporate culture.

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

In our house the words “organized” and “library” do not belong in the same sentence. Every room except one has a bookshelf and all those bookshelves are overflowing. The only truly arranged bits are the shelf where I’ve stowed the books I reported on nationally for NPR and the shelf in the guest room that holds an almost complete collection of Elmore Leonard novels.

Need a Mother’s Day present? Of course, I recommend Small Blessings! Martha Woodroof also has some terrific recommendations for novels “in which women of a certain age shine” on her blog.

The Mapmaker’s Children — Book Review and Giveaway

The Mapmaker's ChildrenJohn Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.

When abolitionist John Brown’s daughters hear this song for the first time they are shocked: “Annie gasped and covered her mouth in horror. Even Sarah took a step back.” Less than a year before — on December 2, 1859 — their father had been executed for “crimes committed during the raid on the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry . . . the capital offenses of treason, murder, and conspiracy with no cause.”

John Brown, unlike most anti-slavery activists of his time, believed that armed insurrection was the only way to defeat the evil of slavery. Brown enlisted his sons in the fight against the “blasphemy of slavery”, but kept his wife and daughters ignorant of the details of their work. Sarah, who has survived a life-threatening illness that left her infertile, discovers that their home is a stop on the Underground Railroad:

Sarah knew her father was deeply invested in the Great Abolition Calling. Her brothers had fought and died in Kansas Territory for it, but the Brown women had never been privy to their plans and actions. John thought it too dangerous. A woman’s role was to be the helper — to tend to the household and raise strong children in service to God’s purpose.

John Brown, age 46

John Brown, age 46

Sarah, however, can never bear children, and her artistic gifts help many “passengers” on the Underground Railroad find their way to freedom. Her father even asks her to draw a map that will lead slaves in the area surrounding Harpers Ferry to a meeting point where they could join Brown and his men — a map that is seized by “southern lawmen”, making Sarah a target for arrest.

More than 150 years later, a young couple moves into a historic home on Apple Hill Lane in New Charlestown, West Virginia, not far from Harpers Ferry. Eden and Jack Anderson have struggled with years of infertility, and their marriage is at the breaking point. In her quest for the “seal of authenticity that could blast their real estate values through the roof” — a listing on the National Register of Historic Places — Eden discovers that the house may indeed have connections to the Underground Railroad.  A Civil War-era porcelain doll’s head, a hidden key, and a secret root cellar are all interesting clues — but what do they mean? With the help of Cleo, the little girl next door, and Mrs. Silverdash, local historian and bookstore owner, Eden attempts to solve the puzzle.

Eden’s research eventually brings her indirectly to another infertile woman, Sarah Brown, who visited the house on Apple Hill Lane 150 years earlier. Sarah, the “mapmaker”, may not be destined to have children, but her legacy is just as real and valuable. As Eden comes to terms with her possible infertility, she sees that a life without children can still be valuable and productive. Author Sarah McCoy seems to be asking the question that Mary Oliver asks in her poem “Wild Geese”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The novel is expertly constructed, although sometimes relying too much on coincidence, with the two narratives coalescing in a very satisfying and surprising way. One problem with novels that use dual narratives is that one of them is usually more interesting than the other, and The Mapmaker’s Children is no exception. The drama and tragedy of Sarah’s life overpowers the sadness and disappointment of Eden’s. Of course, suffering is relative, and the reader’s heart goes out to both Eden and Sarah, who have experienced loss and grief but face the future with hope and courage. Eden says to 11-year-old Cleo:

We can’t force life to do what we want when we want it. We can’t change yesterday or control tomorrow. We can only live today as best we can. And it just might turn out better than expected.

Sarah’s perspective changes after she nearly dies from dysentery:

Sarah had been on her deathbed and had risen a new person, tired of being on the outskirts, tired of waiting for fate to decide if she lived or died, tired of powerlessness. If she was damaged and never to have the family of her sisters and mother, what was there left to fear?

McCoy’s greatest accomplishment in The Mapmaker’s Children is her vivid depiction of Sarah Brown. She says, “I was more concerned with capturing Sarah’s heart and future impact in the present day than on writing an official profile.” That sentence perfectly describes the value and historical fiction. I’ve often struggled with an explanation of historical fiction. When someone asks me, “Is it true?”, I’ve said, not very coherently, “Well, yes, the author did a lot of research, but made some things up, like letters and dialogue, and changed some things around to make a better story.” McCoy explains it much better:

My role as the storyteller was simply to use the tools of my craft and imagine what Sarah’s life might’ve looked like, how she felt, her struggles and joys, what she might’ve dreamed, even as I dreamed her into existence. I did my homework for years: researched newspaper articles, letters, distant Brown relatives alive today, Sarah’s real-life art, Underground Railroad artifacts, symbols, and codes, bootleggers, baby dolls, and a colossal amount of John Brown information available in library archives.

John_Brown_-_Treason_broadside,_1859If you’re interested in learning more about John Brown — who remains a controversial figure today — I highly recommend The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (the National Book Award winner for fiction in 2013). John Vanderslice, an author and a professor of creative writing, teaches the novel in his class on historical fiction. He says, “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.”

Now, when I think of John Brown, I will think of Sarah Brown, whose maps and artwork demonstrate that we may have untapped talents and courage — qualities that are hidden like the root cellar on Apple Hill Lane, waiting to be found.

Crown Publishers is giving away one hardcover copy to a Books on the Table follower (U.S. entries only, please). To enter, please leave a comment with your email address or email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com.

To read more reviews of The Mapmaker’s Children, check out TLC Book Tours.

10 Spring Paperback Picks

bd0040693e50f5ed2b7aecbdbb56addc“When is it coming out in paperback?” — one of the most frequently asked questions in any bookstore.

“There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit,” according to an article in The Millions.

This spring, bookstore tables will be stacked high with terrific new paperbacks. Some of these (The Goldfinch, The Invention of Wings) are books that were hugely successful in hardcover. Many of them are books that are still trying to find their audience. Almost always, the covers are redesigned for paperback versions, with new artwork and review quotes. Authors “know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse,” says author Nichole Bernier.

What makes some books sell like crazy in hardcover while others — just as appealing — languish on the shelves? For example, The Girl on the Train is supposedly the fastest-selling adult novel in publishing history. I liked the book a lot; I read it in a day, and recommended it to anyone who wanted a fast-paced, twisty and turny psychological thriller. Over the years, though, I’ve read plenty of other books that I thought were just as good, or better, that didn’t have a fraction of Girl on the Train‘s success.

Jynne Martin, publicity director for Riverhead Books, says in an interview with the Daily Beast that the phenomenon of The Girl on the Train can be attributed to “a constellation of a lot of different things”, ranging from “rave reviews from critics, spillover excitement from the Gone Girl movie, and a concerted push by the whole Penguin Random House operation.” The Daily Beast asked Paula Hawkins why she thought her book “has resonated” so much with readers:

It’s a difficult thing to say. There are certain things about the story that I think are universally recognizable. The sort of enjoyment that we all get from that voyeuristic impulse of looking into other people’s house as we pass them and the idea that there might be something sinister or strange going on in the houses we pass every day or in our neighborhood, is a very compelling idea. So I think that’s one thing people have latched on to. There are also some strong voices in there that readers have responded to. I also have to say that the publishers, both in the U.S. and U.K., did a fantastic job of getting people talking about it on social media and getting lots of reviewers interested.

I don’t think we’ll see The Girl on the Train in paperback until well after a year of its publication date (which was January 2015).

Here are some of my favorite new paperbacks — most of them didn’t get the love they deserved when they came out in hardcover, and now they get a second chance.

9780307456113And the Dark Sacred Night (Julia Glass) — Julia Glass has been a heroine of mine ever since she arrived on the literary scene in 2002, with the publication of her debut novel, Three Junes. I hate to use the term “late in life”, but recognition of her talent has come later in life than it does for most published writers. Glass was 46 years old when she won the National Book Award for Three Junes — seven years older than Flannery O’Connor (one of my favorite literary heroines) was when she died. And the Dark Sacred Night isn’t a sequel to Three Junes, but some of the same characters reappear. It’s a beautifully written, emotionally powerful novel with fully textured characters trying to make sense of the mysterious past and how it connects to the sometimes confusing present. For my review from April 2014, click here.

The Arsonist (Sue Miller) — Set in a small New Hampshire town, the novel centers on Frankie, a burned-out relief worker who’s returned home from Africa to spend time with her aging parents while she figures out what to do with the rest of her life. Almost as 9780062286468soon as Frankie arrives, an arsonist begins destroying the homes of summer residents. The most compelling part of the book for me was the portrayal of Frankie’s mother trying to cope with her husband, a retired professor slipping into dementia.

Fourth of July Creek (Smith Henderson) — A favorite of my book club, debut novel Fourth of July Creek is the story of two fathers in 1980s Montana: a flawed social worker and a backwoods survivalist. According to the Washington Post, “this richly plotted novel is another sign, if any were needed, that new fiction writers are still telling vibrant, essential stories about the American experience.”

we-are-called-to-rise-9781476738970_lgWe Are Called to Rise (Laura McBride) –I couldn’t love this book more, and was disappointed that it didn’t really take off in hardcover. Another debut novel, We Are Called to Rise chronicles the lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story. For a very insightful review, visit one of my favorite book blogs, Read Her Like an Open Book.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing (Nina Sankovitch) –You’ll be inspired to get some lovely stationery and a beautiful pen after you read this love letter to the art of written correspondence. Sankovitch (author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which I also adored), found a cache of letters in a house she and her family were renovating. The letters were written from a college freshman to his mother in the early 20th century. The book, which Sankovitch calls her “quest to understand what it is about letters that makes them so special”, is a joy to read.

9781101872871The Children Act (Ian McEwan) — I don’t think you can ever go wrong with Ian McEwan, and although this book isn’t my favorite of his, it’s still very, very good. It’s the morally complex and emotionally resonant story of a judge who becomes personally involved in a court case concerning a teenage Jehovah’s Witness who is refusing a lifesaving blood transfusion. It’s a great choice for book clubs — my own book club had a fascinating discussion.

The Mockingbird Next Door due 5/5 (Marja Mills) — This book has spurred quite a bit of controversy. Mills, a Chicago Tribune reporter, became friendly with Harper Lee and her sister and eventually moved in next door. Her memoir of their friendship is “authorized, sympathetic, and respectful” (Washington Post), and fun to read. However, Lee has since denied that she cooperated with Mills. It’s particularly interesting in light of the upcoming publication of Go Set a Watchman.

9780143127550Everything I Never Told You due May 12 (Celeste Ng) — First-time novelist Ng impressed me with her assured, precise writing style and her careful, well-paced narrative structure. The novel begins with the disappearance of a mixed-race family’s “perfect” daughter and goes on to explore the family’s pathology. It’s heartbreaking . . . but you’ll want to read it in one sitting.

My Salinger Year due May 12 (Joanna Rakoff) — I loved this memoir of Rakoff’s stint in the 1990s as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent! From the Chicago Tribune: “Her memoir is a beautifully written tribute to the way things were at the edge of the digital revolution, and also to the evergreen power of literature to guide us through all of life’s transitions.” If I were making a list of my top 10 memoirs (and maybe I should), this would be on it. Perfect for fans of Marjorie Hart’s Summer at Tiffany.

9780812982022Delicious! due May 12 (Ruth Reichl) — Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine and author of several wonderful memoirs (Tender at the Bone, Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me With Apples — all must-reads for foodies), tries her hand at fiction with Delicious! — with great success. It’s a roman á clef about a cooking magazine that folds, including a clever mystery and a coming-of-age story.

What will you be picking up in paperback this spring? I’ve just started Justin Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour, which is wonderful so far — yet another book that didn’t get its due in hardcover.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s Book Blog, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hopapril-2015/.

The Dream Lover — Author Interview (and Giveaway!)

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I would eventually see that certain kinds of melancholia are natural for many artists, and not only melancholia but strange kinds of behavior that are difficult for anyone who is not an artist to understand, let alone embrace.
George Sand in The Dream Lover

Elizabeth Berg has been one of my favorite authors for a very long time. She’s amazingly talented and prolific, even though she didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her mid-forties. Durable Goods came out in 1993, and almost every year since then I’ve had the pleasure of reading a new Elizabeth Berg novel or short story collection. Some years she even published two books. I was disappointed last year when no Berg book appeared on our store shelves.

“Aha!” you say. “She’s turning into a slacker.” Actually, no. A couple of years ago, Berg decided to change gears and write a historical novel. As she tells it, one day she was reading about George Sand in The Writer’s Almanac and became curious about Sand’s life and times, particularly what she calls “the good stuff” — “deeply personal things about her character as well as her thoughts and feelings.”

Berg called her friend Nancy Horan, author of two biographical novels (Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky) and implored her to write about George Sand. In a conversation with Horan (which appears at the back of The Dream Lover), Berg said to her fellow author:

I thought you would be the perfect person to write a novel about her; I so admired the way you provided intimate access into the character of Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank . . . I believe when you answered the phone I said, “Nancy! You have to write about George Sand! She’s so interesting! . . . You said, “You write it!” I told you I couldn’t, possibly. But then the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I plunged in, buoyed up by the last words you said to me: “Oh, of course you can write it. It will be fabulous!”

Horan was right — it is fabulous. Readers will be captivated by Berg’s lovely and perceptive rendering of George Sand’s brilliant and tumultuous life. Sand, born Aurore Dupin, left her unhappy marriage to become an independent woman — and eventually the first female bestselling author in France. The questions Berg raises through her imaginative portrayal of Sand’s inner and outer lives are as relevant today as they were in 19th century France. Must one pay a price for fame and success? How can a woman balance motherhood with her career?  What does it mean to be a female artist?

“Tell me, George. Do you wish you’d been born a man?”

I thought for a moment, then said, “In my youth, I wished that. I very much admired my father and I wanted to be just like him . . . But now I find I don’t wish to be either man or woman. I wish to be myself.”

Berg “plunged in” by reading Sand’s very lengthy autobiography, Story of My Life, and found that Sand took hold of her imagination:

George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream of her; then, I thought, to dream like her. I know that might sound arrogant or at least unlikely. But I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.

Berg was kind enough to answer my questions about The Dream Lover, even though she’s on an exhausting month-long book tour. The tour started here in Chicago, and Lake Forest Book Store was thrilled to host a luncheon (at a French restaurant, of course) and an evening event at a nearby library on publication day.

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Portrait of George Sand, 1835 (age 31)

I have to admit I knew very little about George Sand before I read The Dream Lover. I knew two things: that she was an 18th century French writer and that she wore men’s clothing. I suspect that’s much as most of your readers know. The character you brought to life is, as you say, “a mass of contradictions”. How would you compare the process of developing George Sand’s character on the page to the process of bringing a completely fictional character to life? And is any character completely fictional, or do they all incorporate elements of people you’ve known?

You’ve heard the phrase,” You can’t make this stuff up!”, right? That was my experience in writing about George Sand. Her life was so interesting, so full of outrageous incident, such tragedy, such scandal, but also such joy and tenderness and catharsis I could never get away with trying to suggest such things would be plausible if I were writing about a fictional character. Truth really is stranger than fiction!

697355-3How do you think modern readers who’ve never read the work of George Sand before would respond to her work (in translation)? Is there a particular novel that you would recommend? And are her works still widely read by the French?

I don’t think George Sand is widely read by anyone, actually. But one book I would recommend is Lettres d’un Voyageur, which is Sand’s travel writing and contains some of the most ravishing descriptions of Venice I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Also, if you’re up for a loooooong book, try her 1,000+ page autobiography. It’s fascinating, and one of the things I liked best about it is the way that she respects where she came from, and devotes a great deal of space to her grandparents and parents. I also recommend her letters, especially those between her and Gustave Flaubert.

Did your research involve any travel to Paris and/or the French countryside, or any study of French?

I’ve been to Paris. I purposely did not go to Nohant, because I wanted to see it as it was, not as it has become. Now that I’ve finished the book, however, I’m dying to go. I minored in French in college, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of it.

George Sand had to change her name to succeed as a writer — and today, I am sorry to tell you, many men won’t read books they perceive as being “chick” books. (This includes about 90% of literary fiction.) Why do you think this is? I find women to be much more catholic in their reading tastes than men, and I’m always wondering why. 

Well, I guess the simple and unfortunate answer is that women are still second-class citizens, still often times not taken seriously, not given the respect (or salary or recognition) that they are due. A lot of people are tired of hearing that, but their ennui doesn’t mean the problem isn’t real. I make a concerted effort to support women writers—and women in general. That’s all I can do.

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

Like most writers, I have a gazillion books: literary fiction, poetry, essays, memoir, non-fiction titles, graphic novels. Organized? No. It is a mess. Once, I hired three college girls to organize my library and they made it worse. Help!

Could you tell us about your writers’ group(s)? Do you see yourself as part of a literary community in Chicago and how would you characterize that community?

My writers’ group is made up of seven women who meet weekly at a study room in the Oak Park Public Library. Not all of us are there every time, but we try to be. Anyone who brings pages reads them aloud and is then critiqued by the group. We are kind, but honest. Supportive and fun. Often times, we bring good food to share. I love that part. If only dogs could come to the library, it would be perfect. I do see myself as part of a literary community in Chicago, and am interested in working with others to convince publishers to send us more authors.

In your interview with Nancy Horan, you say, “I hope readers will finish the last sentence of The Dream Lover and say to themselves, Boy! That was a good read!” What have you read recently yourself that made you say that? Do you have any favorite historical novels?

Well, I loved Loving Frank, of course. Favorite recent reads include Rachel Joyce’s Perfect, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (volumes 1 and 2) and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. I thought Akhil Sharma’s Family Life was astonishingly good.

One woman brought me a wrist corsage--for the second time, as she pointed out.

One woman brought me a wrist corsage–for the second time, as she pointed out. “Oh, I love wrist corsages!” I told her. “I know,” she said. “You told me that last time” “I always wanted one to wear to the prom, but I never got one,” I said, and she said, “I know, You told me that last time, too.” I snapped that corsage right on and I felt like Principessa Elizabetta.

As you well know, an author’s work doesn’t end when her book is published — a whole new phase of her job begins. How do you feel about that — do you enjoy promoting the book, which involves social media and public speaking?

I love meeting people who read and like my books, and am so grateful when someone comes to a reading and says, “You know, I’ve never come to a reading before. This was fun!” I’m not nuts about doing interviews on the phone when I can’t see the person’s face; it makes me nervous. I’m not nuts about hanging around airports day after day. But I AM nuts about room service, and the fact that my wonderful publisher is willing to send me on the road.

I’m sure readers would love to hear about your Writing Matters events. Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start them? I know you’ve mentioned that you are trying to gain some visibility for under appreciated authors. I’ve always wondered why some books “take off” and others — just as wonderful, if not more so — don’t find their audience.

Writing Matters was inspired because one day I was talking to a friend and extremely good writer, Leah Hager Cohen, about a book she had coming out. I asked if she were coming to Chicago on tour; I wanted to go to one of her readings. She said oh, her publisher didn’t tour her. She didn’t sell enough books to warrant a tour. Here is a brilliant writer (and wonderful, kind and engaging personality) who got a rave review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Here is someone who is such an inspiration to read, so talented. I told her, “Well, you’re going to come to Chicago now, because I’m going to do an event for you.” With only three weeks to plan, we rented the Hemingway Museum, got food and flowers and wine , made posters to advertise and programs to hand out, and voila: Writing Matters was born. At the first reading, we had 75 people, at the second, 150.

We’ve now completed a year’s worth of every-three-month readings, and next time we’re doing something different in that we’re having a children’s book writer: the delightful Amy Krouse Rosenthal. (The time after that, I’m shooting for highly esteemed poet Charles Simic.) I wanted Writing Matters to serve author, community, and audience, to make it an elevated kind of book signing that would be a real evening out. All proceeds go to buy books for children who would otherwise not have them; currently we give the money to Magic Tree Bookshop to set up an account for the kids at Hephzibah. They can go to the bookstore and pick out whatever book strikes their fancy. It’s really rewarding to see authors get the audience they deserve, audiences to get the authors they deserve, and to serve the community not only by buying books for children but by advertising (for free) local business and restaurants that we like on our programs. There is always a reading by a kid for a warm-up act, and there is always a surprise of some kind. It’s a lot of work to produce, but totally worth it.

I recommend you check out Elizabeth Berg’s Facebook page, which is an absolute delight — many of her posts are actually essays, and I think you’ll find them inspiring and uplifting.

The publisher, Random House, is giving away one hardcover copy of The Dream Lover to a Books on the Table follower. To enter, please leave a comment below, 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.

To read more reviews of The Dream Lover, please visit TLC Book Tours.