Monday Match-Up: The Headmaster’s Wife & You Should Have Known

I like the term “match-up” because it has different meanings. It can refer to a head-to-head competition, a pairing or linkage of two similar things, or an investigation of the connections between two things. Often, when I’m reading a book I’m reminded of another book; sometimes the connection is obvious and sometimes it isn’t.

The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene,  and You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, are both what I call “literary page-turners”. By that I mean books that are well-written and thought-provoking, with fully developed characters and layers of complexity, but are fairly fast-paced. Both of these books keep the reader guessing, and are somewhat disturbing.

Some readers have found The Headmaster’s Wife more than “somewhat” disturbing. It’s a hard book to review, because revealing the crucial plot element would be a huge spoiler. I got involved in a brief exchange on Twitter with another book blogger, who said she was finding the book extremely “creepy”. My response was “How far into it are you?” Because I knew exactly what she meant, and I wanted to suggest that she might feel differently once she was farther along.

9781250038944The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park.  As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe.  As the author said in an interview with the Burlington Free Press, “I like to think of it as a bifurcated narrative, and it’s the same story told from two points of view.” There’s a certain similarity to Gone Girl, without the psychopathy. Arthur is a sad and broken man, but not an evil one.

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

25906d314df6192f270fbbc6058c8bceYou Should Have Known is the title of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel — and also the title of the self-help book written by the protagonist of the novel, Grace Sachs. Grace is a therapist turned pop psychology author; the thesis of her bestselling book, “You Should Have Known”, is that women ignore early clues that men they are dating are not good husband material. They engage in wishful thinking, and then are surprised when their husbands turn out to be liars, philanderers . . . or worse.

It turns out that Grace is just as clueless as her patients and readers. Her husband, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist, disappears under very suspicious circumstances. According to a Publishers Weekly interview with the author, just because someone is bright and well-educated doesn’t mean she can see what should be obvious:

I started thinking about what I’ve always been interested in: how people can’t see things that are right in front of them. All you have to do is read the papers to see endless examples of smart people who can’t see the nose on their faces. How could the partner of Bernie Madoff not have known what he was up to?

Well, how could she? Is denial of  what seems evident to others criminal, or immoral? Should Grace have known that her husband was a psychopath? Is it fair to blame people for blinding themselves to the truth? Again, great book club discussion questions. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, when Korelitz was asked if she thinks her novel, “like Gone Girl, is part of a fiction trend of not seeing the truth about those we’re closest to?”, she said:

I think that many of us have this fascination with knowing who someone really is. It’s the idea that informs Pride and Prejudice. You make snap judgments about who people are and then bring your own creative energy and personal needs to fill in the gaps and make the person that you want that person to be. In fiction, it’s been a trend for as long as there’s been the novel.

I think Korelitz is absolutely right. People are, and have always been, fascinated by the idea of “the stranger beside me”. (Remember the book by that name by Ann Rule, about Ted Bundy?) In The Headmaster’s Wife, Arthur suffers what might be a psychotic break and becomes a stranger to his wife; in You Should Have Known, Grace discovers that her beloved husband was most likely always a stranger to her.


A Cautionary Tale

IMG_0318When I was a brand new bookseller, a customer asked me how many books she should bring on her upcoming five-day vacation. I told her I would bring five books. She looked aghast, so I quickly told her that I knew I wouldn’t actually read that many books. Several of my books are insurance — what if the flight is delayed, finally boards, then sits on the runway for an hour waiting to take off, and then, when it arrives at its destination, sits on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate? What if the flight circles the airport forever and finally is diverted to another airport, from which I have to take a bus to my home airport? What if one of the books is a huge disappointment? My mother was once waiting for a connection in an airport and started reading a book that turned out to be so awful she left it at the gate. It was a hardcover book, and she couldn’t bear to throw it out, even though it was unreadable.

After the customer left the store (with a bag of four books), Sue, who was trying to train me in the art of bookselling, told me that most people probably wouldn’t bring one book for every day of a trip. I explained to her my ideas about insurance, and also mentioned that I thought the customer’s question was rather odd. She was a complete stranger to me; how could I possibly know how voracious a reader she was? This was just the first of many unusual questions from customers I’ve tried to answer. The trick, as I now know, is to answer the question with a question: “How many books did you bring on your last trip? How did that work for you?”

Flash forward almost 16 years. Sue sold Lake Forest Book Store and moved to Glen Arbor, Michigan, where she’s now the owner of the Cottage Book Shop. After surviving her first winter in the Snow Belt, she went with her daughter to visit friends in sunny Arizona. I was on vacation at the same time and Sue and I exchanged a few texts about what we were reading. (She highly recommends Herman Koch’s upcoming book, Summer House with Swimming Pool.) Then I received this text: “I’ve read all my physical books. Should have brought more.” She didn’t bring any insurance. Sue had anticipated more activity and less reading time on this trip.

cvr9781451621389_9781451621389_lgSue downloaded some books from Edelweiss on her IPad. (Edelweiss is a service that allows booksellers, reviewers, librarians, etc. to download free advance readers’ copies.) But, she told me, she doesn’t read on her IPad out of the house. She wants to present a good example to the reading public. So Sue ended up buying a book at full retail price at the airport bookstore. The book was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, and Sue says it was well worth the price. Still, maybe next time she will bring an extra book (or two) . . . just in case.

You would think that, with the advent of e-books, I wouldn’t feel the need to pack extra books. I am perfectly willing to read my IPad in public, although I confess to walking down the aisle of the airplane and taking a quick poll of how many people are reading real books. (According to a recent Pew research study, last year 70% of American adults read at least one physical book and 28% read an e-book, compared with 66% and 23% in 2012.) I will always prefer turning the pages of a book. And I can’t rely on my IPad . .  what if it malfunctions, or the battery dies and there’s nowhere to recharge it? So I keep stuffing one more book in my carry-on, because you never know what could happen.

ImageThank goodness for airport bookstores! I always like to pick up a magazine or two before a flight. Recently, however, I visited the most inhospitable airport convenience store ever. This one couldn’t possibly be called a bookstore, because it had only a few dusty paperbacks and a very limited selection of magazines. Posted over the sad little magazine and book display was a sign that said, ” PLEASE NO READING”. I found this amusing, and snapped a photo — only to be escorted out of the store by the very unamused manager. What if I had run out of reading material and really needed to buy some? What would I have done then?

9781250037756In case you’re wondering what else Sue read (besides Summer House with Swimming Pool and Brain on Fire), she finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (“quirky”) and Essentialism by Greg McKeown (“read it straight through”), and started The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go. I read Essentialism as well, and can’t wait to tell you more about it in a couple of weeks — the publication date is April 15.

For more of my thoughts on bringing extra books on trips, check out an earlier post: Leaving on a Jet Plane. Maybe I’ve exhausted this topic, but I just hate to think of a reader stranded without a good book.


All the Light We Cannot See — Book Review

One day earlier this month, I was frantically getting ready for an author brunch (with the amazing Carol Cassella — more on that in another post!), trying to fit all my warm weather clothes in a carry-on suitcase, and negotiating slushy sidewalks in boots and a down coat as I ran last-minute errands. The next day, I was lounging by the Caribbean with a book in hand,  deciding whether to order a cocktail or Diet Coke with lunch. (The choice was easy: cocktail.) What could be better than a few days of sun and relaxation after a brutal Chicago winter? During the winter of 2013-14, Chicago had 26 days when the low temperature was zero or below, setting a record. On March 3, the low was -2 degrees.

The resort offered yoga and spinning classes, tennis, and a workout facility. I intended to take advantage of all of these and brought the required clothing and equipment, but the lounge chairs were just too comfortable . . . and the books I brought were too tempting. I don’t usually like to recommend books that aren’t published yet, but All the Light We Cannot See is an exception — it’s extraordinary! If you’re in a book club, this would be a wonderful choice for a discussion this summer or fall.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (releases 5/6/14)
I know it’s trite to say “I didn’t want the book to end”, but it’s true — I really didn’t want this book to end. I read the last 50 pages very slowly. Anthony Doerr spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, the story of two young people struggling to survive during World War II.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind since early childhood, flees Paris with her father and takes refuge with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo. With Marie-Laure and her father is what may or may not be an enormously valuable diamond from the Museum of Natural History, where Monsieur LeBlanc is the locksmith. The Germans are searching throughout France for the diamond, becoming increasingly desperate after the Allies invade Normandy.

While Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, learning Braille and how to navigate the city with her cane, Werner Pfennig is growing up in a German orphanage. A precocious child with a gift for electronics, Werner is saved from a life in the coal mines when a Nazi official identifies his talent and sends him to a paramilitary academy for Hitler Youth. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure converge in August 1944, when the city of Saint-Malo was almost completely destroyed by fire.

In a Youtube video, Doerr says that he was inspired to write the book to illustrate the power of radio — for good and for evil. In the book’s epigraph, he quotes Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio”. The sound waves of radio are “the light we cannot see”:

Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.

But radio is also the voice of the French resistance:

He waits until dark. Marie-Laure sits in the mouth of the wardrobe, the false back open, and listens to her uncle switch on the microphone and the transmitter in the attic. His mild voice speaks numbers into the garret. Then music plays, soft and low, full of cellos tonight . . .

“The light we cannot see” refers to many other things besides sound waves. “Light we cannot see” is different from darkness, or absence of light; it’s there, we just can’t see it. Having gone blind as a child, Marie-Laure vaguely remembers being able to see light. Werner is trapped in darkness after the bombing of Saint-Malo, but he knows there is light above him.

Sometimes, in the darkness, Werner thinks the cellar may have its own faint light, perhaps emanating from the rubble, the space going a bit redder as the August day above them progresses toward dusk. After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.

The English major in me wants to go on and on about the metaphors of light and darkness in the novel, but I’ll spare you. The writing in All the Light We Cannot See is magnificent. Each beautifully crafted chapter is short — no more than a few pages, and some chapters are only one page — and perfectly titled: “Time of the Ostriches”; “The Arrest of the Locksmith”; “The Blade and the Whelk”. The parallel strands within the book — Marie-Laure’s story and Werner’s story — appear in alternating chapters, coming together towards the end. The surprise isn’t that they meet, but what happens during the next 60 years. Are people, as Anne Frank famously said, “really good at heart”? All the Light We Cannot See makes us consider that question again.



10 Books to Read This Spring

This past Sunday, I read an article in the New York Times called “Let Me Count the Days”, by novelist James Collins. Collins, a self-confessed book accumulator, describes his shocking realization that at 55, he probably will die before he can read all the books he owns:

That leaves around 3,300 unread books. If I read one book a week . . . but you and I know that I don’t read one book a week, I read a couple a month, grazing in a few others. If I read two books a month, kit would take me 137 years to read those unread books. So there we have it . . . I am not going to live for 137 more years, and therefore I do not have enough time left to read the books I own.

I’m younger than James Collins, but not much. I don’t have 3,300 unread books in my house, but I do have a lot. So I’m going to include some of those unread books in my list of 10 books to read over the next few months, along with enticing new books to be published this spring.

www.randomhouseAnd the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass (due in April)
From the publisher (Random House): “In this richly detailed novel about the quest for an unknown father, Julia Glass brings new characters together with familiar figures from her first two novels, immersing readers in a panorama that stretches from suburban New Jersey to rural Vermont and ultimately to the tip of Cape Cod.” I loved Glass’s earlier books, so this one is sure to be a treat.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (due in April)
From Publishers Weekly: “Donoghue’s first literary crime novel is a departure from her bestselling Room, but it’s just as dark and just as gripping as the latter . . . Based on the circumstances surrounding the grizzly real-life murder of Jenny Bonnet, a law-flouting, pants-wearing frog catcher who lived in San Francisco in the mid-1870s, this investigation into who pulled the trigger is told in episodic flashbacks.”

cvr9781476704586_9781476704586_lgThe Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go (due in May)
From the publisher (Simon & Schuster): “In 1924, the English mountaineer Ashley Walsingham dies attempting to summit Mount Everest, leaving his fortune to his former lover, Imogen Soames-Andersson—whom he has not seen in seven years. Ashley’s solicitors search in vain for Imogen, but the estate remains unclaimed. Nearly 80 years later, new information leads the same law firm to Tristan Campbell, a young American who could be the estate’s rightful heir. If Tristan can prove he is Imogen’s descendant, the inheritance will be his. But with only weeks before Ashley’s trust expires, Tristan must hurry to find the evidence he needs.” This is Go’s debut novel.

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry (due in May)
From the publisher (Penguin): “Irishman Jack McNulty is a “temporary gentleman”—an Irishman whose commission in the British army in WWII was never permanent.” Barry is one of my favorite authors, and this book is the sixth in a series of interconnected novels that bring to life members of Barry’s own family — the Dunnes and the McNultys.

be33ca2d3abdba83af6258313010c6b7The Blessings by Elise Juska (due in May)
From Publishers Weekly: “Several generations of the Blessings, a Philadelphia-based, Irish-American family, come beautifully to life in a deceptively simple tale that examines the foibles, disappointments and passions that tie family members together.” A few of my colleagues have read this and highly recommend it.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (in my stack)
From Publishers Weekly: “The fiction debut from nonfiction author and journalist Denfeld is a striking one-of-a-kind prison novel. The narrator, who is on death row and remains nameless until the book’s end, explains that the prison, although a place where “the walls sigh with sadness,” is enchanted . . . a stunning first novel.” I’ve been reading rave reviews of this book.

cvr9781451645859_9781451645859_lgOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (in my stack)
From the publisher (Simon & Schuster): “Ordinary Grace is a brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God.” A favorite at Lake Forest Book Store, and one I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (in my stack)
From the New York Times: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence. Sloan balances a strong plot with philosophical questions about technology and books and the power both contain.” I can’t resist a book about a bookstore.

9780547858241_hres 2Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer (in my stack)
From the Washington Post: “Frances and Bernard portrays two writers drawn into a friendship sparked by mutual admiration. They elegantly convey their reflections, encouragements and chastisements in letters written over a span of 11 years.” Loosely based on the friendship between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, this epistolary novel also explores issues of faith.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (in my stack; my book club’s choice for April) — I know, I know. Everyone has read this except me.

It’s supposed to be Top 10 Tuesday (thank you, The Broke and the Bookish!), but I have to add a book I’ve already read that I absolutely adored. I don’t give out stars . . . but 5 stars wouldn’t be enough for this one.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (due in April) by Gabrielle Zevin

9781410468895I picked up a copy of this book at Winter Institute in January and I have already read it twice . . . it’s a joy. Here’s a review from Bookselling This Week, the online newsletter of the American Booksellers Association:

#1 Pick: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: A Novel, by Gabrielle Zevin
Fikry is a bookseller with a small shop in a sleepy island resort town off the coast of Massachusetts. He’s a bit cantankerous, but with good reason: his wife, the ‘people person’ of the relationship, has recently died and his prized possession, a rare copy of Tamerlane, has gone missing. Despite those losses, there’s one strange addition, a baby girl left on his doorstep with an explicit request for Fikry to take her in. Zevin’s novel offers the reality of both death and rebirth, held together by the spirit of the bookstore. It’s a romantic comedy, a spiritual journey, and if you include the chapter openings, a collection of short story criticisms as well. In short, it’s a celebration of books and the people who read them, write them, and sell them.—Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin



Favorite Irish Authors: Tellers of Tales

Circa 1980; my copy of the Selected Poems of W.B. Yeats
Circa 1980; my copy of the Selected Poems of W.B. Yeats

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart longs for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.
William Butler Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore

Forget the green beer, McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes, and buttons that say, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish”. Let’s celebrate one of Ireland’s greatest contributions to the world: its authors. Yeats, of course (my favorite poet of all time), James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett . . . all giants of literature, studied by every English major. I have to admit that although I loved Joyce’s Dubliners and  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I struggled with Ulysses. I’m pretty sure I skulked into the college bookstore, looking for the CliffsNotes on the revolving wire rack tucked into the back corner.

TheWindingStair001A few years ago, Jeff and I visited Dublin for a few days. It was a perfect trip for a history buff (Jeff) and a literature lover (me).  We explored the Dublin Writers’ Museum, saw the Joyce statue on O’Connell Street, waited in line to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College, toured Kilmainham Gaol (Jeff’s idea, not mine), went to several plays, and stopped by more than our share of pubs. (We didn’t, however, retrace Leopold Bloom’s route through the city on the guided walk offered by the Joyce Cultural Centre. ) As someone who relied on the CliffsNotes to get through Ulysses, I didn’t feel entitled to take that tour!) We did have dinner at the Winding Stair on the River Liffey. Downstairs is one of the oldest independent bookshops in Dublin and upstairs is a restaurant serving “good, old-fashioned home cooking”.

Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.
William Butler Yeats

9780143113492HI always like to read something about the place I’m visiting, so on the flight to Dublin I read In the Woods by Tana French. It’s a murder mystery/psychological thriller, featuring  two detectives from the Dublin Murder Squad trying to solve two murders that have taken place 20 years apart. I’m not usually much of a mystery reader, but this one captivated me because of the gorgeous writing and the evocation of modern Ireland, in addition to the complex puzzle of two parallel crimes. One of those crimes is never solved; this is not a formulaic mystery. In an interview, Tana French describes her favorite mystery novels:

. . . the ones that experiment with the boundaries of the genre: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which is both my favorite literary novel and my favorite crime novel), where you find out on the first page who killed whom; Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair, a deeply unsettling study of a psychopath, where the villain is obvious almost from the start and the most serious crime is basically wasting police time; Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, where the guilty go free and the innocent pay for others’ crimes.

French has written three other Dublin Murder Squad novels: The Likeness, Faithful Place, and Broken Harbor. Each one is narrated by a different detective, and each one touches on Irish themes — from the “Celtic Tiger” and the recession that followed to the country’s folklore and medieval history. They are, according to the New York Times, “brilliant and satisfying novels about memory, identity, loss, and what defines us as humans.” If you’re lucky enough to take a trip to Dublin, I highly recommend taking a Tana French novel or two along.

9780143035091HIf I had to choose a favorite Irish author, it would be Sebastian Barry. When you read one of his novels, you know you are reading the work of a poet. (Barry is in fact the author of two collections of poetry and numerous plays, in addition to eight novels.) The New York Times says, “Mr. Barry has said that his novels and plays often begin as poems . . . but his language never clots the flow of his story; it never gives off a whiff of labor and strain. It is like a song, with all the pulse of the Irish language, a song sung liltingly and plaintively from the top of Ben Bulben into the airy night.” You can choose at random almost any passage from any one of his novels and be struck by the beauty of the language, but here’s one of my favorites, from A Long Long Way:

Such a singing voice he had. His mother, who was a blunt woman enough, one of the Cullens herself, daughter of the coppicer on the Humewood estate in Wicklow, got only good from it. She set him on a chair to sing like any woman might, and he threw his small head back and sang some song of the Wicklow districts, as might be, and she saw in her mind a hundred things, of childhood, rivers, woods, and felt herself in those minutes to be a girl again, living, breathing, complete. And wondered in her private mind at the power of mere words, the mere things you rolled round in your mouth, the power of them strung together on the penny string of a song, how they seemed to call up a hundred vanished scenes, gone faces, lost instances of human love.

Willie Dunne, the protagonist of A Long Long Way, who has such a beautiful singing voice as a child, ends up going to France when World War I breaks out in 1914, and fighting against his own people in the Easter Uprising of 1916. The Dunne family appears again and again in Barry’s novels. Willie is the brother of Annie Dunne, who is the title character of an earlier novel, and of Lily Bere, who is the main character in On Canaan’s Side. Similarly, The Trial of Eneas McNulty, The Secret Scripture, and the upcoming The Temporary Gentleman all focus on members of the McNulty family. Read as a whole, Barry’s novels cover the Irish experience of the entire 20th century. In interview with the Guardian, Barry says, “I am trying to rescue my characters from the cold hand of history, and from the silences that surround certain turbulent periods in our own history.”

The Irish tradition of oral storytelling continues to influence today’s Irish writers. The Guardian says, “Language remains, for Barry, something heard or spoken rather than black marks on a page, and he vividly remembers being read to as a child.”

“Storytelling pre-dates homo sapiens and the technique of writing,” Barry says. “I can’t actually do anything until I can hear it singing. I’m praised – or maybe blamed – for poetic writing, but it’s really just how I take it down. It’s not a conscious effort, it’s the language of how I hear and see those things.” In Angela’s Ashes, his wonderful memoir of growing up poor in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s, Frank McCourt describes discovering Shakespeare while quarantined in the hospital with typhoid fever: “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words. If I had a whole book of Shakespeare they could keep me in the hospital for a year.”

I’d love to hear Sebastian Barry read aloud. Beautiful writing and an Irish accent –what could be better? Until then, I’ll read his novels (I’m looking forward to The Temporary Gentleman, out this May) and the work of his contemporaries. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Notes (and not very insightful ones( in my copy of Yeats's Selected Poems. Yeats was 54 when he wrote this poem; he was over 50 when he published most of his best work.
Notes (not very insightful ones) in my copy of Yeats’s Selected Poems. Yeats was 54 when he wrote this poem; he was over 50 when he published most of his best work.

The Crossroads of Circumstance

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else . . . Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?
Eudora Welty

ArmchairBEA LogoExample

Today’s Armchair BEA topic, “Beyond the Borders”, made me think of a post I wrote a couple of months ago about the importance of setting in a novel — focusing on Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Like most Americans, I had only a vague idea of where Chechnya was and little knowledge of the wars that had taken place there. This brilliant book took me out of my comfort zone.

Last week I wrote about my favorite book titles. What could be a better title than Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena? This novel — the most powerful I’ve read in years — is set in Chechnya during the two recent wars that ravaged that country.  Two doctors — Sonja, an ethnic Russian, and Akhmed, a Chechen villager — endanger their own lives to save the life of Havaa, a little girl whose home has been burned and whose father has been taken away by Russian soldiers.  The title comes from a definition of life in a Russian medical textbook:

Life: a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.

www.randomhouseAs Anthony Marra points out in an interview with Jill Owens of Powell’s Books, “There are six point-of-view characters in the novel. Life is structured as an intersection and a constellation, really, of these six vital phenomena. The novel was structured as a constellation of these six characters, and as soon as I saw it, I just had to use this as the title.”

Recently, at a staff meeting at our store, each bookseller agreed to read one newly released paperback that no one else on staff had yet read. We’re all avid readers, of course, but sometimes we get in a rut and all read the same books. We recommend them to each other as well as to customers — and before you know it, five booksellers have read (and are all recommending) A Tale for the Time Being. I’d read many rave reviews of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Ron Charles of the Washington Post: “I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel in years. At the risk of raising your expectations too high, I have to say you simply must read this book”) and I was intrigued — but a little intimidated by the fact that it takes place in Chechnya. I am embarrassed to admit that all I knew about Chechnya that it was a former Soviet republic and that the Boston marathon bombers came from there. I vaguely knew that a war had recently taken place in Chechnya, but I had no idea there were two separate wars.

The setting is very important to me in fiction — nearly as important as the characters. I dislike books that are set in an indeterminate setting. Case in point: The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obrecht, another novel about a doctor trying to save lives during a modern war.  Why is it set in an unnamed Balkan country? I wanted to know what Balkan country. It sounded like Croatia — but for some reason, the author withheld the crucial details that would confirm that it actually was Croatia.   I don’t mind a totally imaginary setting — Narnia, Hogwarts and Middle Earth all seem very real to me — but I find hybrid real/imaginary settings frustrating and distracting. (Why, for example, does Scott Turow set his books in Kindle County? Why not Cook County?) The details of a place help amplify the themes of the novel, making them more universal. As a reader, I can anchor myself in a specific setting and then allow myself to explore the novel without wondering where it is taking place.

chechnyaPart of the joy of reading for me comes from learning about the history and culture of unfamiliar places. I’m not the only American reader who knew very little about Chechnya before reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. When asked why the conflict in Chechnya hasn’t been adequately covered in the United States, Marra said:

That idea that the Chechen Wars represent a localized conflict without significance to the larger world isn’t uncommon in the West, and I think it’s resulted in a great cultural shrug toward the region. I’ve never understood that. Chechnya has a remarkable history filled with remarkable people, who in the 19th century inspired such writers as Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pushkin.

I began working on this novel because I was fascinated with Chechnya . . . I couldn’t find a single novel available in English set during the recent Chechen Wars. In that sense, I came to this book as a reader rather than a writer. I wanted to find this novel in a bookstore, but it wasn’t there yet.

Novelist Philip Hensher writes in the Guardian: “Often, when I think of a novel I love, it is not the plot that comes to mind, or even, sometimes, the characters, but the setting.” It’s true — I could describe the China of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth or the New York of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, but I couldn’t possibly tell you much about the characters in those books, or recount their plots. (In the same way, I remember the exact layout of a house I lived in when I was five, but very little of what happened there.)

1489183383Jan-Philipp Sendker, a journalist, was inspired to write his lovely novels because of a specific place — Burma. He had never considered writing fiction before, but after a visit to Burma on a journalistic assignment in 1995, his imagination was sparked. The result was The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a love story between a blind man and a crippled girl. It’s a story that Jan-Philipp says could only have happened in Burma. The book, written in German, was eventually translated into English and became an American bestseller — as well as one of Lake Forest Book Store’s bestselling books of all time. He visited Lake Forest for a luncheon when The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was published in the United States, and we were thrilled to welcome him back last week when he was on tour for the sequel, A Well-Tempered Heart.

Jan-Philipp Sendker with a fan
Jan-Philipp Sendker with a fan

Jan-Philipp had no intention of writing a sequel —  and in fact was almost finished with a novel set in China —  but while daydreaming in a teahouse in a Burmese village, he became obsessed with the thought of continuing Julia’s story. And while traveling through the country, he encountered a Burmese man who had spent eight years in captivity for crimes he didn’t commit, who explained that only by forgiving his captors could he set himself free. Jan-Philipp put aside the novel he was writing and wrote A Well-Tempered Heart, about what he calls the “difficult art of forgiving”.  As I listened to Jan-Philipp describe his travels in Burma and how his novels came to be, I also thought — as I often do at author events —  about how lucky readers are, in this digital age, to hear an author speak from the heart. Jan-Philipp told us he’s writing a third book in the series, so we’re hoping he returns to Lake Forest.

www.randomhouse-1I have to mention one more new book in which setting plays a crucial role — Laura McHugh’s debut novel, The Weight of Blood. Set in an isolated, unwelcoming small town in the Ozarks, this dark and suspenseful novel tells the story of two missing women — Cheri, a mentally handicapped teenager, and Lila, a young mother. This book, which reminded me a little of Gone Girl, kept me up late at night. I’ve never been to rural Missouri (and after reading this book, I’m not sure I want to!), but I feel as if I’ve been there — and the region seems nearly as foreign as Burma or Chechnya. In an interview with Shelf Awareness, Laura McHugh, who grew up in the Ozarks, explains why she set her book there:

The forbidding landscape and the remoteness of the Ozarks create a sense of foreboding that helps set the tone of the novel. And I’ve always been fascinated by the culture, which is steeped in folk wisdom, home remedies, and superstition. We were outsiders in our tiny town, yet at the same time, it became my home. Years after moving away, I was still haunted by the place, and the novel allowed me to explore the darker side of those tight-knit rural communities where outsiders aren’t welcome.

What’s next for me? I’ve just started The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene, set in familiar territory — New York City and Vermont. (This book is not to be confused with The Headmaster’s Wager or The Headmaster’s Dilemma . . . or two other books called The Headmaster’s Wife.) I’m already finding that while the geography is familiar, the story and the characters are wonderfully surprising.

What’s In a Name? 10 Favorite Book Titles


What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Does Juliet’s famous quotation hold true for the titles of books as well? It’s hard to imagine these famous books with the titles their authors first contemplated:

  • The Great Gatsby was originally going to be called Trimalchio in West Egg or Under the Red, White, and Blue.
  • The working titles of Gone With the Wind were Tote the Weary Load or Mules in Horses’ Harnesses.
  • The Sound and the Fury (“the best-titled book of all time”, according to Book Riot) started out as Twilight.

To-Kill-a-Mockingbird-First-Edition-CoverI’d vote for To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the best titles of all time. It’s a memorable and poetic title that hints at the central theme of the book without revealing too much. Harper Lee settled on the title after discarding two others, Atticus and Go Set a Watchman. I’m glad she didn’t name her masterpiece after the book’s hero. I confess to a bias against book titles that are the same as the main character’s name. Pride and Prejudice strikes me as a much better title than Emma, for example. Emma is so much more than a character study — why did Jane Austen decide to name the book after the protagonist? Books named after their protagonists seem to indicate a lack of originality on the part of their authors, but I know that’s not the case. Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), and Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby) certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of originality. Maybe I am overemphasizing the significance of titles?

People are often surprised to learn that book titles can’t be copyrighted. Many times, we’ve had customers ask for a particular book without knowing the author’s name, only to find out that there are many books with the same title. I don’t know why anyone would choose a title that’s been used over and over, but it happens all the time. For example, a customer recently came in asking if we had The Dressmaker. A book with that title by Kate Alcott came out last year, and I assumed that’s the one the customer wanted. But when I described the plot (the dressmaker is a personal maid on the Titanic and ends up in a lifeboat), the customer said that wasn’t the book she wanted. I found four other books called The Dressmaker, but none of those was the one the customer had in mind. (It turned out she wanted Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini . . . not to be confused with Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Lynda Jones.)

Authors today typically don’t have total control over their books’ titles. They may be attached to a certain title, only to be told after an editorial or marketing meeting that the title is deemed inappropriate for various reasons. In an interview on The Awl (a great website that covers publishing and “the issues of the day”), author Laurie Frankel (The Atlas of 9780307947727Love) describes her experience working with her publisher to choose a book title:

I can only explain how I learned to stop worrying and love the title. My agent, who knows much more about writing and selling books than I do, loved it. My publisher, who knows much more about writing and selling books than I do, loved it. My editor, who had been as attached to Naked Love and its titular moment as I was, loved the new title . . . Meanwhile, at work on novel number two, I have a working title I refuse to get emotionally attached to. And this niggling reminder I learned in kindergarten and have clung to ever since: it’s what’s inside that counts.

9780670026630HLaurie Frankel is absolutely right, but I still love an unforgettable title that perfectly captures the essence of the book.  Here are 10 of my favorites (including both classics and recent books) — what are yours?

  • The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
  • Wuthering Heights (Jane Bronte)
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)
  • A Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers)
  • The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach)
  • A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
  • Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

And one more thing: I have to mention how much I hate it when the publisher adds a subtitle to the title of a novel, which they seem to do more and more frequently. Immediate turnoff. For example, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong is one of my favorite books. Below the title on the  current paperback cover, it says “A Novel of Love and War“. I think the reader can probably figure that out. What’s next? War and Peace: A Novel of War and Peace? The Scarlet Letter: A Novel of Infidelity?