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.

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“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!

When 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.

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