Book Thieves on the Loose

There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.
Irving Stone

Like many book clubs, mine celebrates the holidays with a book exchange. This event always draws record attendance — last night, a dozen of us showed up with beautifully wrapped books in hand, ready to steal from one another. We’ve done this so many times we don’t need any instructions, but we received a friendly reminder from our book club “secretary”:

Bring a wrapped book for our annual book exchange (aka STEALING Game) . . . I love the food , drink and camaraderie, but LIVE for the stealing event!

We added a new twist to our traditional “Yankee swap” rules this year: the hostess is allowed to steal any book she wants at the end of the game. We thought that was the least we could do for our hardworking hostess.

I drew a bad number (#3) but still hit the jackpot — I went home with three terrific books, because one generous member of our group bundled three short story collections together. Actually, there were no dud books to be had last night. Everyone left with a great book (or two, or three), excited to begin reading — or coloring.

The Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest (Johanna Bamford) with a set of colored pencils — Adult coloring books have become hugely popular, and devotees say they induce a Zenlike state of relaxation. So when the rest of us are running around doing last-minute holiday errands, one of our group will be calmly coloring the beautiful designs in these books.

51bqo1nszfl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Almost Famous Women autographed copy (Megan Mayhew Bergman) — This collection of “off-the-radar” female historical characters is going to the top of my pile.

We Never Asked for Wings autographed copy (Vanessa Diffenbaugh) — Diffenbaugh’s first book, The Language of Flowers, was a surprise bestseller; I thought We Never Asked for Wings was even better. The author visited Lake Forest in the fall; here’s the link to my interview with her: We Never Asked for Wings: Author Interview.

The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff) — We’re all looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation — when is it coming to Chicago? We’re tired of watching the previews!

Fortune Smiles (Adam Johnson) — Three members brought this year’s National Book Award winner for fiction. I can’t wait to read it — I loved Johnson’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son.

23507478Villa America (Liza Klaussmann) — Historical fiction about Sara and Gerald Murphy, contemporaries of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their adventures with fellow expatriates on the French Riviera. Our hostess adored Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins — I think Villa America will be perfect for her.

Pretty Baby (Mary Kubica) — One member just received it as a birthday gift, and said it’s a great page-turner: “I can’t put it down!” Someone else in the group pointed out that she had, in fact, put it down to come to the book exchange.

51tn9o6ht5l-_sx258_bo1204203200_The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness (Frances Schultz) — The member who ended up with this book hasn’t made a muddle of things, but she is in the middle of building and decorating a new house, so it’s perfect for her.

Some Luck (Jane Smiley) — The first in Smiley’s ambitious trilogy covering 100 years in the life of an Iowa farm family. A little tidbit of Book Thieves trivia: One of our members grew up in the same house (and same bedroom) in St. Louis where Jane Smiley spent her childhood.

M Train (Patti Smith) — The New York Times Book Review says “Smith’s  achingly beautiful new book is a kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance.”

Brooklyn (Colm ToíbÍn) — One of those unusual cases when the book and the movie are both outstanding.

Tales of Accidental Genius autographed copy (Simon Van Booy) — The member who brought this short story collection bought it at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. She left little notes in the book, quoting the bookseller who recommended it. The author is “cute, with a great accent” and “compassionate towards his fellow humans”. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which qualities are more important.)

cover-1A Little Life (Hanya Yanigihara) — Two members brought copies of this devastating and powerful book, and both were stolen three times, rendering them dead.

New Yorker magazine subscription — Magazine subscriptions are always a hit — and the New Yorker comes every week! (Plus, who doesn’t love the cartoons?)

We’ve been enjoying books and friendship for 22 years, but record-keeping has been . . . spotty. Here are links to the lists of books we exchanged in 2013 and 2014: Book Club Spotlight: The Book Thieves and The Book Thieves Strike Again.

As Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Happy Holidays!

 

 

 

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.

An Uncomplicated Life — Book Review

9780062359940Having a child with a disability is like having a life coach you didn’t ask for. You realize that perspective is a blessing that ‘s available to anyone who seeks it. Or has it forced upon him. The miracle of an imperfect child is the light she casts on your own imperfections. After a time, she will teach you far more than you will teach her, and you will discover that “normal” comes in a sliding scale.

The words “miracle” and “blessing” in the same paragraph may raise red flags for some readers, but An Uncomplicated Life is not a sentimental story about saintlike parents and an angelic child. It’s a father’s honest, heartfelt, and nuanced account of “building a better Jillian” — and in the process, building a better Paul Daugherty. (“No one has ever accused me of being nice,” he claims.)

The day Paul and Kerry Daugherty’s daughter, Jillian, was born was “the last bad day” in the Daugherty family’s life. Paul, a sports columnist for the Cincinnati Post, was covering the World Series in San Francisco when his wife called with the happy news that Jillian had arrived. Paul and Kerry experienced the “dark kaleidoscope of human emotions” that day when they learned that Jillian had Down Syndrome.

The Daughertys determined before even leaving the hospital that “Jillian’s potential would not be tethered to anyone’s preconceptions.” Their mantras become “Expect: Don’t Accept”, “Nothing is Definite”, and “Let Jillian be Jillian.” When Paul questions their decision to fight the school system to keep Jillian in a traditional classroom, wondering if they were expecting too much of their daughter, Kerry reminds him of their guiding principles.

Kerry, ironically, is an employee of the school district that the Daughertys battle for years in order to ensure that Jillian receives the education to which she’s entitled. Readers will sympathize with Kerry and Paul as they spend Jillian’s high school years trying to “locate the elusive, happy middle between learning and learning under budget.”

Paul Daugherty

Paul Daugherty

Jillian brings laughter into her family’s life, and her father includes many charming and funny anecdotes that illustrate her headstrong and independent nature. Daugherty, a journalist who cranks out newspaper articles and columns every day, is a talented storyteller, and his anecdotes about Jillian’s escapades and triumphs are a joy to read. Daugherty takes pains to portray Jillian as an individual, not a stereotypical Down’s syndrome child. Often, Daugherty writes, people are patronizing and saccharine in their descriptions of Jillian, as if she were a “golden retriever”.

There’s an edge to Paul Daugherty, and the Daugherty household is like any other household — far from idyllic. The Daughertys’ approach has required sacrifices, and Paul — who can be a harsh self-critic — is frank about the resentment he sometimes feels. He knows, for example, that his dream of retiring to play golf in South Carolina probably won’t happen.

Expanding Jillian’s dreams means constricting our own. This isn’t a complaint. It’s not bitterness. It’s just a fact. Her goals tug at ours. They are not compatible. Our lives are less separable than the lives of typical parents and their grown children . . . Sometimes, I resent that.

Daugherty is also candid about the pain he and Kerry feel when Jillian is excluded from school or social activities. Although she is never treated unkindly, the fact remains that she is different from her peers. Jillian joins the JV dance team, and is able, for the most part, to keep up with her peers. But is she really part of the team?

Jillian’s dance teammates treated her like the rest of typical peers did: Arms-length pleasant. They didn’t mind having her on the team. But I don’t think they relished it ether. They included her in team functions . . . After practice or games they went their ways, and Jillian went home. We didn’t know if the girls hung out together after practice. We never asked.

Daugherty doesn’t dwell on his occasional feelings of anger or frustration, but chooses to focus on the enormous gifts Jillian has brought to his family. Although his family’s story is unique, any parent will identify with his experiences. All parents learn from their children. Jillian’s life may be less complicated than most others — including the lives of her parents and older brother– but its clarity of purpose inspires those she comes in contact with “to do better, to be better”.

In the bookstore, I’m frequently asked to recommend “feel-good” books that are “uplifting”. I’m often at a loss, since I find most books that fit that description to be unbearably hokey. For whatever reason, I gravitate toward books about war, family dysfunction, illness, and tragic events of all kinds. So it was truly a pleasure for me to read a well-written book that inspired me and made me think.

To read more reviews of An Uncomplicated Life, check out TLC Book Tours.

Watch the Youtube book trailer, with photos of Jillian and her family.

10 Favorite Debut Novels of 2014

imgresA couple of days ago, I was chatting with a friend about authors who wrote “one-hit wonders”.  As we all know, Harper Lee has never published anything after To Kill a Mockingbird. Emily Bronte died young after writing her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Margaret Mitchell never wrote a sequel to Gone With the Wind. Whatever happened to Arthur Golden, who published Memoirs of a Geisha in 1997 and hasn’t been heard from since? And David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, 2008), I’m hoping you have another novel in you.

Here are 10 debut novels published in 2014 that I’m thrilled to have discovered. Some of them have received a lot of critical acclaim, and some have been overlooked — but they are all worth reading. I hope each one marks the beginning of an author’s long and successful career.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved.
Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters. It’s hard to pick a favorite of my 10 favorite debut novels . . . but if I had to, this would be it.

What I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
There is nowhere to go but on. Still, part of her longs to go back for one instant—not to change anything, not even to speak to Lydia, not to tell her anything at all. Just to open the door and see her daughter there, asleep, one more time, and know all was well.
An assured, beautifully written novel that begins with the disappearance of a mixed-race family’s “perfect” daughter and goes on to explore the family’s pathology. It’s heart-wrenching, but you’ll want to read it in one sitting. It inspired a great discussion in my book club.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson9780062286451
How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn’t really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta-colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once. That color existed in the water here.
Another favorite of my book club, 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.”

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
Preacher is still talking but not one bit of it stays in my mind. There is just Jeremiah taking a deep breath. His hands shaking. His eyes meeting mine: my something blue.
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
When you have truly come to know a person, Nella — when you see beneath the sweeter gestures, the smiles — when you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide — then forgiveness is everything. We are all in desperate need of it.
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see in the Rijksmuseum.

we-are-called-to-rise-9781476738963_lgWe Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry . . . is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.
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.

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman
Here was a foreign city, if you were coming from Manhattan. The buildings were smaller and the people larger. They drove cars, and for most, Manhattan was a glimmering headache. As the train neared Midwood, the produce improved and the prices shook loose.
An aspiring journalist finds creative satisfaction in filing fake Holocaust restitution claim for fellow Russian immigrants. It’s a thought-provoking examination of the relationship between fact and fiction, with plenty of wit and humor.

The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe
In a way, Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was, just as, I am sure, her personality formed as a result of mine. People do that kind of thing.  They divvy up qualities, as though reality, in order to be manageable at all, should be sorted, labeled, pinned down.
In this insightful novel about female friendship, the “perfect” friend turns out to have a life that’s far from perfect. The Guardian says it’s “a brilliantly written, probing, uneasy look at a damaged friendship between two women – and how such intense relationships are as much about how we define ourselves as they are about our love for, and struggle to understand, another human being.”

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld9780062285508
I know that when I read books about love, they are telling the truth. The truth of it winds around my heart and it tightens in pain. I try and see it through my eyes, raised to my stone ceiling, and I wonder, what is it like to feel love? What is it like to be known?
The best word I can use to describe this book is “mesmerizing”. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read — part fairy tale, part realistic prison story. The author, a journalist and author of three nonfiction books, is a death penalty investigator for the state of Oregon.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
When he talked politics, it was with me, or my sister, pointing a steady and patient finger at us, saying, “I don’t care about left or right. It’s all nonsense. All I ask of you is this: Be kind. Be decent. And don’t be greedy.
A group of friends grows up together in a small Wisconsin farming town; one goes on to become a famous musician. The New York Times describes Shotgun Lovesongs as  “a good old-­fashioned novel, a sure-footed and unabashedly sentimental first effort that deserves to be among the standouts in this year’s field of fiction debuts.”

The Center for Fiction presents the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize each year. The awards were announced last night (December 9), and the winner was Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. I’m adding that one to my TBR list! Several of my favorites were contenders for the prize — The Enchanted, Fourth of July Creek, and We Are Not Ourselves were shortlisted, and The Girls from Corona del Mar and Shotgun Lovesongs were longlisted.

Did you discover a wonderful new author in 2014?

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Monday Match-Up: Astonish Me & Frances and Bernard

cover

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
William Butler Yeats

On one level, Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Astonish Me, is about professional ballet. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an unfamiliar world. Beginning in 1973, the story follows Joan Joyce, a member of the corps de ballet in a New York dance company, and her relationship with the company’s star, Arslan Rusakov, whom she has helped defect from the Soviet Union. Joan, unlike her roommate Elaine, never succeeds as a soloist and ends up marrying her childhood sweetheart and teaching ballet. She does, however, raise a son who becomes a tremendously talented dancer.

The story is interesting in its own right, with plenty of surprises, but what intrigued me most was the examination of the artistic life. Artists — whether they are dancers, or writers, or painters — are always striving for perfection. In a BookPage interview, Maggie Shipstead said:

But I think there’s a common experience among writers and dancers (and probably most artists) of what it’s like to spend all your time trying to do something that’s extremely difficult, something that requires a massive amount of practice and dedication and might give you a rush of satisfaction one day and then leave you feeling utterly defeated the next. It’s a precarious way to live.

Often, artists are forced to come to terms with their limitations — particularly in ballet, because of the extreme physical requirements. When Joan, who knows she will never achieve real success, becomes pregnant and retires from ballet, she feels she has escaped:  “For the first time she can remember, she is not afraid of failing, and the relief feels like joy”. She always has the lingering feeling, however, that the artist’s path is somehow superior to hers — a feeling that is shared by those close to her.

IMG_1538

Maggie Shipstead visits Lake Forest — August 2013

Her husband, Jacob, boasts to strangers about being married to a former  ballet dancer. Her art is an essential part of her, and he is saddened that she has given up on it: “For as long as he has known Joan, since they were almost children, she has lived a double life, as a dancer and as a civilian, and her retirement means that she has been reduced in some essential way.”  He thinks that Joan and their son, Harry, see him as  “uncool” and his job as an educator is “mundane”:

Sometimes he has an urge to remind them that he is the only one with a college degree, let alone a doctorate, that he knows things they don’t, but he resists. He doesn’t want to talk himself into thinking less of his family.

The novel explores the connection between artistic success and self-absorption. Arslan, probably the most fascinating character, is a narcissist. Harry is disdainful of dancers he views as less talented than he. Jacob wonders if egotism and art are inextricably linked: “Ballet, like other pursuits that require immense determination and reward showmanship, seems to foster hubris. But maybe all art fosters hubris.”

Joan lives vicariously through Harry and his friend, Chloe, who becomes Joan’s protegé: “She had not expected to find much in teaching besides a little extra income, something to do, and a way to keep fit. She had not anticipated that she might be able to recreate, even improve, her young self through the body of another.”

Astonish Me is an impressive novel — but even more so in light of the fact that it is very different from Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements. Seating Arrangements (which I enjoyed immensely) is a rather dark comedy of manners that takes place over a single wedding weekend on a Massachusetts island. It’s completely different in subject matter, scope, and tone from Astonish Me. Maggie explains that her work is not autobiographical: “The WASPy world of Seating Arrangements interested me but wasn’t any more my world than ballet is. I hope I always try to push myself. I think I would be bored if I didn’t. Because my two novels are so different, though, it’s difficult to compare them. ”

9780547858241_hres 2Frances and Bernard is Carlene Bauer’s debut novel but not her first book. Not That Kind of Girl is a memoir of growing up as an evangelical Christian. (I haven’t read it — although having read Frances and Bernard, my curiosity is piqued.) The novel is loosely based on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. In an interview with Intelligent Life (the online culture magazine of The Economist), Bauer describes Frances and Bernard as a follow-up to her memoir: “God makes another appearance. As do two writers, one male, the other female, who have a lifelong friendship that might be love.” Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel — some of the letters are between the two protagonists, and some of them are written by these two characters to others.

Like Astonish Me, Frances and Bernard is concerned with the relationship of the artist to the larger world.  Frances is determined never to marry, believing that she cannot be both a wife and a writer. After a visit to Frances’s family, Bernard writes to his best friend, Ted:

I saw also that Frances is perfectly suited to family life, that she swims about her people like a fish in their waters . . . she knows this about herself, that she could easily spend her days cooking, cleaning, and corralling children, that she could quite easily be charmed into a life in which she gave order to other lives, not words, and I think this is why she is so strict with herself on the point of marriage. She does not know anyone who has written and mothered, so she thinks it is impossible . . . But she needs to be in control, and she has chosen to be in control of the people in her stories.

Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony in the late 1950s, and soon begin writing to each other. Their correspondence is both intellectual and spiritual; Frances is a lifelong Catholic and Bernard has recently converted to Catholicism. Bernard writes, “Let’s not ever talk of work in these letters. When I see you again I want to talk to you about work, but I am envisioning our correspondence as a spiritual dialogue”. The spiritual dialogue continues throughout the novel, even after Bernard suffers the first of many manic episodes and loses his faith.

A review in the New York Times comments that Bauer doesn’t accurately capture the voices of Lowell and O’Connor: “What Bauer doesn’t always get right is the sound of these writers . . . O’Connor and Lowell happen to be among the most unmistakable stylists of the past century”. I think this is a slightly unfair criticism, since the novel never claims to be a biographical novel about those two authors. It is simply inspired by their lives.  I thought the writing was lovely, and the voices of the letter writers were distinctive and authentic. The review does note that:

What Bauer gets right is the shifting balance of literary ambition and emotional need, Yeats’s old choice between perfection of the life or of the work. “This is why I won’t marry,” Frances reflects. “I am not built for self-abnegation.” She clings to her ancestral faith like a life preserver, all the while wondering whether, as she puts it, “I cheated myself out of what might have made me happy.”

How should we live? That is the question that all the best fiction asks, and that’s the question that both Astonish Me and Frances and Bernard ask. What do we owe to the people we love? How do we know what we are meant to do with our lives? How important is it that we make the most of our talents?

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Come to Lydia’s Party — And Meet Margaret Hawkins

9780670015764HLast week, Chicago author Margaret Hawkins made the trek north to Lake Forest and delighted a group of 35 avid readers with a discussion of her new novel, Lydia’s Party.

Lydia has a secret she needs to share with her closest friends when they gather for their annual “Bleak Midwinter Bash” at her Chicago home. Readers will quickly discover the secret, but that’s not the point. This quietly moving novel is about the power and significance of women’s friendships, and the regrets that we all face when we realize we’re approaching – or past – the halfway point of life. Lydia is an art teacher at a “godforsaken suburban community college” and a failed artist. She’s divorced, childless, and living with her elderly dog, Maxine. Her group of friends all met as employees at the college; none of them – with one exception – has achieved career success. Lydia’s Party raises interesting questions: How should we define success? How do our fears hold us back? What role does competition play into women’s friendships?  What regrets will we have when we look back at our lives? These questions will inspire spirited discussions among book groups.

Our event took place at Jolly Good Fellows, a bakery across from our store that makes delicious muffins, scones, and pastries — perfect for a cold winter morning. The audience had many questions for Margaret, about her writing process, the road to publication, the characters in the novel, and more. I had a list of my own questions, but we ran out of time. So Margaret graciously agreed to answer my questions in writing.

Before becoming a novelist, you were an art critic. You also wrote a memoir. What led you to switch to fiction writing?

I’d written stories before but hadn’t done anything with them.  Then I got the first sentence for Cats and Dogs in my head and had to write it down.  After that I just kept going.  That’s while I was still writing my art column, but I’d been feeling constricted by that form for some time, having to critique a show or shows every week for years, and I really wanted to break loose and use language differently.  Frankly, I wanted to tell my own stories, not just comment on other people’s art.

As for the memoir, I wrote that while I was writing How to Survive a Natural Disaster.  That was something I felt I had to do, a story that needed to be told about untreated mental illness and how help can be found even later in life. (My sister was 63 years old when she started getting better, while I was writing the book.) I was awed by the help that came my way just for the asking, after decades of secrecy and shame and fear. I figured lots of other people were in the same situation and I wanted share the good news – that healing, some at least, is always possible.

IMG_0178Lydia’s Party is told from the point of view of female characters. Can you imagine yourself writing from the point of view of a male character?

Absolutely.  I’d love to write a whole book in a male voice.  I don’t know if I could, effectively, but I’d like to try.  I did write Craig in first person in How to Survive a Natural Disaster.  Enjoyed it immensely and I feel like he taught me a few things about tolerating other points of view.  Men and women are different, of course, but not that different.

Maxine, the dog, is important to Lydia’s Party. You might say she is a character. Dogs are significant in all three of your novels. Can you comment on that?

Dogs are significant in my life.  Plus I think they are fascinating personalities who make life richer and sweeter. Their pure devotion makes a good contrast to some of the less attractive human qualities.

Lydia, like Roxanne in How to Survive a Natural Disaster, sees herself as a failed artist. Do you think a person who conceives of himself or herself as an artist, yet never attains “success” can find fulfillment? Or will that person always feel dissatisfied and frustrated?

I don’t think worldly success is necessarily a measure of quality in an artist or that it is the only way to attain fulfillment as an artist.  I think a real artist is an artist no matter what the world says.  Making good art is satisfying in its own right. Of course, it’s great if people notice and even better if they pay you, but success is a different thing than actually making art.  Some very good artists never become “successful.” Some of them make peace with that, but it’s hard in our society.  It has partly to do with money.  If you’re comfortable and can make your art without worrying about how to make a living, life is easier than if you have to choose between the two.

What books/authors have helped you develop into the writer you are today?

One true answer: everything I’ve ever read.  Also, as a young person, fourteen, fifteen, I loved Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.  It’s the one book I reread. Writing doesn’t get better than that.  Also, I attended a Baptist church with my friend Deb and her family for seven years and we read the Bible.  That made a big impact, too, not just the content but the style. Beautiful language always entrances me.

This is your third novel. What have you learned about fiction writing along the way? What didn’t you know when you wrote your first novel that you know now?

I didn’t know anyone would want to read my books. It really took me by surprise. I felt free to write anything in Cats and Dogs, break a lot of rules I assumed existed because I didn’t think anyone would read it. In terms of technique though, I haven’t learned much.  I just start and trudge into the mess, drive in the dark the whole way.  I’m not much of a planner.

What books have you read recently that you particularly enjoyed and would recommend?

In no particular order:  My Education by Susan Choi, a fascinating portrait of obsessive love and how it changes over time.  (Which, come to think of it, is how you could describe Lolita.Arcadia by Lauren Groff, about a boy growing up in a commune. I’m reading Foxfire now by Joyce Carol Oates, about a girl gang.  Wow. Isn’t she great?  She does not shy away from rough stuff.  In photographs she looks like this fragile little bird and then she writes this muscular, violent prose – I love that.  This list is just off the top of my head.  Oh, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – loved that.  Also, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.  I’m binging on fiction these days.   My cousin Kate Kasten’s book about a farm family in Iowa, Better Days.  Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

You’ve published four books in five years — that’s quite an accomplishment. What’s next? How many creative projects do you work on at a time?

I have two books in the works now, at very different stages.  I never know though if my projects will see the light of day.  I feel like someone planting a garden.  I hope it will all grow and flower but if something dies there’s more where that came from.  Remember, I got a late start, so I have a lot of material stored up!

As a writing teacher, what is the most important advice you give aspiring writers? Are there common misconceptions about writing that you notice among your students?

My most important advice to students:  Write every day!  And read!  (Sometimes life intervenes and you can’t write everyday but I don’t say that. You should at least try, or feel guilty when you don’t!)

Most common misconception: Writing is fun.

As a Chicagoan, do you have any favorite places to go — parks, museums, restaurants?

I love Ravinia. The Art Institute, of course. Millennium Park. My dog park. Superdawg.The lake shore, from Hyde Park all the way north to the tip of Door County, though I guess that’s not Chicago anymore.

How do you like to spend your free time when you’re not writing (or reading)?

 I like to be in nature and I do love hanging out with my dog though he’s a maniac now. Having a dog is a way to be in nature even if it’s just taking walks. I look forward to his mellow middle age, if I make it that far.  I may not survive his robust youth.

Thank you, Margaret, for visiting Lake Forest and for taking the time to answer these questions!

5 Reasons to Read Short Stories

Collections of short stories are hard to sell. I can almost predict the response when I offer a book of short stories to a customer:

ME: What can I help you find this afternoon?

CUSTOMER: Well . . . I’m just looking for something good to read. Anything you’ve read lately you would recommend?

coverME: Oh, yes! I really enjoyed Astray by Emma O’Donoghue. She wrote Room.  It’s a collection of short stories, and I thought just about every story was wonderful.

CUSTOMER: Uh-huh . . . I wasn’t really looking for short stories. Anything else?

And booksellers aren’t the only ones who have trouble convincing people to read short stories. Author David Abrams has the same problem, as he notes in the website Book Riot:

I’ve always been a champion of the short story, both as a writer and a reader, and it always stuns me into silence when I have friends–good friends, well-read, intelligent, reasonable friends–who dismiss short stories with a flap of the hand, a pinch of the lips, and a deprecating, “Oh, I don’t do short stories.” It’s said in the same tone of voice a vegetarian would say, “I don’t do meat.” When I come back with, “Why not?” the answers are always vague and insubstantial. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a solid, tangible reason they don’t like short stories. I suspect they’re afraid of short stories, an aversion that began in grade school . . . By their nature, short stories compress language to its densest gem-like state (second only to poetry); novels sprawl and emphasize plot and are generally more accessible to younger readers. I could be wrong, but I think the average 15-year-old would rather read The Catcher in the Rye than “Young Goodman Brown.”

bernice_covWriters themselves have a hard time selling their short stories. Most are grateful if their stories see print in obscure literary magazines. This wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was able to support a lavish lifestyle through sales of short stories to popular magazines; the Saturday Evening Post paid him as much as $4,000 for a single story. In 1930, Edith Wharton sold a story to Cosmopolitan for $5,000.  (Imagine how much that would be in today’s dollars!) Writers used the income from short stories to support themselves as they worked on novels. Now, writes critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome. That kind of thing is just not commercial.”

I’ve been reading that the short story is experiencing a resurgence. It’s true that Alice Munro, arguably the best short story writer of our time, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013, and that George Saunders was a 2013 National Book Award finalist for his short story collection, The Tenth of December.  And digital publishing may be revitalizing the short story; in an article in the New York Times entitled “Good Fits for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories”, Leslie Kaufman writes, “The Internet may be disrupting much of the book industry, but for short-story writers it has been a good thing.” She quotes Amber Dermont, a novelist who has recently published a short story collection: “The single-serving quality of a short narrative is the perfect art form for the digital age . . . Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screens.”

A typical text conversation of mine. Not a shining example of how digital technology enhances writing skills.

A typical text conversation of mine. Not a shining example of how digital technology enhances writing skills.

In the same article, Cal Morgan, an editor at HarperCollins, says that digital communication has had a positive influence on younger writers:

The generation of writers out of college in the last few years has been raised to engage with words like no generation before. Our generation was raised on passive media like television and telephones; this generation has been engaged in writing to each other in text messages on a 24-hour basis. I think it has made them bolder and tighter.

Hmmm, I’m not sure if texting makes anyone’s writing “bolder and tighter”, and I really don’t think the new generation of writers has “been raised to engage with words like no generation before” — but I appreciate the attempt at putting a positive spin on round-the-clock texting.

Here’s my sales pitch for short stories:

  1. They’re . . .  short. When you’re between books, or don’t have the time to immerse yourself in your current book, it’s very satisfying to read a thoughtful, well-written story. You feel like you’ve accomplished something. And there are many stories you can read in 10 or 15 minutes . . . stories that you will be thinking about for much, much longer than that.
  2. They’re usually very well-written.  Writers who are able to publish collections of short stories are generally well-established literary writers. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to write a good short story. Even if you scratch your head trying to figure out what the story was really about, you will appreciate the writing.
  3. They’re perfect for book clubs. No one can show up to your book club without having read the selection — anyone can find the time to read a short story or two. How about a meeting where you compare two short stories? A discussion based on a story might actually last longer than a discussion of The Goldfinch — especially if only two members of your group have finished it and the rest don’t want the ending ruined.
  4. They are wonderful to listen to or to read aloud. I really enjoy the NPR Selected Shorts podcasts. I find it hard to listen to audiobooks; I keep losing track of the plot. But short stories are ideal for car trips or walks.
  5. They lend themselves to rereading. I’m much more likely to reread a short story than a novel. I’m often amazed by how much more I appreciate a story when I read it again. I’m sure I’d feel the same way if I reread I novel, but I rarely do that; there’s always another book waiting.

I recommend starting with a short story anthology so you can read what an editor considers the best stories by top short story writers. I love the Best American Short Stories series, which comes out in paperback every fall. Each year, there’s a different editor, who’s a well-respected author; the 2013 volume is edited by Elizabeth Strout. The O. Henry Prize Stories series is also wonderful. I can almost guarantee that if you pick up any book in either of these series, you will find at least one story that speaks to you.

cover-1Here’s a list of 10 favorite short story collections, new and old:

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
  • Different Seasons (4 novellas) by Stephen King
  • Bark by Lorrie Moore (due 2/25/14)
  • Dear Life by Alice Munro
  • The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
  • Selected Stories by William Trevor
  • Collected Stories and Other Writings by John Cheever
  • Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Next on my list? The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham.

Further reading on short stories:

A Brief History of the Short Story in America (Critical Mass, blog of the National Book Critics Circle of America)

Sorry, the Short Story Boom is Bogus (Salon)

Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the Short Story (New York Times)

Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories (New York Times)

20 for 2012: Short Story Collections (Book Riot)