Carrying Albert Home — Book Review

y648-1The story of how my parents carried Albert home was a bit more than their fanciful tales of youthful adventure. Put all together, it was their witness and testimony to what is heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.

Homer Hickam (the younger)

Homer Hickam grew up hearing tall tales about his mother’s alligator, Albert. Elsie Hickam “loved Albert more than just about anything in the whole world”, but Elsie’s new husband, Homer, finally issues an ultimatum: “‘Me or that alligator.'” After thinking it over, Elsie reluctantly agrees to give up her beloved pet, returning him to his native Florida. The young couple’s road trip from West Virginia to Florida involves more adventures than most people have in a lifetime.

Elsie and Homer befriend John Steinbeck while visiting a vagrant camp; they have dinner with Ernest Hemingway in Key West just before the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935; they become paid actors when they stumble upon a movie set; and they have run-ins with a variety of lowlifes and criminals, from bank robbers to bootleggers to smugglers.  Albert himself plays baseball, flies in a plane, and plays a mysterious part in saving Homer’s life.

At its heart, Carrying Albert Home is a love story. In an interview, Hickam says, “It’s a book for people who are in love, want to be loved, know somebody who has been in love, or is interested in love even as a concept.” Continue reading

10 Questions for Martha Woodroof, Author of Small Blessings

Small Blessings_tp

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.

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.

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.

To Review or Not to Review?

I don't think this is the best approach to book reviewing.

I don’t think this is the best approach to book reviewing.

Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae. — Kurt Vonnegut

There’s been a lot of controversy recently about negative book reviews.  The New York Times Book Review tackled this topic a couple of weeks ago, with opposing viewpoints presented by Francine Prose and Zoe Heller. Prose asks, “Why would a sensible writer ask people not to buy a book? If the novel, as we also hear, is moribund or dead, why drive another nail into its sad little coffin?” Heller counters with the argument that authors “write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction . . .  they are not kindergarteners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena.”

So, if a critic has a negative reaction to a book, should that reviewer decline to publish the review? This is what Prose advocates: “I began returning books I didn’t like to editors. I thought, life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love.” I sympathize with her point of view. As a bookseller and book blogger, I’d prefer not to spend time telling people about books I found pretentious, or boring, or poorly written. (But if anyone asks me, I’m happy to oblige! I have to maintain credibility.) However, I’m not a professional book critic. I look to critics such as Prose and Heller to provide me with guidance. When I read a book review, I want to see evidence that the reviewer is a critical thinker.  If I wanted to see “5 stars!!! Best book ever!” I could look at Goodreads.

Fewer and fewer newspapers and magazines publish book reviews; in fact, many major newspapers have eliminated their book sections. The Chicago Tribune reinvented their book section in 2012, calling it “Printers Row” and making it available only as a supplementary print or digital subscription. It’s described as “the Chicago Tribune’s literary journal, fiction, and membership program”. I appreciate that the Tribune is making an effort to keep literary criticism alive in a major newspaper. In fact, Printers Row doesn’t seem to have any problem publishing negative reviews. I just wish they’d agree with me more often on which books to review negatively! We are definitely not on the same page, so to speak.

I was captivated by the main character's voice in this inventive novel.

I was captivated by the main character’s voice in this inventive novel.

A case in point is the recent review of The Sun and Other Stars, by Brigid Pasulka (a Chicagoan), written by Troy Jollimore, a poet, philosophy professor, and book critic. Jollimore claims that the novel shows a “preference for sentimentality over real emotion”.  Calling a literary novel “sentimental” is fairly harsh. But how does a critical reader determine if a novel is sentimental? Jollimore tries to back up his claim with examples from the novel; for instance, he states that the tragic events in the novel are “plot devices” that are “exploited” to move the story forward. Hmmm . . . sounds a little bit like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defining pornography by saying “I know it when I see it”. Aren’t all tragic events in fiction plot devices to a certain extent?

My response to the novel could not have been more different. I found the novel genuinely moving and the characters well-developed and believable. The Sun and Other Stars takes place in a small village on the Italian Riviera. Etto, the protagonist, is the 22-year-old son of the village butcher. His twin brother, a “calcio” (“soccer”, in American parlance) star,  has recently died in a motorcycle crash and his grief-stricken mother committed suicide not long afterwards. Etto and his father exist in their own separate orbits, unable to connect with each other. When Yuri, a famous Ukrainian calcio player, comes to San Benedetto for the summer, everything changes for Etto and his father — especially after Etto meets Yuri’s beautiful sister.

The book, which is in many ways a love letter to all things Italian, takes its title from the final lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Just as Dante survives the horrors of hell and comes to know God’s love, so does Etto survive despair and grief and come to know love again. Calcio, which had separated him from his father and his fellow villagers, brings them together. Yes, the story has all the makings of a romantic comedy, but it never becomes hackneyed or predictable. Brigid Pasulka gives Etto a completely original and endearing voice, filled with melancholy and black humor.

The first knock of the morning plinks against the window, the start of the procession of nonne on their way to mass. Nonne, nonne, nonne, and more nonne. This is what sociologists call the aging of Europe, and Liguria’s demographics are the most top-heavy of them all, crammed with nonne, nobody stupid or naive enough to bring more babies into this world. They clutch each other’s arms, crossing the front windows so slowly, you can see the gossip gathering in clouds over their heads . . . the nonne take to the streets every morning without fail.  After all, they’re in training. They must have strong backs to prop up the 80 percent of us who have stopped hedging our bets with God.

Besides being the only man in San Benedetto who isn’t obsessed with calcio, Etto is set apart in another way: he is half American. Calcio brought his parents together; they met at a soccer match and fell in love despite a language barrier. But art is what bonded mother and son:

Mamma used to be as passionate about art as Papa is about calcio. It was the reason she came to Europe in the first place, because she said she was tired of learning art history from slides, and tired of being in California, where there was nothing older than she was. . . She could make any museum interesting, even when I was a kid. She would take me around to each sculpture or painting as if she was introducing me to old friends.

Etto decides to paint a replica of the Sistine Chapel in his old high school, replacing the Biblical figures with San Benedetto villagers. He says, “You are probably shaking your head, thinking, what kind of deficiente thinks he will be able to paint a copy of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of a classroom? What kind of arrogant stronzo?” This final tribute to his mother enables him to start coming to terms with the grief and anger he feels over her death.

Readers will notice that Italian words are sprinkled throughout the novel without italics — or explanation. At first, I found this slightly distracting — and then, as I learned their meanings, I found it brilliant. Etto is bilingual, and most likely thinks in both Italian and English. Pasulka’s use of language in this way enriches his voice and makes him seem even more real.

Obviously, the Printers Row reviewer didn’t share my enthusiasm for The Sun and Other Stars. Besides missing the genuine emotion that was so evident to me, he missed the beauty of the language and the originality of the story. I thought Pasulka masterfully combined love, tragedy, art, and sports to create a wonderfully inventive novel.

To read the full article about the pros and cons of negative book reviews, click Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?