So Gluck stretched the truth in the service of Santa Claus. Sometimes one had to take liberties with facts in order to get, and keep, people’s attention, he reasoned. What was Santa Claus if not a friendly deception invented to delight and encourage better behavior?
One Christmas Eve, journalist Alex Palmer discovered that his great-great-uncle, John Duval Gluck, Jr., was the founder of New York’s Santa Claus Association. For 15 years during the early 20th century, this charitable organization was responsible for fulfilling the wishes of thousands of New York children who sent letters to the North Pole. Palmer was dismayed to learn that Gluck wasn’t so much a philanthropist as he was a huckster, who lined his pockets with money from generous and trusting donors.
Palmer’s exhaustively researched book, The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in NewYork, is — as the title indicates — about more than Gluck’s nefarious activities. The book includes two linked narratives: a sympathetic and comprehensive chronicle of Gluck’s life and personality, showing the complex motivations for his self-aggrandizing and often dishonest activities, and an equally detailed account of the transformation of Christmas from a religious holiday into a cultural and commercial event.
A self-described “secret history sleuth”, Palmer is the author of two previous books, Weird-O-Pedia: The Ultimate Collection of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facs About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things and Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature. For a writer oriented towards the quirky side of life, delving into the obscure story of New York’s “Santa Claus man” and his world was a fascinating project. Palmer’s research led him to previously unknown relatives. He says:
My search to uncover the true story of John Gluck took me to Georgia, Florida, Texas, and into hidden pockets of New York City. I spoke to relatives I hadn’t known existed and was lucky enough to meet them. My first big break came with I tracked down a distant cousin of mine . . . She recalled John fondly and offhandedly mentioned she may have some of his papers in storage somewhere. In fact, she discovered she had several storage boxes full of his stuff . . . a trove of John’s personal correspondence, official Santa Claus Association documents, and original Santa letters that served as the backbone of The Santa Claus Man.
Palmer also uncovered an FBI report on Gluck’s deceptive activities, documents about Supreme Court case Gluck fought against the Boy Scouts of America, and “lots more Santa letters”. Palmer says his investigation “revealed a man who yearned for escape from a mundane life, but lost his bearings once he broke free.” The book includes nearly 40 pages of endnotes and a bibliography, attesting to Palmer’s thorough exploration of his subject. (It also contains dozens of terrific vintage photos, including a sketch of Gluck’s proposed Santa Claus Building, intended to “blend spiritual ideals and consumerism into a true ‘Cathedral of Commerce'”.)
Sometimes Palmer’s enthusiasm for trivia overwhelms the reader, detracting from the narrative. It probably isn’t necessary to know, for example, that the nation’s first airmail delivery took place on September 23, 1911 in a Bieriot XI monoplane and included a sack of 640 letters and 1,280 postcards.
Palmer successfully places Gluck’s story in historical context. Publishers Weekly comments that:
Palmer deftly weaves in other cultural touchstones such as the genesis of the Boy Scouts, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and the WWI Christmas Day armistice (in which opposing armies traded goods) to tell the larger story of America’s adoption and adaptation of Christmas that endures to this day.
The Boy Scouts are, in fact, integral to the story. In 1910, two Boy Scout organizations were formed in the United States: the Boy Scouts of America and the American Boy Scout (no “s”, peculiarly — and later to become the United States Boy Scout.) The groups differed in one significant way: members of the American Boy Scout carried guns. Many parents didn’t want their Boy Scouts armed, especially after one 12-year-old American Boy Scout shot and killed a 9-year-old boy. The “chief scout” of the American Boy Scout organization didn’t think that banning guns from his organization was the best way to ensure the group’s survival — instead, he decided, they would volunteer to help the Santa Claus Man.
If you’re looking for a sweet Christmas story, The Santa Claus Man probably isn’t what you have in mind — but history and true crime buffs will enjoy this offbeat tale of greed and good intentions.
A combination is
Of Crickets — Crows — and Retrospects
And a dissembling Breeze
That hints without assuming —
An Innuendo sear
That makes the Heart put up its Fun
And turn Philosopher.
Here’s a little anecdote about this poem, and Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets. I remembered that she had written a little poem about September — and aging — but I couldn’t find it in my copy of her collected poetry. So I searched the Internet, using the terms “Emily Dickinson September poem”. I found the poem, but I also came upon the following quotation by Suzanne Supplee (an author with whom I am not familiar): “Emily Dickinson, in my opinion, is the perfect (although admittedly slightly cliche) poet for lonely fat girls.” I’d been so happy to find the poem, which was as lovely as I remembered, and then Suzanne Supplee had to go and take the wind right out of my sails. I’m not going to let that quote (which I’m sure was taken out of context) ruin Emily Dickinson for me. I’ll be turning the beautiful line “Of Crickets — Crows — and Retrospects” over in my mind for a long time.
What am I currently reading? What did I just finish reading? And what will I read next?
I’m about halfway through Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which I almost put down after the first 30 pages or so. Several reviews (both from professional critics and from readers I trust) convinced me to stick it out, and I’m glad I have — I’m thoroughly absorbed now. I have a love-hate relationship with Groff’s writing style — some sentences amaze me with their originality, while others strike me as pretentious. A review on NPR raves about Groff’s writing:
The book is a master class in best lines; a shining, rare example of that most unforgiving and brutal writer’s advice: All you have to do is write the best sentence you’ve ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something.
Which is what Groff has done here. And if you do want to learn how to be a great writer, you could do worse than skipping out on that M.F.A. program or pricey writer’s retreat, dropping 28 bucks on this book, studying the hell out of it, and then spending all that money you just saved on gin cocktails and hats. It’s that good. That beautiful. Occasionally, that stunning.
I’m warming, just a little, to the characters, now that I’m in the second half of the book (“Furies”), but at first I found them not only unlikable but unrealistic. As one commenter on NPR said,
Amazing writing. Absolutely beautiful. My question for the author: Do you think people like this couple actually exist, and you are delving into their psyches, or are you purposely creating otherworldly main characters? I have met many people from many different walks of life but have never met anyone even remotely like Lancelot and Mathilde. Am I just not meeting the right people? Is it all just metaphorical?
All I can reveal about the plot is that it revolves around a marriage and the two people’s very different perceptions, and that it’s very well constructed. Sounds like Gone Girl, right? Both have their share of melodrama and plot twists. Fates and Furies is rooted in Greek mythology, with plenty of Shakespearean references (one of the main characters is a playwright), making it self-consciously literary while Gone Girl presents itself as a straight page-turner. I’m looking forward to following the discussion on NPR, which has chosen it to discuss on the Morning Edition Book Club.
I need something light and funny to counterbalance the darkness in Fates and Furies, so my current audiobook is Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. Yesterday I drove several miles past my exit because I was having so much fun listening to Amy. She jumps from childhood to Second City to motherhood to Saturday Night Live, with several guest readers — including her mother. I know the print book has lots of photos and illustrations, but it can’t be as entertaining as the audio — although I have to be honest and tell you that it’s not as good as Bossypants, by Amy’s good friend Tina Fey.
I just finished reading The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Resilience in an American Town, by Ryan D’Agostino. The devastating true story of Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two daughters — and was critically injured himself — in a brutal attack in the family’s Connecticut home. Amazingly, Petit has not only survived but managed to rebuild his life. This book, which I read in one day, is a real-life companion to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family.
Because every serious book needs to be followed by something light and amusing, I read Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas, by two English professors — Caroline Bicks, Ph.D. and Michelle Ephraim, Ph.D.
Now some of you may be thinking: Booze? Professors? Isn’t this why we need to get rid of tenure? But hear us out. Shakespeare wasn’t just interested in Fate, Revenge, and Tragic Flaws. His plays are saturated with alcohol-related themes, and it’s our job to know about them.
These Shakespeare scholars obviously had a blast putting together this collection of recipes for cocktails and appetizers. Every page contains fun and interesting Shakespeare trivia; reading this short book is a bartending course and Shakespeare seminar combined.
What’s next? Because I can never get too much of World War II, probably Early One Morning by Virginia Baily, about the decision a young Italian woman makes to save the life of a young Jewish boy — a decision that has repercussions 30 years later. The reviews describe the novel as not just a war story, but as an adoption story. And because I always need a laugh, Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam, the “semi-true” tale of Hickam’s parents’ journey from West Virginia to Florida with their pet alligator in tow. I started reading the ARC a couple of months ago, and misplaced it — I just found it, and can’t wait to pick it up again, because it’s sweet and nostalgic and funny. It’s a rough world, and as I just heard Elizabeth Berg say, there’s nothing wrong with a little sentimentality.
Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight, just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction correct their flight paths all at once.
Four years ago, Vanessa Diffenbaugh published her first novel, The Language of Flowers, which became a surprise bestseller — and a staff and customer favorite at Lake Forest Book Store. It’s rare that a new author builds an audience so quickly. Kathryn Stockett comes to mind — but it’s been more than six years since The Help was published and there’s no new book on the horizon.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s much-anticipated second novel, We Never Asked for Wings, has just arrived in stores.Her whirlwind publicity tour included two events in the Chicago suburbs: an evening reading and discussion at Highland Park Public Library and a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon. Quite a few of the attendees had met Vanessa when she visited Lake Forest for a luncheon in September 2011, just a couple of weeks after The Language of Flowers was published. That event — one of Vanessa’s very first — was a benefit for the Allendale Association, a local organization serving troubled children and adolescents.
Few authors are lucky enough to be sent on publisher-sponsored publicity tours. As author Justin Taylor points out in an article entitled “On the Total Weirdness of the Book Tour”, both reading and writing (“these two vast solitudes”) are fundamentally private activities, yet book tours attempt to transform them into social events:
Every art form has its peculiarities but the strangest thing about writing . . . is that its fundamental attribute is solitude. Plays, concerts, operas, movies take dozens if not hundreds to make, and are seen by thousands (or millions) in their turn. Even the painter, who might work alone or with assistants, eventually sees his work on a wall in a room in the company of that of his colleagues.
I’m sure authors get tired of answering the same questions at event after event, but in my experience they are all unfailingly gracious, even with inane queries — “Do you write in longhand or on a computer?” “How can I get my book published?”. Most attendees ask more insightful questions, often about the story behind the book. I’m always interested in what the author is currently reading; the “what’s on your nightstand?” question always asked in the New York Times Book Review “By the Book” column. When I interview authors, I try my best to ask them a few questions they haven’t been asked multiple times. Last week, Vanessa was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule to chat with me.
I asked Vanessa what readers ask her most frequently. She said, without any hesitation, that readers are most curious about how her personal life ties in with her fiction. Vanessa has spent her adult life working with disadvantaged youth, as a mentor, teacher, and foster parent. Her experiences have inspired her characters — Victoria, the young woman aging out of foster care and facing life alone in The Language of Flowers and Alex, the bright and precocious teenager trying to get to know his parents, and himself in We Never Asked for Wings —and her motifs: flowers, birds, and feathers.
Vanessa mentioned that the natural world plays an important role in how her characters make sense of their lives. Alex’s knowledge of bird migration, for example, draws him closer to his grandparents and helps him understand why they returned to Mexico. Vanessa’s brother-in-law is a climate scientist at Stanford whose help was invaluable as Vanessa planned Alex’s science project inspired by his grandfather’s feather collection. In the Q and A session after Vanessa’s reading, she mentioned that she’s always been a nature lover, having grown up in a small farming community.
When Vanessa began writing We Never Asked for Wings (a long and difficult process that took more than three years and involved a complete rewrite) she intended the book to focus on the dichotomy between educational opportunities for wealthy and poor children, not on illegal immigration. In an interview on MomAdvice/Sundays with Writers, she says:
For me, it is especially interesting that I wrote a book about immigration because I had no intention of doing so! I was thinking about economic and educational inequality, and themes of motherhood and family. But as I got deeper and deeper into this novel, it struck me that I had created a community of characters in which immigration status would be an issue. It would be disingenuous to write about a low-income community in California and pretend that every citizen in the book would be documented. That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live in these communities.
I was particularly curious about the abandoned housing project by the ocean where Alex and his family live. I could visualize the muddy expanses and decrepit buildings of Eden’s Landing, but I couldn’t find any information about the Landing on the Internet. Actually, Vanessa told me, the setting of We Never Asked for Wings was based on Columbia Point, a housing project on a peninsula in Boston that was razed in the 1980s. She initially planned on setting the novel in Boston, but as a native Californian, her heart was in the area she knows best.
The other question I was especially interested in was why she decided to write We Never Asked for Wings as a purely realistic novel, with none of the magical realism that characterized The Language of Flowers. Her answer, which surprised me, was that she thought the book was entirely realistic. What I, and other readers, saw as fantastical events were not, according to Vanessa — they were caused by the power of suggestion.
Vanessa pointed out that her book contains two coming of age stories — Alex’s, of course, but also his mother’s, as Letty learns to become an adult and a parent. The flashbacks to Letty’s troubled teenage years and Alex’s first experience with love will appeal to teenage readers who are ready for adult books. One of my colleagues mentioned that her son, a high school student, was enjoying We Never Asked for Wings, finding himself interested not only in Alex’s story but the immigration issues raised in the novel.
And guess what? Vanessa was called to the podium before I got a chance to ask her what’s on her nightstand. I recommend, though, that you add We Never Asked for Wings to the stack on your nightstand.
In the spring, I posted a list of 10 of my favorite recent books just published (or about to be published) in paperback. It’s now official summer reading season, and dozens of new paperbacks are piled high on bookstore tables. Some of these (Station Eleven) were critically and commercially successful in hardcover; some (The Blessings) didn’t get as much attention as they deserved in hardcover; and some (The Red Notebook) are brand new books, never published in hardcover.
More and more books are being published as paperback originals. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (“The Stigma of Paperback Originals”), American publishers view the “straight to paperback” format as “an increasingly attractive option—perhaps the only option—for young authors with no track record, midcareer authors with a challenging track record and international authors being published for the first time in the U.S.” The Journal points out the paperback original is “the industry standard ‘ In Europe, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.”
Frances Coady, formerly publisher of Picador, the paperback imprint of Macmillan, is quoted in the article as saying: “You have to ask yourself questions like, ‘Is it better to sell 5,000 or 8,000 copies in hardcover and try to reinvent the book in paperback?’—which, unless there’s some extraordinary piece of luck, is really hard to do—or ‘Is it better to sell 50,000 in a paperback original?'”
As a reader, I vote for the paperback option — especially now that paperbacks are so high-quality. Some even have fancy French flaps. Gone are the days when you cracked open a paperback only to have loose pages flutter out. And booksellers have a much easier time convincing customers to take a chance on a new author with a paperback than with a hardcover. Here are 10 books to take a chance on this summer:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (hardcover 9/14; paperback 6/15) WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.
I’m surprised this book was released in paperback only nine months after it came out in hardcover. One of five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel has been a bestseller for months. Despite the acclaim, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been a selection for my book group. I couldn’t imagine getting through, much less enjoying, a dystopian novel. But I truly loved every page and recommend it without reservations to anyone who reads literary fiction. I was captivated by the first chapter, which takes place during a performance of King Lear. In a New York Times interview, the author said,
I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence. People would want what was best about the world, and it’s subjective, but to me, that would include the plays of Shakespeare.
Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson (paperback original 4/15) They said that the wizard was something Mama had dreamed, and because she was sick in the head. But how could Mama’s dream get inside Elijah’s head? And now they told him that Mama hurt him badly. Every time he closed his eyes, he remembered and he wanted to scratch out the memory but he couldn’t. It waited there for him like a wolf under a tree.
Seven-year-old Elijah, the son of an abusive and mentally unstable Nigerian immigrant, finds refuge with Nikki and Obi in a stable home. But Elijah comes to believe he is possessed by a wizard. This heartbreaking, beautifully written story explores foster care, childhood trauma, interracial adoption, mental illness, religious ideology, and the complex nature of parental love.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/23/15) . . . Remembering Ms. Newcombe now — though my file drawer contains thousands of lives for which I often find myself feeling accountable — I realize I am well disposed in her favor; in fact, I thoroughly urge you to offer her a job. Why? Because as a student of literature and creative writing, Ms. Newcombe honed crucial traits that will be of use to you: imagination, patience, resourcefulness, and empathy. The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy– the insertion of oneself into the life of another.
Professor Jason Fitger’s personal life and writing career are falling apart, and he tells the story through a series of very funny letters of recommendation. “Clever” doesn’t begin to describe this novel, which is much more than a satire of academia. If you enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, you’ll love Dear Committee Members.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub (hardcover 5/14; paperback 6/15) A good swimming pool could do that—make the rest of the world seem impossibly insignificant, as far away as the surface of the moon.
When a New York family spends a summer vacation in a rented house in Mallorca, things are a little too close for comfort. From the New York Times: “For those unable to jet off to a Spanish island this summer, reading The Vacationers may be the next-best thing. Straub’s gorgeously written novel follows the Post family — a food writer named Franny; her patrician husband, Jim; and their children, 28-year old Bobby and 18-year-old Sylvia — to Mallorca . . . When I turned the last page, I felt as I often do when a vacation is over: grateful for the trip and mourning its end.” I felt the same way! I’ve heard that The Rocks by Peter Nichols, just published a couple of weeks ago, is another wonderful book set in Mallorca — I can’t wait to read it.
The Blessings by Elise Juska (hardcover 5/14; paperback 5/15) She thought about how it was something they would all remember forever. How this was family: to own such moments together. To experience them in all their raw shock and sadness, then get the food from the refrigerator, unwrap the crackers and fill the glasses, keep the gears turning, the grand existing beside the routine, the ordinary.
This lovely novel follows several generations of a close Irish-American family from Philadelphia, in a “deceptively simple tale that examines the foibles, disappointments and passions that tie family members together” (Publishers Weekly). The book reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteridge, since it’s a collection of linked stories. Like the PW reviewer, I felt lucky to have spent some time in the Blessings’ presence.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/15) 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. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)” Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company put it more succinctly; he notes that McDermott’s novels are “on the slim side” and calls Matthew Thomas “Alice McDermott on steroids”.
The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (paperback original 3/15) He drank some more wine, feeling he was about to commit a forbidden act. A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag — even the most remote tribe would adhere to that ancestral rule. Husbands in loincloths definitely did not have the right to go and look for a poisoned arrow or a root to eat in their wives’ rawhide bags.
I hate to use the word “charming”, but this little jewel of a novel really is charming — and it’s not sappy. Parisian bookseller Laurent Letellier finds a woman’s handbag on the street, containing plenty of personal items — including a red notebook — but no clues to the owner’s identity. This has been one of our store’s staff and customer favorites for months — it’s the kind of book people buy in multiples to give as gifts.
Us by David Nicholls (hardcover 10/14; paperback due 6/30/15) . . . And, like many men of my generation, I enjoy military history, my “Fascism-on-the-march books”, as Connie calls them. I’m not sure why we should be drawn to this material. Perhaps it’s because we like to imagine ourselves in the cataclysmic situations that our fathers and grandfathers faced, to imagine how we’d behave when tested, whether we would show our true colours and what they would be. Follow or lead, resist or collaborate?
Has Douglas and Connie’s long marriage, as she claims, run its course? A summer “grand tour” of Europe with their sullen teenage son, Albie, brings matters to a head. If a book could be described as a romantic comedy, that would be the appropriate term for this smart and delightful novel. The characters, especially Albie, will drive you crazy — just like real people.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, with introduction by David Nicholls (paperback original published in the U.S. 6/15) A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.
I’m thrilled that this brilliant novel is being introduced to a new generation of American readers. It’s about a widow who decides to open a bookshop in an isolated English village, encountering resistance from her neighbors. David Nicholls, who worked as a bookseller at Waterstones in London for several years, writes in introduction to the new edition of The Bookshop:
With typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop a “short novel with a sad ending”, which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald’s wit and playfulness . . . Fitzgerald’s great gift, often remarked upon, was the precision and economy of her prose . . .
It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald was a late bloomer. The New Yorker points out that The Bookshop, “published when Fitzgerald was sixty-one, announced her arrival on the literary scene.”
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (hardcover 7/14; paperback 5/15) But here at Laurelfield, there was something more in the mornings, a buzzing sensation about the whole house, as if it weren’t the servants keeping it running but some other energy. As if the house had roots and leaves and was busy photosynthesizing and sending sap up and down, and the people running through were as insignificant as burrowing beetles.
Once an artists’ colony, now a luxurious private home, the “hundred-year house” has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure — the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 — Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. I was enthralled from the first page. Makkai has a new book coming out this summer — a short story collection called Music for Wartime.
It just occurred to me that all the books on this list are fiction. There are plenty of great nonfiction books coming out this summer as well, and I’ll be highlighting those soon. Which paperbacks are you planning on picking up this summer?
I would eventually see that certain kinds of melancholia are natural for many artists, and not only melancholia but strange kinds of behavior that are difficult for anyone who is not an artist to understand, let alone embrace.
George Sand in The Dream Lover
Elizabeth Berg has been one of my favorite authors for a very long time. She’s amazingly talented and prolific, even though she didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her mid-forties. Durable Goods came out in 1993, and almost every year since then I’ve had the pleasure of reading a new Elizabeth Berg novel or short story collection. Some years she even published two books. I was disappointed last year when no Berg book appeared on our store shelves.
“Aha!” you say. “She’s turning into a slacker.” Actually, no. A couple of years ago, Berg decided to change gears and write a historical novel. As she tells it, one day she was reading about George Sand in TheWriter’s Almanac and became curious about Sand’s life and times, particularly what she calls “the good stuff” — “deeply personal things about her character as well as her thoughts and feelings.”
Berg called her friend Nancy Horan, author of two biographical novels (Loving Frank and Under theWide and Starry Sky) and implored her to write about George Sand. In a conversation with Horan (which appears at the back of The Dream Lover), Berg said to her fellow author:
I thought you would be the perfect person to write a novel about her; I so admired the way you provided intimate access into the character of Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank . . . I believe when you answered the phone I said, “Nancy! You have to write about George Sand! She’s so interesting! . . . You said, “You write it!” I told you I couldn’t, possibly. But then the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I plunged in, buoyed up by the last words you said to me: “Oh, of course you can write it. It will be fabulous!”
Horan was right — it is fabulous. Readers will be captivated by Berg’s lovely and perceptive rendering of George Sand’s brilliant and tumultuous life. Sand, born Aurore Dupin, left her unhappy marriage to become an independent woman — and eventually the first female bestselling author in France. The questions Berg raises through her imaginative portrayal of Sand’s inner and outer lives are as relevant today as they were in 19th century France. Must one pay a price for fame and success? How can a woman balance motherhood with her career? What does it mean to be a female artist?
“Tell me, George. Do you wish you’d been born a man?”
I thought for a moment, then said, “In my youth, I wished that. I very much admired my father and I wanted to be just like him . . . But now I find I don’t wish to be either man or woman. I wish to be myself.”
Berg “plunged in” by reading Sand’s very lengthy autobiography, Story of My Life, and found that Sand took hold of her imagination:
George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream of her; then, I thought, to dream like her. I know that might sound arrogant or at least unlikely. But I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.
Berg was kind enough to answer my questions about The Dream Lover, even though she’s on an exhausting month-long book tour. The tour started here in Chicago, and Lake Forest Book Store was thrilled to host a luncheon (at a French restaurant, of course) and an evening event at a nearby library on publication day.
I have to admit I knew very little about George Sand before I read The Dream Lover. I knew two things: that she was an 18th century French writer and that she wore men’s clothing. I suspect that’s much as most of your readers know. The character you brought to life is, as you say, “a mass of contradictions”. How would you compare the process of developing George Sand’s character on the page to the process of bringing a completely fictional character to life? And is any character completely fictional, or do they all incorporate elements of people you’ve known?
You’ve heard the phrase,” You can’t make this stuff up!”, right? That was my experience in writing about George Sand. Her life was so interesting, so full of outrageous incident, such tragedy, such scandal, but also such joy and tenderness and catharsis I could never get away with trying to suggest such things would be plausible if I were writing about a fictional character. Truth really is stranger than fiction!
How do you think modern readers who’ve never read the work of George Sand before would respond to her work (in translation)? Is there a particular novel that you would recommend? And are her works still widely read by the French?
I don’t think George Sand is widely read by anyone, actually. But one book I would recommend is Lettres d’un Voyageur, which is Sand’s travel writing and contains some of the most ravishing descriptions of Venice I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Also, if you’re up for a loooooong book, try her 1,000+ page autobiography. It’s fascinating, and one of the things I liked best about it is the way that she respects where she came from, and devotes a great deal of space to her grandparents and parents. I also recommend her letters, especially those between her and Gustave Flaubert.
Did your research involve any travel to Paris and/or the French countryside, or any study of French?
I’ve been to Paris. I purposely did not go to Nohant, because I wanted to see it as it was, not as it has become. Now that I’ve finished the book, however, I’m dying to go. I minored in French in college, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of it.
George Sand had to change her name to succeed as a writer — and today, I am sorry to tell you, many men won’t read books they perceive as being “chick” books. (This includes about 90% of literary fiction.) Why do you think this is? I find women to be much more catholic in their reading tastes than men, and I’m always wondering why.
Well, I guess the simple and unfortunate answer is that women are still second-class citizens, still often times not taken seriously, not given the respect (or salary or recognition) that they are due. A lot of people are tired of hearing that, but their ennui doesn’t mean the problem isn’t real. I make a concerted effort to support women writers—and women in general. That’s all I can do.
If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?
Like most writers, I have a gazillion books: literary fiction, poetry, essays, memoir, non-fiction titles, graphic novels. Organized? No. It is a mess. Once, I hired three college girls to organize my library and they made it worse. Help!
Could you tell us about your writers’ group(s)? Do you see yourself as part of a literary community in Chicago and how would you characterize that community?
My writers’ group is made up of seven women who meet weekly at a study room in the Oak Park Public Library. Not all of us are there every time, but we try to be. Anyone who brings pages reads them aloud and is then critiqued by the group. We are kind, but honest. Supportive and fun. Often times, we bring good food to share. I love that part. If only dogs could come to the library, it would be perfect. I do see myself as part of a literary community in Chicago, and am interested in working with others to convince publishers to send us more authors.
In your interview with Nancy Horan, you say, “I hope readers will finish the last sentence of The Dream Lover and say to themselves, Boy! That was a good read!” What have you read recently yourself that made you say that? Do you have any favorite historical novels?
Well, I loved Loving Frank, of course. Favorite recent reads include Rachel Joyce’s Perfect, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (volumes 1 and 2) and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread. I thought Akhil Sharma’s Family Life was astonishingly good.
As you well know, an author’s work doesn’t end when her book is published — a whole new phase of her job begins. How do you feel about that — do you enjoy promoting the book, which involves social media and public speaking?
I love meeting people who read and like my books, and am so grateful when someone comes to a reading and says, “You know, I’ve never come to a reading before. This was fun!” I’m not nuts about doing interviews on the phone when I can’t see the person’s face; it makes me nervous. I’m not nuts about hanging around airports day after day. But I AM nuts about room service, and the fact that my wonderful publisher is willing to send me on the road.
I’m sure readers would love to hear about your Writing Matters events. Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start them? I know you’ve mentioned that you are trying to gain some visibility for under appreciated authors. I’ve always wondered why some books “take off” and others — just as wonderful, if not more so — don’t find their audience.
Writing Matters was inspired because one day I was talking to a friend and extremely good writer, Leah Hager Cohen, about a book she had coming out. I asked if she were coming to Chicago on tour; I wanted to go to one of her readings. She said oh, her publisher didn’t tour her. She didn’t sell enough books to warrant a tour. Here is a brilliant writer (and wonderful, kind and engaging personality) who got a rave review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Here is someone who is such an inspiration to read, so talented. I told her, “Well, you’re going to come to Chicago now, because I’m going to do an event for you.” With only three weeks to plan, we rented the Hemingway Museum, got food and flowers and wine , made posters to advertise and programs to hand out, and voila: Writing Matters was born. At the first reading, we had 75 people, at the second, 150.
We’ve now completed a year’s worth of every-three-month readings, and next time we’re doing something different in that we’re having a children’s book writer: the delightful Amy Krouse Rosenthal. (The time after that, I’m shooting for highly esteemed poet Charles Simic.) I wanted Writing Matters to serve author, community, and audience, to make it an elevated kind of book signing that would be a real evening out. All proceeds go to buy books for children who would otherwise not have them; currently we give the money to Magic Tree Bookshop to set up an account for the kids at Hephzibah. They can go to the bookstore and pick out whatever book strikes their fancy. It’s really rewarding to see authors get the audience they deserve, audiences to get the authors they deserve, and to serve the community not only by buying books for children but by advertising (for free) local business and restaurants that we like on our programs. There is always a reading by a kid for a warm-up act, and there is always a surprise of some kind. It’s a lot of work to produce, but totally worth it.
I recommend you check out Elizabeth Berg’s Facebook page, which is an absolute delight — many of her posts are actually essays, and I think you’ll find them inspiring and uplifting.
The Half Brother tells a familiar story: growing up at a New England boarding school. What makes the novel fresh and original is that it focuses on the coming of age of a young teacher. In the beginning of the book, Charlie Garrett is not much older than his students:
Teaching English at Abbott was my first job, right out of college . . . for me the idea of being employed at all, at a job that entailed skill and responsibility, was unreal, ludicrous. The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hand.
Many novels are set at schools, but I’ve read few that capture the essence of what goes in on the classroom as well as The Half Brother. Charlie has received no formal training as a teacher, and is initially terrified of his students. He develops a persona, “a tweedy, knowledgeable, unflappable self”, and discovers that he actually has a gift for teaching:
At the window of my classroom, looking out, I was in the prow of a landship, forging ahead with my new self, built on the scaffolding of these names; then I turned around and my own energy went forth, joined theirs, became something new and larger. I had not expected to feel my own self slowly emerging as I tried to draw out theirs. I had not expected to love anyone, is what I’m saying. Sometimes they looked at me in amazement at what came out of their mouths.
As a new teacher, Charlie is drawn to one of his students, May Bankhead, who is a “faculty brat” — the daughter of the school chaplain. They correspond with each other after May’s graduation, and when she returns to campus several years later to care for her dying father, May and Charlie finally admit to themselves what they’ve always felt for each other.
Later, May becomes a teacher at Abbott herself — and so does Charlie’s younger half-brother, Nicky. Charlie has always been protective of Nicky, who is brilliant, handsome, and popular, yet strangely vulnerable. The inevitable triangle follows– and that’s all that I can tell you about the plot of The Half Brother, because the plot twists — which do not rely on unreliable narrators — are truly surprising. Read more
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.
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.
It’s currently -15 degrees in Chicago — and that’s at noon, with the sun shining. Yesterday I saw a Facebook post from Garrison Keillor’s bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota, showing a digital thermometer reading -14 degrees, with the caption, “Dear Rest of the World, in Minnesota we call this ‘book weather’. Enjoy.” Thank you, Common Good Books, for giving voice to what I have always thought: the worse the weather, the better the day.
I love to hibernate. If I am reincarnated as an animal, I would like to be a bear. The only problem is that bears are not literate, and I like to spend my hibernation time reading. On New Year’s Day (which is always a wonderful day to stay home in pajamas), I finished reading Rachel Joyce’s Perfect. I adored this lovely novel, and have been thinking about it ever since. Joyce tells two stories, in alternating chapters: the story of Byron, a young boy whose innocent childhood comes to an end when something happens on an ordinary morning on the way to school, and the story of Jim, a middle-aged man whose life is crippled by obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reader may or may not anticipate the way in which these two lives end up intersecting ( I didn’t!), but that doesn’t matter — the beauty of this book is in the characters. Perfect is one of the rare character-driven novels in which the plot is well-paced and full of surprises.
As I’ve said before, I have no problem with unlikable characters in literature. The best fiction helps us understand human nature, and unlikable characters are necessary for that. Still, it’s a real pleasure to read about lovable characters. By “lovable” characters, I don’t mean “endearing”; I mean characters that the reader grows to understand and love. There are no perfect characters in this book. They all make grave mistakes that have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences, but they are trying to do what they think is right. Byron and his friend James develop “Operation Perfect” to protect Diana, Byron’s mother, after she is involved in a potentially dangerous situation. Diana is a kind, fragile. and sensitive woman, married to a domineering husband, who is easily manipulated. (She is reminiscent of another sad and lovely English woman, Princess Diana — am I reading too much into the fact that Rachel Joyce named her Diana?) She loves her children fiercely, but is ill-equipped to care for them — and Byron takes on the burdensome role of parent.
Whatever happened, he must never tell his mother what she had done. Of all the people to know, she was the most dangerous. He told himself this over and over while her fingers crept through his hair and the rain pattered on the leaves and the thunder grew tame.
Perfect is filled with ambiguity, which is part of what makes the book so haunting. Are some of the events imagined by the characters, or did they really happen? And does it matter if they actually occurred? Because, as Byron notes, “Within months, everything had changed, and the changes could never be put right. Nothing could atone for his mother’s mistake.” Jim knows that the obsessive rituals he is compelled to perform won’t prevent tragedy from striking, but his rational mind is overpowered by his need to compensate for what he sees as unpardonable sins: “How can he start again with Eileen? What about the rituals? . . . What she has no idea about is who he is, what he did in the past and all that he must continue to do to atone for that.” Did he really do anything unforgivable?
I’m looking forward to discussing this book in person and online — it raises many, many interesting questions about friendship, class, marriage, parents and children, guilt, truth . . . and perfection. As my first read of 2014, Perfect sets a high standard.
I’m not really a book reviewer; I’m a book recommender. If I’m reading I book I don’t like, I have no problem putting that book down and moving on to the next one in my stack. There are far too many wonderful books in the world to bother with those that don’t capture my attention. That’s why I wouldn’t want to be a critic. People who agree to review books end up having to plow through a certain number of books they don’t enjoy — and then, if they’re honest, enumerate what they see as the failings of those books. I prefer to ignore the books that aren’t to my taste and to spread the good word about the ones that are. Maybe that attitude comes from 15 years of bookselling? When someone comes in the store and asks for a recommendation, I don’t point out the books that the customer wouldn’t like! If I’m asked point blank what I think of a book, and it’s one I disliked, I usually say, “It wasn’t my cup of tea”. That response covers a lot of territory. . . . although I’m always happy to expand on it.
Apparently, there is a controversy in the world of book reviewing about the value of negative book reviews. The well-regarded critic Laura Miller addressed this issue in an article for the online magazine Salon entitled “The Case for Positive Book Reviews”, stating “Critics who have a choice generally prefer to call attention to books they find praiseworthy”.
In yesterday’s New York Times review of The Death of Santini, Frank Bruni quotes the author, Pat Conroy:
I trained myself to be unafraid of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled . . No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.
Although Bruni finds Conroy to be self-righteous in his refusal to criticize other writers (especially, Bruni notes, when his sensitivity doesn’t seem to extend to the Conroy family members who are used as material in his books), I appreciate Conroy’s position. Jacob Silverman, a columnist and book reviewer, does not. In an article in Salon, “Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture”, Silverman argues that there is a place for critical voices and negative reviews, saying “reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines” — that they should all “think more and enthuse less”. I appreciate his position as well — but I would rather keep my negative thoughts to myself.
I certainly respect the work that book critics do, and I am an enthusiastic reader of book reviews. Every Sunday, the book review section is the first one I pull out of the paper. I know I could read it earlier, when it arrives in the mail at the store, or online, but I like the ritual of reading it on Sundays. During the week, I read other book reviews online, in magazines, and in newspapers, but there is something special about the Sunday New York Times Book Review. I have a love-hate relationship with the Book Review — I’m mystified, and frequently annoyed, by the editors’ choices of books they deem worthy of review. But when I read a review of a book that I thought was terrific and find that the Times thought it was terrific too, I feel validated as a reader.
Here is a list of 10 books published in the last year or two that I loved, and that the critics loved as well. (Maybe sometime I’ll make a list of books that I thought were wonderful that the critics dismissed.)
I’ve been coordinating author events for a small independent bookstore for many years. I can honestly say every author we’ve worked with has been delightful and interesting. Authors are the nicest people! Since becoming a blogger less than a year ago, I’ve discovered that most of them like to interact online. I think when they are procrastinating or have writer’s block, Twitter and Facebook call to them.
I’d like to point out something about the etiquette of author events. Most of our events are free. The publisher sends the author on a publicity tour, at no cost to the author or the bookstores involved, with the expectation that books will be sold. Bookstores that exhibit a poor track record of sales at their events won’t be offered many more authors. So if you want to continue meeting authors at events in your community, you need to show your support by buying books at the events. Nothing irritates an independent bookstore more than attendees who show up with books they’ve previously purchased on Amazon to be signed by the author. Does Amazon bring authors to your community?
Thanks for listening . . . and here’s a post from October, 2013, about one of my favorite recent author events. In this case, Carol Rifka Brunt arranged her own travel. She came all the way from England for several appearances in the United States. We were thrilled and honored to host her!
Lunch with Carol Rifka Brunt
This week I was fortunate enough to meet Carol Rifka Brunt, author of Tell the Wolves I’m Home. It’s always an amazing experience to meet the actual person whose writing you’ve admired. I’ve met many authors over the years, and I’ve almost never been disappointed. At first, I was surprised to learn that it isn’t enough for an author to write a successful book. Once the book is finished, author has another job: to market the book. If the author is lucky, his or her publisher will provide a lot of marketing support, including a publicity tour. But often the burden is on the author to arrange and publicize events.
Carol Rifka Brunt is a case in point. Carol’s first novel landed on the New York Times bestseller list and has received rave reviews from all sorts of publications, including the Wall Street Journal and O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. Nonetheless, Carol was on her own when it came to organizing events promoting the book’s paperback release. Her friend Rebecca Makkai (Lake Forest resident and award-winning author of The Borrower and many short stories) suggested she contact Lake Forest Book Store. We were excited to hear from Carol, since we had read Tell the Wolves I’m Home and were enthusiastically recommending it. She told us she planned to speak at Western Michigan University on October 14 and wondered if she could visit Lake Forest afterwards. Of course, we immediately scheduled a luncheon and started spreading the word. Here’s what Carol posted on her blog:
Unlike a lot of authors, I haven’t done any readings or live events to support or promote Tell the Wolves I’m Home in the US. One reason for this is that I live in the UK, which makes it kind of logistically difficult. Another is that I’ve been lucky enough to have readers pick up the book and spread the word without me having to set foot to pavement, which is fantastic. In fact, Tell the Wolves just hit the New York Times bestseller list–a minor miracle for a geeky little book like this–and I haven’t been in the US once since it first came out in June 2012.
But although events haven’t really been a necessity, I have to say that I think I’ve missed out on one of the really enjoyable parts of being an author by not getting out there–meeting readers.
Readers in the Chicago area were thrilled to meet Carol — 50 of us gathered at Authentico in Lake Forest for a luncheon to hear Carol speak about her wonderful book. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the story of a 14-year-old girl, June Elbus, whose beloved uncle has just died of AIDS. June adored — almost worshiped — her Uncle Finn, whose last work was a portrait of June and her older sister. The portrait becomes a virtual character in the novel, as June and her family come to terms with their loss and with an unlikely friendship that June develops. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a perfect book club selection — it’s immediately engaging, it has layers of complexity without being dense, and it’s thought provoking. There are no heroes or villains in this story — only people trying to do their best in a difficult situation.
Carol read a lovely passage from her book, talked about the art that inspired her, engaged the audience in a discussion, and answered questions. I think those of us who had already read the book wanted to read it again after hearing Carol speak — and I suspect those who hadn’t read it couldn’t wait to get home and start reading. Spending time with Carol added another dimension to the reading experience — so we thank her for doing so well at her second job: book promoter.
Carol’s website is full of interesting information and links to reviews: http://www.carolrifkabrunt.com.