An Uncomplicated Life — Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Daugherty

Paul Daugherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Books to Read After the Holidays

IMG_1716Winter has definitely arrived in Chicago — it’s 15 degrees (without the wind chill) and snow is on the ground. There is nothing more appealing than curling up on a comfortable couch with a good book — and possibly a blanket and a cup of hot tea. A roaring fire would be nice too, but we are having a problem with our fireplace. The chimney doesn’t seem to be drawing properly; every time we light a fire, the house gets very smoky. So I’ve just called our local chimney cleaning service, called  (I am not kidding) Ashwipe Chimney Sweeps. Anyway, I’m not going to be able to squeeze in much reading time over the next couple of weeks. There are Christmas presents to buy and wrap, meals to plan and cook, parties to attend, kids coming home on vacation. The bookstore would probably like it if I showed up and worked. And did I mention that my daughter is getting married three days after Christmas?

One of the best things about working in a bookstore is the endless supply of ARCs (advance readers’ copies) that we have piled in our basement. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but we actually keep them in the bathroom. The store isn’t very big, and that’s really the only place they fit. I also have a backlog of electronic ARCs on my IPad. I have ARCs for books that will come out in June — no sense reading those now, because chances are I won’t remember the books very well by the time they’re published. So I try to read books that are either just published or soon to be published. Sometimes something comes along that has to be read immediately, because it’s so compelling — it might be a book that a friend or colleague absolutely loved, or one that called my name and displaced the others on my stack. Then I forget all about publication dates and read what I want.

I have a pile of books I’m looking forward to reading in January and February. (Nine of them will be published during those months, and one — Book of Ages — is already out.) Any bets on how many I end up reading?

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is one of my favorite works of biographical fiction. Her second novel is about another passionate love affair (Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny).

Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank is one of my favorite works of biographical fiction. Her second novel is about another passionate love affair (Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny).

Second novel by Chicago author Brigid Pasulka -- her first one was set in Poland; this one takes place in Italy.

Second novel by a wonderful Chicago author, Brigid Pasulka — her first one was set in Poland; this one takes place in Italy.

Debut novel by a Wisconsin author -- several colleagues have read this small-town story and loved it.

Debut novel by a Wisconsin author — several colleagues recently read this small-town story and loved it.

Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. I'm looking forward to reading about Jane Frankliln -- Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister and a brilliant person in her own right. (Also, a mother of 12!)

Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. I’m looking forward to reading about Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister — a brilliant writer and commentator in her own right, and the mother of 12.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called Tom and Daisy Buchanan "careless people". This book tells the surprising story behind The Great Gatsby.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called Tom and Daisy Buchanan “careless people”. This book tells the surprising true story behind The Great Gatsby.

Darker than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect is about a young boy whose view of the world is shattered.

I’m told that Perfect is darker than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It’s about a young boy whose view of the world is suddenly shattered.

Five  World War I Gold Star mothers travel to Europe to say final goodbyes to their sons.

Five World War I Gold Star mothers travel to Europe to say final goodbyes to their sons.

Diane Johnson explores her Midwestern roots in this memoir -- and she'll literally be returning to the Midwest as well; she visits Lake Forest in late January.

Diane Johnson explores her Midwestern roots in this memoir — and she’ll literally be returning to the Midwest as well; she visits Lake Forest in late January.

I adored Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements. Her new novel is about the world of professional ballet.

I adored Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements. Her new novel is about the world of professional ballet.

A ghost story set in Vermont -- right up my alley. Chris Bohjalian liked it and I'm betting I will too.

A ghost story set in Vermont — right up my alley. Chris Bohjalian liked it and I’m betting I will too.

10 Books the Critics (And I) Loved

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 9781400067558wonderful 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.

cover-1I 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.)

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini; reviewed by Michiko Kakutani/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/books/and-the-mountains-echoed-by-khaled-hosseini.html

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo; reviewed by Janet Maslin/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/books/katherine-boos-first-book-behind-the-beautiful-forevers.html

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver reviewed by Julie Myerson/The Observer www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/11/big-brother-lionel-shriver-review

Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen reviewed by Max Watman/Wall Street Journal online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324354704578636141281560474

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker reviewed by Mimi Swartz/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/books/review/lost-girls-by-robert-kolker.html

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson reviewed by Michiko Kakutani/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/books/the-orphan-masters-son-by-adam-johnson-review.html?pagewanted=2a

9780062236678-1The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan reviewed by Susan Vreeland/Washington Post articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-01-21/entertainment/36472794_1_dancers-sisters-marie-van-goethem

Sister Mother Husband Dog (Etc.) by Delia Ephron reviewed by Elinor Lipman/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/books/review/delia-ephrons-sister-mother-husband-dog-etc.html

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett reviewed by Maureen Corrigan/NPR www.npr.org/2013/11/13/244996958/a-marriage-a-divorce-a-dying-dog-and-essays-done-right

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta reviewed by Margaux Fragoso/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/books/review/with-or-without-you-by-domenica-ruta.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0

 

Online Book Roundtable

9781616203160Would you like to participate in a book club that has no meetings . . . no expectations . . . no rules? Welcome to the Online Book Roundtable! I’m not calling it a book club, because the word “club” implies that there are members, requirements, and an organizational structure. The Roundtable will have none of those pesky things. What we’ll do is choose a book each month, and as we read, we’ll comment on the book online (using the “comments” section of Books on the Table). The comment section does NOT require you to provide your name or email address. If you don’t want to provide public comments, please email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com and I’ll incorporate your comments anonymously in the discussion. I’ll provide reviews and related information about the book, and supply some discussion questions as we go along. We will plan on about a 4-6 week period from the time the book is chosen until we finish our discussion and choose the next book.

Here are a couple of interesting links about online book clubs:

http://flavorwire.com/414409/the-new-golden-age-of-online-book-clubs/

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/22/fashion/online-book-clubs-talk-that-stays-on-the-page.html?_r=0

The first book selection will be The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro:

Almost twenty-five years after the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s infamous art heist—still the largest unsolved art theft in history—one of the stolen Degas paintings is delivered to the Boston studio of a young artist named Claire Roth. Claire, whose reputation has been tarnished by scandal and who now makes her living reproducing famous works of art for a popular online retailer, has entered into a Faustian bargain with Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner. She agrees to forge the Degas in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But as she begins her work, she starts to suspect that this long-missing masterpiece—the very one that had been hanging at the Gardner for one hundred years—may itself be a forgery.

As Claire searches for the truth about the painting’s origins, she finds herself in a desperate race through a labyrinth of trapdoors, dead ends, and deceit, where secrets hidden since the late nineteenth century may be the only evidence that can save her from incrimination. Blending art history with passions of the heart, B. A. Shapiro allows us to smell the oil paint, see the brush strokes, feel the artist’s ambition and the collector’s fanaticism. As she explores the ingenious techniques of forgery and reimagines historical relationships, she reveals both the beauty of the artist’s vision and the ugliness the desire for great art can unleash.

The Art Forger is a thrilling novel about seeing—and not seeing—the secrets that lie beneath the canvas.

B. A. Shapiro lives in Boston and teaches fiction writing at Northeastern University.

Please feel free to comment any time! Since we’re entering into the busy holiday season, let’s read and discuss The Art Forger through mid-December, and then start with a new book in early January.

If your book club has discussed The Art Forger, I’d love to hear about it. The Lake Forest Book Store book club will be talking about the book next Tuesday (11/19) and I’ll report on that meeting.

 

My Reading Life with Pat Conroy

I was saddened to learn that Pat Conroy died yesterday (March 4, 2016), at the age of 70. In his obituary, the New York Times says that Conroy’s “legion of admirers . . . hung on his every word, entranced by the naked emotionalism of his male characters, the Lowcountry atmosphere and the page-turning Southern yarns.” Two years ago, I wrote about Conroy’s last book, The Death of Santini (published in 2013) and my long nearly 30-year membership in the Pat Conroy fan club.

How many aspiring writers have been told to “write what you know”? If Pat Conroy was given that timeworn advice, he’s certainly taken it to heart.  Both his novels and his memoirs are about what he knows — growing up as the son of an abusive Marine Corps fighter pilot, attending the Citadel as a basketball player and budding writer, losing a brother to suicide, coping with a sister’s mental illness. In his latest memoir, The Death of Santini, Conroy says, ” My books have always been disguised voyages into that archipelago of souls known as the Conroy family.”

coverI discovered Pat Conroy in 1987, with a paperback copy of The Prince of Tides. My first baby was born that year, and when he was asleep, I was reading Pat Conroy. As tired as I was, I stayed up late, immersed in the drama of the Wingo family — a violent and cruel father . . . a suicidal poet sister . . . escaped convicts on the loose . . . and a ferocious pet tiger. When I finished all 664 pages, I couldn’t wait to read more of Conroy’s writing. I quickly went through The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline — and then I was finished. The books went on the shelf, and my love affair with big, fat books continued when Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities grabbed my attention.

Conroy disappeared for years, and finally published Beach Music in 1995. I wanted to love the book, but found I couldn’t get past the flowery prose and stilted dialogue. So it was with trepidation that I picked up My Losing Season several years later. On the surface, this memoir recounts Conroy’s senior year playing basketball at the Citadel, but it’s really about his relationship with his father, his coach, and his teammates, and finding his voice as a writer.

Do you think that Hemingway knew he was a writer at twenty years old? No, he did not. Or Fitzgerald, or Wolfe. This is a difficult concept to grasp. Hemingway didn’t know he was Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man. Faulkner didn’t know he was William Faulkner. But they had to take the first step. They had to call themselves writers. That is the first revolutionary act a writer has to make. It takes courage. But it’s necessary.

Even though I’m not interested in college basketball, I was captivated by Conroy’s story of failure and how it shaped him into the person and writer he became. It remains one of my favorite memoirs . . . along with My Reading Life, which Conroy published in 2010. (I wasn’t enamored with South of Broad, Conroy’s 2009 novel.) My Reading Life isn’t exactly a memoir; it’s a collection of essays about the powerful role of reading in Conroy’s difficult life. A person can’t be a writer without first being a reader, and Conroy tells us how he became a reader:

My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always. She wanted me to read everything of value, and she taught me to out-read my entire generation, as she had done hers. . . I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children. I collected those long, melancholy lists of the great books that high school English teachers passed out to college-bound students, and I relied on having consumed those serious litanies of books as a way to ease my way into the literary life.

Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.

The Death of Santini covers some familiar ground — the relationship between Conroy and his terrifyingly abusive father, Don Conroy (a.k.a. “The Great Santini”). But this is a story of redemption — Don Conroy has transformed himself from a monster into a loving father and grandfather. At the end of The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo (Pat Conroy’s alter ego), says, “I learned that I needed to love my mother and father in all their flawed, outrageous humanity. And in families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness. But it is the mystery of life that sustains me now.” Fact reflects fiction in The Death of Santini, for Conroy shows us how he is able to forgive Don Conroy for his vicious cruelty towards his family. The writing of the book was a necessary part of Conroy’s healing; he says in the prologue:

Mom and Dad, I need to go back there once again.  I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time . . . Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Don Conroy was, according to his son, far more cruel and abusive than Bull Meecham, the”Great Santini” of the novel. When Conroy sent his editor a first draft of the novel, she told him she was troubled by his potrayal of the Colonel — “no  reader could expect to believe that such an unsavory man could exist without a single virtue to recommend him. To make him credible, I had to include scenes that displayed a softer and kinder man.” This softer and kinder man eventually came to life, in the person of the elderly Don Conroy. Throughout his life, he enjoyed attending his son’s book signings; in fact, father and son made a pact that no customer would ever leave without a book signed by them both. (Of course, he often bragged that his line for autographs was longer.) He was enormously proud of Conroy’s success, and, in fact, wrote a letter to his entire extended family defending The Great Santini:

Pat is a very clever storyteller and I was totally absorbed and encountered every emotion, as reading very slowly, life with father unfolded in this work of fiction. It was as though I knew some of the characters personally . . . Pat did a superb job in developing the character Mary Ann . . . with all modesty, fell far short on Santini — which is quite understandable with such a dashing and complex character.

Yes, Don Conroy is a complex character — and Conroy does an extraordinary job of portraying that complexity in The Death of Santini. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Conroy describes his father’s grief after his youngest son’s funeral: “Forgiven at last, my father sat in a chair in the living room, not even trying to control his crying. His kids surrounded him, because his love of Tom provided us an understanding of his own love for all of us. It was a day of surreal, uncommon beauty.”

Conroy closes the book with the eulogy he wrote for his father’s funeral. Is this really the last time Conroy will “examine the wreckage” of his tumultuous family? In an interview in BookPage, he claims it is: “I’m going to try to leave the family in peace. There are other things to write about.” We’ll see.

Book Club Spotlight — The “No Regrets” Book Club

Actually, this book club isn’t called the “No Regrets” Book Club. I don’t think it has an official name, but I thought that should be its name because when I asked the members to tell me their favorite and least favorite selections,  I got variations on this response:

There has not been a single book that I have regretted reading and I have learned something from every book and everyone in the group through  our discussions, even involving books we haven’t liked very much.

cover-1I love this group’s attitude, energy, and enthusiasm — not to mention their longevity. They’ve been going strong for almost 20 years and have read about 180 books — classics, poetry, plays, memoirs, and of course, current fiction and nonfiction.  They are open to reading almost anything they think will inspire good conversation. Members of the group have come and gone throughout the years, but there is a core group of about 12 women — including two published authors!

The “No Regrets” readers have planned many creative book-related field trips. They have attended the Chicago Humanities Festival, where Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) was a speaker. They have gone to the Steppenwolf Theater to see The Book Thief adapted as a play and to the local multiplex to see the movie version of The Great Gatsby. When a book club selection is set in another country known for its cuisine (France, Japan, China . . .), of course they must meet in an appropriate restaurant. And they have attended events at Lake Forest College and local libraries.

Every September, the group chooses books to read for the next nine months. Each member brings book suggestions and presents them to the group. The selection is democratic — the books with the most votes win. They always make sure to include a classic and a nonfiction book. Here’s their reading list for this fall and winter:

  • Me Before You (Jojo Moyes) — contemporary fiction
  • The Heretic’s Daughter (Kathleen Kent) — historical fiction
  • Listening Below the Noise: The Transformative Power of Silence (Anne LeClaire) — spirituality
  • The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) — classic children’s fiction
  • The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) — YA
  • The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe) — memoir

What an interesting and diverse list!  “A little something for everyone,” said a member.  I particularly loved The End of Your Life Book Club — I’ll be curious to hear about that discussion. The book is a tender, moving memoir of Will Schwalbe’s deep and abiding relationship with his mother, and how books brought them even closer together. It’s a celebration of the transformative power of books. Reading is a solitary activity — but, as all book club members know, there is joy in sharing the books that you love. J.R. Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, has this to say about The End of Your Life Book Club:

Will Schwalbe’s brave and soulful elegy to his remarkable mother, his recollection of their sparklingly literate conversations, is a timely reminder that one exceptional person, or one exceptional book, can be a torch coverin the darkness.

In November, the group meets at Lake Forest Book Store for a book review night to get a head start on Christmas shopping. (As Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again”.)  In December, the regular discussion is followed by a wrapped paperback grab bag: “It is great fun and everyone tries to bring interesting books to choose from,” according to a member.

The last meeting of the book club year takes place in June, when they meet at Ragdale, an artists’ community and retreat located on the country estate of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. The porch of the main house provides a beautiful place to enjoy dinner, and the library is a cozy and peaceful spot for a book discussion . . . and, I imagine, reflection on a wonderful year of reading and friendship.

cover-2In no particular order, here are 10 favorite book club picks from the “No Regrets” club:

  • Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner)
  • Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  • The Samurai’s Garden (Gail Tsukiyama)
  • Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)
  • Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)
  • Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
  • The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
  • The Aviator’s Wife (Melanie Benjamin) paired with A Gift From the Sea (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

I’d love to feature more book clubs in Books on the Table — please tell me about your book club! Please fill out the contact form below, or email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com.

Special thanks to Leeni Ellis for telling me about her wonderful book club!

Author Events — Behind the Scenes

ArmchairBEA LogoExampleHello Armchair BEA Participants!

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.

ImageCarol 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.