Blogs at Amazon

About Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson became the Editorial Director of Amazon.com after working as books editor at O, the Oprah magazine, and as editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. In other words, her job for many, many years has been to read a lot of books and talk and write a lot about books. Tough life, huh?

Posts by Sara

Sara’s Sleeper: "We Are Called to Rise" by Laura McBride

SaranelsonWe Are Called to RiseSometimes I crave a simple, straightforward novel--not necessarily light, but straightforward;  one that makes a point about our world-views, our morality, the way we live now. 

We Are Called to Rise, by Laura McBride, is that kind of book. It’s a  series of interlocking vignettes of four characters:  two middle aged women with in-flux family lives, a little Albanian-immigrant boy and a wounded soldier too scared and angry to remember his patriotic platitudes. It’s set in Las Vegas, but if you’re thinking glamorous, you’ll be surprised.  And while there are moments you can’t help but see that this debut author is more fascinated by her ideas than the characters she gives them to, I dare you to come away from this arresting novel unmoved. 

Plus:  how can you resist a book that is both readable in one sitting AND takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson? 

Susan Jane Gilman on Everything You Never Knew About Ice Cream… and Then Some

Susan Jane GilmanTo write my novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street I had to research the history of ice cream and modern-day ice cream production in great detail. This, as you might imagine, was extremely taxing. Not only did I have to go behind the scenes of a Carvel Ice Cream store in Massapequa, NY, but attend a "master class" at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Italy. I then read extensively about ice cream and, of course -- just to make sure I'd grasped the basics --ate a monumental amount of ice cream, as well. Really.

The things I have to do for my art. It's a wonder I managed to write my novel at all.

Still, after christening myself the founder of the "Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Research" and completing my book, I did come away with a whole assortment of cool, interesting facts about the 20th century ice cream industry:

Ice Cream Queen Cover1. No less than five different people claimed to have invented the ice cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Four of these were Middle Eastern immigrants. One of them, Abe Doumar, called his invention "Syrian ice cream sandwiches." Using a waffle iron, he developed a cone machine after the fair; he later donated this to the Smithsonian Institution.

2. Prohibition proved to be a godsend for the ice cream industry. What were tavern-owners to do with their now-illegal barrooms and beer halls? They converted them into ice cream parlors. In 1920, one Brooklyn brewery even began selling ice cream in place of beer at Coney Island to make up for its lost revenue. By 1929, 60% of the nation's drugstores had installed soda fountains.

3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Great Depression was devastating for the ice cream industry. It gave rise to "ice cream bootleggers," who produced a cheap, terrible product pumped full of air -- that did not adhere to the government's minimum manufacturing requirements -- and sold it under-the-table to ice cream outlets for less than the popular, mainstream brands.

4. In World War II, the United States government became the largest ice cream maker in history, producing 800 million gallons a year. Most other countries could no longer produce ice cream, due to shortages of milk, sugar, and infrastructure. But the U.S. military deemed ice cream "an essential item for troop morale" -- and so it dedicated all available resources to manufacturing ice cream on a grand scale for the military. It even commissioned two "Ice Cream Barges" -- dubbed "the world's first floating ice cream parlors." The ships' sole responsibility was to produce ice cream for the U.S.military. Their machines and crews pumped out almost 1,500 gallons every hour for distribution to troops across the Pacific theater.

Susan JaneGilman5. Even though Italy is thought to be the home of modern-day ice cream, during Wolrd War II, Benito Mussolini declared that ice cream was "too American" and banned the sale of ice cream throughout Italy, accusing the Italian people of being a "mediocre race of good-for-nothings only capable of singing and eating ice cream."

6. When rationing was lifted after the war, American began consuming ice cream in record amounts -- 20 quarts per person in 1946 alone. Today, the amount is even higher, though only slightly. Americans now consume about 22 quarts per person per year.

7. In the late 1940s, before there was a polio vaccine, public health experts in America noted that polio cases increased in the hot months of summer. Since people naturally ate more ice cream and drank more soft drinks in hot months, scientists jumped to the conclusion that sugar -- and particularly ice cream -- caused Polio. Eliminating sweets was recommended as part of an anti-polio diet. For several years, ice cream was erroneously believed to cause polio.

8. Baskin-Robbins originally conceived of their famous "31 Flavors" so that they could offer a different flavor for every day of the month.

9. Only New Zealanders consume more ice cream than Americans -- 27 quarts per person, per year.
The first ice cream to be certified kosher was Carvel Ice Cream, founded by Thomas Carvelas, a Greek Orthodox immigrant.

10. However, if you go to a Carvel Ice Cream store to research your novel, and you secretly believe that "research" means dipping your head beneath the soft-serve ice cream dispenser and letting as much chocolate ice cream as possible pour directly into your mouth, you will be disappointed. The proprietors actually won't let you anywhere near the soft ice cream machine unsupervised... even if you are the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies.

The Paris Wife meets Margaret Mead: Paula McLain and Lily King in Conversation

EuphoriaThe best thing you can say about a novel based, loosely or otherwise, on historical characters is that it sometimes makes you want to go out and read biographies and other nonfictional accounts of the people and places you met in that novel. Euphoria is just such a book, and if I say it will make you think differently about the anthropologist Margaret Mead -- or think about her at all, in fact -- it will have more than done its job. Brainy and romantic all at once, Euphoria, our Spotlight pick for June's Best of the Month, is a special kind of novel, and a bit of a departure for its author, Lily King (Father of the Rain). Here, King sits down for a chat with Paula McLain, author of another little historical you might have heard of: The Paris Wife.

Paula McLain: I've been a fan of your work for years, Lily, but this book is dizzyingly good. It's also a big departure for you creatively. How did the idea come to you?

Lily King: It came so unexpectedly and when I wasn't looking for an idea at all. I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, and a friend of mine took me to a used bookstore that was closing; I picked up a biography of Margaret Mead. I didn't really expect I'd read it, but I started it that night and got to this part when she's 31 years old and in the Territory of New Guinea doing fieldwork with her husband, and they meet another anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. He finds them a tribe to study nearby and they have this five-month fiery love triangle in the jungle with malarial fevers and intellectual breakthroughs.

Lily King
Lily King

It was impossible not to think, "Wow, this would make a great novel!" But my next thought was, of course, "I can't do that. I don't write novels like that." But Father of the Rain was an emotionally draining book and I had to take long breaks from it, so I started reading more about Mead and Bateson and anthropology and the indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea and started taking notes and getting ideas. Once the other novel was done, I started to think maybe I could take a stab at it.

PM: I have to confess I fell completely in love with Andrew Bankson. Did you? What spurred your decision to tackle his voice as well as Nell's? Any challenges or particular pleasures?

LK: I was massively in love with him, too--his Englishness, his tragic youth, his vulnerability and lack of confidence yet a very clear moral compass, and his complete obliviousness to his own sexiness… My kind of man.

I originally meant the book to be Nell's story, in her voice alone. But after I finished the first chapter I needed to go back in time a few days and write the scene of Bankson's suicide attempt, which she wasn't there to witness. I remember exactly where I was and what I ordered when I wrote that chapter (Walter's in Portland, Maine; tea and tiramisu) because I was so surprised by how close I was able to get to him, much closer than I had gotten to her in that first chapter. I felt I could hear his thoughts so clearly. I knew then that the novel was really his story, and everything I had thought about how I'd tell it and what would happen would have to change.

Paula McLain
Paula McLain

PM: The fictional New Guinean tribes you track in the book are fascinating, and the details so richly layered and convincing. The Sepik River in 1933 isn't a place that essentially exists anymore, if you know what I mean. How did you "get there" imaginatively? Were there any breakthroughs or signposts along the way that helped you feel you really understood this exotic world?

LK: Thank you so much for saying that. It was scary and daunting and most of the time I feared I was failing. But there would be small details I'd find in the research that I could latch onto. I remember reading in one of Mead's letters that she was happy because she had been given a crocodile egg and could make a loaf of bread. And that a big delicacy for one of the tribes was a certain kind of raw bat. I don't think either of these details ever made it into the novel, but I had them in my head and they made the place feel real to me, and allowed me to make up other details that felt compatible.

In the Museum of Natural History in New York I saw a navigation tool made out of sticks and shells that people held up to the night sky to find their way on the water, as well as a few other things that really brought me closer to that world. Also the vocabulary of the time--the kiaps and pinnaces, the awful term blackbirding (for recruiters from western corporations who lured young men away from their villages to work in the mines and on the plantations)--all served to bring me back to that era. Sometimes the power a word or two can have on the imagination is incalculable.

For me the research really stimulated ideas for plot. I'd read a good detail and then a whole scene would unfold.

PM: Nell and Fen's marriage is thorny and complex, and it was sometimes hard for me to glean why such a strong woman would put up with his cruelty. How do you understand their connection? Did you find ways to sympathize with Fen's character?

Father of the Rain

Father of the Rain
by Lily King

Paperback | Kindle


The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain

Paperback | Kindle

LK: I had a lot of sympathy for Fen. Like all angry and abusive people, he was terrified. He was scared he wasn't as smart as Nell, as hard-working as she was, or as committed and inspired and just plain good at it. He was scared he was going to lose her. He feared that the intellectual life that he had gravitated towards was not masculine enough. He was confused by Nell and her modern ideas, and while he wanted to be a part of that conversation and her unconventional world, his upbringing and everything he had known before her was in direct opposition to it.

Nell and Fen met in the most romantic of circumstances, on a ship as they were both returning from their first field trips. They were both wide open emotionally, experiencing similar re-entry feelings, and full of hope about their lives. Nell got to see Fen at his very best, and he saw her at her most relaxed and least compulsive. They spent a year apart, writing letters, then married just before sailing back to the South Pacific for another field trip together. Once there, they are stuck in the jungle together for two years under very difficult and isolated circumstances. It is a lot of pressure on a new marriage. I didn't feel that Nell had any other choice but to stay with him and try not to trigger his rage if she wanted to finish her work, which depended on his research as well as her own.

People aren't always strong in every area of their lives. Margaret Mead was also abused in the field by her husband Reo Fortune. There are several accounts of him hitting her. Latter in her life she admitted to a friend that he caused the miscarriage of a child while they were in Papua New Guinea. The one I find most poignant is from a letter she wrote him from the ship after their fieldwork there: "Oh dear—I wish you hadn't hit me where it would show that night over there. I wouldn't have had to go away from you." The words "where it would show" allows you to see that this brilliant, accomplished woman went away from him because of how she felt others would perceive the situation and not out of her own sense of self-worth or self-preservation.

PM: In many ways, the novel is as much about a brilliant woman's passion for her work as it is about the love and hypnotic connection between Nell and Bankson. Was that your intention?

LK: I was attracted to the idea of someone risking her life for her work, risking her health and safety in so many ways, and denying herself basic comforts for years at a time, all to get this information that could not be gotten any other way. And I wanted her to meet someone who lit her mind on fire, whose intelligence was as attractive to her as his tenderness and his physical presence.

PM: There's a wonderful scene early on in the book where Nell describes to Bankson her favorite part of immersing herself in a new tribe -- the brief and fleeting "euphoria" that comes when everything feels reachable, comprehensible, before the full scope of the work ahead sets in. Did you have such a moment with this book?

LK: Ha! No! Nell has much more confidence in her own abilities than I do.

Sara's Sleeper: "The Blessings" by Elise Juska

SaranelsonThe BlessingsAs Malcolm Gladwell so well explained in David and Goliath, sometimes the little guy is more powerful than he looks. And so it is with novels, too.

While I'm very much looking forward to We Are Not Ourselves, a big fat novel about Irish Americans in the mid 20th century, coming in the fall, I stumbled on a smaller book on a similar topic last month. That book is The Blessings, the fourth novel by the Philadelphia-based author Elise Juska.

What's so great about this book? It feels like it's about people you know -- even if you're not Catholic or from Philadelphia -- because Juska writes such particular and yet simultaneously universal characters. My favorite was Lauren, who becomes a widow in the book's first section, and stays the heart of the novel even if she's not usually center-stage. She's long-suffering, but not so much stoic as infused by a sane optimism and plenty of love for her children (of course) and also for her nutty in-laws.

This is a book for lovers of Elizabeth Strout's work (Amy and Isabelle) and the stories of Jennifer Haigh, (partly for the Pennsylvania-isms). It's kind of an update on the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and a sibling to the less well known but spectacular Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy.

The Blessings is what I'm telling my smart friends to read on the beach.

An Excerpt from "Dear Leader" -- An All-Too-True Thriller About Life in Kim Jong-il's North Korea

Dear LeaderTo the Americans who are paying attention, the Korean government of Kim Jong-il seems like a particularly sinister cult. We’ve read news accounts of the oppressive propaganda, the silencing of those who dare to speak against it, and the fear under which many Koreans allegedly live. Dear Leader takes whatever we think we know one step forward. It’s a chronicle of how a poet became a member of the highly select "Admitted" group -- and how he eventually came to break with the man and the government that allowed him into their inner circle.

Read on for an excerpt from Jang Jin-sung's Dear Leader.


6 |IN THE RIFLE SIGHT

YOUNG-MIN and I arrived at the border town of Musan on January 15, 2004. We had traveled a distance of 288 miles. The journey by express train, which should have taken just one day according to the timetable, lasted four extra days. But despite this delay, every single person on board praised the marvel that was the arrival of any long-distance train at its destination. Someone yelled in a characteristically northern accent how, last month, the same trip had been delayed by more than ten days. Young-min and I glanced at each other and smirked.

They say that in January, up north in Hamgyong Province, icicles fall to the ground when you pee. When we city boys from Pyongyang stepped off the train, the sudden exposure to the brutal northern cold came as a shock. Young-min's ears turned bright red with cold. Unlike the large covered station in Pyongyang, Musan Station was a small building about a hundred feet from the tracks. The fencing around us, there to prevent those without travel passes from leaving the station premises, made more of an impression than the station building. The guards blew on their whistles and herded the passengers towards a booth where we were to show our train tickets and travel passes. Young-min and I remained silent, trying to appear inconspicuous, as we felt our true motives for travel would be obvious to anyone who looked closely at us. We communicated only with our eyes as we walked and, as we drew closer to the guards, we stopped even that.

With the authority granted to us by our Central Party identification papers, we stood at the back of the shortest queue, for Cadres, where only three people waited ahead of us. The other queues, for Military Personnel and Ordinary Residents, stretched far behind. However, the guards seemed to be taking more care over scrutinizing the cadres' passes, perhaps because they had more time to spare on a short queue. In the time the guards conducted one drawn-out interview with a cadre, four people in the line for Ordinary Residents had their documents confiscated without even being given a chance to explain. One of them, even as he was taken away by security agents, struggled to return for his luggage. A guard shouted and cursed at him and, when the man still did not stop struggling, began to kick him with his military boots. If my pass were declared invalid, my fate would be no better.

Finally, it was our turn. I took my identification papers out of my leather briefcase, making sure that the crest of the Workers' Party emblazoned on it in gold was visible. On seeing this, the guard, who had graying hair, tensed and saluted me. I was barely thirty. "Please show me your travel pass, " he said meekly. The special travel pass had already got us through several checkpoints. In North Korea, two types of guards check passengers' travel passes and identification documents every time the train crosses provincial boundaries or city limits; and this applies to both civilian and military passengers.

Although I had passed easily through these barriers, this final checkpoint was the only one that mattered now. As the guard glanced up from my documents towards me, I flinched. Even if my pass looked genuine, I feared that my guilt would show. When he handed back our documents without a single comment, Young-min and I walked as calmly as we could out of Musan Station.

We had chosen to cross the border from Musan, as the Tumen River—which forms part of the border separating North Korea from China—is at its narrowest there. The distance of this crossing determined our fate. If we climbed higher into the mountains, there might be smaller streams that fed the river, which we could cross with less difficulty. But there was no transport that could take us that far. We had been able to find a direct train to Musan because it was home to a large mining industry, and this was the closest we could get to the border.

When cadres miss three days of work, they are registered missing and a search warrant is issued in case of desertion. Even when you are ill, you must notify the relevant authorities about your whereabouts, because someone will be sent to verify that you are where you say you are. This would be our fourth day away from work, longer than we'd planned because of the delay to our train. Pyongyang must have issued a search warrant by now. We were in a race against time, and we were already losing.

Continue reading "An Excerpt from "Dear Leader" -- An All-Too-True Thriller About Life in Kim Jong-il's North Korea " »

Francesca Marciano Speaks "The Other Language"

Francesca MarcianoYou know how some collections of short stories are like a ring of perfect gems, each one honed and polished until it gleams with quiet moments, gentle apercus and reflected light?

The stories in Francesca Marciano's first collection, The Other Language, are not like that. They're rougher, messier, shot through with coincidence, a parable-like sensibility, and some final twists. Like stories a friend tells over lunch, they're less manufactured than experienced; these tales of displacement were forged in life, not a literary lab. And you need only spend a few minutes with their author to see where they come from.

A native Roman, Marciano is the very definition of a cosmopolitan European woman: she has lived many lives, in many languages, in Italy, New York, and Kenya (the setting of her first novel, 1998's The Rules of the Wild), among other places. Her mother tongue, of course, is Italian, but she writes her fiction in English, which she learned from an American friend when she was a teenager; her spoken English today is nearly perfect and only more charming on the rare occasions that it falters. ("When I came out here," she'll say, about coming to New York as a young girl; an American would more likely substitute "over" for "out") Best known in Italy as a screenwriter -- having worked on many films (including ones by Bertolucci) that are not distributed here -- she is both sophisticated and relaxed, a grown-up woman who sits in her publisher's office in a pair of loose jeans and a sweater and looks more at ease and put together than the stylish young New Yorkers in the adjoining offices.

(Full disclosure: This is the second time I've talked with Marciano. The first was in 1998 upon the publication of The Rules of the Wild). It was a luncheon arranged by her publisher for mostly female magazine editors. True to form, we all arrived in our buttoned-up dress-for-success outfits, trying to look sophisticated. Marciano, in a sweater and peasant-y skirt, unselfconsciously casual in dress and manner: she made us all feel like rubes.)

Marciano exudes the same mixture of world weariness and humor that comes through in many of her stories, probably because those stories come almost directly from her life. In one, for example, a young screenwriter about to win a major prize buys a couture Chanel dress to wear to the awards ceremony; "It's almost an act of transformation," Marciano says. "She wants to become a person that she isn't."(Marciano bought just such a dress years ago, and found an ending to her story recently when she showed the dress to a vintage-clothing-store owner.)

Francesca MarcianoIn "The Presence of Men", a Hollywood actor -- she won't say whom he's based on -- comes to a small Italian town and charms a local seamstress into making him some fine suits. In "The Italian System," she again spoofs the modern tendency to equate "old fashioned" attitudes and styles with authenticity. The stories are "really about how cynical we are without even knowing it," she says. "We're projecting an image on the past that is entirely romantic."

If there's one other through-line in , The Other Language, it's that the characters, no matter their age or location, feel like outsiders. (In one story, a woman who moves only from the north to the south of Italy still feels as if she might as well have come from Mars.) And Marciano, for all her assurance and seeming ease, says she feels the same way: always "other." She says that for much of her life, her friends from Rome didn't really understand how she could travel so much (It's very un-European, she says. The more typical citizen stays in the same city or village through much of her life.) An Italian screenwriter who writes fiction in English, she's mostly "ignored" as a novelist in Europe. "The fact that I don't write in Italian has created a certain kind of distance from the Italian audience, so I'm a bit of an outsider in Italy. And, you know, in a way I wish that would change."

On the other hand, she now can see her otherness as a gift. "It's almost like, in these two languages, I seem to have two different personalities and two different careers," she says. "By embracing another language you can be like this new person. Here I have found a voice in a second language and that has made me strangely free."

Amazon Asks: Francine Prose on Advice from Mavis Gallant, Negotiating Her First Advance, and the "Ultimate Empowered Little Girl"

Chameleon Club Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is Francine Prose's 17th novel (and 27th book, counting nonfiction and young adult titles). And even this longtime fan considers it one of her very best. The story of bohemian Paris between the World Wars, it's bawdy and racy and not a little brave. Prose says it all started with a photograph she saw in a museum, a shot of two women at a table in a French bar: "one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in [male] drag." Et voila: a novel was born.


What's the elevator pitch for your book?

First I hit the panic button so we stall between floors, giving me a little more time to say: It's about what Paris was like and how it changed in the 20 years between 1924-1944. At the book's center is a woman, a professional athlete/auto racer and cross-dresser who attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics and became a spy for the Germans. The book is about (and told by) the people around her: a baroness who fostered her racing career; the brilliant photographer who took an iconic portrait of her and her lover; an American novelist; a heroine of the French Resistance; the owner of a legendary nightclub for cross-dressers. It's about love, evil, history, and truth.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

I'm rereading the complete works of Barbara Pym; some of the books are physical books, some are on my Kindle, and all of them make me purely happy….

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

I'd have to tell you the top 300-500 books of all time.

What's the most Important book you never read?

Anything by Trollope and Galsworthy, despite how often people I love and trust have told me I should. I start, and I can't go on, I just can't...

What's the book that changed your life?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

What's the book that made you want to become a writer? Alt: Favorite book(s) as a child?

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking --the ultimate empowered little girl. Nowadays I even put up with the horrendous '70s film version of the book, to which my 7-year-old granddaughter is devoted.

What's your most memorable author moment?

The day that the legendary editor Harry Ford called to tell me he wanted to publish my first novel. This was in the early '70s. He said he supposed I'd be wanting an advance. I said I did. He asked, How much. I asked, What did he think? He said, How about a thousand dollars? I said, Great!! I was at a friend's house. I was sure I'd be hit by a truck on my way home.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

X-ray vision--the ability to see what people are really thinking. The ability to learn languages instantly and fluently.

What are you obsessed with now?

Syria. The Ukraine. Climate change.

What are you stressed about now?

Same as above.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Three rainbow-loom rubber-band bracelets.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The brilliant Mavis Gallant, one of the great writers of our era, told me not to drink cheap wine, it's bad for the liver.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Karl Ove Knausgaard

What's the last dream you remember?

I dreamed I was wandering around a giant factory—lost. Confused, scared, running into weird and terrifying dead ends. I finally found some people who worked there and asked what exactly the factory manufactured. They said: Ball-point pens, and showed me one. I said, That's funny, those are the kind of pens I write with….Doctor Freud? Do we have to bother with this one?

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

Computer solitaire is the answer to all three.

What do you collect?

Vintage postcards. Masks.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

I got a beautiful letter from a woman who told me that she had been reading Blue Angel and felt, in the room, the presence of her mother, who had died, and who would have loved my novel.

Funny Business: Stanley Bing Explains It All For You

The CurriculumDo you have a crazy boss? Do you want to learn to be one?

Longtime Fortune magazine business columnist Stanley Bing (How to Relax Without Getting the Axe, What Would Machiavelli Do?) has mapped out for you -- in charts, graphs, ten commandments, and Power Point -- why people succeed in business, whether they're trying or not. His new book, The Curriculum, is a most serious spoof of what you could learn (or not) in an accredited b-school. Why pay a quarter of a million dollars in tuition, when you can buy that knowledge here for less than .02% of that.

Here, for example, is Bing's interpretive comparison of Lower, Middle and Ultra-Senior managers.

The Curriculum

We asked Bing some of our favorite questions. Read more about influential books, impressing his son, and predicting the future of technology here.

Amazon Asks: Stanley Bing on Influential Books, Impressing His Son, and Predicting the Future of Technology

Bing If you've read Fortune magazine anytime in the last 20+ years, or, for that matter, if you've cruised the business book world, you already know Stanley Bing: the funniest "business" writer on a very crowded block. Tomorrow, we'll unveil one of the riffs from his newest book, The Curriculum. But for now, we thought we'd grab him for a second, in between high level business meetings and attacks of corporate angst (is there a diff?), to get his answers to some of our favorite questions.


What's the elevator pitch for your book?

The Curriculum is a rigorous course of study designed for business students or interested professionals who want to achieve power and success without enduring the tedium, stress, and expense of a traditional MBA.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, because it's discursive and hilarious; Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks, because I can't, generally, and occasionally would like to; and Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune, because I loved it dearly as a child and get slightly lachrymose after a few drinks late at night and start ordering things.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Top Five (in no particular order):

  • Moby Dick, except for the long section on how to cook a whale;
  • The Metamorphosis, particularly the funny parts;
  • The entire History of Crime series, from Roseanna to The Terrorists, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which are the motherload of all subsequent Scandinavian crime fiction;
  • The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by George Simenon, an incomparably perfect little novel about what can happen to a conventional person when the structure of his life unravels;
  • The Shining by Stephen King, because it's the last book that I had to read with all the lights on.

 

Important book you never read?

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I tried. But there are now some mountains that my brain can no longer climb.

Book that changed your life?

There are probably quite a few, but I'll name two. The first is Crime and Punishment, because I read it at exactly the right moment in my teens sometime, and it seized me the way no other book had until that moment; it seemed like a whole world had opened to me that was in some fundamental way more real than my own. I loved it. I was also really influenced by The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, which took an anthropological view of the corporate organization, viewing it basically as a totalitarian bureaucracy, a perspective that is very useful to me in my own work, which makes me sound very serious, I know, but there you have it. Oh, and I should probably also mention that reading my way all the way through Sherlock Holmes gave me a lifelong love for crime and detective fiction.

Favorite book(s) as a child?

I already mentioned Albert Payson Terhune, and I inhaled his books about his elegant, preternaturally intelligent collies throughout my childhood. I had no idea at the time that he was sort of a Nietzschean crypto-racist, with all sorts of views about superior bloodlines and terrible stuff like that. I thought he wrote very moving and exciting dog stories, you know? Also loved Booth Tarkington's Penrod books, which were all about being a ten-year-old boy in a placid, lovely, small-town America when I was one. I also remember getting a tremendous kick out of a series about cave people at the dawn of time I got at my local library that I now cannot find anywhere online at all. They were big and fat and immersive and if anybody reading this has an idea of what they might have been, I'd be obliged to you.

What's your most memorable author moment?

I was with my son at a Bob Dylan concert. It was intermission and some guy who wasn't too old came up to me and said, "Hey! You're Stanley Bing!" and shook my hand. "That was cool, Dad," my son said. We didn't cry and embrace or anything, but it was a good moment. I'd also have to say that being on Charlie Rose a while back about one of my books was a real thrill. I felt like a real, authentic author the whole time. And I say that not only because it's true, but because it's possible that Charlie may be reading this and it would help get me on his show again.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

"I would love to have the power to stop waking at 3 a.m. every night to check my e-mail."

BingWhat are you obsessed with now?

Two decades ago, around the time I started doing my column for Fortune, I believe, I wrote a humor column prognosticating a future where people would have cranial implants to replace all existing forms of electronic communications. I now believe it was a sort of Jules Verne moment for me, when I thought I was blowing sci-fi smoke, but I was actually predicting a likely future. I am now obsessed with the idea that very soon, before we know it, digital wetware will replace glassware to create surgically enhanced humans who will eventually form the genetic stock of the next iteration of humanity, rendering Homo Sapiens as defunct as our predecessor, Homo Neanderthanensis. I don't want to be around when that happens, by the way, but I would like to have my consciousness digitally preserved and housed in a pleasant place for later insertion into a fully functional cyborg when that's possible.

What are you stressed about now?

Putin.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My Martin D-18, which was built the year I was born and bought in a pawn shop in Cincinnati as a present for me when I was eight years old for $90. It's just as nice as it ever was.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The best piece of advice I ever got was to stay one drink behind the most senior officer at the table or party. The worst piece of advice was to eat the worm at the bottom of a bottle of mescal one night at a boondoggle in San Diego.

Who's your current author crush?

Mark Bittman. He's actually convinced me to eat like a Marin County hippie before 6 p.m. It's the 6 p.m. part that's brilliant. Every day there's light at the end of the vegetable tunnel.

What book you wish you'd written?

Who Moved My Cheese. Not because of the message -- which is truly deplorable, viewing employees as tiny rodents whose masters may move their sustenance at will -- but because the book probably took 20 minutes to write and has now sold a hundred billion copies. It's the Quarter Pounder of business books.

What's the last dream you remember?

Just last night I dreamed that I was required to go back to the past and perform a certain task without upsetting the natural order of the future. I saw my boss when his hair was black. I saw several colleagues again, who I have missed, actually, since they left the corporation. I saw a 1995-era Cadillac stretch which seemed to be waiting for somebody more important than I was. It was very detailed and interesting. Then I woke up and realized that most of the philosophical issues in my dream have already been dealt with in The Terminator. I'm still thinking about it, though.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

My favorite method of procrastination is to do something else that needs doing, but not quite so imminently. Sleeping is also good, as is drinking until you really can't do anything very well anymore. And let's not forget about Amazon Prime. You guys have some seriously excellent content on there.

What do you collect?

Guitars, cameras, watches, yoyos, and comics. Some other things, too, but those are the main ones. Not all at once, of course. Sort of alternatively, never quite dropping any one, but focusing now and then on each. Right now there's a vintage acoustic guitar I don't need that I have my eye on.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

That's easy. A few years ago, a reader became annoyed at something I had posted on my blog. He shot off a note that was brief and to the point: "Your an idiot," he said. "Your" an idiot! I still feel wonderful when I think about it.

A Peek Inside "What Would Lynne Tillman Do?"

What Would Lynn Tillman Do?What Would Lynne Tillman Do? is a collection of 35 essays from a brainy, funny American thinker and writer--the kind of person able (and willing!) to dispense observation and advice on everything from great writing to Chet Baker to the Internet and how it has changed society. In other words, she's a know-it-all, in all the best ways: warm, wise, and, when it's called for, pointed in her criticisms. As someone said, she's not a malcontent, but she is discontented sometimes. She has also crossed paths with some of the greatest creative minds of the last several decades. (The book is introduced by Colm Toibin, after all.) Here we have Lynne Tillman's story of her interactions with the great 20th century expatriate writer, Paul Bowles.


In 1972, I was living in Amsterdam, and decided to edit an anthology of American writers abroad. Paul Bowles reigned as the preeminent American abroad. I told my Dutch publisher that his presence in the book was essential, and assured him that Bowles would definitely be in it. All bravado. I was a complete unknown. Anxiously, I wrote a letter to Paul Bowles, requesting his important participation. Shockingly fast, he wrote back, Yes.

I can't remember what Bowles first sent me. But soon the book's publication was delayed, and whatever piece it was, he had given it to someone else. I quickly and humbly asked for another piece; he amiably sent one along. I really didn't know what I was demanding of such a distinguished, sought-after writer. I knew nothing, I was a kid, and all my ideas about being an editor came from reading literary histories and writers' biographies. I had requested unpublished material from everyone. The long delays continued, and every piece Bowles sent me was eventually published somewhere else.

After the first publisher reneged—the novelty division was dissolved—a second publisher came forward to save the book, a friend with a small Dutch press who promised to bring the anthology out, fast. He didn't. I'm not sure how much time passed, but once again I needed to ask Bowles for new writing. Now he had no unpublished work at all, nothing to give; he was very sorry. Desperate, I wrote: Don't you have anything? I don't care what it is. Bowles kindly mailed a few poems he'd written in the early 1930s, noting that they weren't very good, but I could use them if I wanted. He didn't have anything else. Again, he was very sorry.

It never occurred to me that he might have been, with excellent reason, courteously bailing out of my long-sinking enterprise. But I was young, naive, hopeful, and these traits, mixed with others, allowed me not only to ignore that possibility but also to agree with his negative assessment of his poems. Yes, they're not very good, I wrote him. Of course I'll publish them anyway. You must be in the anthology. But, I pleaded, don't you have anything else? How about letters you wrote home from Europe?

Not long after, an airmail letter arrived, on onionskin as ever, but thicker than the one page he usually sent. He, or a helper, had typed copies of two letters he had written his mother on his very first trip to Europe. He had traveled there with composer Aaron Copland; Copland had been his music teacher, then a close friend. In one letter Bowles tells the hilarious tale of their sailing to Tangier. The second was written after he and Copland had settled in Tangier, about their travails with their piano, and also about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who were their friends. Use the letters if you want, Bowles wrote. I read them over and over, delighted with each line, and also by glimpsing his intimate and sympathetic relationship with his mother; I knew he despised his father. (In his autobiography, Bowles admitted to wanting to kill him.) Now it was worth it, every delay, everything—the letters were jewels.

Lynn TillmanOver those years, the anthology had gone through many transformations. Mostly I added people: it was hard for me to say no to friends, even those who weren't writers. When the second Dutch publisher stopped answering my letters, I finally gave up, though the book had been designed, typeset, and was actually on boards. I knew it would never be published. Curiously, I took this failure in stride, seven or eight years of work and waiting, making promises and breaking them. By then I was doing other things, living in New York and writing. Maybe more significant, the anthology had come to feel unnecessary to me, a leftover from an existence I no longer had or wanted. I'd done it, and was done with my romance of the American abroad—along with the rest of the world. Being in Europe had helped me unlearn some of what I'd been taught or unconsciously believed. Any writer knows that what's left out is as essential, if not more so, than what's there. Unlearning works that way. I unlearned the model of being an editor like Ezra Pound with T.S. Eliot, the unconscious belief that America was the center of the world, and that honesty meant saying what I thought and always being direct. (The Dutch and the English, former competitors for world dominance, taught me the wisdom of waiting as well as withholding.) As to new lessons: I learned I could be miserable anywhere in the world. I learned I really was an American.

Bowles and I continued corresponding, hardly ever mentioning the ill-fated anthology. He had suffered much worse fates than the ups and downs of publication, of course, specifically, the slow, sad decline of Jane Bowles and her death in 1972. In some ways I think he was forever amused by something invisible buzzing around him, and that something kept him going. Maybe he was amused just to be alive.

(c) 2014 by Lynne Tillman. From What Would Lynne Tillman Do? published by Red Lemonade

Amazon Asks: Jean Hanff Korelitz on her "fab four" of books, how Greek mythology changed her life, and Sylvia Plath's cow

You Should Have Known You Should Have Known is Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel about a super successful marriage therapist who finds out her own husband has been keeping big -- and we do mean big -- secrets. Best known as the author of Admission, which became a film starring Tina Fey, Korelitz once again writes as if she's a fly on the wall, or a spy under the bed, in our complicated, modern, urban lives. We asked this observant writer to answer some of our favorite questions.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

A marriage counselor -- with some very harsh opinions on how women fool themselves about men -- has no idea who her husband of nearly two decades really is.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

I always have an audiobook on my iPhone and a printed book in progress. I've just finished Lawrence Wright's fascinating book about Scientology, Going Clear, and Deborah Michel's Prosper in Love, which is a really delightful Trollope-esque novel, set in the LA art world. I was in Ireland last week and someone told me about a long out-of-print novelist named Mrs. Victor Rickard. I asked him to recommend one of her books and I've just ordered an old edition: The Light Above the Cross Roads (1917)

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

My fab four forever: Pride and Prejudice, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev and (wild card) Frederick Forsyth's The ODESSA File (still thrilling, still moving -- yes, you read that right.)

Important book you never read?

Proust. Is it really important? Sigh. OK, I'll read it.

Book that changed your life?

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. An early grounding in Greek mythology is an incredibly powerful tool to have in life. Also, when I turned the last page in 1969, when I was 8 years old, I became an atheist. It answered questions I didn't know enough at the time to ask, and it answered them for life.

Book that made you want to become a writer? Favorite book(s) as a child?

I suppose Black Beauty comes as close as any. I read it again and again, and I always cried at the end.

Jean Hanff Korelitz What's your most memorable author moment?

On the set of Admission in May, 2012. I was watching a scene in which Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin, and Paul Rudd were all at a birthday party. Lily Tomlin introduces herself by her character's name -- Susannah Nathan -- and I suddenly had this memory of the morning I made up that name. I was sitting on my bed, in my pajamas, with my laptop. It was completely surreal.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Going back in time and changing things so that horrible events don't happen. I'd be amazed if anyone wanted anything else.

What are you obsessed with now?

Woody Allen. Don't get me started.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Apart from personal things related to my family? A small drawing of a cow by Sylvia Plath, which my husband gave me a couple of years ago. Plath is my favorite poet (apart from my husband, who is also a poet!), and having something she made by hand means the world to me.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got?

A magazine editor once told me that an interview I'd turned in was bland because I'd failed to ask the next question. She said: "You always have to ask the next question, and then the next question, and then the next..." She was right. Ironically, sometimes you get the most interesting responses when you let the silence become uncomfortable.

The worst?

Well, no one precisely advised me of this, but when I was in my twenties there was real pressure to publish a first novel when you were young. There were so many novels by my contemporaries about fresh-out-of-college characters getting wasted in nightclubs, and they were massive bestsellers, while my own first and second novels were being rejected by everyone. But the truth is that I became a better writer as I got older, and I also had more to say. What I tell people now is that writing fiction isn't like being a ballet dancer or a fashion model, who have to be successful when they're young or not at all -- we have time to get better and write more interesting books. When I did start to have novels published in my thirties very few people read them, and if you'd told me that I'd be in my fifties before I had any kind of a readership I would have been full of despair. But now, I'm sort of happy it happened this way, and I appreciate every single reader because of how long it's taken for me to actually have readers.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Sheri Fink, author of Five Days at Memorial. She's so brave.

What book do you wish you'd written?

For reasons that will be obvious to every writer on the planet, I wish I'd written The Goldfinch!

What's favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

There's always a book to finish reading...

What do you collect?

Having recently moved from an enormous house in New Jersey to a small Manhattan apartment, I'm no longer allowed to collect anything. Unfortunately.

Getting to Know Nickolas Butler and "Shotgun Lovesongs" — a Big Spring Books Selection

Shotgun LovesongsShotgun Lovesongs may just be the sleeper hit of the season, so evocative is it of the kind of small town American life we don't get enough of in literature these days. The story of a mill town and four guys who love it, leave it, and come back to it forever changed but still somehow the same, it doesn't just tug at the heartstrings; it lodges itself in the heart. And that's one reason I selected it as my Editors' Pick in our Big Spring Books feature.

I spoke with 34-year-old Nickolas Butler about the setting and character choices he made and how his debut novel has already changed his life. 


Sara Nelson: You grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is near the setting of your novel: a fictional town called Little Wing. Are we to assume the book has elements of autobiography?

Nickolas Butler: Well, I think there's a little bit of me in everyone, including Beth [a Little Wing native married to Henry, the seemingly most solid of the four guys.] If I had to describe the book in a nutshell, I'd say it's about friendship and decency and love, and about a place, a very specific place: rural Wisconsin.

SN: I keep describing Leland -- the one who goes off and becomes a famous musician -- as a "Springsteen-esque" character, but apparently you had a younger model, closer to home?

NB: I say that the book was inspired by Justin Vernon [who won the 2012 Best New Artist Grammy as Bon Iver ], but I want to be careful to say I haven't seen him in 18 years. We went to high school together; he was a year younger. But I don't want to make the relationship seem like something that it's not.

The thing is, though, that in Eau Claire, there was just no example for succeeding in the arts before he made it. To have known somebody as a normal human being, a teenager, and then see them experience a wonderful kind of success that you know they worked really, really hard for just gave me a huge amount of confidence to move forward and try to be a writer.

SN: So, are you the most like Leland, then, in that struggle?

NB: I don't know anything about writing music. I'm not musical at all, but I do understand the pressure of hitting a certain place in your life and feeling like, "If I don't make a go of being a writer now, with a kid or two in the family... I'm gonna have to figure something else out." That's why I felt a huge amount of pressure when I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop to make sure I was using my time effectively, to come out of the program with a book that was as good as I could [make it]. Which is basically the same kind of pressure that Leland is feeling when he's recording his first album.

SN: The book is organized around four weddings that bring the friends together. Why did you choose that organizing principle?

NB: What happened was that my wife and I had a two-year period when we were averaging six weddings a summer. I'm not even exaggerating. Weddings were just foremost in my mind. I was going to these weddings. I was sitting in the pews of churches and as a writer/observer, I was thinking about the little dramas and thinking that this would be good for a book somehow.

SN: Throughtout the book, and not just because of the marriages, these four old friends each change and come together and apart a number of times. The novel, in fact, starts with a situation between Leland and his old friend Kip, a scene that could destroy a friendship forever...

NB: When you first see Kip, he starts off, well, as sort of a villain, but then you see that he's trying to become a better human being, but he's just awkward. He's probably like a lot of us. He just doesn't always do the right thing and then realizes what the right thing is, afterwards -- and feels bad about it.

SN: How have your old friends, and the community in Eau Claire, responded to the book?

NB: So far, the reaction has been very positive. Everybody's just really excited. Both my wife and I have these deep connections in the community and people that we knew are just really supportive. I'm really grateful. It's like I just kind of woke up inside my best dream; I can't believe this is happening. It's like I'm 12 years old and I woke up playing 3rd base for the Minnesota Twins.

The "Just So Nu?" Stories: A Wonderful Collection by the Best Writer You Never Heard Of

Out of the Bronx Every once in a while, you come across something that rings so true, so familiar, so painful and so funny, it makes you wonder… Did the person who wrote it live in your house, your parents' house, or maybe just (just?) inside your head?

The stories in Out of the Bronx -- a chronicle of a dysfunctionally charming, or charmingly dysfunctional, family in the 1940s and 50s -- are all like that. And even if you're not Jewish, have never been to the outer boroughs (or, in fact any borough) of New York City, and think times have changed (Ha!), I predict you'll find plenty, as my father used to say, to hang your hat on. (If only we still wore hats...)

The following excerpt is from "Lou's Death," the sixth of ten stories.


Lou, seated between Gloria and Rose in the back seat, spent the entire taxi ride home grousing. "I never should have listened to you. Thirty-five dollars for a useless check-up! Plus cab fare!"
"It wasn't useless, Daddy," said Gloria. "You have a bad disease. You really have to start taking care of yourself."
"If he wants to die," said Fanny, seated in one of the two jump seats, "let him. Who'll miss him?"
"I will," said Gloria.
"I won't," said Fanny. "With his gambling and his shylocks, he's probably better off dead."
Lou was too exhausted to defend himself. It was Joel, sitting on the second jump seat, who lost his temper and shouted at Fanny, "Once and for all, will you shut your trap?"
Everyone was shocked, Fanny most of all.
"Good for you, Joel," said Gloria.
"You see?" said Fanny. "Everyone in this family hates me."
"Can you blame us?" Gloria asked. "You don't have a drop of compassion—except for yourself! Can't you find an ounce for your own father?"
If hair could actually stand up on a person's head, Fanny's would have reached the roof of the taxi at Gloria's words.
"Listen, Miss Fatty Sachs," she said, "and listen good. And you, too, Mr. Goody-Goody Joel Sachs. I'm older than both of you, and you're not allowed to talk to me like that. I'm sick of being criticized by children!"
"Be nice to each other," said Rose. "We're a family. In a family, people are supposed to be nice to each other."
"Since when?" asked Fanny. "The four of you may be a family, but I'm not part of it. I never have been."
Rose ignored her and turned to Joel. "What am I supposed to feed him if I can't fry his hamburgers in Crisco?"
"It isn't necessary to fry hamburgers, Ma. You can broil them. Emily never fries anything except an egg once in a while."
"Emily?" said Lou with a sneer. "She's a rotten cook! I remember her food at your wedding. It was from hunger. Anyway, who ever heard of a bride cooking the food for her own wedding? I never heard of a wedding without a caterer."
"You didn't even give me a wedding," said Fanny, "so what are carrying on about? You refused to lay out a penny!"
"If I was the richest person in the United States, I wouldn't pay for anything that has to do with Harvey. As far as I'm concerned, he's not worth a penny."
"That's a nice way to talk about my husband," said Fanny.
"He hits you, doesn't he?" asked Rose.
"Who told you that?"
"Nobody has to tell me. I've seen the bruises on you."
"He hits her?" asked Lou. "That piece of garbage hits my daughter?"
"Is that true, Fanny?" asked Joel. "Does Harvey hit you?"
"You should keep your mouth shut, Ma," said Fanny.
"When you shut your mouth, I'll shut mine."
"Is it true, Fanny?" Joel repeated.
"We hit each other," said Fanny. "I get my shots in too, believe me."

Reprinted by permission of Asahina & Wallace. c. Jerome Kass  2014

Four Questions with "The Wives of Los Alamos" Author TaraShea Nesbit

Wives of Los AlamosPoised to be a sleeper hit, The Wives of Los Alamos tells -- in the collective "we" -- the story of the women who followed their scientist husbands to New Mexico right after WWII; the men were working on the Atom Bomb project, not that their wives or families (or anybody else, mostly) knew that. An intelligent, probing novel, author TaraShea Nesbit's debut does what historical fiction does best: portrays a time and place and people we've heard of but probably didn’t know much about. Here's what Nesbit has to say about her book.

What drew you to this time and place?

My fascination with the history of the atomic bomb started with learning about a high school in eastern Washington that has an atomic bomber as their mascot; after that, I researched nuclear waste, and I just kept going back and back to the source of the bomb. Though I read about the lead scientists, even more interesting to me was to think of what life was like for their educated, newly married wives who followed their husbands to an unknown location in New Mexico. I wanted to know these women and be their friend and make more space in the world for their voices.

What do you enjoy reading and writing about historical fiction?

In historical fiction, time has stopped, at least for a little while, and I get to see, in slow motion, how co-existing experiences and points of view interact with and affect one another. Another thrill is how much historical fiction actually reveals about the time period with which it is written -- the preoccupations and focuses of revisionist history, for example, shift as our contemporary moment shifts. I love that historical fiction enables a reader to inhabit both the consciousness of a contemporary author and the world of the past.

What are some books that have influenced you as a writer?

Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Patrik Ouředník's Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, Studs Turkel's What Work Is, Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, Julianna Spahr's The Transformation, Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, Jennifer Denrow's California, and the Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge books by Evan S. Connell.

What do you hope readers take away from The Wives of Los Alamos?

I hope the book adds complexity to readers' understanding of the 1940s and atomic bomb history, while encouraging them to seek out more information. I want readers to enjoy spending time in the environment the book created, and it would be great if readers notice parallels between these women and that time and the present day.

Women in Wartime: Four New Historical Novels

One of the interesting things that happens when you read a lot is that you can sometimes notice patterns in books: a fashion for dystopian novels, for example, or a trend toward the injection of the magical into otherwise realistic fiction. And to say that historical novels have been very much in vogue of late is something of an understatement: from The Paris Wife to The Invention of Wings, publishers and readers have enjoyed plenty of benefits from stories that spring from real-life persons or events. But lately, I've noticed, there's a growing subset to the historical novel: the historical novel that features women in wartime. The new year has brought us at least these four:

The Secret of Raven Point

The Secret of Raven Point

Author: Jennifer Vanderbes
Era: WWII
Storyline: A 17 year old girl, very close to her older brother, lies about her age to go and search for him in the battlefields of Europe.
What's Special About It: 
Heroine Juliet is a young woman of uncommon pluck and the war scenes are grimly powerful, but it's the opening scenes between her and her brother that resonate with a Scout and Jim quality reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Extra Note:
Vanderbes is the author of the equally wonderful, award-winning Easter Island.
A Star for Mrs. Blake

A Star for Mrs. Blake

Author: April Smith
Era: Set in the 1930s, it focuses on vets from WWI.
Storyline: Based on a little known government initiative called the Gold Star Program, in which mothers of WWI casualties were flown to Europe by the US government to visit their sons' graves.
What Readers are Saying: "
Can I give this book TEN stars?" asks Amazon Vine reviewer Patricia Mejia Burke
Fun Fact:
April Smith also writes the popular Ana Grey mystery series
I Shall Be Near to You

I Shall Be Near to You

Author: Erin Lindsay McCabe
Era: Civil War
Storyline: A young woman cross-dresses so she can fight alongside her husband.
Why She Wrote It:
While searching for a primary source on which to base a paper in a Women's History course, McCabe came upon some letters from a woman who impersonated a man and became a soldier. "[She] dress[ed] as a man to get work on a canal boat and ... it only took her one boat ride up the river to find out that being a soldier for the 153rd New York State Volunteers paid better than any job she could find: $13 a month plus a $152 signing bonus," McCabe said.
The Wind is Not a River

The Wind is Not a River

Author: Brian Payton
Era: WWII
Storyline: A woman goes in search of her beloved husband, shot down over Alaska.
Special Feature:
Much of the book takes place in the beautiful, dramatic Aleutian Islands, an unusual venue for both war and love stories.
What People Are Saying About It: Amazon Senior Editor Neal Thompson, called this Best of the Month pick for January "earnest" and "ambitious." And beloved librarian and NPR commentator Nancy Pearl interviewed Payton here.

Amazon Asks: Sue Monk Kidd

Invention of Wings

The author of The Invention of Wings -- our spotlight pick for January and the latest choice of Oprah's Book Club 2.0 -- talks about the books she's missed, personal cloning and why February is the cruelest month.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

Two daring 19th century women risk everything for freedom.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

I have a Kindle that I use to read when I travel. On my nightstand at home is The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. What I have with me [on tour] is The Good Lord Bird.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

You realize how impossible that question is... I'm going to go by the kind of joy they gave me at the time I read them. I'm going to say Thirteen Stories by Eudora Welty. I've read that book more times than maybe any book I've ever read. Next: A Room of One's Own. I think I'm going to say To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd like to have six or seven slots in there...

Important book you never read?

My mind goes to all the classics I never read. I never read Anna Karenina. I don't know anyone who has read Ulysses. The one I'm probably most embarrassed about is the great American classic, Moby Dick. And I never read To the Lighthouse, which is terrible because I revere Virginia Woolf [see above: A Room of One's Own].

Book that changed your life?

I remember the Bronte sisters. I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I wish I could have written those books.

Secret Life

What's your most memorable author moment?

What pops first in my mind... 12 years ago when The Secret Life of Bees came out, when it had been out a week or maybe two, I ran into a stranger in a bookstore who had just read it and she said: "I think it's the book of the year." And I said, thank you. She said, "But dear, it's only February." It gave me real perspective. "It's only February" has become a catchphrase in our family.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

If I could just clone myself, I could get so much more done. I'm always in conflict about wanting to be doing nothing, having leisure in my life, and that other part of me that wants to be writing. If I had two of me, that would be great. I'd like to be able to clone myself so that I could do more of what I want to do.

What are you obsessed with now?

Staying healthy through book tour. All through December, I obsessed over Emergen-C and Purell.

What are you stressed about now?

One of my biggest fears is that I'll be stuck somewhere and not have a novel to read. I have always had a love affair with fiction, and I carry novels in my car, my purse, everywhere.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Photographs of my father in his WWII uniform, photos of my mother and grandmother. My grandmother's glasses; I was named for her, and she was important to me. My grandfather's pipe. These small things that connect me to my family. Drawings by my grandchildren. After I wrote this book, I was able to find a book that was created for Angela Grimke when she died, by her husband. In my study I have a painting that's important to me, a very contemporary black Madonna painted by Sheila Keefe. If the fire alarm alarm goes off, we get the photographs, these other things and the painting.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The best writing advice I ever got was to allow myself to write badly, because it always starts out that way. The worst advice I got at a writers conference when I presented to Secret Life of Bees; the teacher told me that it didn't have novel potential.

What's the last dream you remember?

Before the book tour started, I dreamed I was taking flying lessons. I think it meant: Get your act together because this is going to be interesting for you.

What do you collect?

I collect a certain shell. I used to collect a shark's eye or a moonshell, but now I also collect feathers, which began about three years when I was in the midst of writing The Invention of Wings. The writing went on for four years, during which I collected Osprey feathers,feathers of any sea birds, which is why one of the characters in the books collects feathers

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

I have gotten an amazing amount of mail on Secret Life from young women, telling me of reading it with their mothers on their death beds. Also, young girls who were adopted who found such meaning. What really stands out: I got a batch of letters from a class of 17 year old girls who are orphans in Nairobi. They read The Secret Life of Bees as a class and they wrote me poems and letters about the experience of reading the novel. I have a picture of them holding the book, all of them.

Sara Says: All I want for New Year's...

SaranelsonAll I want for New Year's... is a handful of fantastic books.

Let somebody else (or millions of somebodies else) think the new year brings resolutions of weight loss, money saving, better parenting. For me, 2014 means I get another chance to sift through another giant stack of books to pick out the ones that will matter most to me. This is no exact science, to be sure, and there are always surprises none of us can see coming (how did I not know that The Goldfinch was going to change my life in 2013?). But as I look ahead a couple of months, these are the five novels (and one bio) I'm most excited to get my hands on:

The Enchanted

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld


I was skeptical, I admit, because this debut novel involves magic, and magic is usually not my thing. But so far, this tale of life in a prison, narrated by a mute inmate and centered on an unnamed death penalty investigator who makes a particularly monstrous killer as her cause, has me riveted.
Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi


A retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, except this time the issue of race is explicit. I'm curious to see how Oyeyemi -- who was, after all, the author of Mr. Fox, which took on the Bluebird legend -- does with this somewhat more mainstream parable.
Frog Music

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue


Sometimes I'm afraid to start a book for fear that I'll be captivated but won't have the block of time necessary to finish it. That's how I felt about Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (but, ok, I cheated. I read the beginning, and I'm taking the rest of the day off from all other pursuits.) You may know Donoghue as the author of Room, but this book seems more akin to her Slammerkin, in that both deal with historical murders of women of questionable repute. Either way, you can count on this one getting lots of attention come spring.
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman


How's this for a first line: "We'd been in America just three months when the horse ran over me"? So begins this luscious-looking novel by the author of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. This one's going to the very top of the pile.
You Should Have Known

You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz


The author of the much-admired Admission is back with another story of affluent, sophisticated people -- here a therapist and her oncologist husband -- who discover that their privileged life was not quite as wonderful as it seemed. This one has "major motion picture" written all over it.
Updike

Updike by Adam Begley


Ok, so I'm a booknerd. You knew that. But to judge from the outpouring of acclaim both upon Updike's death in 2009 and, of course, well before, I bet there are a lot of us. Critic and biographer Adam Begley's take on the author of the Rabbit books and The Witches of Eastwick (among many others) deserves a look , and not only because the cover photo of the author as a young handsome man is so inviting.

See Seira's YA Books I Can't Wait to Read in 2014
See Robin's Geeking Out: Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror in 2014

Sara Says: All I’ve Missed in 2013

Saranelson

I know: you don't pity me. My life is all about reading, so what's to complain? On the other hand, for a reader like me -- and, I suspect, all of the members of our wonderful editorial team, as well as many, many of you booklovers out there -- the one thing we hate most is MISSING a book. Just plain not seeing, not knowing about, or not getting to something you've meant to get to -- something that others have read (or not) and praised (or even not). Herewith, then, are the novels I'm packing in my holiday bag next week. (Stay tuned for my New Year's wish-list, coming soon.)

 

SomeoneI love Alice McDermott, always have and always will. (Charming Billy's a favorite). So how on Earth did I miss Someone, her latest novel and, according to my brilliant sister, who reads way more and better than I do, one of her best. This "deceptively simple" tale of an ordinary woman who has vision problems (literally and figuratively) is first up for the plane ride pre-Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

People in the Trees The People in the Trees has been called "challenging," and while I admit that scares me a little, I'm fascinated by anything called a cross between Norman Rush's Mating, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, and Peter Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord. That, and it has a very weird and compelling cover.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Lord Bird A confession. I predicted that The Good Lord Bird would win the National Book Award for fiction, and to everyone's astonishment (including mine, sort of) I was right. But I hadn't read it. (I was basing my vote on the fact that The Color of Water, the author's memoir, was one of the great, successful but somehow still undersung books of its generation.) So I'm going to deny my usually perverse nature -- I hate to read a book AFTER it is an official award-winner -- and read this by New Year's.

 

 

 

 

The Mole The Mole is Peter Warner's fictional memoir about a modest Canadian spy in Washington, D.C., from the 1950s to the 1980s. They say it's clever, and moves quickly, and, you know, for a Homeland addict now off her third season feed, I need that.

Sara Says: Oprah's New Book Club Pick is Same Old Song, Only Better

Saranelson

When Oprah Winfrey announced today that Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings would be the newest selection in her Book Club 2.0, you could almost hear a symphony of hands slapping foreheads all over town. "Duh," was a typical first reaction: OF COURSE Oprah would choose this novel about the lifelong relationship between a white Southern girl/woman and the slave she was "gifted" by her mother on her eleventh birthday. It's about race, it's about strong women and it has a strong theme of redemption: all favorites of the media queen. (Not to mention that the author, Sue Monk Kidd, wrote The Secret Life of Bees, a 2002 novel also about Southern women and race, which was a huge best seller, but not an Oprah pick, for some reason.)

Book Club 2.0But I submit that for all its familiarity, The Invention of Wings is as much a new kind of Oprah pick as it is variation on the tried-and-true.

Let me back up here to say that for three years, from 2009 to 2012, I was the Books Editor at O, the Oprah Magazine, and was involved in the launching of the new book club in June 2012. The book was Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and while it had been a very successful memoir before Oprah picked it, it went higher and stayed longer on the best seller lists for months afterwards--O influence or coincidence, you decide. And while it's true that I had a hand in Oprah getting her hands on the book, the fact is that dozens--and I do mean dozens--of people, publishing professionals and not, regularly pitch her with ideas. (Really, I think the guys in the convenience stores near her homes have probably made suggestions as has anyone who has had a significant battle with weight.)

So here's the story: Oprah picks what she reads and what she likes. She doesn't automatically take anybody's word for any book. (Trust me: This much I know is true.) She needs to feel it herself. And so while I don't know how Kidd's book got to her, I have no doubt that she read every word of it and that she alone made the decision to feature it. She's a true book nerd that way, and I bet she wouldn't even mind my calling her that.

But back to Kidd's wonderful book, which I have to admit I approached with trepidation, fearing a sentimental take on this now-much-discussed topic; I don't need to name the books in recent years that addressed black/white relations in a somewhat cartoony fashion. But I was happily surprised. Based loosely on the story of Sarah Grimke, a pre-civil war South Carolina daughter of a slaveholding family who became an ardent abolitionist and all-around champion of women's rights, it doesn't have a cardboard character anywhere in its 300+ pages. Not Sarah Grimke herself, not her given slave Hetty aka Handful, not Denmark Vesey, a revolutionary and charismatic free black man. These are characters that could be stock, straight out of central casting, but in Kidd's hands, they're way more complicated than that.

Oprah, of course, has picked many similarly sophisticated books -- even Jonathan Franzen would have to agree with that, now that two of his novels were chosen!--but what makes this one particularly contemporary is, ironically, that it has a historical basis. This is the mood of the day: it's why Loving Frank (a novel loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his lovers), The Women (ditto, but more lovers), The Paris Wife (Hemingway and one wife) and many many others have succeeded so well of late. We don't want just a good yarn anymore, it seems, we want a story that can teach us something, preferably about somebody we have heard of (I knew vaguely of the Grimke sisters before I cracked this book) who also happens to be somebody who can teach us something.

I think this was a great pick that does both what you would expect an Oprah book to do--be socially conscious and accessible--and something more. Sure, it's about a very specific period and very specific people. But it's also, like more and more novels of recent years, a novel that educates you without preaching: about history, about relationships, about life.

This article was first published on Huffington Post

The Best of the Year in Literature

Lucky me: I get to introduce you to our literature and fiction best of the 2013 list. While it’s true that I, like most fiction readers, can always find something to recommend, this year's crop of novels and stories (yes, stories! It was a banner year for the short form, too!) is truly an embarrassment of riches. And not just for those who embrace their inner grad student or are looking for escape: we've found books both serious (but never homeworky) and fun (but never silly). From a Dickensian tale of a boy and his lost mother (The Goldfinch) to a hilarious bound-to-be-a-movie romp about a clueless genius in search of a wife (The Rosie Project), we’ve got something for everyone.

The Interestings The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Some may know Wolitzer as the author of the deliciously mean The Wife and many other on-the-pulse novels, but in this bestselling tale of a group of kids who meet at a summer camp in the 1970s, the novelist has really hit her stride. As incisive a look at a generation as any book, fiction or no. Learn More
Tenth of December Tenth of December by George Saunders

George Saunders has long been a literary darling, but with the publication of his Tenth of December, he has become a bona fide superstar. This collection is deceptive: seemingly more straightforward than we've come to expect from his work, the stories are nonetheless multilayered and surprising. Our reviewer called him an “American original,” -- with all the conflicts and humor and rambunctiousness that phrase implies. Learn More
The Husband's Secret The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

"Chick lit" gets a bad name in some circles, but that's only because the naysayers have never read Liane Moriarty; she’s a a conversational chronicler of suburban women, but one with a lot to say. We'd say she's a modern Australian Jane Austen, but she’s way funnier, fresher and freer of contemporaneous cliché. No wonder she's bubbled up from down under. Learn More
See all 20 books on the Literature & Fiction Best of the Year list

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