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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

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

Amazon Asks: J. Robert Moskin

Moskin

Into an era that is embarrassingly opaque when it comes to the role of Americans and American intelligence abroad comes J. Robert Moskin's American Statecraft. A fascinating look at the unsung men and women of the US Foreign Service -- and the inevitable conflicts between political appointees and experienced professionals -- Moskin's tome is comprehensive and engaging, as befits a lifelong journalist and historian both erudite and witty. Below, Moskin answers our Amazon Asks questions.


What is the elevator pitch of the book?

American Statecraft is the first-ever account of the history of the U.S. Foreign Service from March 3, 1776, when Benjamin Franklin sent the first covert envoy to Paris for the thirteen colonies until John F. Kerry became Secretary of State on February 1, 2013.

American Statecraft

What is on your nightstand, bedside table, Kindle?

The latest editions of the New York Review and the New Yorker. I save reading books for when I am wide awake.

Top 3 to 5 favorite books of all time?

Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson
Collected poems of Seamus Heaney
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Important book you never read?

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I have tried repeatedly.

Book that changed your life?

Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. He changed all our lives.

Favorite book or books as a child?

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This lovely story taught me to care for all living creatures.

What is your most memorable author moment?

Take your choice:

Look photographer Jim Hansen and I were the only outsiders to accompany Secretary of State Dean Rusk on a tour of NATO capitols and bases.

I met a U.S. patrol crawling out of the enemy-infested jungle at the end of the dangerous Ho Chi Minh Trail.

As a reporter, I visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War, experienced the war from the enemy's side, and interviewed some of the North Vietnamese leaders.

While the photographer with me captured Pablo Casals in Puerto Rico, I listened privately to the world's most beautiful cello recital.

What talent or superpower would you like to have, not flight or invisibility?

As a writer of non-fiction, I am able to reproduce dialogue; but I would like to be able to create realistic dialogue as a novelist can.

What are you obsessed with now?

I am horrified to realize we live in a most terrible age. Sixty million people were killed during World War II in which I was a participant, and family members were killed in the incredible Holocaust.

What are you stressed about now?

I must accept the fact that I am a nonagenarian and nearing the end. It has been a great trip. I hope we do not come back to Earth because it can never be as good next time.

Continue reading "Amazon Asks: J. Robert Moskin" »

Why I Love "The Goldfinch"

Every once in a while, if you’re really lucky, you come across a book that speaks directly to you, and describes your world while simultaneously introducing it to you as if for the first time. I can count on two hands the books that have done that for me. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone was one. The World According to Garp—which, it seemed to me, absolutely everybody was reading, in paperback, the summer before my senior year in college—was another. Some people feel this way about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And, of course, Harry Potter.

The Goldfinch is that kind of novel to me: a huge, rambling but still somehow tightly plotted, Dickensian tale of a boy and his beloved mother, and how her loss so unmoored him that, fourteen years and myriad misadventures later, he’s still grieving. I fell for it partly because as the mother of a son just off to college, it pulled the requisite heart strings. But The Goldfinch is more than a coming-of-age novel, though it is that, in the largest sense. It’s a rumination on art and truth, comparable in scope and importance (and this was the opinion of many reviewers, not just me) to Great Expectations and other famous bildungsromans. (And yes, one reviewer suggested, not kindly, that it was more JK Rowling than Dickens.)

Here’s what real people I know said about this book:

“I feel like I’ll have a hole in my life when I’m done with this book.”

“I started it thinking it would take so long to read all 750+ pages, and now I’m parceling it out to myself so it won’t end too soon.”

“Over the moon” is the common, old fashioned way some readers are putting it. I’ll just put it this way: I spent one weekend this summer sitting on the porch with an advance copy in my hands, moving my chair a few inches to the right to catch the sun as it rose, travelled across the sky and set, ten glorious Goldfinch pages at a time.

I guess a lot of people are obsessed. The book was in the top 10 on Amazon before it was even published, that’s how great the anticipation and advance word have been. It’s still there after publication, which suggests it doesn’t disappoint.

The Goldfinch is not perfect. It’s long, for sure. (“She writes two sentences for every one she needs to write,” says one woman I know. So did Faulkner, I say. And Tartt’s sentences are funnier, besides) Its last 100 pages flies off a cliff in an operatic stupor. But maybe it had to be that way, the less painful the reader’s separation anxiety to come.

The worst part? Knowing that since a book this moving, this enthralling and enveloping comes along, as I said, only every once in a while, it will be many, many moons until we see its like again.


Boty_rg_cover_thumb This piece comes from our free Best Books of 2013: Reader's Guide, which you can download now for your Kindle. It features interviews, essays, excerpts, and other fun extras about the year’s top 20 titles: Donna Tartt talks about her eating habits while writing The Goldfinch; Khaled Hosseini’s publicist discusses what it’s like to be on a national tour with him; David Finkel discusses the emotional impact following the 2-16 infantry battalion in Thank You for Your Service; and much more.

David Laskin: Journalist Turns Genealogist

The Family Journalist David Laskin has spent his career researching other people's stories, but it wasn't until he got talking to his mother a couple of years ago that he realized the best story was the one right in front of him.

The descendant of Jewish immigrants from the western fringe of what was then Russia, Laskin traced three distinct branches of his far-flung family, branches that spread from Russia to the Holocaust to the founding of Israel and to the American Dream. What he discovered and how he discovered it are the subject of his fascinating book, The Family.

Laskin sat down with me in New York to discuss its genesis.


Sara Nelson: Before you wrote this book, you didn't know much about your family except that you had one rather glamorous great-aunt, Itel (Ida) Rosenthal, who founded the Maidenform company. How did you go from that knowledge to a history of three branches -- one in Israel and one in Russia during the Holocaust?

David Laskin: I always knew I had this glamorous, very successful aunt. When I was 7 or 8, I went to my Aunt Itel's mansion on Long Island Sound, and they had a picture of Versailles; that that's what it looked like to me. They had a private beach, a ball room. It's not like we were paupers but ... Itel was someone I would brag about. It was maybe a little weird for a little boy to brag about his aunt, the bra tycoon, but I remember thinking it was cool that this was my family. And she was very generous. She would send us $10 for Hanukkah, which, back in 1957, seemed like a lot of money.

SN: Still, you say in the book that the whole story opened up for you when you went to Israel for the first time and talked to your relatives there…

The Family DL: I knew I had some cousins in Israel, and maybe I'd met them once or twice, but when I got interested in writing a book about the family, I contacted them and they sent me a link to a Web site in which there were pictures of their parents and them as kids and then all of the relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. And it was really when I was looking at that Web site, at these pictures of little boys in sailor suits and little girls with ribbons in their hair who were the same age as my mother -- who is alive and well -- and I thought, "Whoa!" It was one of those moments -- and maybe all books start this way -- when the lightbulb goes off and I thought, "Oh, wow, there are the three major strands of 20th century Jewish history in my family tree..."

SN: A lot of writers say it can be tricky to write about family, that people have reactions you didn't intend or expect. How has the reaction been with your relatives?

DL: Fantastic for the most part. My wife read the manuscript first, and came downstairs in tears. I don't like to see my wife cry, but that was a good sign. My mother loved it. I had never been that close with my [extended] family when I was growing up. But now ... Meeting my cousin Benny in Israel was the happiest surprise of this book; I've made a lifelong friend. We had this great bond: our love and passion and obsession for family history. Benny's wife says he was waiting for me pullquoteall his life, that I was the trigger to tell the story. He had 281 letters from family members, but he'd never read them because they were in Yiddish. He had interviewed the family, but had never written up the interviews. After I came back from Israel, where I met him for the first time, I wrote a story about it and I think he was just so honored, so enraptured by the project. I had made a friend who became a partner.

SN: You seem to have struck a nerve with the book; it comes at a time when the whole country, it seems, is obsessed with its roots, a time when Ancestry.com is booming...

DL: I think what motivates me as a writer is trying to capture the insides of people when they're in moments of historical crisis, the decisions they make in those moments and the grief or the triumph that they feel. I think the best books are really, really particular but also have a universal appeal. I'm a genealogy-crazy person, but if I can research my family history, you can research yours. We're a nation of immigrants. My greatest hope is that when people finish the book, they'll say: "I want to research my family history." Whether you were in WWII or in the Irish Potato Famine. Whether you are Native American or were slaves. That's what makes this a universal story.

Helen Fielding: Mad About The Girl -- The Creator of Bridget Jones is Back, as Real as Ever

Bridget Jones

It can be tricky, as a writer or a reader, to revisit the characters who enthralled you in your youth. Will they still have "it" –- whatever "it" was that made you pay attention to them in the first place? Helen Fielding, best known as the author of the game-changing novel Bridget Jones' Diary in 1998 and a follow up in 2000 has been lying low for a couple of years.

Until last week, that is, when she burst back onto the scene with Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy. Darcy-less and the mother of two, Bridget must find her way again in the world. To find out what re-entry was like, I sat down with Fielding in New York.

Or, as we hope Bridget would say:
Diet Cokes with Amazon: 2 Fun: boundless


Sara Nelson: Even after all this time, you say you're still "amazed" by Bridget's success -- and by extension, your own. How is that possible?

Helen Fielding: Well, I think if you're a writer, you're probably an introvert. And I suppose I'm most comfortable sitting with my laptop and a few close friends ... I like talking to people, but I'm not always confident about going on the telly, for example. I'm always afraid I'll do something straight out, like, lift up my skirt, or jump into a waterfall.

SN: You mean something more like Bridget, whom I don't think of as an introvert...

HF: Well, I think that what you get with Bridget is her diary, her perspective, so you don't really know how she's appearing to other people. I think that I didn't understand initially why she became so popular... and it was really only when I started going on book tours that I started to understand that all these beautiful, really attractive and successful women -- I remember discovering this in Japan, for example -- identified with the feeling that they were too fat and not good enough. So I think the books are about the gap between how people feel they're expected to be, how they present themselves and how they feel inside.

SN: The themes of this book are the same as the others: women finding love in a complicated world. How is dating different today than it was back when Bridget started?

Fielding

HF: One of the things that's different now is that there are more areas of echoing silence when you break up. There's no tweeting any more, there's no texting any more. There are no phone calls, no emails. There's nothing.

SN: Central to the new book is harried, fifty-something Bridget's relationship with a much younger man nicknamed Roxster, whom she meets on the Internet. Is this taken from real life?

All the characters are based on bits of people I know, in the way that Bridget is based on bits of me but not all of me. I like the relationship between Bridget and Roxter because I think they're just two people who found each other in the flotsam and jetsam of Cyberspace. They connect over their sense of humor and general take on life. They're both quite unpretentious and kind of childish and fun loving. I also like Roxter because he hates it when people refer to older women as "cougars" because it implies that a woman interested in a younger man is horribly cat-like, and she's going to eat him like a tiger or something. And Bridget and Roxter's relationship is quite equal: no one is exploiting anyone else. He's a real character and not an Abercrombie and Finch fiction. In a way I think they're like Daniel Craig and Judy Densch in Skyfall. I think she was the Bond girl, the one he really loved, and even though there's a big age difference between them, you can see that they really loved each other.

SN: At the end of this book, Bridget is still very much alive and active. Do you think she's going to appear in another book?

HF: We'll have to see. I care very much about my characters and about myself as a writer. I really wanted to write this book, to tell the truth about a woman, who, like a lot of women, let's face it, finds herself single and has to get back out there... As to what happens next in my writing ... well, before you can know, you have to live some life first and have some things to say.

SN: [People who haven’t read the book yet and are planning to might want to skip this next question in the interest of preserving a plot point... but, for the rest of you, here goes...]We learn at the very beginning of the book that Bridget is a widow -- her husband, Mark Darcy having died in a very noble way. That was a very brave thing to do, to kill off Mr. Darcy...

HF: I had a moment when I was in my pajamas watching the BBC news coverage of the Syria crisis and the next minute they were saying "Mark Darcy is dead" on BBC news! I couldn't believe it. I knew people would be surprised, but I wasn't expecting that level of reaction to a fictional character's death. In people's mind, Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice was merged with Colin Firth and Mark Darcy. People cared so much. I came out of a local restaurant in London and someone ran up to me shouting "You've killed Colin Firth." So I began texting with Colin back and forth about it -- he's the loveliest man -- because we both understood the irony of this situation: Nobody has died!

Jhumpa Lahiri on the roots of The Lowland, her writing process and more

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland -- the lyrically written, heartbreaking tale of two very different brothers and their very different fates -- was our spotlight pick of September and one of our favorite novels in quite a while. It’s both accessible and profound, which may be why it also made the long for the National Book Award this year.

I spoke with Pulitzer Prizewinning author, who is as famously private as she is publicly lauded.


Sara Nelson: You are one of the few fiction writers who seems to write both collections of stories and full length novels; you have produced two of each. Did you always know that The Lowland would be a full length work?

Jhumpa Lahiri: When this idea first came to me, I was still very much just getting my bearings as a writer in general. The stories in Interpreter of Maladies were just still in a manuscript without any particular destination. And so I was just thinking across the board what might be a story and what might be a novel. This was 1997, I had written many of the stories in Interpreter, but not all of them. I didn't know Interpreter was going to become a collection and published and so forth. I did have this idea [for the story behind The Lowland] fairly early on. I knew, or I sensed, rather that it would be a novel, that it would have to be a novel But I didn't really know how to do it at the time. I don't think I was capable as a writer, just in terms of what the scope of the project was, and the challenges of it. So though I was drawn to the idea, it was beyond me at the time.

Lowland

SN: At the center of the story is a political movement in which one of the brothers dies. Where did the idea for that come from?

JL: There was an execution that took place in Calcutta, very close to my paternal grandparents' home. I think I first learned about it when I was a teenager. I was deeply affected by it. As a young child I was aware of the political movement in a vague way: it was something my parents would talk about with their friends and I would hear mentions of it. When I was in Calcutta people would talk about that period and what was going on in the city and people they knew who'd been involved and so on and so forth This information was always in the atmosphere, but I never really understood it

Still, I kept thinking about the execution on and off as I started writing, as I grew serious about writing fiction in my twenties, when I was asking myself "What are some of the things I want to try to write about?" When I was 30 I asked my father to explain to me what he knew about this execution. He told me what he had heard about it and I went from there, and I started reading about the movement and talking to people and so on. What I learned eventually was there were two brothers who had been involved in the movement and both had been killed in front of their parents and other family members. So it was sort of the juxtaposition of the political and the familial that I found so haunting and so brutal. My idea became to look at this violence in the context of a family and relationships.

SN: You were in your early thirties, when your first book, Interpreter of Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize. You've been a fulltime writer ever since. Did you always know you would be a writer?

JL: I wrote little things when I was little, I enjoyed writing from a young age, but I didn't dream that I would ever become a writer or anything. That wasn't something I was determined to do or aspired to, really. I felt that that was something other people did and I was grateful to those who did it. I think my connection was always as a reader and it's only eventually that I crossed over to become a writer as well. I think a writer is nothing but a reader who... I love that line of Saul Bellow's: "A writer is nothing but a reader moved to emulation." I really do believe that.

SN: So do you have a particular reader -- or a particular type of reader -- in mind when you write?

JL: No. For so much of the process, writing is just a dialogue with myself. Something is incomprehensible to me and I'm trying to make something I don't understand clear to me. Later, there are some more formal concerns. Is the story clear? Are all the pieces there? Are there things that don't need to be there? Are there things that are missing? Is it involving the reader?

quoteI don't picture any type of reader in terms of age, nationality, gender, or background. I think of reading, of literature, as its own world, its own nation, the one nation that I feel I belong to fully. I've always felt that way: My allegiance is with books and the idea of literature. There is a reader out there, and that reader can be from any place and can be anyone who, like me, and like so many of us, believe in the power of literature and the importance of literature and the beauty of stories and the need for them. And so that's what I'm aspiring to, if anything, to connect to that ideal. What I find so overwhelming is that when a book does go out into the world and I begin talking to people about it, there are so many people who believe as I do. And that's just an incredible feeling. It gives me so much hope.

SN: It's no secret that you're often uncomfortable having to go out and promote your books. Why is that?

JL: I think I'm an idealist, and perhaps a romantic in this sense. I want a book to speak for itself; I think that is my job as a writer. It's not unlike my goal as a mother. I think any parent's ultimate goal is to give a child what he or she needs to survive independently. You give a child a life and you teach the child to walk and then you teach the child to walk away. Because you have to. I approach my writing in a similar way, or at least I try to: I try to give the book everything I can give it and then, it's either going to stand or falter or whatever it's going to do, it's going to do. That's the whole point of it.

Some Things Never Change: "Fear of Flying" Still Soars

Erica Jong

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying, in which a 30-ish woman seizes and celebrates her power as a sensual woman. For women of a certain age (which would include this writer, who, by the way, hates that expression!), it was a book that changed our lives. But how do young women feel about  the book and about Jong, whose daughter, the 30something writer Molly Jong Fast, often introduces affectionately  as "my mother the sex object" or "my mother, the feminist icon"? I talked with Jong about what her book means to several generations.


Sara Nelson: Fear of Flying has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide over four decades. There have been frankly sexual books before and since [see chart below], but this one is still considered groundbreaking. To what do you attribute its staying power?

Erica Jong: I think people love books that help them change their lives, in whatever way. Books that give them courage. In the era that I grew up in, we had many novels about women who were in scary, awful marriages, couldn't break free, couldn't imagine their lives in a different pattern... so in a way I was rebelling against that when I wrote Fear of Flying. I wanted to write about a woman who changed her life. A lot of the books we read about women, the women were either bodies or minds, never the two together. I remember thinking I wanted to write a book about a woman who was very smart and very sexual. There weren't a lot of them out there.

SN: What have readers said to you over the years about Fear of Flying?

EJ: Very often I'll hear from men who say 'Whenever I saw that book on a woman's night table, I knew I was going to get lucky.' But women have often said that the book gave them a lot of relief. "I thought I was a freak," they'll say. "I thought I was a bad girl, because I was having 'bad thoughts' about sex. And then I read this and realized I was normal." Sometimes, I'd be standing there after a reading, and women would come up to me and say, "I remember exactly where I was when I read THAT BOOK' -- and they always said 'THAT BOOK.'" Sometimes, now, when I'm walking through Grand Central Station, someone will notice me and yell out: "Keep on writing." That's nice. That's really nice.

SN: In the novel, a woman named Isadora Wing, discovers she can have 'zipless f#$@,' a/k/a unencumbered sex just for the pleasure of it. That was a revolutionary idea at the time, but maybe today it's a little less shocking. If you were to write a Fear of Flying for the21st century, how would it be different from the original?

EJ: Actually, I don't think it would be all that different, at least not in terms of the broader themes of the novel. Being a woman today is about the same stuff as it was then: embracing your own soul, finding a man (or woman) who celebrates you for who you are, having your own self but also being able to have an intimate relationship with a partner.

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Kate Manning Offers a Deeper Look at "My Notorious Life"

My Notorious Life, an Amazon Editors' Pick for Fall, is the rambunctious tale of one Axie Muldoon -- orphan, Irish immigrant guttersnipe -- who, through pluck and naive nerve, rises to the top of 19th century New York shadow society as a midwife. A working class heroine if ever there was one, Axie's the creation of author Kate Manning, who spoke to us about how and why she wrote her second novel, and what she hopes it (and Axie) will mean to readers.


Kate Manning

Madame X, nee Axie Muldoon, is based at least partly on a real historical character. How did you come upon her story in the first place.

I didn't start by knowing about Ann Lohman, but I was really looking to write a good old-fashioned rip-roaring tale. Since I really love New York history, I knew the work of photographer Jacob Riis. His pictures [of 19th century New York were] are so compelling, I just wanted to insert myself in the streets of old New York and see what that's like. And writing about that time gave me a chance to play with language in a way that you can't do in a modern, contemporary, white person voice.

Anyway, I came across a really intense picture of a young girl, and I started to write a story about this kid. I read some history and learned that there were 30,000 homeless kids on the streets of New York in the 19th century And nobody really knew what to do about them. So I imagined a child of Irish immigrants, a child who got swept up in the answer to the question: the orphan train movement, which was the system by which 250,000 kids, orphaned kids, were sent west on trains between 1850 and 1930. I began to imagine that girl I'd seen the picture of being involved in this. And then I started to read about Ann Lohman, [the real life midwife], and at first I just thought "That's a story I never heard of. I can't believe I've never heard of her because she was notorious in her day." But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that her story was really worth telling, or at least borrowing from. And I started thinking Axie could grow up into this woman.

Then, when I read that people thought Lohman eventually faked her own suicide and that some day she'd come back and tell her story, that she was alive somewhere and driving her fancy carriage through the streets of London -- and that she would someday spill the secrets of all of New York society, all the rich guys and the politicians whose mistresses and daughters and wives had used her services. . . and that she had substituted the body of one of her victims so that she could get away, I thought, "Well, what if she <em>did</em>?”

My Notorious Life

There's so much in this novel about Madame's run-ins with the era's police, both actual and social. Without meaning to, or even knowing the term, she emerges as a bit of a feminist hero, a protector of women. Was this your intent: to write a political novel?

I wanted it to be a gripping story where you care about what happens to the characters. This is a story about longing for family and for home. Will Axie find her mother, will she find her brother, will her husband stay with her, can she trust him?

I think the protagonist is drafted unwillingly into a battle for reproductive rights. She would never call it that, she is not a political person. She doesn't really want to be a standard bearer. She wants to help women. She's motivated by mercy, I think, and by her own experience as a mother and her own experience with other mothers and with her own mother. So she listens to the women who come to her door. She tries to help them. So if that's a feminist thing to do, then yes, it's about a feminist. But I did not set out to write a political novel.

People do not want to be lectured to, and I don't like to read books like that. I think, though that one thing this book can do, what any novel can do, is put you inside an individual story, an individual time, and provide a context and a platform for discussing things in the present. That said, I was astounded by the parallels of the times: the 1870s, and what's going on now. Much has changed, but I think women are still fighting for reproductive rights and are still scapegoated and trapped bythe political and religious forces that entrap these characters.

How did you go about creating Axie's world?

I read a lot of historical novels and old medical textbooks and a lot of Irish novels of the 19th century for the syntax and formality of the language. I loved those old words. I love to be able to say poltroon, or slumgullion or some of the other words we don't use. They're great words, and I like an excuse to use them. Cunicle, cabbage-hearted weavil. I loved the euphemism, "He's doesn't have the baubles for that," instead of the one you know. Or, "He's a bungstarter" (a tool used to ream a hole in a wooden barrel.) I would find terms like that and put them in my notebook and save them. I'd think, "That's going in there somewhere."

It's hard not to take to Axie; she's so feisty but also sweet...

I'm fond of her because it was really fun to write somebody who was prickly, but I think she was prickly from a sense of hurt and she wasn't afraid to speak her mind. I started out imagining a young girl who was in bitter circumstances, somebody who had been dealt a poor hand by life and especially in her dealings with the authorities. And I felt this girl would have a couple of choices. She could be a victim, and suffer and say "Poor me." But I wasn't interested in that. I was interested in somebody who was going to fight back. So instead of having her say, "These kind philanthropists are helping me, I am just a poor orphan, I will be so grateful," instead of that she is angry and fighting. She demands people pay attention: "See me. Look at me. Don't you get it?"

You were a documentary filmmaker before you published your first novel. Do you feel like that work has influenced your life as a fiction writer?

Absolutely. I've always written fiction. But I think being a journalist or working in nonfiction was really good for me. I think what I mostly learned was how to hang a story on the bones of a fact. Always the best for me as a documentary filmmaker was to profile someone, to find a human person who could illustrate the kind of issues we were trying to discuss rather than trying to compile a lot of facts and figures and doing a report. It was good to show how something affected somebody. It was good training for figuring out when you've got the right details.

Writing scripts also teaches you to enter a scene right where you need to enter it; you don't waste a lot of time on background or development or telling things that you can just as easily show. That was excellent training. Whether you're creating novels or documentaries, you learn that people are going to change the channel if you can't keep them interested. They're going to tune out.

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