Category Archives: Online Book Club

Q&A with Michelle Brafman, author of BERTRAND COURT

I was fortunate enough to be one of the many people who crammed into Politics and Prose last month to hear Michelle Brafman talk about her new book, Bertrand Court. (Yesterday was the EDIWTB online book club for Bertrand Court.) Here’s what Brafman had to say.

  1. Bertrand Court is a book defined by “random assignments”. Life is “one long cul de sac”, like Bertrand Court, and the characters of the book are connected in random ways like on this street. (She calls this “cul de sac lit”).
  2. She wanted to show a different side of DC, one made up of the people who work for the famous people.
  3. Bertrand Court is named for Bertrand Farkas, an Emmy award winning producer who had a distinctive style that conveyed a sense of eavesdropping. He was very good at establishing time and place.
  4. The book doesn’t necessarily have a plot, but it has an arc. It covers from babies to death.
  5. She wanted to explore “the glorious messiness of connectivity”, with stories told by characters who are in the hot seat, behaving badly.
  6. She found it fascinating to write the same thing from different perspectives. She kept writing stories she had from different points of view, revealing where the characters were based on their perspective.
  7. The characters in Bertrand Court are messy and inconsistent from story to story. It’s a book about connection but also about how hard it is to accept the cul-de-sac-ing in other people.

Q&A:

download-1Did you picture the book graphically?

Yes, I did. But I didn’t end up doing it on paper.

Jewish themes are big in your books. Do they play a big role here?

Yes, there are a lot of Jewish people here – not all. Some are interfaith. The first story is based on a Jewish folk tale. But this is not like Washing The Dead – this is more of a secular book.

Were some characters easier to write than others?

Not really, because I was always so compelled to write the next story. The men were so easy to write, as they were so far from my experience.

This book was written over the course of 15 years. Why so long?

I did a lot of backstitching, weaving back into the book.

When did you know it was done? Did you have an end in mind?

I always knew the last story would go at the end. I fudged around with the order of the other pieces.

Which was the last story you wrote?

“Two Truths and a Lie”.

Did you know the stories would be linked?

I wrote them in triptychs – groups of three. I wanted to tell the conflict from three perspectives, but have it all belong to the same world.

How you know when a sentence is done?

Never.

You’ve written a novel and novelistic stories. Which do you feel more comfortable with?

I prefer writing a novel. When I wrote these, I felt like I was working toward the novel.

Would you like to revisit these characters 10 years later?

I hadn’t thought of that, but it would be fun.

 

 

BERTRAND COURT by Michelle Brafman

download-1The most recent EDIWTB online book club pick was Bertrand Court by Michelle Brafman, a collection of linked stories set in Washington, DC. Seventeen chapters explore moments in the lives of a range of characters, most of whom are related by blood or marriage and/or live on the same cul-de-sac in suburban Washington.

Brafman’s stories deal with relatively small moments – a child’s birthday party seen through the eyes of her mother and grandmother, a pregnant woman’s anxiety about miscarriage, a visit to a boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin. They are vignettes in the characters’ lives, mere blips on the overall arc of their relationships. But Brafman manages to find the profound in these small moments, teasing out the conflicts, passions and tenderness at the heart of these friends, spouses, partners and parents.

I love Brafman’s writing. She focuses on small details that seem insignificant but help paint such an immediate, realistic picture of what is happening. There’s also a nice feeling of tension that propels the stories- you know they are building up to something, and it’s fun finding out what it is. I think I grew to appreciate the book more and more as I read it and saw how Brafman really got to the core of these characters and relationships in 20 pages or so.

I had expected Bertrand Court to feel particularly Washingtonian, as it is billed as a book about “politicos, filmmakers and housewives”, but to be honest, I didn’t really find it all that resonant of my hometown. This could have taken place in any suburb where smart, engaged people live. (It *does* have a lot of Jewish people in it – that is true. And they felt pretty familiar to me.)

My favorite chapters were “You’re Next”, “Minocqua Bats” and “Would You Rather”.

At times it can be hard to keep everybody straight (though Brafman does include a list of the characters and their relationships in the beginning), but ultimately, I decided it didn’t matter if I couldn’t remember how everyone related to each other, each time. The stories worked on their own.

Bertrand Court is a big-hearted book to savor and to nod at in wistful recognition.

OK, EDITWB book club readers, what did you think? Please leave me your thoughts below.

 

September EDIWTB Book Club: BERTRAND COURT by Michelle Brafman

I am very excited to announce the next book for the EDIWTB book club: Bertrand Court by Michelle Brafman.

Here is what it’s about (from the Politics & Prose website):

Bertrand-CourtBrafman follows her rich and insightful first novel about family and tradition, Washing the Dead, with this compelling profile of a suburban Washington D.C. neighborhood. Moving chronologically from 1993 to 2007, the novel follows the diverse residents of the eponymous cul-de-sac, tracking their daily routines, their secrets, and their sorrows in seventeen exquisitely crafted, interlocking narratives. Brafman, an award-winning filmmaker as well as a widely published writer honored with a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, employs humor, deft pacing, and artful jump-cuts to vividly and warmly evoke the lives and families of policy wonks, politicos, and housewives.

So it’s 1) domestic fiction 2) made up of interlinked stories 2) that take place in DC 4) over 14 years. What could be better?

Prospect Park Books has kindly agreed to provide 20 copies of Bertrand Court to people who participate in the EDIWTB book club. If you’d like to take part in the book club, send me an email at gweiswasser@gmail.com with the following:

Name

Address

Email address

The first 20 people to sign up will receive copies of the book, which comes out this month. We’ll discuss it here on the blog in a few weeks.

 

HARMONY by Carolyn Parkhurst

9780399562600The EDIWTB online book club is back!

This month’s book club choice was Harmony, by Carolyn Parkhurst, which comes out today. Harmony is about the Hammond family, parents Alexandra and Josh and daughters Tilly and Iris, who live in Washington, DC. Tilly is on the autism spectrum with a diagnosis of PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified). She has been asked to leave her school because the administrators say she is too disruptive and that they cannot help her anymore. Alexandra, at the end of her rope after homeschooling and seeing little improvement in Tilly’s behavior, turns to the guidance of a parenting consultant named Scott Bean. After months of private sessions with Scott, Alexandra persuades Josh to move the family full-time to a compound in New Hampshire, where Scott is creating a camp for families with children who have developmental disorders.

Harmony is told in alternating vantage points and through flashbacks. Iris, Tilly and Alexandra share the narration, and the setting switches back and forth between the summer of 2012 in New Hampshire to earlier years in D.C.

Camp Harmony, premised on the notion that kids need an environmental detox in order to address their developmental issues, is governed by Scott’s many rules. No cell phones. No processed foods. Adults must turn over the keys to their cars. Families who live at Camp Harmony full time handle the cooking and cleaning. As the book progresses, Scott’s rules become more arbitrary and his calm veneer less smooth. Is he who he says he is? What are his motives? The book reaches a climax when the Hammonds are forced to confront the truth about Scott and come to terms with why they are in New Hampshire and whether it is helping.

Harmony is, at its core, about the helplessness and desperation of parenthood, the innate desire to do whatever it takes to cure your children of their ills. I spent a lot of the book wondering whether I could see myself in Alexandra and Josh’s shoes, selling my house and most of my belongings and putting my trust in another person to do what was right for my family. Parkhurst did a good job of building her case here. She chronicles Alexandra’s increasing despair, her willingness to try anything, as remedies and therapies and curriculae fail Tilly, one after another. She also allows Josh and Alexandra some skepticism and rebelliousness at Camp Harmony to show that they are more than just blind adherents to Scott’s will. She makes Scott reasonable and compelling enough that his brand and ideology seem credible. And then she shifts the narration to Iris so that the the reader can see what’s really going on.

I really liked Harmony. There are some plot holes, and the ending was a little abrupt and unrealistic, but I thought Parkhurst did an excellent job of exploring the challenges of parenting a child on the spectrum. (I also loved all the D.C references.) Harmony was a fast-paced read, yet it is full of details that make you feel like you’re right there at the camp with the Hammonds.

I am a big Parkhurst fan, and this one didn’t disappoint.

OK, EDIWTB book club, what did you think?

 

Return of the Online Book Club!

I am excited to announce that the EDIWTB Online Book Club is back!

Here’s how the online book club works. I choose a book, and EDIWTB readers who are interested in participating sign up by sending me their name, email address and home address. Participants receive a copy of the book in the mail, courtesy of the publisher. About a month later, on a pre-selected date, I post a review of the book here, and then the book club discussion takes in the comments section of the blog.

It’s a lot of fun, and all you have to do is be one of the first 15 to sign up.

The book is Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst, and we’ll be discussing it on August 2, 2016. I picked Harmony because I really enjoyed two of Parkhurst’s prior novels – Lost and Found and The Nobodies Album. Her books are so different – from each other and from most novels that I read. Here’s what Harmony is about:

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel, a taut, emotionally wrenching story of how a seemingly “normal” family could become desperate enough to leave everything behind and move to a “family camp” in New Hampshire–a life-changing experience that alters them forever.

How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally–a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly–whose condition is deemed undiagnosable–is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas. The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book’s Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.

If you’d like to participate in the book club, send me an email at gayle@everydayiwritethebookblog.com with the following:

name

email address

home address

I will let you know if you’re one of the first 15 to sign up. Thank you to Penguin Random House for providing the books!

Online Book Club: THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES by Steve Yarbrough

The February online book club pick was The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough. The discussion of that book will take place today here on EDIWTB, with the participants commenting below.


The Realm of Last Chances is about Kristin and Cal Stevens, a married couple who moves from the Central Valley of California to Boston after Kristin is laid off from her college administration job in California. She finds another job at a third-tier college outside Boston, and the two start their lives over again on the East Coast. However, it turns out only to be a fresh start geographically. The couple, who had been growing apart in California, find themselves even more distant from each other in their new home. Cal, who was a handyman  in California, spends his days playing stringed instruments and fixing up their new house. Kristin finds herself embroiled in new but familiar challenges facing college administrators, such as professor plagiarism and tenure negotiations. As the book progresses, we also learn about the skeletons in Kristin and Cal’s closets – failed marriages, broken homes, violence – and how they shaped the main characters.

Matt Drinnan, the Stevens’ neighbor and a man with his own troubled past, meets the couple shortly after their arrival in Massachusetts. Ultimately his relationship with Kristin drives her and Cal further apart, as he seeks his own reinvention and redemption for his own transgressions.

The good: I liked the glimpse The Realm of Last Chances gave into these unusual characters’ lives. I feel like I read so many books about urban thirtysomething parents, and it was refreshing to explore the lives of these struggling middle-aged suburbanites. Yarbrough’s writing is crisp and descriptive. There are themes throughout the book – infidelity, forgiveness, and how well we really know our partners – that I thought Yarbrough skillfully weaved among multiple characters and contexts.

However, I don’t think I really got this book. I found a lot of it implausible – how could Kristin and Cal have been so incurious about each other’s pasts? do people really ask relative strangers to hold them? can one really read lips looking through a window between homes? – and much of the rest of it was either too convenient or just kind of boring. I got to the end of the book, which felt slapped on and too tidy, and wondered what the point was. I didn’t feel very optimistic about these characters’ futures – they just kind of limped off into the sunset.

I enjoyed the beginning of The Realm of Last Chances more than the end. Kristin and Cal’s disorientation upon arriving across the country, her introduction to her new job – those were compelling. As the story progressed, however, it sort of lost me. The plagiarism storyline didn’t make much sense to me – how was Kristin to blame for how the story came to light? – and the grand reveal about Cal’s violent past seemed inopportune.

Depressing-o-meter: 6. It’s gloomy and defeatist at times, but ends on a positive.

Goodreads abounds with very positive reviews of The Realm of Last Chances, so there are clearly many fans of this book out there. I am eager to hear what the other book club participants felt about the book. Did it grab you? Did you find the plot to be plausible? Do tell.

Thanks to Knopf for facilitating the book club!

 

February Online Book Club: THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES by Steve Yarbrough

I am excited to announce the next EDIWTB online book club!

If you’re new to the book club, this is how it works: I choose a book, and the first 20 EDIWTB readers who want to read it get a review copy from the publisher. Once the book gets sent out, you will have about 3 weeks to read it. Then, on a pre-selected day, I post a review of the book here on EDIWTB, and the conversation around the book continues in the comments section. That’s it! Very simple.

The January/February online book club selection is The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough. Here is a synopsis from Knopf:

yarbroughIn a captivating departure from the Deep South setting of his previous fiction, Steve Yarbrough now gives us a richly nuanced portrait of a marriage being reinvented in a small town in the Northeast, in his most surprising and compelling novel yet.

When Kristin Stevens loses her administrative job in California’s university system, she and her husband, Cal, relocate to Massachusetts. Kristin takes a position at a smaller, less prestigious college outside Boston and promptly becomes entangled in its delicate, overheated politics. Cal, whose musical talent is nothing more than a consuming avocation, spends his days alone, fixing up their new home. And as they settle into their early fifties, the two seem to exist in separate spheres entirely. At the same time, their younger neighbor Matt Drinnan watches his ex-wife take up with another man in his hometown, with only himself to blame. He and Kristin, both facing an acute sense of isolation, gravitate toward each other, at first in hope of a platonic confidant but then, inevitably, of something more. The Realm of Last Chances provides us with a subtle, moving exploration of relationships, loneliness and our convoluted attempts to reach out to one another.

If you’re interested in participating in this online book club, send me an email to gweiswasser@gmail.com with the following:

Name

Address

Email address

Please don’t skip lines – just send it in a block that I can cut and paste. I will submit the first 20 names to Knopf for review copies.

Thank you to Knopf for again facilitating the book club!