Category Archives: Online Book Club

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!

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker
The October EDIWTB online book club pick was Longbourn, by Jo Baker.  Longbourn is wisely aimed at two passionate audiences: Austen-philes eager to extend Pride and Prejudice through yet another companion novel, and Downton Abbey enthusiasts interested in what happens downstairs in old, grand English estates while the aristocracy fuss and dine and needlepoint upstairs. The main characters in Longbourn are not the Bennets, but the Bennets’ servants: Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah, Polly and James. Sarah and Polly were orphans taken in as young girls by the Hills to help serve the Bennets, and James is a mysterious young man who shows up with little explanation and is hired as a footman. He develops feelings for Sarah, but has a painful past that he cannot escape, threatening their relationship as well as his security in the Bennet’s employ.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books of all time, but I am not an Austen freak. I haven’t read any of the MANY P&P sequels, and while I did see the Keira Knightley movie version (that kiss at the end!), I most recently skipped Austenland, the latest film loosely based on the book. To me, the original was so perfect that when I am in a P&P mood, I just re-read it, rather than trying to recreate the magic elsewhere.

That said, I loved Longbourn. It felt less like a companion book to P&P than a standalone novel that was merely punctuated by the key plot developments in the original Austen work. The Bennets were relegated to a minor status in Longbourn, allowing Sarah and Mrs. Hill in particular to carry the narrative weight. The story moved along beautifully after a somewhat slow start, and I had a hard time putting the book down.

Interestingly, the key dramas from P&P – Elizabeth’s ambivalence about Darcy, Bingley’s abandonment of Jane – are not touched on at all in Longbourn. Wickham and Lydia’s elopement is addressed, as is Mr. Collins’ thwarted pursuit of Elizabeth, but the Bennet plots are largely subverted in Longbourn, playing a distant second fiddle to Sarah’s romantic yearnings and Mrs. Hill’s quiet grief. This is a grittier, sadder book than P&P, as evidenced by Mrs. Hill’s conclusion in Chapter 8: “Life was, Mrs. Hill had come to understand, a trial by endurance, which everyone, eventually, failed.” This makes sense, given the differences in quality of life between the gentry and the servants. Though while the servants often yearned for the leisure and comforts of their employers, Mrs. Hill ultimately decided that “no matter how they got [to the end of their lives], after all, the end was all the same.”

The Bennets themselves really get taken down a notch in Longbourn. They are much less sympathetic here than in the original novel. Each of them comes across as self-absorbed to an extreme, giving hardly a thought to the private lives of servants they have known most of their lives. Not even our beloved Elizabeth escapes unscathed; she may be better than the others, but she is still pretty inconsiderate at times. We see a much more inhibited, insecure Elizabeth at the end of the book as she settles into life at Pemberley and tries to live up to the ideal of a man whose opinion she once regarded as prejudiced and pretentious. And Mr. Bennet, who is mostly just cranky and derisive of his wife in the original, is a much colder, self-interested man in Longbourn.

Baker clearly did her research; there is a lot of period detail in Longbourn and many historical touches that made life at Longbourn very vivid for her readers. I had to look up a lot of words, several of which didn’t even appear in the dictionary.

I could go on and on about Longbourn, and I think that I will enjoy it even more as I go over it in my mind in the weeks ahead. But I want to hear what EDIWTB book club participants thought of Longbourn. Did it affect your feelings about the original? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Please leave your comments below.

And thank you to Knopf for facilitating this online book club!

Online Book Club is Back!

Hi EDIWTB readers!

Exciting news: after a long hiatus, I am reviving the EDIWTB online book club! This is how it works: I choose a book, and the first 15 EDIWTB readers who want to read it get a review copy from the publisher. Once the books go out, we get 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 October online book club selection is: Longbourn by Jo Parker. Here is a synopsis from Random House:

In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.


Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

I am a huge Pride and Prejudice fan, and while I haven’t given any of its other “sequels” a try, this one looked great. It was reviewed by Nicole of Linus’s Blanket in the awesome October edition of Bloggers Recommend (if you’re not already signed up for this monthly email newsletter, do so now!). Nicole says of Longbourn: “Clever, moving and insightful, Baker’s diverting narrative explores the dreams and working lives of the servants at Longbourn, the fictional estate of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Charming in its own right, it’s a must read for Austen fans.”

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

 

No need to skip lines – just send it in a block that I can cut and paste. I will submit the first 15 names to Knopf for review copies.

Looking forward to resuming this tradition! Thank you to Knopf for facilitating the book club.