THE GRIND by Barry Svrluga

If you don’t like baseball, stop reading right now.

The Grind, by Washington Post sports reporter Barry Svrluga, is a collection of long articles about the 162-game baseball season, told through the prism of the Washington Nationals. The book opens in winter 2014 with an article about The Veteran, a longtime baseball player getting ready to start spring training. It then moves to The Wife, a chapter about what it’s like to try to raise a family when you’re married to a baseball player who is on the road so much of the year. Other chapters are devoted to baseball scouts, starting pitchers, the players who go back and forth from the majors to the minors, the players who seem to hold the team together, the guys who are in charge of getting all the players and equipment where they need to be (and so much more), relief pitchers and general managers. The book roughly covers the chronology of one year in the life of the baseball team, from winter 2014 to winter 2015.

If you’re a baseball fan, The Grind is a great read, and if you’re a Washington Nationals fan, The Grind is a must-read.

I have always enjoyed going to baseball games, and I’ve been a Nats fan since they came to DC, but in recent years I have become pretty much obsessed with the game and the Nats. I can’t get enough of them. So I loved reading The Grind. I got a lot of behind-the-scenes information, which I have always craved, and I loved hearing the different perspectives of the people that make up the team, even beyond players. I also came away with a new appreciation for the drudgery of the season. Yes, the players make it look fun, and it’s certainly an enviable career in so many ways – most make a ton of money doing something fun. But there are a lot of challenges, and it’s hard to stay focused and in shape for that many days on end, especially if you’re losing.

I loved The Grind. If you’ve read this far, you probably will too. Svrluga’s writing flows nicely and his journalistic style is perfect for the subject.

Svrluga was at Politics & Prose for a Q&A a few weeks ago. I was planning to write up the Q&A here, but it’s very Nats-focused so it might not have a wide appeal to this audience. :) Suffice it to say, it was a packed house and it went on well beyond the allotted hour. People have a lot to say about baseball!


Jean Kwok’s first novel, Girl in Translation, told the story of Kimberly Chang, a Chinese immigrant living with her mother in Chinatown and trying to assimilate into an unfamiliar Western world of privilege

Kwok’s second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, addresses some similar themes. It’s about Charlie Wong, a woman in her early twenties living with her father and younger sister in Chinatown. She works alongside her father in a noodle shop washing dishes, but aspires to do anything else that would get her out of the restaurant. She was not a good student and has had a bad track record in other jobs, so she feels particularly stuck. Meanwhile, her 11 year-old sister Lisa, who is bright and engaged, has started developing some strange medical problems that are worrying Charlie and her father.

The novel takes off when Charlie applies for a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dancing school. Unexpectedly, she gets the job. She works as a receptionist until one of her mistakes causes an upcoming class to be left without an instructor available. With no other options, the school management decides that Charlie must teach the class. She gets a crash course in ballroom dancing, and her new life as a dance instructor is born.

Mambo in Chinatown is a gentle, slow-paced story about Charlie’s breaking away from her strict Chinese father and embracing a Western life, one that comes with showier clothes, non-Chinese men, and a lot of Latin rhythms. At the same time, she has to balance her new life and interests with looking after her sister and trying to unearth the problems behind Lisa’s troubling symptoms. She is very loyal to her father, a widower, and has many familial and societal expectations to live up to which come into conflict with her newly-discovered love of dancing.

I liked Mambo in Chinatown, though perhaps not as much as Girl in Translation. Where Kimberly was stubborn and focused, Charlie was at times frustratingly scattered and meek. I understood the tension she faced over the Eastern and Western forces in her life, but I thought some of it seemed a bit extreme. (Would no one – especially Charlie – have insisted that Lisa see a Western doctor?). I did enjoy the glimpses into life in Chinatown – the witch doctor, the tai chi instructor, the matchmaking – and was moved by the difficult economic circumstances that the Wongs were in, which prevented the family from enjoying almost any luxuries. I think dance is a hard thing to convey in writing, but Kwok did a good job of communicating what Charlie and her partner were doing without getting too mired in steps and dance terminology.

I listened to Mambo in Chinatown mostly on audio, and thought the narrator, Angela Lin, did a great job. She had good accents, particularly for Pa, and I liked her depiction of the different dance instructors. I wasn’t crazy about her voicing of Lisa, who was perhaps more whiny than necessary. But her voice overall was soothing and calm, which was a good match for Kwok’s tone and her style of writing.

Overall, Mambo in Chinatown was an enjoyable and memorable read. I am a big fan of Kwok’s, and will read anything she writes!


Q&A with Hilary Liftin, author of MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER

A few days ago, I reviewed Hilary Liftin’s new novel, Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper. Hilary was gracious enough to answer some questions I had for her about writing the book.

mail_image_preview-180x180Q: How much of your affinity for writing can you attribute to your role as Features Editor of The Discus (our high school newspaper)?

HL: Well, all I can really say is that it was when working for The Discus that I first began to understand that nobody thinks I’m as funny as I think I am.

Q: I read that you knew nothing about writing fiction before Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper. How hard was it to develop the plot structure and the pacing of the novel without having done it before?

HL: I had never tried my hand at fiction, but I read enough (and was an English major, etc.) so at least I had a sense of what I wanted to achieve. Also, when I ghostwrite memoirs, I’m always thinking about the narrative structure and pacing–it’s just that I’m limited by the real stories and timeline of my clients’ lives. So in part I relished the freedoms of fiction–I could create a story to live up to my ideals. On the other hand, I had to create it. That was the part that was most new to me. I’m used to writing celebrity books on a tight deadline. I had to slow down and try to develop the skill of actually having ideas out of thin air. It’s a muscle I haven’t exercised much.

Q: You and I share a love of candy. What do you eat while you’re writing?

HL: I wrote most of this book at the charming chain restaurant, Le Pain Quotidien, where I could drink green tea refills punctuated with obscene helpings of their proprietary version of Nutella. Which is basically candy.

Q: Do you have a preference between writing fiction and non-fiction?

HL: The non-fiction books I do are more fun and in some way less challenging because, as I suggested above, the material is mostly handed to me. They are easier and I pretty much have endless energy for them. Fiction is more grueling for me, but having freedom and control — and being involved through publication — has been fun in a different way. I just don’t think I could ever be as prolific at fiction, but it’s been a very exciting shift.

Q: (spoiler ahead) I thought the saddest part of Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper was when Lizzie found Emil’s scripts in Rob’s office.  Did you base that element of the story on something you’d read elsewhere, or was that your creation?

HL: That element of the story has no basis in fact. In fact, I have to say that even though it’s one of my favorite parts of the book, the idea actually came from a friend of mine, Esta, who thought of it for me in a spin class. What a gift that was! As a professional collaborator, I have no shame in sharing the credit where it’s due! All writers should have friends like Esta. Or we should all spin.

Q: How do you think Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper would have been received if Tom Cruise had never married Katie Holmes? Do we as readers need to project this story onto real life people that we can picture or is a good story a good story regardless of its origin?

HL: If we weren’t fascinated with celebrity culture in general, I never would have written this book. It’s fiction–I don’t think we need to feel like this is or is meant to represent actual people–but so much of it is about fame, how it looks from the outside versus how it feels from the inside, that I think you have to have some level of curiosity about that notion to get drawn into the book.

Q: I love that Stevie Nicks is one of your dream ghostwriting clients. I think those rock stars approaching their 60s must have incredible stories to tell. (I decided I needed to write a book about a reuniting girls’ rock band after seeing the Go-Gos in concert last summer). Who else’s memoir would you like to pen?

HL: There are a few older stars whom I don’t think have done books–Barbra Streisand! Bruce Springsteen!–and of course there’s Caitlyn Jenner. I’m really open to anyone who has a story with interesting turns that have never been fully explained.

Q: Talk about your writing process. Lots of drafts? Or do you get it right the first time? How much did you cut out before the book was finished?

HL: I threw away chunks that weren’t working as I went–it’s hard to say how much, I don’t know, sixty pages? I’m also a big editor. I move and add whole chapters, paragraphs, sentences. Thank God for word processing. My husband, who is also a writer, did a very heavy edit over a three-day weekend that was supposed to be half-vacation but ended up being all work. And, finally, I love tightening prose, and I did that endless times with this book. I was finding things I wanted to fix up until the very end. I wrote very apologetic letters to my editor and did everything I could to persuade her that I was sane.

Q: Finally, when will you be in DC next and will you sign my book?

HL: I don’t know when I’m next coming to DC! But I’d be delighted to send you a signed copy.


I have had the pleasure of knowing author Hilary Liftin for a long time. We went to school together here in DC from 4th-12th grade and have stayed in touch over the years since then. I’ve always known that Hilary is a great writer, both from what she wrote in high school and from her two non-fiction books published under her own name: Dear Exile, a collection of letters she exchanged post-college with a friend who was living abroad, and Candy And Me, Hilary’s ode to candy, one of our shared passions.

As a ghostwriter of several celebrity memoirs, Hilary has also seen Hollywood up close. She knows how that world works, and what it’s like to live on the A-list. And so when it came to writing her first novel Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper, she drew on her knowledge of that world, one that fascinates so many of us.

The quick synopsis of Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is that it’s a fictional retelling of the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage. Lizzie is a young actress with some notable roles and relationships under her belt who is suddenly and intensely wooed by Rob Mars, the most famous movie star on the planet. After a whirlwind courtship, they get engaged, she gets pregnant, and they get married. But while Lizzie is surrounded by unimaginable luxury and privilege, she is unhappy in her marriage. She’s not only trapped by Rob’s celebrity and the public’s insatiable appetite for information about their family, but she’s also unwillingly drawn into Rob’s participation in a Scientology-like cult called One Cell. She eventually comes to understand just how powerful and dangerous the cult is, and how her children’s lives have been – and will continue to be – affected by One Cell.

Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is a fun book. It’s a bit lighter than what I usually read and review here on EDIWTB, but I enjoyed it just as much as my usual (depressing) fare. Hilary has done her research (anyone with an US Weekly subscription will recognize pieces of Katie Holmes’ story reimagined for Lizzie Pepper) and has infused the book with many satisfying, juicy details about her characters’ lives. There is an element of suspense as the story heats up – how will Lizzie make her escape and will One Cell retaliate? And Hilary is a smooth, entertaining writer who crafts believable dialogue and satisfyingly leaves no stones unturned. And of course the book raises questions about why as a society we are so obsessed with celebrity culture and whether being famous is really something to aspire to.

I read in an interview with Hilary that she had never tried fiction before and didn’t know anything about how to write it. I am very impressed with her ability to craft a story, develop characters, and pace the plot so evenly with no prior experience or training.

If you’re up on celebrity divorces, aren’t afraid to read US Weekly in public (or even, gasp!, subscribe), or enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, then you’ll probably enjoy Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper.

Nice work, Hilary. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

Literary Fiction for Summer

I have a post in the most recent issue of Readerly Magazine about some rewarding literary fiction picks for summer. If you’re looking for something substantive, you might enjoy these books from some of my favorite authors.

THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh is a quintessential summer novel about a British couple – fortysomething Jenn and her older husband Greg – who are spending a two-week vacation at their usual summer rental in Majorca. Greg’s 15 year-old daughter (Jenn’s stepdaughter) Emma joins them for the second half the trip, bringing her boyfriend Nathan with her. Nathan’s 17, and Jenn immediately finds herself attracted to him, despite the wild impropriety of the situation.

As the vacation progresses, Jenn loses perspective and gets more and more obsessed with Nathan. Her feelings oscillate between shame, lust, anger and rejection as she and Nathan circle each other and she has to contend with his parallel relationship with Emma. This book is claustrophobia-inducing, as Walsh confines the action almost entirely to these four characters and the few places they inhabit over the course of the trip – the rental house, the beach, a few restaurants, a hike. Walsh dissects the interactions between the four in great detail, conveying shifting allegiances, affronts and retreats in what felt like real time.

I enjoyed the atmosphere of The Lemon Grove and its summery Mediterranean setting. I could just picture the people in the restaurants, the hippie girl at the beach, the pasta they prepared for dinner. With the action spread over such a short period of time, Walsh really captured the moods of this family’s vacation. She also did a good job with the family dynamics at work among Jenn, Greg and Emma.

I was less enthralled with the story of Jenn and Nathan’s physical relationship. I don’t know how realistic it was. It’s not that I didn’t believe the mutual attraction, it’s just that it all unfolded so quickly. Their vague flirtation escalated immediately, and under the eyes of Greg and Emma, no less,  which felt fabricated. I also think that Jenn would have been put off by Nathan’s selfishness and better able to keep her obsession with him under control.

In the end, the summer setting and incisive family dynamics weren’t enough to compensate for the emptiness I felt at the end of the book. The main story – Jenn’s obsession and dalliance with Nathan, didn’t hold up for me and really lessened Jenn as a character.



As you may have heard, Judy Blume is back this summer with a new book, her first for adults in over 15 years. In The Unlikely Event takes place in 1952 (when Blume was a teenager), in her hometown of Elizabeth, NJ. It is based on real events: three unrelated incidents of planes taking off or landing at Newark Airport and crashing in the suburban town of Elizabeth, all within a six-week period. While the characters are fictional, Blume based her book on both her memories of that scary time in her life and on extensive research done over the last 5 years.

The story is told mostly by classic Blume protagonist Miri Ammerman, a 14 year-old Jewish girl living in the suburbs. (Hello, Margaret, Sally, and Deenie!). Miri witnesses the first crash, and her last year of middle school is punctuated by the second two crashes as well as her first boyfriend, the sudden appearance of her father, and the loss of her best friend. In The Unlikely Event also has a host of other narrators: Miri’s family, her best friend’s family, people on the planes, people on the ground, and others in the community. Some reviewers have complained that there are too many characters to keep straight, but that didn’t bother me.

So, people seem to have loved this book (despite the confusing parade of narrators). I wish I had, but I didn’t. It read like an old-fashioned Judy Blume book to me, not like adult fiction. I found the characters to be pretty two-dimensional. They had flaws, some unexpected, but they were still pretty shallow. The dialogue was often predictable and cliched, and momentous things kept happening within very short time periods. One man lost his wife in the first crash and was paired off with another within a month. Miri’s father appeared in her life, causing her great angst, but the two of them never had a real conversation. An entire family broke apart within the course of a few weeks. It all felt rushed and oversimplified. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I had read it when I read the rest of Judy Blume’s books, but I read too much else these days and this just didn’t compare.

I also thought that Blume’s treatment of the crashes was underdeveloped. Blume didn’t spare the grisly details, but I was still left wondering more about how the crashes impacted air travel, tourism and the local community.

The last chapter jumped ahead 30 years, when Miri was in her 40s and more mature. Unsurprisingly, that’s the chapter found the most satisfying. I liked learning how her life had turned out, and I thought Blume wrapped things up pretty realistically.

I am definitely in the minority. (I feel sort of traitorous even writing this review!) Most reviewers loved In The Unlikely Event, so if you’re a Judy Blume fan, give it a try. I should also note that the book does reflect the time period pretty well, and the naivete and girlishness of many of the characters may be pretty accurate for the 50s.

I listened to In The Unlikely Event on audio. The narration did not help the cause, as I found the narrator’s voice and diction pretty much spot on for a 14 year-old girl. That was fine for Miri’s sections, but it exacerbated my frustration with the (lack of) maturity of the other characters.

Sorry I am not more positive about this book – I really wanted to like it.