Tag Archives: guest post

Guest Review: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED by Anne Lamott

You know how when some bloggers go on vacation or maternity leave, they line up guest posts so that their blog won’t go dark during that whole time? Well, I’m neither on leave nor on vacation, but this blog has been darker than I’d like these last few weeks. Thank you to Nancy Shohet West for sending me a guest review for EDIWTB to help brighten things up!

Here is Nancy’s review of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott:

Back when my friends and I were in that typical early-30′s phase of either trying to conceive, going through pregnancy, or at the very least contemplating our proximity to one of the aforementioned categories, Anne Lamott’s newly published memoir of single parenting, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, was all the rage. Many of us were already big fans of her novels and essays, and we devoured her poignant, brutally honest, sometimes painful and often humorous account of deciding to become a first-time mother at the age of 36.

So I imagine I’m not the only reader who did a double take last year when I glimpsed the headline of the book review stating that Anne Lamott had just published a memoir of grandparenting. Sure, Baby Sam Lamott has made recurring appearances in his mother’s published essays throughout the years as he progressed through the adventures and phases of boyhood and adolescence. But fatherhood? Has time really passed so quickly that the infant from Operating Instructions is old enough to be a father?

Well, yes…. and no. And therein lies the hook of Lamott’s newest memoir, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son (the title itself deserves a prize for cleverness, in my opinion). Indeed, not so very many years have gone by at all since the first book: Sam became a father at age 19; his sort-of girlfriend Amy was 20 at the time. He was an art student living on his mother’s dime in a San Francisco studio apartment; she was a cosmetologist receiving support from her own parents; their relationship pre-baby was mercurial. And as just about everyone likely to pick up this memoir knows, new babies are not known for making tempestuous relationships get easier.

But the elder Lamott tells the story of her grandson’s infancy and first year with the same admirable candor that marked her own memoir of parenthood. Back then, those who liked the book — not everyone did — celebrated her rough-edged honesty about both the magical and the abhorrent aspects of coping under difficult circumstances with a new life; the good news is that Lamott hasn’t changed much. She still worries about the health, well-being, and financial viability of a new infant — while also adoring him for his beauty, innocence, and perfection; and she still draws heavily upon a network of friends and faith community to help her through the hard times, only this time it’s with her grandson rather than her son.

Yes, she’s still the same funny, anxiety-prone, insecure, mystical Anne Lamott that she was twenty years ago, and this is both the good news and the bad news. Those of us who savor her blend of casual, profane and profound insights into life will find her unchanged… and yet once in a while I was tempted to implore, “You’re a 56-year-old best-selling internationally renowned author! Can’t you shed just a little of the insecurity and self-doubt?”

But she can’t, because that’s who she is and who she has always been. She’s been willing to share that with us for the past three decades, and now, with the new challenge of being a good grandmother, mother-to-an-adult-child, and pseudo-mother-in-law (the status of Amy and Sam’s relationship remains tenuous throughout the book; for the curious, Google makes it easy enough to find out what has happened with them in the two years since the book ended), she’s still sharing. She dotes; she frets; she loves; she questions; she prays. Yes, Anne Lamott is a flawed, imperfect work-in-progress… as we all are, and as she would be the first to tell us about herself.

Guest Post: Kim Wright, Author of LOVE IN MID-AIR

Wright Last year, I read and reviewed Love in Mid-Air, by Kim Wright. (The book is newly out in paperback.) Kim graciously agreed to write a blog post for EDIWTB about how to write a second novel after you've had a successful debut. I find the process of writing one book incredibly daunting, and am in awe of anyone who can write one, not to mention successive novels, so I found this very interesting. Thanks, Kim, for an excellent post!

 

The Curse of the Second Novel
By Kim Wright

There are lots of myths about the publication process… and one of them is that once you’ve published your first book, you’ve got it made. 

After all, at this point you’ve cleared some of the toughest hurdles – you have an agent and an editor and presumably you’ve started the task of building a readership. You have, at least once in your lifetime, figured out the structure and pace of a full-length book and you’ve managed to control your nerves, your time, and your imagination long enough to get that puzzle on paper.  It would logically seem that the process of bringing out the second book would be, if not exactly easy, at least a little easier. 

But the woods are full of novelists whose first books were well-received and sold reasonably well… and whose second books fell to the ground with a great big thud.  Or, even worse, novelists who never managed to write the second book at all. Why is it so difficult to transfer the lessons learned in the first book to the second? And why do so many good writers fall victim to the sophomore slump?

I think there are several possible explanations.

In many cases the first book is the story you’re compelled to tell.  My friend Alison wrote her memoir as a tribute to her brother Roy, who died in a traffic accident as a teenager.  Without the memory of Roy whispering in her ear, she had to come up with a whole new set of motivations to write her second book. Writers often throw everything they have into the first book – the color of the sky that morning their granddaddy took them quail hunting, secret sexual fantasies, political opinions about offshore fishing rights.  No wonder there’s nothing left for the second one.

And then second novels are sometimes under a type of time pressure that first novels just don’t face. When you write your first book, you probably don’t have an agent or an editor. Absolutely no one is waiting for the book. So it’s not uncommon to hear of people who spent five, ten, or fifteen years getting it right. But the second time around, your agent may be saying “So what else do you have?” If you scored a multi-book deal, you even have a deadline. Which is all great, but some writers freeze under the pressure. It’s hard to produce book two in a year if book one took you ten.

And finally – and this may be the big one – the second time around you’re gun shy. You know all too well what can happen and even writers with successful first books have had moments of profound disappointment mixed in with the joy.  I’ve never met a writer, no matter how acclaimed, who can’t quote lines from his bad reviews verbatim or who doesn’t have a rueful story about the time he drove five hours to read to two people or the day his editor started to introduce him and completely blanked on his name. No one gets to be a virgin twice, and sophomore novelists rarely managed to muster up the same degree of rosy-cheeked optimism they brought to the publication of their first book.

This transition between the first book and the second is a tricky time, but if you can pull it off – or even just manage to get through it – it’s a significant watershed in your career.  Because this is the point where you move from “someone who wrote a book” to “a writer.”

Authors who are much farther down this path than I am have assured me that each book brings its own set of challenges and that it never really gets easier, only different. The blank page is the great equalizer. Writers must return to it time after time and when you’re facing that blank page, no degree of past accolades or fat royalty checks will help you.   A writing teacher I know, a grizzled veteran of the publication wars, was once asked which book was the hardest to write.  He said “Whichever one I’m working on at the time.”  There are no cheats.  There are no short cuts.  We reinvent ourselves with each new story.

And, in a weird way, that may be why we love this job so much.

Guest Post on Booking Mama

I have a guest post up today on the excellent Booking Mama blog. Julie asked for people to write about book clubs for her regular Book Club Exchange feature, so I wrote about the EDIWTB online book club. Check it out!

Guest Post From Flashlight Worthy Books

It's your turn to be the book blogger! See the post below from Peter at one of my favorite blogs, Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations – he needs your input.

___________
Hello and happy new year from Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations – where you can find books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. ;-) 
It seems the book club community has recently discovered my book club recommendations. From the feedback, not only are the lists very much enjoyed, but people are clamoring for more.
That's where you come in. While I've read plenty of books, I'm looking to book club members to contribute new lists — themed, annotated lists of highly discussable books. 
Can
you name and describe 5+ flashlight worthy, discussable books that
follow a theme? Maybe '7 Great Books that Revolve Around Food'? Or '6
Women's Memoirs That Will Start an Argument'. How About '5 Discussable
Novels Set in Africa'?
Take
a look at the lists I have and give it some thought. If you're
interested, email me at Info AT flashlightworthy DOT com. Thanks so
much and have a great new year!
Peter
(The guy who runs Flashlight Worthy)
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. ;)

Guest Post By Miriam Gershow, Author of THE LOCAL NEWS

Miriam Gershow, whose The Local News was discussed on Monday as EDIWTB's June book club, has written a guest post for EDIWTB today about why high school is a natural setting for her works. I was particularly excited to read this post, because of my own fascination with books set in high school. Thanks, Miriam!

Just like my narrator Lydia Pasternak in The Local News, this past August I had the opportunity to attend my high school reunion. In my case, it was a twenty year reunion, while Lydia faced her tenth.  In both of our cases, we met the idea with deep, deep ambivalence.

By all accounts, I’m a successful grown-up.  I wrote a novel.  I have a community of beloved friends.  I married a lovely man.  We have an extremely spoiled cat and a baby on the way.  I’m surrounded by all sorts of the adult accoutrements that signal having one’s life more or less together: a rotating spice rack, a semi-attached garage, a knife block, a mortgage.  So you would think the prospect of a high school reunion would fill me with glee or at least benign curiosity. 

But unlike Lydia, I skipped my reunion.  Just like I skipped the five year and the ten year reunions before that.  In fact, proverbial wild horses couldn’t have dragged me back to the crowded suburban Detroit bar where dozens upon dozens of my former classmates gathered.

Why?

Short answer: High school was hard. 

Longer answer:  It was achingly, crushingly hard.  I spent four years not knowing how to control my frizzy hair or my acne, nursing unbearable crushes on the most inopportune of boys, and walking the halls with slumped shoulders, hoping that no one would pay too much attention to my boobs (while secretly hoping everyone would pay attention to my boobs).  To say I didn’t fit in would be a radical understatement. I was brainy without being a star student, loud without being particularly charming. I had no business near either a curling iron or eye-shadow, both of which I abused regularly.  I was the girl who always had the visible line of foundation demarcating her jaw from her neck.  I was the girl who wore the off-brand imitations of fashionable clothing several seasons too late.  I was the girl who drank lots of wine coolers at parties because I thought being drunk made me at least ten times funnier and cuter.

And even as I approach 40, with above-mentioned career and friends and home and partner, I still can’t entirely shake that poor girl.  Some part of me remains convinced I’m still that gangly, ill-fitting, awkward teenager.  And that part of me runs wildly in the opposite direction when a reunion is mentioned. 

Interestingly, that part of me also regularly returns to those same–or roughly similar–high school hallways in my fiction writing.  The high school experience left such an indelible imprint on me, I now have an insatiable curiosity about the social jockeying, the thrumming insecurities, and the high drama that is so peculiar to those four years. 

The characters in my fiction are often teenagers.  I’ve never been a young adult writer, but I have returned again and again to young adult characters in my work.  One of my favorite early stories, Little Girl, looks at the burgeoning sexuality and the early stirrings of rebellion in a high school girl.  The Local News is rife with the shifting politics and strange insularity and group hysteria of high school life. 

On the most personal level, I return again and again to this setting to try to better understand and make peace with the gangly girl trapped inside of me.  On a more practical and writerly level, high school simply makes for great source material. 
The factors that make it so traumatic in reality–you’re trapped in a building with hundreds of other hormone-laden, erratic teenagers, you have no clear escape, you can’t imagine it ever ending–make it such a potent backdrop for fiction.  Teenagers are wonderful to write because they are so emotionally labile, but without all the sophisticated coping mechanisms that adults adopt to mask those emotions.  This makes for great drama.  The stakes are always high in high school.  The conflicts are ever-present.  You don’t even have to scratch the surface; the conflicts are the surface, whether those have to do with popularity, status, drugs, bullying, peer pressure or sex, just to name a few. 

I have real compassion toward my high school characters.  I developed great love for Lydia and all of her Franklin High classmates.  I vividly–maybe too vividly–remember what it was like to be 15, with little hope of things ever changing.  Over and over, I try to write my way back into that experience and out the other side of it.  Maybe I succeeded with The Local News because I’ve gotten the subject out of my system for now; my current project is a novel that has almost nothing to do with high school.  Maybe this means come my 25-year reunion, I’ll be ready to show my face.  I doubt it, but perhaps I’ll lock away the eye shadow and the curling iron just to be safe.

Guest Post: BREAKABLE YOU By Brian Morton

Back in January, I posted about a book called Breakable You by Brian Morton. My colleague Len V. read the book (in about an hour, it seems) over the weekend and wrote up a guest review for EDIWTB. Thanks, Len!

Here’s the review:

BMorton3rian Morton’s Breakable You is one of those books I couldn’t put down.  The characters are engaging, even though they’d really irritate me if they were my friends.  I found myself wanting to know more about them and how this piece of their stories would end.

I loved how well Morton drew each character, particularly the ways he lets us see each character’s blind spots by having other characters relate the same events from different perspectives.

Since my mind works in this way, I also spent some time looking at the metaphorical meaning of the title for each character and came away amazed to see how close each of them (and any of us for that matter) are to breaking at any given moment.  The most interesting stories often seem to come right at the line between breaking and not—like the most profound events in our lives.

I have two criticisms of the book. 

First, a major, life-altering event happens in the novel…and it couldn’t have been more obvious what was coming.  That said, the chapter containing that event was well-written and can easily be read as a metaphor for the lives of each of the characters.  (Me and the metaphor again—what’s that about?)

Second, this novel suffers from the same plague that afflicts much contemporary fiction: a pat, somewhat trite and all-too-quickly wrapped up ending.  I can’t decide if this type of ending is worse than the other very common type of ending—no ending at all.  I’ve read a few books that seem to end with nothing more than a period, and that irritates me to no end.

I found myself not wanting to, and not being able to, put the book down, and I was bummed to get to the end.  I definitely recommend Breakable You, and I can’t wait to get to Morton’s A Window Across the River.

Guest Review: DIGGING TO AMERICA by Anne Tyler

EDIWTB guest reviewer Nancy sent in the following review of Anne Tyler’s latest, Digging to America:

TylerThe wonderful thing about novels by Anne Tyler is that Tyler fans pick them up knowing exactly what to expect – and yet not knowing at all what to expect. What we know we’ll get is a familiar suburban Baltimore setting and a rainbow of odd, quirky, charismatic and unforgettable characters. What we don’t know is just who they will be or what they will do in the course of the novel.

Tyler’s latest work, Digging to America, is surely one of her most appealing. With a small cast of characters and a relatively finite storyline, it has a cozy feel. The plot is simple enough and the themes accessible, but at the same time thought-provoking. In a word, classic Anne Tyler.

The novel begins with two families at the Baltimore airport late one August evening in 1997. Both are awaiting the arrival of baby girls adopted from Korea. After the big-picture drama of the babies being handed to their parents, the two families are straggling out of the airport when one family – the Donaldsons – rather casually makes an overture to the other family to get together in the future. The families connect a few months later, touching off what becomes a lifelong connection between the two groups, hallmarked by the yearly “Arrival Party” in which they commemorate the anniversary of the girls’ arrival from Korea each year.

What I love about this novel is Anne Tyler’s marvelously light touch. She seems to have a sixth sense for who her readers are and what level of background information they need. For example, she rightfully assumes that anyone likely to be reading this book has witnessed at least two or three international adoptions in the past few years, and she spares us the belaboring descriptions of what is involved. She treats the parents’ decision to adopt with equal dexterity – brief mention is made of each couple’s situation with infertility, but again, Tyler assumes her audience is familiar with both the basic pragmatics and emotional landscape of the issue, and moves forward accordingly with the story.

Tyler narrates the first eight years or so (as the girls grow older, she becomes less specific about their ages) in the girls’ lives as the members of the two families develop into increasingly interesting characters. Here is Tyler’s second great strength: her ability to avoid stereotypes and furnish us time and again with characters we’ve never quite seen before. Despite their first names, Brad and Bitsy Donaldson are not two-dimensional yuppies: like real people, they bear some of the classic earmarks but have plenty of their own distinguishing characteristics. The same is true of the other set of parents, Sami and Ziba Yazdan: though in the airport they appear to be timid immigrants, they too move in their own well-depicted character circles, as do each of the grandparents. As with real people, it is a mistake to assume you know exactly who any of these characters are or what they will do.

The theme of the novel is what being American means: to two infants who arrive from overseas and immediately “become” American by virtue of adoption; to a young man like Sami, raised in the U.S. by immigrant parents and equally adept at speaking flawless Baltimore-inflected English and making fun of American culture; to Maryam, Sami’s mother, who nearly every day contemplates the many dimensions of her foreignness until another character suggests that perhaps her various levels of estrangement are merely part of being human, and not being Iranian in America.

One negative customer review on Amazon states that “Every time I thought something was going to happen, nothing did.” I can’t say this is unfair criticism, but no one ever accused Anne Tyler of writing potboilers. Readers drawn to captivating descriptions of the most quotidian aspects of family life will not be disappointed by this novel – and will probably be delighted.

Thanks for the review, Nancy! I’ve read a few Anne Tyler books in the past – Ladder of Years, Back When We Were Grownups – and will definitely add this one to the to-read list.