Tag Archives: reading

Pre-Vacation Post

I am finally going on vacation this week, which I am really looking forward to. 8 days in Italy, with hopefully enough downtime to read some books.

Here is what I am bringing with me to read.

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A few other things to share:

  1. My friend Nicole Bonia of Linus’s Blanket and I have started a podcast for Readerly magazine. Here is the first episode. It’s not on iTunes yet, but I will share the link when it’s up. For now, you can listen at the Readerly site. We talk about what we’re reading, what’s coming out soon, and what you might have missed this summer. Give it a listen! We’re recording another show today.
  2. I went to a reading by Carolyn Parkhurst on Saturday at Politics and Prose, where she talked about Harmony, the book we just read for the EDIWTB online book club. Here is some of what I learned in her Q&A:
    • Parkhurst has a son on the autism spectrum. She made Tilly a girl so that there would be differences between her son and Tilly.
    • Pop culture informs her writing a lot.
    • She told Alexandra’s perspective in the second person so that the reader could be closer to her and understand what is going on in her head She wanted those chapters to feel more intimate, so that the reader would viscerally feel the chaos in her life.
    • Harmony was the most difficult book she has written and took the longest to write, in part because it was the most personal. She worried whether it was OK to be writing about her kids.
    • She is still not sure whether she got Tilly’s voice right. Her son’s mind is incredible, unlike anyone’s she has ever met. She wanted Tilly to be unique too and had to create that voice for her.
    • Scott was the hardest character to write. He says the right things and makes sense on the surface. He is not based on anyone she knows, though she spent a lot of time thinking about cults when she wrote him.
    • She has ideas for her next book but is not writing anything right now.
  3. I also enjoyed this Wall Street Journal post about Parkhurst’s son reading Harmony.

I’ll be offline for the next two weeks or so but hope to have a few reviews to post when I get back! Happy August, everyone.

THE YEAR OF THE BOOK by Andrea Cheng

Our November choice for Mother-Daughter Book Club was The Year of the Book, by Andrea Cheng. It’s about Anna, a 4th grader who is a first generation American. Her mother is learning English, studying for her driver’s license, and training to be a nurse, all while cleaning houses on the weekends, and her father runs a convenience store. Meanwhile, at school, Anna has lost her best friend to some mean girls, and takes refuge in books and her friendship with Ray, the crossing guard.

This isn’t an action-packed book (which the girls in the book club pointed out).  But it’s a quiet and moving story about a girl trying to find her place and weather grade school when her family and customs aren’t like everyone else’s. Anna escapes into reading – she loves books like A Wrinkle in Time and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – and into sewing and crafts. She develops a relationship with one of her mom’s clients, a widower in a wheelchair who passes along his wife’s watercolors and sewing supplies to Anna. And she is devoted to her teacher, Mrs. Simmons – so much so that she lobbies her principal to have Mrs. Simmons teach her in fifth grade the following year.

There are some sad themes here – the demise of a marriage and its impact on a girl’s family, another girl’s learning disability, and, of course, the feeling of being left out by one’s peers. But the book ends hopefully. Ultimately, Anna must decide whether she should trust her best friend again or continue to retreat into her books for comfort.

Andrea Cheng’s writing was a little choppy, but the book was very easy to read. My girls really enjoyed it, as did I. It’s a gentle story that addresses some important and universal topics for middle-grade readers, and of course it celebrates reading, which is always a good thing.

Like Mother, Like Daughters?

I participate in a group called the Yahoo! Motherboard, which is a fantastic group of mom bloggers who contribute posts to Yahoo! each month on topics relating to parenting. This month, Yahoo! asked us about whether we, as moms, impose our own childhood dreams on our kids, and how we inspire them to have their own dreams. I thought I'd write about reading, and how I try to instill the same love of reading in my daughters that I had at their age, and still have today.

The first step is simply to surround them with books. Those piles of books all over my house – the mishmash of review copies, used book sale finds, and library books? Well, those piles exist in the girls' room too. Some of them are books I loved as a kid, some of them are series books I've inherited from parents of older kids, and some are books that the girls have picked out from the Scholastic catalog that comes home once a month. I try not to impose my taste on them; if there's a book that catches their fancy, I try to make it available to them even it doesn't look interesting to me. (I do draw the line on books about actresses on Disney teen sitcoms!) I keep a basket of books for each girl in a prominent spot in the house so that she can read when she comes home from school, and they help pick out the books that go in the baskets.

My reasoning is… they'll grow to love reading even more if they do it on their own terms. I never want reading to be a chore; I want it to be that same delicious escape for them that it is for me.

I also started a Mother-Daughter book club with 9 other girls and their moms. The book club has showed the girls that reading can be social and fun – they've relayed conversations to me that they've had about the monthly read on the playground with their fellow book club members – weeks before we're actually scheduled to meet. And the meetings themselves are fun, with activities and snacks to go along with the discussion.

Eloise I have also learned that the books that I loved may not necessarily be the books that they will love. We read my childhood fave Eloise last month, and frankly, my daughters were bored with it. It's a bit dated, and I think they just didn't get it.

Finally, I hope that the fact that I am always reading will inspire them as well. I tell them about the books I am reading and whether I like them or not, and we analyze the covers and figure out where on the bookshelves they will go once I am done. Teach by example, no?

So far, it looks as though I have succeeded – both girls enjoy reading (perhaps one more than the other… for now), and actively seek out books. One has expressed an interest in reading the Harry Potter books with me (which I haven't read yet), and I look forward to seeing how they will broaden my own reading horizons in the years ahead.

Q & A With Jonathan Tropper At Politics & Prose

Tonight I had the great pleasure of hearing Jonathan Tropper read from his latest book, This Is Where I Leave You, and answer some questions. I've been a fan of Tropper's for several years – in the three years I have written this blog, he is the only author I've reviewed three times. (Here is the review of This Is Where I Leave You, here is the review of How To Talk To A Widower, and here is the review of The Book Of Joe).

Tropper is as funny in person as he is in his books. Here's what he had to say.

Background: This Is Where I Leave You started out as a different book. Tropper had just gotten a new publisher, one that gave him a lot of leeway, and he set out to write a book about marriage seen through the prism of divorce. He decided to have his main character lose his wife and job on the same day - two of the things that defined him as a man - and set off on a downward trajectory, flailing at age 35. Tropper then wrote a scene where his protagonist went to his parents' house for a birthday party for his father, along with his messed up siblings, and Tropper found that his book really came alive then. He ended up throwing out everything he had written so far, and made the book more about the man's relationship with his family and less about the failure of his marriage. In the interim, he had to kill off the father, turn the birthday party into a funeral, and convert the whole family to Judaism, so that he could take advantage of the seven-day mourning period.

Q: Was Judd Foxman's name Judd Foxman before he became Jewish? No, he had a different name before. Tropper couldn't remember the old name.

Q: Would you ever write a sequel to This Is Where I Leave You? What happens to the characters after the book ends?No, he wouldn't write a sequel. He sees no value to that. Each book is about a specific journey, and there is no use revisiting the characters when the journey is over. There is no fun going back to the same guy to see how he is now. Also, the book got good reviews – no need to bring out another version!

Q: This Is Where I Leave You has been optioned for a movie. Have you thought about which actors should play the characters? No, he's bad at that. He sees his characters as he envisioned them during the year and a half he was writing the book. He doesn't see anyone particular in the roles.

Q: So what DOES happen to these characters in the end? Are you worried Hollywood will slap on a happy ending? All is not healed and redeemed, they don't all love each other in the end. Deep hurts will come out again, and will fester with bitterness. Since he's the screenwriter for the movie version, he's not worried that the ending will be different. He will have to edit, get rid of certain subplots and characters to get the book to fit into a two-hour movie.

Q. What's happening with the film versions of your other books? Everything Changes has been optioned, and Toby Maguire is either going to star or produce it. How To Talk To A Widower is at Paramount. The director and studio can't come to an agreement on the lead actor.

Q: This Is Where I Leave You is more than just a funny book. It really struck a chord with me, emotionally – it seemed like some of the characters came right out of my family. Is it true that you are working on a remake of Harvey with Steven Spielberg? Yes. He already wrote the script for the remake of Harvey, and Spielberg got interested and asked him to rewrite it, so he is doing that. It's an adaptation of the play as a 2010 film, rather than a remake of the original movie. He wanted to tell a contemporary tale – there is not much in common with the original movie.

Q: Have you heard from your former publisher since the success of This Is Where I Leave You? Yes, they have been very gracious. They know that they didn't do all they could with his last book, How To Talk To A Widower, which was a bestseller in four countries but didn't have parallel success here. He was sick of his wife calling him "Hasselhoff".

Q: When you write, do you think cinematically now? No, he tries not to. He has gotten accused of doing so before, but he has always written that way, and in fact tried to make his last two books "non-optionable". (They got optioned anyway). This Is Where I Leave You is hard to adapt – much of what happens does so in Judd's head; the book is episodic; and it's not a typical three-part story. Yet it got optioned anyway.

Q: Which writers influenced you, and which contemporary writers do you enjoy? When he was young, Tropper read a lot of Stephen King books, and wrote stories about vampires. Then he read Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, and it was like a bunch of light bulbs went off. He realized what you can do with writing. He commends that book, which is brilliant and economical – calls it one of the most brilliant books of the last 20 years. Kurt Vonnegut was also an inspiration. He used mini chapters and paragraphs and colloquial tone, and Tropper thought, "I could do that." (Which of course was wrong.) You don't have to be Charles Dickens or Henry James to write books. Favorite contemporary authors: Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, and ____ Hedges (I didn't catch the name – Jonathan Tropper, if you're reading this, can you leave a comment with the name of this author??). People assume he's well-read – he isn't. He doesn't read when he's writing, and then he doesn't have time to read when he's touring, and then he's writing again, so the books pile up on his nighttable.

Q: Your books are incredibly well-paced. How do you achieve that? He doesn't chart out the plot beforehand. It comes naturally, and then he edits and moves pieces around and changes things when he feels as though the plot has come to a standstill.

I really, really enjoyed Tropper's talk tonight. He's very funny and down-to earth, and I also liked talking to him after the reading, when he patiently signed my four books. Thanks for a great reading!

Book Reading and Q&A: AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

SittenfeldLast night I went to a book signing at Politics & Prose by Curtis Sittenfeld, whose new novel, American Wife, just came out. The book tells the story of the life of a political wife based very closely on Laura Bush. American Wife has gotten very good reviews (see recent Washington Post and New York Times Book Review reviews). I wasn't particularly interested in reading this book, based solely on the subject matter, but I am much more enthusiastic about it after hearing Sittenfeld read from and talk about it tonight. I was a huge fan of her first book Prep, though I didn't love her second book, The Man of My Dreams (reviewed on EDIWTB here).

Here is a summary of the Q&A from last night. It was quite interesting and entertaining. This is by no means a transcript of what Sittenfeld said in response to audience questions; what follows are just reconstructed selections based on my skeletal notes.

Q: How did you imagine American Wife so that you could write it?

A: Sittenfeld said that the book is "loosely inspired by Laura Bush – very loosely". Sittenfeld is a liberal Democrat but has always been intrigued by, and liked, Laura Bush. When Laura Bush was First Lady of Texas, she would invite writers with different political opinions than her husband's to literary events. She's a big fiction reader, which endeared her to Sittenfeld. In 2004, Sittenfeld read a book called The Perfect Wife, by Ann Gerhart, about Laura Bush. Sittenfeld wrote a Salon article about Laura Bush that year, in which she said, "Laura Bush's life would be the perfect story for a novel." In 2006 she decided to write that novel.  There are four big events in the main character's life, which are based on Laura Bush. The rest – characters, situations, plots and dialogue – are all made up. Sittenfeld says she "feverishly made things up."

Q: Was it Laura Bush's car accident in high school (in which a classmate was killed) that grabbed you?

A: Sittenfeld says she was fascinated by Laura Bush in general, who seems like a "sincerely kind person," "a reserved person leading an extreme life." This tragic accident is just another extreme.

Q: Has there been any comment from the White House about American Wife?

A: Sittenfeld thought about sending over a copy of the book, but worried it "would seem manipulative." She has read articles that quote Laura Bush's spokesperson as saying that neither she nor the First Lady has read the book, and that the White House will not comment on fictional characters. Sittenfeld admits to wondering what Laura Bush would think of the book.

Q: Do you think that George and Laura Bush get along after these 8 years? Is it still a true marriage?

A: "Honestly? Yes," says Sittenfeld. "But that question would be better answered by someone who's been around them."

Q: How did you nail the summer vacation home – Halcyon – and its community so accurately?

A: "I've been in summer homes before."  Sittenfeld says of summer homes… prep schools… "they seem distinct, but they are really all the same."

Q: Did you feel a sense of responsibility writing about someone in the White House, or did you think to yourself, "This is a novel"?

A: Sittenfeld says yes. She wrote the book with "sincerity and sympathy." She wouldn't have written it if she didn't have affection for Laura Bush (after all, writing a novel requires spending a lot of time with the subject!). Someone told her that the book is"such a violation [of Laura Bush], because it is so plausible." Sittenfeld wonders, is it more respectful to treat her as flat and one-dimensional, or as more complicated?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Sittenfeld says she's not working on anything right now other than publicity for American Wife. She wrote three books in short order, and now says it would be "elegant not to write anything for 10 years… make people miss me."

Q: How long did it take to write American Wife?

A: Sittefeld had the idea to write it in 2006, even though she wrote the Salon article about Laura Bush in 2004. She was worried that if the book came out in May 2009, it would be stale. She thought that if she did nothing in the next year, she needed to write to write the book. She worked long hours and finished it in a year and half. She admits that she was "obsessed" with it.

Q: As a writing teacher, what does she tell young writers?

A: Sittenfeld says that she got great advice from Ethan Canin, her advisor at the Iowa Writer's Program, who told her that the secret to writing is STRUCTURE. Writers need to figure out how events unfold, and in what order. What elements need to be introduced before big events happen, so that they make sense? Structure gives you control over your writing.

Q: Is there a writer who inspired you to write?

A: Sittenfeld says that she never stopped reading and writing as soon as she learned how. Early books – Eloise, for example ("Like Prep, it celebrates elitism! Of course I loved it!") and the Little House on the Prairie series – were influential for her. She says she's become more finicky as a reader lately. She loves Alice Munro.

Q: Your use of dialogue in Prep was perfect- you nailed it. Did you have a sense of how Laura Bush talks to her friends? Did you do research?

A: Sittenfeld says no. She'd love to talk to someone who is friends with Laura Bush, and doesn't feel that she necessarily captured her accurately. "85% of this book is made up at every level. Only the large events are real." She says it is freeing to write fiction, because you are allowed to make stuff up!

I hope I accurately captured Sittenfeld's words and thoughts here. It was a lot of fun to hear her read from the book and talk about writing and I think I will add American Wifeto my impossibly long TBR list.

NICE TO COME HOME TO by Rebecca Flowers


Last night, I went to a book reading at Politics and Prose by a local author named Rebecca Flowers, who read from her new novel, Nice To Come Home To. The novel is about Prudence, a woman in her 30s living in DC, who loses her job and her boyfriend at the same time. With the support of her gay best friend, her irresponsible sister, and others in her life, Prudence comes to terms with changed expectations and a new definition of family.

Nice To Come Home To may sound like classic chick-lit; in fact, Flowers cites Jennifer Weiner and Helen Fielding as authors she turned to to remind herself of what it felt like to be unrooted and single in one’s 30s. But the portion that Flowers read last night, as well as her own engaging personality, suggest that this book is more than just another light read about the single woman’s quest for a man.  Flowers was great fun to listen to – genuine, funny, honest, and smart – and the portion of the book she shared, which takes place just after Prudence was dumped by the man she thought she was settling for, was both funny and touching.

I thought I’d share some of Flowers’ answers to questions posed by people at the reading last night.

Was the book based on Sense and Sensibility? Yes, she based Nice To Come Home To on one of her favorite, best-known novels. Someone once told her that as a first-time novelist, she shouldn’t try to re-invent the wheel, but should base her first book on a book she already knows.

How did she think of her characters? Flowers said that she is part of every character she writes, that her characters are combinations of people she knows. She said that it is a gift to have people in one’s life to observe, to write about.

How did she get through the difficult period of writing? She “threw money at it”. She got an au pair, so that she could find time to write despite having two small daughters. She said it was helpful to tell people that she was writing a book, so that everyone in her life knew about it. Also, she did two things to keep her going: she copied an “about the author” blurb from the back of a Nick Hornby book but substituted her name instead of his; and she taped next to her monitor a doctored NYT bestseller list with her name at the top.

Prudence is at times prickly and difficult. How did people respond to that? Flowers was surprised by how strongly people reacted to Prudence, including book editors and “smart women” who read the book and found the character to be too harsh. They were resistant to a character who might manipulate a man to get what she wants. Flowers felt very strongly about Prudence and refused to change her personality or water her down.

Any difficulty with the editors? Flowers didn’t choose the title or the cover but she is happy with them. She figures it’s her job to write the book (which is why she fought to keep Prudence as she was written) but the publisher’s job to market and sell it.

Thank you to Rebecca Flowers for sharing your book and your writing process!