Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Writer's Garden

Jackie Bennett (former editor of The Garden Design Journal) offers an intimate glimpse into the country homes and gardens of notable, accomplished British poets, essayists and novelists in The Writer's Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors. This coffee table book examines the lives of nineteen, diversely accomplished British writers and how their  private residences facilitated their work: Virginia Woolf wandered the room-like gardens at Monk's House while she labored over Mrs. Dalloway. Charles Dickens tended daily to the gardens at Gad's Hill Place before tackling masterpieces like Great Expectations. The woodland paths and boathouse at Greenway inspired Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly. And would there have ever been a James and the Giant Peach had Roald Dahl not studied his own fruit orchard and crawly creatures in the gardens at Gipsy House?

Archival images and vivid landscape photographs by Richard Hanson accompany the profiles and enhance each intimate glimpse into the countryside sanctuaries that fed the imaginations of great writers. "Written in Residence" sidebars offer lists of works created at each locale, and epilogues explain what became of the homes and gardens after the death of each revered wordsmith.

(Photographs by Richard Hanson)
Frances Lincoln Publishers, $40.00 Hardcover, 9780711234949, 176 pp
Publication Date: November 1, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/29/14), click HERE

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

 Can Thanksgiving still be Thanksgiving without serving a turkey dinner?

Thursday, November 27, 2014
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views" (Section A-23)

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sonya Cobb: The Value of Craftsmanship and Art

The Writer's Life

 Sonya Cobb has worked as an advertising copywriter for 26 years. After having her children, she turned to writing fiction as a way to reclaim a part of herself "that had been neglected for way too long." In her debut novel, The Objects of Her Affection (read the book review below), a wife and mother becomes a thief who steals Renaissance works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cobb lives in Westchester County, N.Y., with her two children and her husband, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You say that the heroine of the novel "bears more than a passing resemblance" to you. Was this a conscious choice?
Job Number One for me was making my story feel as real and true as possible, and like many first-time novelists, I found it easiest to tap into my own reality for material. Becoming a mother was a powerful experience, with a lot of very complicated, mixed emotions that I thought could, in certain situations, drive someone to desperate acts. I decided to start with the very real feelings I had as a working mother with two small children. Then I imposed some dire circumstances on my character and imagined what the result would be. So it was a little bit like exploring my own life in a parallel universe, if things had gone very badly for me.
Tell us about the research needed to write this novel.
I love research because it provides a fun little escape from the tough business of writing--but you don't feel guilty about it because it's absolutely necessary. My husband has a vast library of art books, which I turned to for information about Nuremberg goldsmiths and Saint-Porchaire ceramics. I also spent time wandering the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and exploring the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's web site. Finally, I turned to auction websites when I was looking for smaller, not-quite-museum-quality objects that could plausibly be found languishing in a storage room.
How and why did you select the specific art and artifacts the heroine steals in the novel?
I chose decorative objects because they're easier to slip into a bag than, say, a painting. I picked silver because there's so much of it out there--some of it very old and valuable, most of it not. So it's plausible that a museum could have received a large batch of family silver that went straight into storage, and that one or two super-valuable pieces could have escaped the curators' notice.
Some of the objects I describe are real, and some are loosely based on real objects. All of the artists mentioned are real. The Jamnitzer mirror is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The van Vianen tazza, a footed dish, is loosely based on a piece in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Saint-Porchaire candlestick is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
In the story, museum security seems surprisingly lax. Is this typical? 
For the most part, the scenarios that allow Sophie, the protagonist, to steal objects simply wouldn't happen in a modern-day museum. Storage practices are quite rigorous, and visitors--even curators' spouses--are never allowed to be anywhere near museum objects without an escort. They're never allowed to enter storage areas at all. The system of object cards that I describe in the book has been replaced by collection management software such as The Museum System (TMS), which is widely used by most major museums to keep track of works of art.
Illegal art trafficking contributes to the suspense of the novel. What knowledge or experience, if any, do you have with black markets and dealers?
Early on in the writing of the novel, I was inspired by Robert Wittman's book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures. The founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, Wittman describes dozens of thefts that he investigated over the years. I was most fascinated by the petty thefts--the small, often unnoticed objects that would be pilfered from storage areas by museum employees. I learned that while famous works of art are almost impossible to sell, those smaller objects often disappear into the black market without a trace. 
An old house and a major renovation figure prominently in the story. Is this something that personally interests you?
My husband and I renovated a Civil War-era row house very similar to the one I describe in the book. I fell in love with the house and its history. The row house was an early example of mass production: every house on a block was exactly the same, with stock decorative details that were produced in great quantities. Nevertheless, everything was made from noble materials, with care and attention to aesthetic matters. In my house we found, under the wallpaper, a signature by "The Plaster Boys," dated 1863. They were proud of their work! Beauty, artistry and craftsmanship were still valued at that time, even as we emerged from the industrial revolution. Sophie and I both feel sad about the demise of those values in today's world.
Please discuss the themes of the novel--the idea of want and need and the value we place on things and aspects of our lives.
Sometimes I feel oppressed by the amount of "stuff" we're surrounded by in today's world--the piles of cheap, mass-produced goods we bring home from the store in big plastic bags. These goods are inexpensive and plentiful, so you could say they have little value in a monetary sense, and they lack value because we have no connection to the people who made them. If you buy a ceramic bowl at Target, you probably don't spend any time thinking about the person who designed it, or the person who glazed it. But if you own a tazza crafted by van Vianen--the silversmith who eventually left the trade to take over his father's brewery--you own a part of someone's story. That, in itself, has a lot of value apart from the aspects of supply and demand. It connects us to one another, even across centuries.
Sophie, the protagonist, is struggling with her own sense of value, and work is important to her sense of identity, just as it probably was for van Vianen and Jamnitzer. When Sophie learns the story behind the van Vianen tazza, she begins to understand the true value of work, and she begins to grasp the enormity of her crime.
The Objects of Her Affection blends suspense with domestic and marital issues. Did you find it difficult to balance these aspects?
It was incredibly difficult... and tricky: the story has to move, but it takes time to develop your characters' inner struggles. I've never truly enjoyed novels that are purely plot-driven or purely character-driven, so I set out knowing very clearly what my task would be. Being a first-time novelist, though, I had to toss out writing that was either too slow or too fast or not contributing toboth character and story. 
What are your future literary plans?
I'm working on a second novel that explores themes of work, class, human nature and creativity through the eyes of two very different characters. 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this 
Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness  (8/29/14), click HERE

The Objects of Her Affection

An ordinary woman becomes a thief of Renaissance art in order to pay the bills in The Objects of Her Affection, an engrossing novel by Sonya Cobb that focuses on themes of want and need.

The Porters are a young, seemingly idyllic Philadelphia family. Beneath the surface, however, Sophie Porter and her husband Brian want different things. Brian, a workaholic curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is focused mainly on his career, constantly traveling. Sophie, feeling neglected and at a professional standstill as a web developer, thinks being approved for a hefty mortgage on a 150-year-old fixer-upper house will empower her life and give the couple's two children the childhood she herself never had.

Brian sees all the problems with the house, while Sophie sees a perfect future. When their approved adjustable-rate mortgage suddenly skyrockets and the Porters can't pay the bills, Sophie panics, yet she keeps the financial anxieties a secret. While visiting Brian at the museum one day, she discovers a trove of small, poorly stored, valuable works of art. Sophie 'accidentally' makes off with a Renaissance decorative mirror. Fearful of having to return it and thinking it might pay off some debt, she sells it to an art dealer who befriends Sophie while pulling her into a life of crime.

"She only wanted what was best for her family," Cobb writes about her deeply flawed, risk-taking protagonist with whom some readers will empathize. The thought-provoking, suspenseful plot will also hold crossover appeal for fans of thrillers as well as those intrigued by the lives of ordinary people misguided by their decisions and desires.

Sourcebooks Landmark, $14.99 Trade Paper, 9781402294242, 337 pp
Publication Date: August 1, 2014
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (8/1/14), click HERE

Friday, November 21, 2014

Italian-American Pilgrims

From My Shelf

In my novella Cold Comfort, a workaholic photojournalist returns to an Italian-American enclave in Rhode Island to spend Thanksgiving with her only remaining relative, a hip 96-year-old aunt who texts and blogs. Challenged by a blizzard and a blackout, the aunt is intent on serving the family's traditionally Italian, seven-course Thanksgiving feast when a character off-handedly remarks, "Maybe your aunt thinks the pilgrims were Italian?"
With Italians, it's always about the food. But Italian-American culture has brought more to the American table than just culinary prowess. Their immigrant influence has distinctly touched all the arts--especially the literary landscape heralded by Gay Talese, Francine Prose, Mario Puzo and Adriana Trigiani.
Joseph Luzzi launches My Two Italies, his deeply personal Italian-American memoir, with a story about how, as a boy, a beloved aunt arrived at his house one morning and gave him a pet rabbit that, hours later, wound up served on the family dinner table. This is just the beginning of Luzzi's historical examination of the contradictions imbued in Italian culture both in the U.S. and abroad.
In All This Talk of Love, novelist Christopher Castellani lovingly explores the hopes, wishes and dreams of the Grasso family, Italian-American immigrants and their offspring, who, in this last book in a sweeping trilogy, must cope with their roots, the price of sacrifice and loss, myths and memories.
Italian-American writer Ann Hood chronicles a strongly feminine point-of-view in her novel An Italian Wife, a multi-generational saga centered on Josephine Rimaldi, a young woman who journeys from Italy for an arranged marriage and how the trajectory of her life is sensuously infused by family, faith and love.
Maybe after you whip up some Turkey Tetrazzini and Pumpkin Pie Gelato from your Thanksgiving leftovers, you'll be inspired to crack the cover on a book penned by a "pilgrim" of Italian-American descent. 

Note: This article is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this piece as published on Shelf Awareness for Readers (11/18/14), link HERE 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty

Garden & Gun is a magazine devoted to the best of Southern food, music, arts, literature and sports. The "Good Dog" column, which highlights personal stories about purebreds and mutts--good or bad, living or dead--has become a reader favorite. In Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty, David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun offer a diverse compilation of the most memorable essays (and some new additions) about dogs and why we love them—no matter what!

The 51 stories in the anthology are by notable writers--novelists, journalists and humorists--most of whom have a connection to the South and whose lives have been affected, for better or worse, by dogs. The anthology is broken down into five sections: The Troublemakers, Afield, Man's Best Friend, Family Ties and Life Lessons.

Some essays are profound; Mary Lou Bendrick's "Last Rites" details the experience of her dog's grand exit from the world. Straddling the line between pathos and humor are essays such as "Licked to Death by a Pit Bull," in which Bronwen Dickey fights the prejudice against a notorious "bully breed." Comic relief infuses others; in "My Mother, My Dog," Donna Levine believes her cockapoo is her mother reincarnated, noting their relationship "has never been better."

Regardless of whether the pets have been adopted from an animal rescue or purchased from a breeder, acquired to offer companionship or protection, each story conveys the endearing sense of love, loyalty and resilience that comes from sharing a life with dogs.

Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun
HarperWave, $25.99 Hardcover, 9780062242358, 288 pp
Publication Date: October 21, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (10/31/14), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a much longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (10/10/14). To read the longer review click HERE

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Beguiling Haunted Houses

From My Shelf: Happy Halloween!

A house is normally considered a safe place. In fiction, however, when a house has creaky stairs, rattling shutters, dark attics and basements and trapped secrets that embody the shadowy essence of unnerving spirits, scary becomes even scarier--especially on Halloween.

Shirley Jackson paved the way with her terrifying 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, where four people investigate an 80-year-old house filled with spirits and other unexplained events. Richard Matheson expanded that premise in Hell House (1971), where a physicist and two mediums examine a spooky shuttered house in Maine presumably haunted after serving as a domicile for decadence, drugs and alcohol.
The unifying elements of haunted house novels--past and present--seem to be long-buried secrets, demons from the past that need to be confronted and escalating suspense.

This House Is Haunted by John Boyne is set in a country estate in 1860s Norfolk. This Dickens-inspired story centers on a governess who cares for two seemingly parentless children and a malign, supernatural presence that taunts them.
An old carriage house on a sprawling estate invigorates Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred-Year House, where a young couple faces unexpected rumors of buried bodies, family mysteries and the presence of a ghost immortalized in a prominently displayed portrait.
Long-dead, lingering spirits--former residents of an old country house--jostle with an estranged, contemporary family, heirs who have come to sort through the detritus of their departed patriarch in Rooms, an imaginative, explosive story by Lauren Oliver.
In A Sudden Light, Garth Stein has crafted an atmospheric ghost story set in a rambling Pacific Northwest ancestral estate. This epic tale is part family saga and part mystery, infused with secrets, curses, dark familial legacies and a tragic love affair.
While jack-o'-lanterns, bats and witches are all symbols of Halloween, it's the haunted house, where ghosts and a fear of the unknown collide, that keeps readers bound captive to the page! 

Note: This article is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this piece as published on Shelf Awareness for Readers (10/31/14), link HERE