Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Rachel Kushner: Writing That Grows Out of Living


The Writer's Life

Rachel Kushner's novels The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba were both finalists for the National Book
Author Photo by Chloe Aftel
Award. Her fiction has appeared in the
New Yorker, Harper's and the Paris Review. Kushner's new novel, The Mars Room (Scribner; reviewed below), centers on the harrowing life of a young mother serving two consecutive life sentences in a California prison.

Why set the book in San Francisco?
Partly because I am from there. The main character, Romy Hall, is from the Sunset, the San Francisco neighborhood where I grew up. It's not a bad neighborhood at all, and yet it was a rather gritty adolescence there. When I meet book-learned people now, they always tell me they went to some fancy private school in San Francisco, and the conversation stops there, because we are basically not from the same city. Where I am from is very specific, a time and a place, and no one who didn't experience it might ever understand, which was my challenge: trying to transmute that experience, my knowledge of it, into literature.

Do you live in California now?
In Los Angeles, half a mile from the city jail complex and the criminal courts.

Did this proximity inspire the book?
Most of those who fill the state prisons in California come from metropolitan L.A. and the surrounding counties (Riverside, San Bernardino). Like many writers, I'm interested in other people and in the world around me, and that world, here in California, unfortunately includes a massive carceral system.

Your descriptions of prison life are richly detailed. How did you research the novel?
I'm sort of opposed to the concept of research, because I consider my process more organic. I live in a certain way, and my writing comes out of that. In 2012, I decided to try to learn everything I could about the criminal justice system in California, to understand the deeper layers of the carceral net, the penal zone of the world, which can very often be invisible to middle-class people, and can entirely dominate the lives of poor people. I went "under cover" on an extensive tour of state prisons in California (mostly men's) with criminology students who were effectively being wooed for jobs with the California Department of Corrections. The context meant that guards, prison litigators and public information officers spoke to us as if we were "of their own kind," and thus, I was able to see quite a bit into the mentality of the people who work at the prison, at all levels.

How much access were you granted?
I was allowed to roam prison yards, even maximum security yards, and to talk to people who were serving long, mostly life, sentences. I got to go in their cells, see the so-called "mental health" facilities, the so-called job training, the education programs, so-called, the prison industries like license plate stamping and registration sticker printing. Separately, I became involved, as a volunteer, with a nonprofit organization called Justice Now, which advocates against human rights violations in the women's prisons in California, and whose leadership is partly made up of people serving life sentences. I learned a great deal from the people I met inside who are involved with Justice Now and developed friendships with many lifers that way.

This exposure must have been helpful in creating the psyche of the main character and her difficult life.
It took me a long time to create Romy. I needed to be able to inhabit her fully, and I kept coming up against the irrefutable facts of my own circumstance: I have middle-class resources and would never go to prison, I probably wouldn't even go to jail.... If I did run into trouble, like if I just lost it and did something crazy, I have high-powered lawyer friends who would get me off. That's how it works.

What a leap, then, for you fully to envision her predicament.
I thought and thought into this, and eventually, I invented a girl who was with us growing up in San Francisco, among the girls I knew--I mean most of the people I knew, whose lives didn't turn out like mine, who had parents who struggled with poverty and addictions and who themselves nursed nihilist streaks. I had resisted that because I didn't really want to revisit anything from my own youth, but it rose up and demanded to be dealt with. And suddenly everything made sense about Romy--her past and future.

You divvy out the details of Romy's experiences with great suspense.
The creation of a narrator's tone has to be done delicately, factoring in the way people don't present information about their lives all at once. In fact, prison is not a place that leaves a lot of room to think into the worst thing you've ever done. The idea of a convicted person's remorse and pain and anguish over an irreversible act they themselves have committed, as I understand these things, isn't quite what a middle-class person imagines. Because you have to be closed up and hard in prison, there is no privacy, there's a lot of hostility and dysfunction, and people are trying to survive on a day-by-day basis. So it seemed natural enough that certain elements of Romy's old life--her memories, her regrets and some type of "account" of what happened that resulted in her life sentence--should leak out in parts.

How did the rest of the story, as a whole, take shape?
I wrote the book in parts. The book that resulted was from many years of my ruminating on what I saw, felt, thought, have learned and also read. Dostoyevsky was a help to me on some level, as was Nietzsche. The Doc character, the rogue cop, was the easiest and most fully formed right away. Honestly, he really wrote himself, in all his dirty outrageousness. The main character, Romy, was more challenging. It took me two years to write the first long chapter of the book, her bus ride on "chain night," when women are hauled up highway 99 to the Central Valley, because it had to have all of the foundational elements of her narrative, her tone, her cadence in it, her predicament. I had to push myself into certain corners to figure that out.

Your writing has been described as "persuasive" and "moving." What will readers take away from The Mars Room?
I write to please myself or grapple with my own unanswerable questions. In terms of what people take away, I can't claim to have a project in mind for the readers of my book, but if this book were to change the way someone thinks about, say, our society and how it's structured, about life, about class, race, America, women, poverty, dirty jokes, bad cops, all cops, literature, good, evil, God, violence, highways, dead ends, or justice--well, that would be just fine. 

This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A on Shelf Awareness for Readers (May 18, 2018), link HERE 


The Mars Room


A gritty, authentic fictional account of a 29-year-old mother serving two consecutive life sentences at a Women's Correctional Facility.
Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers) paints a dark and gritty picture of the U.S. prison system and the larger, contemporary world in her provocative novel, The Mars Room. The action is set at the fictional Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, in the remote Central Valley of California. A diverse cast of inmates--hardscrabble women who formerly lived on the margins of society, suffering from poverty, abuse, neglect, drug addiction and sex exploitation--are forced to adapt and make a life inside prison walls. 
The central protagonist is Romy Leslie Hall, a 29-year-old inmate and former lap dancer at the Mars Room, a notorious, seedy strip club in San Francisco. Romy is serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering a man who relentlessly stalked her. 
Romy--bright and well-read, despite having grown up in unseemly conditions--has a young son, Jackson, who becomes entangled in the child welfare bureaucracy. Although prison separates Romy from Jackson for four long years--and she is ultimately stripped of her rights to find him--her desperate longing and love for him endures. She goes to great lengths to learn more about his status and track him down.
Romy's tragic, hard-luck story is one of many explored in a complex novel that keeps readers off-balance yet fully immersed. Supporting characters and their sordid proclivities and recidivism--along with subplots about an incarcerated dirty cop and a sensitive teacher at the prison--provide an unflinching look at brutality and power plays within the perimeters of razor wire--and beyond. 

The Mars Room: A Novel by Rachel Kushner
Scribner, $27.00 Hardcover,  9781476756554, 352 pages
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
To order this book on INDIEBOUND, link HERE

NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (May 18, 2018), link HERE


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Little Big Love


A lovable, determined, 11-year-old boy seeks to unravel a decade-long mystery in his family and finally find his birth father.
One night in June 2005 changes the lives of a family in Little Big Love by British author Katy Regan. Set in Grimsby, a small fishing village in England, the story is told from three distinct perspectives of the Hutchinson family. Zac is a precocious, inquisitive 11-year-old, who has blue eyes just like his father's. He is obsessed with food, the memory of his deceased Uncle Jamie, a chef who died a tragic death, and finding his father, Liam, who left before Zac was born.
Zac's mother, Juliet, is a single mom who has a tendency to overeat and to shoplift food from grocery stores. She still carries a torch for her old flame, Liam Jones. Her inability to get over his departure makes dating a challenge--often quite comical. Finally, there is Mick, her dad, ensnarled in the devastating situation that tore his family apart--a situation that has kept his daughter and his wife in a state of inertia for 10 years, and has burdened him with secrets.

The inability of the three narrators to move beyond the impact and implications of the night that changed everything--a night that, in its aftermath, has perpetuated lies and mystery--forms the impetus for this moving, bittersweet story that seeks to unravel the truth of what really happened and why.
Little Big Love is Katy Regan's U.S. debut; as in her U.K. releases (How We MetThe One Before the One), she delivers an affirming, buoyant novel populated by authentic, empathetic characters, young and old, who infuse her adventurous story with great poignancy, humor and heart. 

Little Big Love by Katy Regan
Berkley, $26.00 Hardcover,  9780451490346, 368 pages
Publication Date: June 12, 2018
To order this book on INDIEBOUND, link HERE

NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (June 15, 2018), link HERE


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Perfect Couple


Turmoil erupts at a posh Nantucket beachfront estate when a member of a wedding party is found dead on the morning of the nuptials.
In The Perfect Couple, Elin Hilderbrand (Winter Storms) dishes up a mysterious and superbly crafted whodunit, wrapping it around a story of domestic bliss gone awry.
As is her trademark, Hilderbrand sets her novel in Nantucket--assembling a large cast of characters who gather on the island for the sultry July wedding of 20-somethings Celeste Otis and Benjamin Winbury. Celeste is a shy, down-to-earth, middle-class zoologist whose parents have what she considers the perfect marriage. Her caring and attentive, well-to-do businessman fiancé, Benji, is the offspring of a successful mystery novelist mother and a notoriously philandering father. With Celeste's mother battling cancer, the Winburys generously offer to host the event at their posh beachfront estate, Summerland. But on the morning of the wedding, the body of the maid of honor--the bride's best friend--is found floating in the surf. Was her death accidental or the result of foul play?
Hilderbrand peels back layers of her suspenseful story by tracing the details of a suspected murder investigation, chronicling Benji and Celeste's relationship and revealing the hidden lives and agendas of others. As the Nantucket chief of police probes wedding attendees for answers, the integrity of many comes into question, along with Celeste's true feelings for her husband-to-be. A rapidly snowballing plot shifts suspicions as Hilderbrand displays a riveting grasp on insidious domestic rivalries and the secrets embedded in the human heart that can lead to unexpected, shattering consequences.  

Little Brown and Company, $28.00 Hardcover, 9780316375269, 480 pages
Publication Date: June 19, 2018
To order this book on INDIEBOUND, link HERE

NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (July 13, 2018), link HERE


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Lido

A community rallies to save a South London pool facing closure, and a friendship is sparked between an 86-year-old resident and a 20-something rookie reporter.

A public, outdoor swimming pool in Brixton, a small enclave of south London, forms the bedrock of The Lido, a feel-good first novel by British author Libby Page. The tight-knit community is changing. The local library has closed and has since been transformed into a bar. A Starbucks and a TJ Maxx chain store have moved in. And the public pool--the lido--in Brockwell Park, is being threatened with closure by a powerful, local land developer who wants to buy the property.

Rosemary Peterson, who has spent all 86 years of her life in Brixton, hates to see her beloved lido close. She worked in the town library before lack of funds shut it down, and she regrets not having done more to save it. While much has changed over the years in Brixton, the lido has served as a unifying, reassuring constant in Rosemary's changeable life. As a result, she feels powerless when she learns that the pool will close, until loner Kate Matthews--a shy, insecure reporter in her mid-20s, new to Brixton and the local paper--interviews her for a story. The two women are worlds and generations apart. However, as Rosemary regales Kate with stories about the lido and what it has meant to her--and to the history of the town--a bond of friendship grows between them, transforming both of their lives.

Page assembles a lively, diverse cast and heartwarming remembrances about the pool and how it sustained and enriched the town over time. Readers diving into this hopeful, tender story can emerge refreshed by the meaningful depths of community and the bonds of indelible friendships.




Simon and Schuster, $25.00 Hardcover,  9781501182037, 330  pages

Publication Date: February 7, 2017

To order this book on INDIEBOUND, link HERE



NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (July 24, 2018), link HERE

This review was originally published (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness for The Book Trade (June 14, 2018). To read this review on Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade, link HERE

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Recipe Box


The history of a family-run orchard and pie shop enlightens a young pastry chef as she re-evaluates her own life.

Nourishment--especially of the heart and soul--forms the basis of The Recipe Box, a moving novel about the inextricable bonds of family by Viola Shipman (pen name for Wade Rouse). The story is a multi-generational chronicle of the Mullins family of Suttons Bay, Mich., and their agricultural orchard nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Samantha "Sam" Nelson was given her great-great-grandmother's recipe box at age 13. After high school, she chooses to leave the Mullins Family Orchard and Pie Pantry and attend culinary school. She later takes a job at a Manhattan bakery run by a demeaning reality TV chef. At work, she is befriended by Angelo Morelli, a young man who delivers organic produce to the bakery and is trying, like Sam, to chart his own path. When Sam loses her job, she retreats to the family orchard to reassess her life. There, she gains a new appreciation for the long-held family business and the cherished wisdom of her ancestors. But when Angelo arrives for a visit, Sam is torn between staying at the orchard or returning to the New York culinary scene. 

Shipman (The Charm Bracelet)
traces more than a century of Mullins family history, showing how the orchard--and those who passionately tended to it--evolved and endured. The inclusion of scrumptious recipes sweeten this wholesome story where food and baking become acts of love. Shipman has sensitively crafted another tender, deeply resonant novel that readers can savor.

The Recipe Box by Viola Shipman 

Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99 Hardcover,  9781250146779, 336  pages

Publication Date: February 7, 2017

To order this book on INDIEBOUND, link HERE



NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (April 13, 2018), link HERE




Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Darrell Laurant: Inspiration Street

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT

Darrell Laurant grew up in Syracuse, NY, graduated from a small college in North Carolina and spent more than 30 years as a sportswriter, news reporter, editor and columnist for daily newspapers in Charleston, SC and Lynchburg, VA. Along the way, Laurant published Even Here (about a series of bizarre murders in Bedford County, VA) and A City Unto Itself (a history of Lynchburg, VA in the 20th century) because he had "accumulated more information on those subjects than I could do justice to in my newspaper column."

In 2014, a year after retiring from the The News & Advance in Lynchburg, Laurant wrote and published his first novel, The Kudzu Kid, about an embattled  weekly newspaper editor and a mob-backed hazardous waste dump. Inspiration Street was released in 2016, just as he finished his second novel, The Last Supper League.

Laurant's "current fixation" is a unique, writer-friendly and absolutely free book marketing blog called "Snowflakes in a Blizzard" that focuses on "under the radar" books.

Inspiration Street focuses on a remarkable and fascinating group of African-American achievers who lived on a single street in downtown Lynchburg, VA during the time of segregation.



Why did you write Inspiration Street?

I had interviewed and written about many of these people and their descendants in newspaper columns and feature articles over the years, and then one day a light went off in my head and I realized: "Wow, all of this happened within two city blocks!" With all due respect to the Rev. Martin Luther King, who was certainly a great man in many ways, the civil rights movement existed before him and after him--and several  of the people who lived on Pierce Street made contributions so significant that I subtitled the book "Two City Blocks That Helped Change America."



What did you learn in writing this book?

Again, I think I underestimated the importance of the people I focused on in writing Inspiration Street -- folks like Anne Spencer, Chauncey Spencer, Walter Johnson, Amaza Meredith and C.W. Seay -- in relation to the world beyond Pierce Street and Lynchburg, VA. Although this is not a young adult book per se, I think it would be perfect for teen-aged readers, especially those in inner-city schools.



Did you learn anything about yourself through writing this book?

What I learned from this project was the value of perseverance and the possibility of redemption. Almost all of the individuals who are featured faced daunting obstacles in their youth, not to mention the larger obstacle of segregation. Poet Anne Spencer grew up with a single mother and then in a foster home, and didn't start school until she was 11. Walter Johnson was a high school troublemaker who was then expelled from two colleges before evolving into an unselfish family physician and the coach of tennis stars Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. Amaza Meredith lost her father to suicide on the eve of her high school graduation, then was turned down by all the college architectural programs in Virginia because of her race and gender. Frank Trigg was born into slavery and lost an arm in a farming accident, yet eventually became the president of two colleges.

One surprising thing I learned was that the land on which Pierce Street was laid down had previously been used for a Confederate training camp. That seemed like perfect karma.



What stories in the book are stand-outs?

Here are two: In 1938, Anne Spencer's son Chauncey and fellow aviator Dale White flew a rickety old single engine plane from Chicago to Washington -- surviving two crash landings along the way -- in order to bring attention to the absence of African Americans in the Army Air Corps. By chance, they ran into then-Senator Harry Truman, who was so impressed by their argument and their tenacity that he wound up introducing legislation to integrate the entire armed services.

When famed author and NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois visited Lynchburg in the 1920s to speak at a local college, he asked on arrival where he could take a shower. Presented instead with a wash tub, the fastidious DuBois balked, then was told that Anne and Edward Spencer on Pierce Street had hot running water. He knocked on their front door as a complete stranger, took his shower, and became the previously unknown Anne Spencer's entryway into the ranks of Harlem Renaissance literary figures.



How did you approach your subject matter? 

I've always enjoyed research, so this was actually a lot of fun. Anne Spencer's granddaughter, Shaun Hester, has a big help, and I had interviewed Chauncey Spencer several times before his death. The book was timely, because the tennis court on which Ashe and Gibson learned the fine points of tennis was being refurbished and opened as part of a Johnson museum. Other books had been written about several of these individuals (although not all), and that was also invaluable.



Describe your writing process.

My method with non-fiction is to create a file in the computer for each prospective chapter. Then, when I do an interview, I paste quotes and information into the appropriate chapter.



Is there a message to the book?

I see this as a bridge between black and white, a reminder that we're really not so different, after all. Indeed, several of the main players here were the product of inter-racial marriages.



Why should someone want to read Inspiration Street?

I consider myself as a storyteller, and these are great stories. All I had to do was reveal them.




Blackwell Press, $9.95 Paperback, 9781938205262, 166 pp

Publication Date: February 26, 2016

To order this book on INDIEBOUND, link HERE

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Women in Sunlight


Four very different American women experience reinvention and self-discovery when they settle in Tuscany and explore all that Italy has to offer.

Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun, Under Magnolia) returns to the sensuous glories of Italy in her beautifully rendered and richly woven novel Women inSunlight
Catherine "Kit" Raine is an American expat in her late 30s. She has lived and worked as a successful writer and poet nestled in the Tuscan hills of San Rocco for 12 years. Her current project is a biography of fellow American Margaret Merrill--an older woman, good friend and a writer whom Kit admired--who set down roots in Tuscany much earlier.
When Margaret died, she surprisingly bequeathed her estate to Kit. Their friendship was at times rocky and difficult. However, Margaret's posthumous generosity made a lasting impression on Kit. In trying to broaden the readership of Margaret's work--and better understand her enigmatic friend--Kit grapples with memories on the page that lead Kit to examine her own life and future.
Kit's quest deepens when three American women--and their unruly dog--move into the villa next door. The three women are new friends, all retired, who met at an orientation for a 55-and-over retirement community near their homes in Chapel Hill, N.C. The threesome are still vital and active enough to assert their independence. 
Mayes's writing glimmers with masterful sensory descriptions. Readers can practically taste the white foam that tops cappuccinos, step into elongated shadows cast by cypress trees and feel the echoing cold retained amid old stone villas. Mayes delivers another intimate story, told in lively episodes, that details how unexpected friendships can lead to reinvention and bright new beginnings at any age.



Women in Sunlight: A Novel by Frances Mayes

Crown, $27.00 Hardcover,  9780451497666, 448  pages

Publication Date: April 3, 2018

To order this book on INDIEBOUND, link HERE





NOTE: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (April 24, 2018), link HERE


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Matt Haig: History in the Mix


The Writer's Life

Matt Haig is the author of five novels, several award-winning children's books and the memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, which is an account of Haig's battle with depression and how he overcame it with the help of reading, and writing, and the support of his family. In How to StopTime (Viking, $26), Haig tells an imaginative, adventurous story about a man who has lived for centuries and his journey to reconcile his past and present in order to face the future. The novel dips into 500 years worth of history and is being made into a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch. My review is below.

How did this novel take root?

I had the idea brewing for a long time. Nearly a decade. But it wasn't fully there. I had the voice of someone impossibly old, but I didn't have a story. Then I saw a painting of Omai in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Omai was the Pacific Islander brought to England after Captain Cook's second voyage and prized as an exotic oddity. It got my mind ticking and--even though Omai isn't the main character--he was the starting point.

How to Stop Time straddles genres of fantasy, romance, adventure and comedy. Was this intentional?

I have no idea. But it made the writing of it more fun. I love mixing things up. It just feels more natural to me than to compartmentalize the imagination like that.

The protagonist of the novel is 439 years old yet appears to be a 41-year-old man. Why did you choose these two specific ages?

Well, I was 41 when I created Tom Hazard, the protagonist. So I suppose that was the reason. As for 439 years, I wanted Tom to live within a realistic timeframe for a creature to live. There are clams that can live to 500. And Greenland sharks can live to be 1,000. So 439 began to feel almost realistic.

What was most fulfilling in writing this novel?

The amount of research I had to do was simultaneously the most fulfilling and the most challenging aspect. It was like researching 12 different historical novels in one. But I love social history. I love learning about, for instance, how ale was considered healthier than water for children to drink in Shakespearean times. (In fairness, it was.)

Tom Hazard shares life-changing experiences with notables such as William Shakespeare, Captain Cook and F. Scott Fitzgerald--to name a few. I wanted to mix the very famous with the less well known--such as Omai and the real-life Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson--because I loved the challenge of making people who have become legends into real, living people... with halitosis, in Shakespeare's case.

If you could live in another time, when would it be and why?

To be totally honest, I would like to go back into my own past in order to give myself some life advice before I fell into depression and anxiety disorder in my 20s. Also: ancient Greece, to have a chat with Plato and drink some wine.

Philosophical ideas of time are central to the novel. And there's a quote in the book, "The past resides inside the present, repeating, hiccupping...."

Yes, I think we are repeating the mistake of dehumanizing people. People not like us. I think we are dangerously losing faith in the idea of central unifying narratives. The collective experience of a shared life in a shared society is falling apart. I think social media is sending us back to an age before the mass circulation of the old media, where truth was whatever you wanted to hear, whatever your neighbors whispered to you. It is terrifying if you think about it. But there are signs of hope and progress, too. We are alert to injustices in ways we never were before.

What did you learn about yourself in writing the novel?

That writing can be fun. I had been forgetting that for a few years.

What will readers take away from reading How to Stop Time?

I hope, primarily, readers will be entertained. I don't think there should be any shame in entertainment. I suppose my point in writing the novel was to make people, including me, appreciate life and the nature of our brief and wonderful time here.

Time, loss, death, the surmounting of tragedies--and characters who feel like outsiders--recur in much of your work.

I try to write books that can comfort by showing hardship and the overcoming of that hardship.... I think fiction can be nourishing. I think it can help us cope with life.

Your books, while dealing with dark themes, are often leavened with hope and playfulness. From where do you draw your sense of optimism?

Strangely, I think it comes from depression and anxiety. My experience of those things made me more optimistic. Optimism--hard earned--became essential. It kept me alive. Optimism is very often a product of pain, I think.

If readers are unfamiliar with your work, what book should they read first?

After How to Stop Time, either
The Humans or Reasons to Stay Alive. Stay away from The Possession of Mr. Cave--I was in a dark mood when I wrote it.

After writing so many books, how do you maintain enthusiasm for the craft?

I try to keep things new--switch genres, write for children sometimes, or for film or nonfiction. I try to make every book feel like it is a first book.
This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A on Shelf Awareness for Readers (February 23, 2018), link HERE 
Author Photo by Ken Lailey