Category Archives: writing

Commonwealth Reboot

shopping-2   I don’t like rereading books; I’d rather spend the time with a new story, but Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth was an exception.  Exploring the depths of Commonwealth’s complicated family and the catalysts changing their lives gave me a better understanding of the story’s structure with its underlying conceits, and a new respect for Ann Patchett’s writing talent.

In preparing for the book club discussion, I researched the author.  I was already familiar with her other books; this time I looked for her background as a way of connecting with her own family references in this book, and I found a few to share at the book club.  I always like book lists and authors who inspire writers, and in my meanderings I found Ann Patchett offered some new possibilities.

Because Patchett mentioned her friendship with Jacqueline Woodson, four time winner of the Newbery Award, I listened to an online podcast at the Free Library of Philadelphia with both authors discussing Patchett’s Commonwealth and Woodson’s Another Brooklyn.  The podcast is a one hour discussion with Patchett and Woodson reading from their books.  In the publisher’s excerpt, childhood memory is the common element – how the  memory of childhood events differs, according to the age of the child experiencing it.

For the New York Times “By the Book,” Patchett named Saul Bellow, the winner of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and National Book Awards, as one of her favorite authors, as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin, award winning author and historian.  In the podcast she also offers a number of her favorite books from Charlotte’s Web to The Witches of Blackbird Pond to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, When Breath Becomes Air, The Underground Railroad, and more.  She has a monthly blog talking about her favorite books at “Ann’s Blog”

As a result of  rediscovering Ann Patchett,  I am now reading:

  • Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn
  • Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift
  • Henry James’ The Ambassadors
  • Matthew Desmond’s Evicted

Through the interviews I learned more about Patchett, the person.  She’s warm and funny and real – someone I would enjoy meeting for coffee.  Maybe I will someday, if I ever get to Tennessee.

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Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

After meeting this author at a literary conference, I bought her book.  I liked the author’s witty presentation and decided her book would be a good companion for my next long flight.  As I usually do with authors new to me, I wondered if my library had any of her books, and found three.

Unknown-1  If you remember the Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors” or the book by Peter Howitt, you will recognize the theme – the consequences of choices.   Reid uses a turning point decision to outline two possibilities for her heroine, Hannah Martin, a displaced Angeleno returning home, confronting her old life and loves.  Chapters alternate between the decision, and the suspense carries both life possibilities into thoughtful dilemmas.

When Hannah meets her old boyfriend after years apart, she recognizes her feelings still offer possibilities with him, but their communication is not as fine-tuned as it once was.  In one scenario, Hannah goes home with him and restarts their love affair; in the other, she goes home with her friends and gets into an almost fatal car accident.  Reid addresses each concurrent storyline with strengths and weaknesses, and keeps the suspense alive, as the reader wonders if the resolution will be the same.  Do small choices have drastic effects on the future? Do decisions matter or are we all fated to come to the same destiny, no matter how we get there?

Reid’s story is a light romance with an appealing twist – a good summer beach read.  The theme of her new book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorites) about a famous author revealing her secrets as she uses a young woman to write her memoir.  In Reid’s book the woman is a fading movie star – another possibility for a long plane ride.

Mo Willems – When a Pig Meets an Elephant

Catching up with the New Yorker recently, I not only laughed out loud at Rivka Glachen’s profile of children’s author and illustrator Mo Willems – Funny Failures – but also connected to this children’s author’s wry outlook.  I needed to find his books.

A quick search showed ninety-eight of his titles in my local library system, so I returned to the article to note those highlighted in the five page article.  Two have won Caldecott Honors – Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (2004) and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (2005).  Another I added, just to meet the elephant and the pig in We Are in a Book.

Knuffle Bunny may remind you of the last time you lost something in the laundry; the pigeon is hilarious – what’s the first thing any child wants to do when told not to?  As for the elephant and the pig, I dare you not to say “BANANA” when you read their book.

Although Willems’ books are identified as Easy Readers, in the same vein as Eric Carle  or P.D. Eastman, his animals are funny in their anxiety and resilient in their failures – a lesson for adults as well as children.  Give yourself a laugh; find Mo Willems.

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Meeting the Authors

How could I meet the authors without having read their books?  When the Literary Orange conference in Southern California invited a range of authors – many I had not yet read, I began binge reading to prepare, starting with the keynote speakers.

Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, based on the true history of thousands of children shipped to the American Midwest in the 1930’s was a fast read, with the two characters – a ninety year old train orphan telling her story to a seventeen year old girl in foster care.  Amazingly, they have a lot in common – misery, heartache, and the luck of a wonderful new life.

9780870708312_p0_v1_s192x300Her latest novel,  A Piece of the World,  imagines the story of Christina Olson, famously portrayed in Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting.

Fannie Flagg

9780399590733_p0_v1_s192x300Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is my favorite story by Fannie Flagg.   Her latest book, The Whole Town’s Talking, has that same country flavor as Flagg tells the story of Lordor Nordstrom, his Swedish mail-order bride, Katrina, and their neighbors and descendants as they live, love, die in a small Minnesota town. As life goes on,  ghosts are chatting in the cemetery, observing lives, catching up on the news as the newly dead join them over  a century of changes – reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  But the ending reminded me of  Lincoln in the Bardo – we all have to move on.

Marcia Clark

9781503954007_p0_v1_s192x300Marcia Clark, the feisty attorney from the OJ trial came back into my radar with the recent televised “The People vs OJ Simpson” series.  Since then, she has written a series of murder mysteries. Blood Defense is her latest, with an ambitious, hard-charging Los Angeles criminal defense attorney as the star.

Other Authors Who Will Be There  (hope I can get to all their books before meeting them):

  • Martha Hall KellyLilac Girls
  • Victoria PetersonThis Vacant Paradise
  • Jessica Vogelsang – All Dogs Go to Kevin
  • Shanthi Sekaran‘s Lucky Boy
  • Shilpi Somaya Gowan‘s Secret Daughter
  • Stephen Rowley‘s Lily and the Octopus
  • Sherri Smith‘s Fly Girl
  • Jonathon Evison‘s This Is Your Life Harriet Chance!   

 

 

 

 

Squirrels to the Nuts – Cluny Brown on Margery Sharp Day

clunybrown-1My journey to author Margery Sharp – whose birthday it is today – was complicated.  After reading about her on a fellow reader’s website (Beyond Eden Rock), I tried to find her books but only one consistently appeared in the library and from online booksellers – The Rescuers, known to modern audiences through the Disney animated movie. Her other books were out of print or relegated to rare book collections.

Suddenly, Early Bird Books offered one of her books online for $2.99.  Then, a late night movie on Starz – She’s Funny That Way with Jennifer Aniston – cited the storyline (“squirrels to the nuts”) as being stolen from an old Charles Boyer movie titled Cluny Brown, based on the 1944 book of the same title by Sharp.  Margery Sharp, the forgotten prolific writer,  was making a comeback. Today she would be 111 years old.

Cluny Brown is a charming novel about a young woman in Britain in the late 1930’s who is sent off to be a housemaid at a country estate “to find her place.”  With the same upstairs/downstairs formula as Downton Abbey, the film story used the theme of Margery Sharp’s character in its plot – but I could not find the quote “squirrels to the nuts” in her book.

“Nobody can tell you where your place is…Wherever you’re happy, that’s your place, And happiness is a matter of purely personal adjustment to your environment.  You’re the sole judge. In Hyde Park for instance. Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels.  But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?”  Charles Boyer in director Ernst Lubitsch’s rendition of Cluny Brown

In the book, Cluny Brown scandalizes her uncle when she goes to tea at the Ritz by herself – just for the experience. She tries to stay in bed for a whole day, eating oranges because it’s good for her energy.   She defies convention and asks so many questions, and her uncle is fearful of her future.  unknownSo he sends her off to the country to be a housemaid to a clueless old wealthy couple.

Although her uncle had hoped learning how to clean and serve would sober her, Cluny, of course, brings her zest and curiosity with her – and changes the lives of everyone around her, including a few gentlemen who are not prepared for her influence – one in particular.  Of course, the ending is happily ever after – but with a surprising twist.

unknown-1I spent an afternoon eating oranges and happily immersed in Cluny’s outlook on life; now I am a fan, and have found another of her charming books available through iBooks to read.  I wonder if I have enough oranges.