Jodi Paloni on the transformative capacity of books

Jodi Paloni headshot

A year ago, I moved from Vermont to Maine. The neighbor boy counted my boxes of books as he helped load them from the house to the moving van. Fifty-one. His father asked me, “Do you actually read all these books?” I answered, “I either do, or maybe I will.” I flew off to organize the people upstairs, who asked more simple questions. “Should we mop the floors?”

A visitor to my new house commented, “You have more books than a person could ever possibly read. No, I mean it. It’s not even possible to read all of these books, one person, in one lifetime.”

So I thought about it. If I read two or three books per week (which happens only some of the weeks) that’s approximately eight to twelve books per month, so let’s say ten, which averages 120 books per year. I began to count my books. I looked around. One hundred and twenty books take up eight or nine linear feet on my shelves….

It doesn’t matter how many books. Books are not just for reading. They’re for viewing, touching, dusting, sorting, stacking, arranging, re-sorting, shelving, un-shelving. They’re a source of pleasure.

My husband has twenty-two screwdrivers, thirteen wrenches, and sixteen wood files.

My goat cheese-making friend keeps a couple of bucks around for kicks and, out of compassion, nurtures elder chickens that are all done laying eggs.

My daughter has 2,178 songs on her iPod.

That we are a species of excess is another topic. My point here is to say that we pay attention (and dollars) to what sparks passion, nourishes obsession, furnishes joy, soothes.

The other night, I climbed into bed with four books. I curled on my left side and spread them out, side by side, on top of the blanket where my husband sleeps: a book of poems with cover art that staggered me, two novels I was considering whether or not to finish, and a natural history book on corvids. I read the blurbs on the back of one of the novels. I read the acknowledgments inside the other. I admired the pen and ink drawings of crows and ravens on branches and in flight. I considered, once again, the book of poems. I picked it up, felt it, flipped through. I noticed the sound of quality paper between forefinger and thumb.

The cover of The Clock Flower by Adrian Rice, designed by Press 53’s editor, Kevin Morgan Watson, is thick and waxy. The art, by Jon Turner, depicts a pen and ink drawing: a dandelion seed and, standing to the right of it, a series of six human figures, lined up shoulder to shoulder, each wearing a suit–––males, let’s assume–––a boy growing into a youth, an adult, and eventually the drawing of a body stooping into an old man. Each head is represented by the life stages of a dandelion. The child’s head is the telltale toothed-leaf, the youth a bud, and so forth. The figure transforms–––the flower opening, the flower full, the seed-fluff, and finally the fluff scattering to the wind. There’s so much to think about what this image communicates. So, that night, I lay there thinking. Is this about how a person’s ideas change over time? Will the poems collected inside be about aging, grief, transformation? If the figures were female, would the flower have been placed to represent her heart, her hands, her womb? I set down the book of poems. I opened to my place in one of the novels and read the second chapter. After, I decided to let the novel go.

Jodi Paloni blog 2

During this time, all over the world, people were watching television, painting, milking cows, texting, waking up in a ditch, driving to shops and offices, defending their country, having sex, dancing  ballet, eating a calzone. My husband was in his shop turning a bowl from the burl of a maple tree. I could hear my daughter laughing, Skyping with a friend who lives in Virginia.

We’re fortunate to have some choice in the design of our time. We do the work we love, get our educations, and collect. I collect books. I also collect heart-shaped stones, clouded apothecary bottles, snail shells, small ceramic pitchers, and tiny used artifacts of whimsy that I arrange on a wooden shelf. I collect beautiful paper. I could collect antique tools, bicycles, CDs, vintage coffee pots, Frye boots, Victorian-era floor lamps (well, I do have a few of these), buoys, tea cups, paintings, orchids, Farmers Almanacs, beads, earrings, car parts, skiffs, license plates, baskets, matchbooks, military memorabilia, wooden birds, Breyer horses, iron hooks, or cheese graters. I collect books.

Many objects are pretty, touchable, stackable, arrange-able. Those fifty-one cartons of books (plus, the ones that I’d already moved in the car on an earlier trip) contained anywhere from 20-30 books. Add the new books I’ve acquired this year. I never did finish counting, but we’re talking about thousands. Books on nature, ecology, art, cottage décor, tiny houses and caravans, spirituality, gardening, and writing. My husband and I merge our collections of poetry and essays. We own a couple of dozen field guides between us. But, mostly, my books are works of fiction, and over half of those are short story collections.

Why books?

I can open up any one of any kind of books from my shelves, begin to examine and read, and something outside of my current state of awareness immediately shifts. I am “the self” found suddenly in juxtaposition with “the other.” Whether encountering the drawing of a rare moth, a journal entry from a woman sitting by the sea, or a description of a fictional town, I am catapulted into a world similar to or disparate from my own. I am made suddenly alert, brought up short by a line, an image, an idea, a whole nation of ideas. I shut the book in order to pursue a tangent. I sit down to read. What I like about books is their capacity for the boundless, the infinite, when caught in hands attached to an imagination.

Jodi Paloni blog 1

There exists a well-forged ideology that books are art, and that art is a necessity for a sane society. That books keep me sane is a personal truth I can defend. But I’d prefer to engage with the ingenuity of the artist, the writer, the aesthetics of the artifact, the design, the narrative, the mediation, the facts, the lyricism, the feet, the teeth, the wing on the page. I’d rather wage war, not in defending my need or want of fifty-plus boxes of books, but within the conflicted borders of my imaginary worlds. I want the conversation between the experience of the book and my way of understanding that experience to compel me into the next day and the next and the next, to do my work of writing books, editing books, making art, cooking dinner, taking the dog for a walk on the beach, all with a clearer vision than what I may have had without the book.

Not all books stay. I am sensible enough to know that when I cull, donate, trade, sell, recycle, I am opening space for more books to come in, and for old books to find new readers. Which brings me back to that one night in bed, that one book of poems, that compelling cover art.

Over time, I’ve come to understand what kinds of books have stood the test of time. The books that are memorable, or seem as though they one day might be, the ones that stay on my shelves, have taught me something worthy in a character’s choice, given me insight into the life of a non-human and still sentient being, or shown me the artful line of a building, the curve of a garden trellis, the shape of a sculpture. They’ve left some patterned mark on the page against a creamy space, the blankness having caught my eye. They’ve made me laugh, or cry, or shake with a powerful understanding.

I’d place myself on the cover of that book of poems, The Clock Flower, five flower heads from the left, still flowering, but with some poignant shape-shifting in near-view. I still need these books. Yet by letting a few of them go, it’s as if I’m beginning to see the beauty of flinging tiny-hooked fluffed seeds to the wind.


They Could Live with Themselves

Jodi Paloni is the author of the debut linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her stories have appeared in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. Her website is


Lisa Gornick: “I am a great admirer of old-fashioned sprawling novels.”

lisa_gornick   Tinderbox


Lisa Gornick’s Tinderbox is a powerfully written exploration of one family in a state of crisis. Her training and experience as a psychologist and psychoanalyst shows through in the richness and realism of her characterizations. The novel also benefits from a compelling multi-level plot and an intriguing structure. You can read my recent review here.

Can you tell me about your background as a writer (e.g., when you started, your education, writing experiences, etc.)?  What led you from psychology and psychoanalysis to fiction?

I actually started as a writer, and then became a psychologist and ultimately a psychoanalyst.  Like most writers, I was first a passionate reader — one of those nose-in-a-book kids.  By high school, I’d begun my own scribbling: poems that in my twenties morphed into stories.  Becoming a therapist and ultimately a psychoanalyst was an organic outgrowth of my love of language and character-driven novels.  Over the years, I’ve written about Freud’s relationship with creative writing and creative writers and the links between “novelizing” and “analyzing,” including the connection between free association and the literary imagination, pulse points in fiction and a treatment, and the centrality in both endeavors of the story behind the story.

I would imagine that this background would come in handy in creating complex, realistic characters. The characters in Tinderbox all had some kind of quirk or burden, all of which seemed realistic to me. People are full of contradictions, complexities, character “flaws” and secrets. Do you get a lot of ideas from your therapy practice?

I have a rigid rule about writing about patients: verboten in any form, clinical or fiction.  That said, my understanding of how we become who we are and how stories unfold is strongly informed by my psychoanalytic training and experience.

What made you feel that you had to tell this story? What were your goals/artistic objectives in writing Tinderbox, beyond telling a compelling story?

Tinderbox began with a true story that got under my skin about a nanny who fell apart when she came to work for a family whose loving attention to their child stimulated her own buried longings for a mothering she’d never had.  The story (whose details I entirely altered) dovetailed with an interest in one of the occupational hazards for therapists, who are often a magnet for revelations by people encountered outside our offices — a situation in which everyday kindly intentions of being a sympathetic ear need to be tempered with prudence about what is best directed into a treatment.  While these ideas were percolating, I spent some weeks in Montana and Idaho when terrifying wildfires were blazing, a contributing factor, I learned, having been the Smokey Bear policy of preventing all fires, which can lead to overgrown underbrush that sets the stage for out-of-control conflagrations.  These situations came together in what is a central theme of the novel: a tragedy of good intentions.

What was the greatest challenge in writing Tinderbox?

The greatest challenge of writing Tinderbox was figuring out the structure.  I am a great admirer of old-fashioned sprawling novels that move seamlessly in and out of various characters’ heads with a relaxed capaciousness, and I didn’t want to be constricted by what seems to me to be the now overused schema of alternating points of view by chapter.  Rather, I wanted the story to be preeminent: to narrate each scene from the point of view that makes most sense for both that moment and the larger unfolding of the various elements of the novel.  The image I had was that the narrative is like a baton passed from character to character — though I did limit the number of characters who have access to the baton, in part to enhance the mystery and suspense.

The second major structural challenge concerned how to handle time.  I’ve heard it said that our personal narratives begin with the memories of our grandparents, and indeed the story told in Tinderbox stretches back several generations.   At the same time, I wanted the novel to have a tight front story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The aim was to have the scenes in the past have the same vibrancy as the scenes in the present (i.e. to avoid the feeling of the flashback) while simultaneously maintaining a strong driving sense of the contemporary story moving forward.  Novels, like nearly every important undertaking, contain many opposing forces, and insight, hard work, and a good dose of luck are required to achieve a balance.

Readers might wonder whether you have actually been to the exotic locales in the book like Peru and Morocco. From your detailed descriptions and the strong sense of place you create in the Morocco scenes, it certainly seems like you’ve been there.

I have spent time in both Morocco and Peru.  I couldn’t have written the scenes that take place in Essaouira, the wind-swept city where Rachida grew up, without having been there first.  As for Iquitos, the nanny Eva’s home, I didn’t visit there until I’d written several drafts of the novel.  Thinking about it now, that was for the best.  Eva is the one major character whose point of view is never shared, so her home is understood only through others’ fantasies about it — most particularly, through Adam, the father of the child Eva cares for, who has been obsessed with the place since first seeing Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, which is set there.

How did you become interested in Sephardic Jews and their migrations? Have you found that readers are particularly intrigued by the subplot about Moroccan Jews in Peru? Most people have no idea there were (and are) Jews in Latin America (and that many of them were and are Crypto-Jews who hide their identity in a very Catholic part of the world), and they usually aren’t aware of their presence historically in countries like Morocco, Iraq, and Iran.

Learning about the Jews of Iquitos was an uncanny discovery for me.  When I first began the novel, I’d already decided that Eva was from Iquitos — which, like Adam, I knew about from Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, about the parallel process between Herzog’s epic making of the movie and his character Fitzcarraldo’s maniacal project.  I’d already conceived of Adam’s wife, Rachida, a Moroccan Jewish doctor from Essaouira, whose now decimated but once powerful Jewish community I knew about from my travels.  Then, one day when I was reading about Iquitos, I stumbled upon a reference to a small Jewish community in Iquitos.  That seemed strange: a Jewish community in a landlocked city, accessible only by boat or air, in the middle of the jungle?  My curiosity piqued, I began to research further and  — my heart nearly stopped.  The Jews of Iquitos, I learned, were the descendants of Moroccan Jewish rubber traders, many mere boys of 19 or 20, who’d come to the perilous Amazon during the rubber boom of the late 1800’s and then peremptorily departed when the  boom went bust in the early 1900’s, leaving behind their common-law Indian wives and offspring.   In other words, there might be an historical link between my characters Rachida and Eva, whom I’d independently imagined and never thought of having a connection beyond employer and employee.

Adam’s obsession with pornography ties in with the problems caused in some marriages by the limitless supply of porn on the Internet. Did you (do you) see a lot of this porn obsession in your work as a therapist? What does it signify generally and for Adam specifically?

You don’t have to be a therapist to know that porn is ubiquitous in our culture.  It’s virtually impossible for preteens not to stumble upon it, and it has a huge impact on men’s lives.  For Adam, there is a very specific meaning to the images he seeks — and they are key to understanding his psychic life, but his use of porn is also terribly destructive for him and for his family.  Because he’s a screenwriter and movies are sacred to him, he’s horrified at the idea of contaminating his work with porn viewed on a screen, so unlike most contemporary porn addicts, he looks only at porn in magazines.

What are your favorite books or the ones that most influenced you?

For Tinderbox, there was a specific set of novels that I studied — literally outlined to understand how they were put together.  This group of novels included Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, Alice McDermott’s After This, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.  In everything I write, I have been deeply influenced by Alice Munro: the economical way she conveys an entire life within a tight narrative; her original sentences, devoid of writerly showiness, that convey the way we think; her acceptance of the coexistence of pettiness and largesse in the human heart.

Several drafts into Tinderbox, I read for the first time Anna Karenina (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).  I was stunned by how contemporary the novel feels and how gripping it is despite its enormous cast of characters and sociological, philosophical and political ambitions.  The novel’s accessibility, it seems to me, is in part due to the structure of  bite-sized sections, each of which can easily be read in a single sitting, within longer parts.  Inspired by Tolstoy, I revamped Tinderbox, throwing out the chapters, and reorganizing it into four parts, each, a la Anna, with short numbered sections.

What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it in bookstores?

I have a collection of linked short stories — a novel in fragments — titled Louisa Meets Bear that centers on a star-crossed affair between Louisa, the artistic and sexually-adventurous daughter of a San Francisco geneticist, and Bear, the passionate but explosive son of a Cincinnati plumber, upcoming, also with Sarah Crichton Books/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in June of 2015.  And, I’m finishing up a new novel, tentatively titled The Peacock Feast, that opens in 1916 with Louis C. Tiffany, the genius glass artist, torpedoing the breakwater in front of his phantasmagorical Oyster Bay mansion, with its daffodil columns and blue-tiled minaret, rather than allowing the town to reclaim what he viewed as his beach for public bathing.


Elizabeth Graver: “Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life”

Elizabeth Graver portrait

Elizabeth Graver

After reading The End of the Point last July, I interviewed author Elizabeth Graver on July 8. I’m reposting it now because the book has just been published in paperback. I found her responses just as thoughtful and beautifully written as the novel. The interview stands on its own and will, in fact, almost certainly inspire you to read her latest novel, which was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award.

Find out how to qualify to win one of three copies of The End of the Point here:

What inspired you to write The End of the Point?

I’d heard a story from my husband of a beloved Scottish nanny who took care of the children in his family for several generations and then moved back to Scotland in her old age.  When she died, she left all her money to the female grandchildren in the family she’d worked for.  Apparently, she’d had a romance with a soldier during WWII. That was the first seed: Why did she stay with the family for so long, why did she leave? It led me to Bea, and then to so many other questions—about place, social class, child-rearing, the intersections between historical events and personal history.  The book (slowly—it took me over seven years to write) unfolded from there.

You live and work in Boston. How much of a connection do you feel to the Massachusetts coast? Any particular spot(s)?

My own beloved landscape is the woods and fields of inland New England.  I grew up in Western Massachusetts, and I now live in a rural suburb outside of Boston, in an old farmhouse surrounded by fields and woods.  New England—its seasons, the shapes of its hills, its particular flora and fauna—is in my life-blood; this comes into particularly sharp focus whenever I live somewhere else.  I didn’t grow up on the coast, and perhaps because of this, the ocean always feels a bit vast and daunting to me—beautiful and compelling, but not my home place.  I do love to swim, though, and to be buoyed up by salt water.  My husband’s family has for five generations had a house on a little spit of land on Buzzards Bay, in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I love spending time there, but it will never be a place of origin for me, though it is for him and for our daughters—and in a very powerful way.  My fictional Ashaunt is in part an effort to understand their relationship to the real place that served as inspiration for my novel.

The book is divided into five sections, each focusing on a different character (although always in third person). Why did you choose this narrative structure?

I was interested in inhabiting one place over a wide span of time and through a number of different points of view. I think of the book almost as a kaleidoscope. The first, brief section, “Fifteen Axes, Fifteen Hoes,” provides a sweeping glimpse of the long view, moving from the early Native Americans through to the turn of the 21st century. In the other four sections, I cover much less time but go deeper, landing (among other places) during WWII, during Vietnam, and at the end of the 20th century.  My hope is that the structure, in both its diving-ins and its jumps and ellipses, might suggest to the reader a lot of other, untold stories.  We land here, and here, but we could have landed somewhere else.  Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life.  Here are a few.

Why is Helen so demanding of Charlie? In general, do you believe it is worse when the first child is a boy? When the family is wealthy like the Porters? How does one find a balance between expectations and genuine desire to see potential realized on one hand and unconditional love and encouragement on the other?

I see parenting as a complex mix of nurture and nature, and as very colored by one’s own past and the parenting one received. Helen is by nature ambitious, restless, smart.  But she also suffers a number of losses.  The loss of her brother, after whom she names her son—seems to me a central one.

And she comes of age in a time and place where intellectual ambition is, if not actively discouraged, certainly not put first for women. Helen begins life as the third child in her family and ends up, after the death of two siblings, the eldest one.  Charlie is her oldest son. She is young when she has him. She funnels too much into him.  The wealth is complicated, both enabling and inhibiting, I think.  Helen tries in various ways to move outside the circle she was born into, but its pull is powerful and its gifts not insignificant, and she always comes back.

What made you decide to focus on Bea in the opening section? I enjoyed the character and the time spent in Scotland. Have you been asked to write a sequel of sorts exploring Bea’s life in detail? (We know how it ends, of course, but filling in all the missing years.)

No one has asked for a sequel yet! I love Bea, and I had a great time going to Scotland to research that part of the book.  I’m not sure why I began with Bea, but it may have something to do with her insider/outsider status. She is trying to make sense of things at the same time that the reader is.  She finds Ashaunt too sandy, windy and chaotic for her liking.  I didn’t want this book to read as a nostalgic beach book in any easy way, though interrogating nostalgia is something I hope the book does.  Bea comes from elsewhere.  She leads us in. I’m also interested in expanding notions of “family” and “mothering” to include non-blood relatives and even land.  Bea, while technically childless, is in a funny way a mother to much of the book, just as Ashaunt is a mother to Charlie and perhaps to other characters too.

Two characters (and, arguably, even more) suffer from mental illness. You write about the nature and experience of mental illness quite knowledgeably. What is the story behind that?

If I hadn’t been a writer, I might have been a psychologist.  I’ve written about mental illness in my other books as well (most centrally in The Honey Thief). Mental illness can highlight fundamental questions we all grapple with: Who am I? How am I separate from or linked to the rest of the world?  What is the line between the real and the imagined? The past and the present?  My body and my mind?  My sister is a psychiatrist and helps me when I get stuck.  For better or worse, the line between mental illness and health feels like a quite porous one to me.  As a novelist, I never stop hearing voices.

What is your technique/strategy for incorporating prose poetry into the novel without “overdoing” it and distracting from narrative momentum?

I try to keep time moving in the novel (not always forward, but in one direction or another) and to stay landed in scene most of the time.   If there is poetry, or highly poetic prose, it needs to be in service of the characters and story. But I’m also not aiming to write a fast-paced book. Not everyone will like it.  I hope readers who love poetic prose will be happy to linger when I do!

Were any other novels particularly inspirational or influential in writing The End of the Point?

Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees for its prose and seaside setting; Julia Glass’sThree Junes, for its structure; Virginia Woolf—all her books, but in particular To the Lighthouse.  George Colt’s non-fiction book, The Big House.

Why do you think so few men read fiction by women, even novels that are clearly not romance or genre fiction? For instance, why shouldn’t a man be intrigued by the title, cover art, and/or plotline of, say, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, Rilla Askew’s Kind of Kin, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior?

I happen to know quite a few men (and be married to one of them) who read a lot of fiction by women, so I may have a skewed vision. It may also not be a coincidence that I married a man whose shelves were filled with Grace Paley, Emily Dickinson, and Louise Erdrich long before I met him. Some of why more men don’t read more fiction by women, of course, has to do with what gets reviewed, and where, and by whom (and you are helping with that with your wonderful reviews of fiction by women writers).  And with some of the covers and marketing, as a recent article pointed out.  And fiction is sometimes seen, at least historically, as “softer,” more emotive, less “useful” than non-fiction.  Also, though, it asks the reader to cross over all kinds of boundaries—of time, place, gender, etc. etc. That can be scary.  Also necessary, in my view.

Who are some of your favorite authors? For each author, could you explain briefly why his/her work is important to you?

George Eliot, for her wide social vision, her prose, her mix of empathy and rigor.

Alice Munro, for her narrative structures, language, use of white spaces, psychological insight.

Toni Morrison, for her poetry and the risks she takes in form and subject matter.

Edward P. Jones, for his explorations of generations and of the power of place, and for his handling of time.

John Berger…Marilynne Robinson . . . Charlotte Bronte . . . Michael Ondaatje . . . Angela Carter . . . Bruno Schultz . . . William Trevor . . .

What have you read recently that impressed you?

I’m in the middle of Colum McCann’s Transatlantic and really enjoying it. I’m interested in the structure, in the separate but echoing narratives. I was blown away by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. I love really good narrative non-fiction, particularly books that take me deep into a new world.

What is your writing routine? I know you teach English and creative writing at Boston College; do you do the bulk of your writing on school breaks, summer vacation, etc., or do you manage to make it part of your daily life?

I do the bulk of my writing when I’m not teaching, though I do a lot of mulling, gestating, dreaming during the semester, and I revise in the cracks between other things.  I have two daughters, 10 and 13, so my daily life is very full.  I try to go away for a week or so every year—to an artists’ colony or to some other quiet place with my historian friend—and then I plunge really, really deep into the work.  A week can feel like a month when I’m in intense writing mode. It’s exhausting and exhilarating and necessary.  Parenting, teaching, and writing are all things I do intensely, and I’m grateful to have all three things in my life.  At any given moment, one thing might be at center stage. I work hard to put writing there some of the time.  This said, I’m in much less of a hurry to finish a book than I used to be—a gift of middle age, perhaps.

What are you working on now? How do you typically come upon the subject of your next novel or story? 

I’ve been poking about in my own family history and just spent a few days interviewing my wonderful 86-year-old Uncle David about his childhood in Spain and New York. What might come of it—a story, an essay, a non-fiction chronicle of some sort, a novel—I can’t say yet, but I’m having fun.  My maternal grandmother was a Sephardic Jew born in Turkey.  As a young woman, she moved to Spain, and later, widowed with two small sons, immigrated to New York.  I interviewed her when I was in college and have long wanted to do something with those tapes; she was a marvelous storyteller who lived a fascinating and quite dramatic life that involved a lot of cultural crossing.  Right now, I’m reading about Sephardic Jewish life in Turkey and Spain, interviewing relatives, playing around . . .

[See Elizabeth Graver’s guest blog about the early stages of the novel-writing process, posted on May 13, 2014, here:]

The subjects of my fiction come to me in lots of different ways, inspired by a dream, or a magazine article I’ve read, or by lowering myself down into research and seeing what happens.  Or a voice arrives.  I never know where I am going in the beginning or even what genre I’ll end up in.

Kindle, Nook, or good old-fashioned book?

Old-fashioned books.  I just got an i-Pad, but so far, I’ve only read newspapers and magazines on it. I figure it might be good for reading while travelling, and I’m itching to go somewhere far-flung with my family (I might get to use this new idea as an excuse to go to Spain!). But I do love the feel of a paper book—to be able to flip back and forth, write in the margins. I won’t easily give that up.

Mary Vensel White on LOLITA: The Book That Changed My Life

Lolita  mary-vensel-white

Mary Vensel White is the author of The Qualities of Wood, which will be published on June 17 by Authonomy/HarperCollins. It is both a suspenseful murder mystery and an intriguing character study of a young marriage, an extended family, and an insular community. Today, Mary visits Read Her Like an Open Book to share the impact of reading Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita

I first read Lolita in 1994, when I was still an undergrad at the University of Denver, and because I finished the book in July of that year (as noted on the inside cover), I can say that it was probably a welcome distraction from planning for our wedding in August. So it’ll be twenty years this summer—for the marriage and the relationship with Lolita—and it’s a good time to think (again) about the book’s influence on me.

I have two favorite books of all time, this one and Anna Karenina, depending on the context and what mood I’m in. But on the topic of Books That Changed My Life, it’s hands-down, no contest. Lolita rocked my world. From the opening pages, it still thrills me. First, there is the Foreword by the fictional “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.,” in which we are told in clinical terms about a Mr. Humbert Humbert, that “he is horrible (and) abject,” and that his memoir is the thing we’ll be reading within the pages of the book. And then, it starts:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

I’m including the lengthy opening in part because it’s so difficult to explain the effect of the prose and in part, for my own pleasure in doing so. Even now, twenty years and four reads later, I still just can’t believe these first short paragraphs. There is so much there, intrigue and questions and beguilements. During that initial reading years ago, my shock and awe intensified as the story progressed. Reading this novel made me realize the unlimited power of the writer, the fact that you really could write about anything, however you chose to do it. It was like clouds parting to reveal a new, limitless sky. Nabokov’s mesmeric prose, his ability to draw empathy and understanding for this “horrible” character, the sharp humor and the skewering of humanity amidst a stubborn tenderness—what can I say?

It defies explanation, this book, at least for me. It is, without a doubt, the book that most changed my life. And I realized, in pulling it from my shelf, that it’s been almost seven years since my last reading, which is certainly much too long.

Ten Unforgettable Female Characters

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, as suggested by Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish, is “The Top Ten Characters Who ____________.” She has left it up to individual bloggers to complete the sentence. I chose to write about The Top Ten Female Characters Who Are Unforgettable.  In the spirit of this blog, all 10 characters are the creation of female authors.  Admittedly, this is an idiosyncratic list; it discusses characters I liked and/or found memorable. It is not intended to be an objective or definitive list. (I don’t want readers scolding me for omitting Scarlett O’Hara.)

I hope you’ll comment with some of your favorite female characters.

Characters are discussed in the order in which the books were published.



Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Lizzie Bennett is one of the most popular female characters in all of literature, and for good reason. She is confident and self-possessed, capable of both charming wit and biting commentary, attractive without being able to rely on her appearance, and interested in marriage but only with a man worthy of her and whom she actually loves. Yes, she is judgmental and opinionated, “prejudiced” as Austen would say, occasionally hot-tempered, and prone to misplaced fits of righteous indignation. But those all-too-human foibles only make her more loveable. As portrayed by Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 BBC production with Colin Firth, she is radiant and irresistible. Only someone with a stone for a heart could fail to be charmed by her Lizzie Bennett.



Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

One of the first modern women in literature, Anna Karenina is a beautiful, sophisticated, and intelligent aristocrat who rejects societal constraints and the double standard applied to adulterous men and women by pursuing an extra-marital relationship with Count Vronsky. She is an ardent romantic who desires happiness on her own terms and pays the price for her iconoclastic attitude. Anna shares her loving heart with her children, to whom she remains devoted, despite her rejection of their father. Her fiercely independent spirit, dedication to love at any cost, and maternal streak make Anna Karenina an admirable, if flawed, character. In short, she is unforgettable precisely because she is so fully human.



Esperanza Cordero, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984)

Young Esperanza knows little beyond her Chicago barrio. She is full of dreams large and small, quirky in the way of all memorable young girls, vulnerable in countless ways but with an inner toughness born of poverty, struggle, and the patience that comes from doing without. The vignettes in The House on Mango Street allow us to get to know Esperanza in much the same way we become familiar with real people: in bits and pieces, trying to complete the picture so we can figure the person out and decide what kind of relationship we would like to have with her. By the end of this deceptively simple 110-page novel, the reader is certain that Esperanza is a very special girl, destined for life beyond her neighborhood. Cisneros has created a very memorable character for young readers — and everyone else.



Taylor Greer, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (1988)

High school senior Taylor Greer wants out of her tiny Kentucky town, and as soon as she is able, off she goes in her little VW bug, headed west to who knows what. A stop near an Indian reservation in Oklahoma becomes a life-changing moment, and soon she and her baby, Turtle, are settling in Tucson and trying to create a life for themselves. Taylor is gritty and resourceful but yearns for a family, which develops over time among a small group of outcasts, misfits, and unfortunates with whom she finds herself surrounded. Taylor’s huge heart, compassion, and determination make her a young woman to admire and love — and remember long after the reader puts the book down.



Lee Fiora, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)

Sittenfeld’s junior high protagonist is one of the most memorable teenage girls in literature. Hailing from a middle class family in Indiana, Lee is a scholarship student at a prestigious New England boarding school. Prep depicts her efforts to make friends, become self-sufficient, and pass her classes. Lee’s desire to understand and be like her privileged classmates is palpable and heartbreaking. She is a sweet, earnest, bright, and ambitious girl worth more than most of her classmates put together, but try telling her that. Her struggle to create herself is full of awkwardness and embarrassment, laughter and love, accomplishments and disappointments. She is a young woman you will not soon forget.



Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

This choice might surprise some people, but I liked and admired Katniss for her devotion to family, selflessness, modesty, and unexpected depths of character. If Katniss were not so likeable, despite her intermittent prickliness, we wouldn’t be so deeply invested in her success in the Hunger Games. Her mixed emotions about Gale and Peeta make Katniss more realistic and plausible, just like one of us, despite the unfamiliar and unforgiving setting and circumstances. As with Jennifer Ehle in Pride and Prejudice, the film version benefits mightily from the charisma of Jennifer Lawrence.


For Names - 09names - The Cutting Season by Attica Locke. (Handout)

Caren Gray, The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (2012)

Locke’s second novel channels James Lee Burke through a female perspective and protagonist. Caren Gray is the general manager of an antebellum plantation that doubles as a historic landmark visited by schoolchildren and the setting of wedding receptions and other posh events. She is building a life for her young daughter, Morgan, and herself. When the body of a migrant worker is discovered on the property line between the plantation and the adjacent corporate farm’s property, Gray finds herself pulled into the plantation’s brutal and sordid past. The Cutting Season reminds us, once again, of Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Gray is a typical concerned parent who quickly realizes she is a better detective than the ones working the case. But she is soon in over her head, as the murderer becomes an ever-increasing threat to Caren and Morgan. Locke has created a realistic, likeable, and gutsy young woman in Caren Gray, and it is a pleasure to watch her unravel the history of the plantation and, surprisingly, her own family. I’m hoping for another book featuring the estimable Ms. Gray.


Kind of Kin paperback

Georgia Ann “Sweet” Kirkendall, Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew (Jan. 2013)

If ever a young wife and mother had her hands full with challenges of every kind, it is Sweet Kirkendall of tiny Cedar, Oklahoma. Her husband is away much of the time working on a pipeline, leaving her to raise their clueless pre-teen son, Carl Albert, and care for her invalid father-in-law. Sweet’s father, Bob Brown, is arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn as a statement of Christian principle. That drops Bob’s 10-year-old grandson Dustin (and Sweet’s nephew) into her lap. Carl Albert resents Dustin, and the boys fight like angry Tasmanian devils. The plot weaves several other threads, both personal and political, into a tapestry of working-class Oklahomans (and Mexican immigrants, both legal and undocumented) struggling to support their families in an increasingly callous society. Sweet would not appear to be cut out to carry the many burdens of her family and town, yet the crucible of a battle over an anti-immigrant law allows her to discover her true character. She is a young woman with will, determination, and compassion who manages to hold herself and her family together. She is a character to admire and remember.


Golem and Jinni

Chava, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (April 2013)

Chava, the mystical golem of the title, is an immensely sympathetic character. She finds herself a stranger in a strange land when the German ship docks in New York City in 1899 and she learns that her owner/husband has died on the transatlantic journey. Seeing turn of the century Manhattan through her eyes is akin to reading a “first contact” story, as she does not know what to make of the city or its denizens, and those she befriends are nearly as perplexed by her not-quite-human persona. Chava’s struggles with loneliness, adjustment, language, and the most mundane aspects of human activity, as well as her eventual encounter with the jinni, serve to make her, ironically, all the more human. She is in many ways the ultimate immigrant. She is a character worth knowing.



Rosemary Cooke, We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (May 2013)

Rosemary is the narrator of Fowler’s PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel about a family in which Rosemary and a baby chimpanzee named Fern are raised from birth as “sisters.” It’s all part of her university professor/psychologist father’s research. Things go relatively well for several years until something goes very wrong. Rosemary is now a 21-year-old UC Davis student looking back at her childhood and trying to make sense of what happened. When her older brother Lowell reappears in Davis after a decade spent incommunicado, she learns she has been burdened by the kind of misinterpretations commonly made by self-centered children. Rosemary is by turns funny, sardonic, clever, sullen, and depressed. Her relationships with friends, roommates, classmates, and her parents are fraught with confusion and misunderstandings. Rosemary is in many ways a “normal” American college girl; yet she also strikes others as slightly “off.” As Rosemary says, they experience the “uncanny valley” sensation with her, since she is as much chimpanzee as Fern is/was human. The experiment, not surprisingly, had unintended consequences. Rosemary is an unforgettable character, as is her sister Fern.

BE SAFE, I LOVE YOU: a riveting portrait of a female soldier’s homecoming

Be Safe I Love You  Hoffman__Cara

Be Safe, I Love You

By Cara Hoffman

Simon & Schuster, 2014

304 pages, $26.00

The latest in a remarkable series of books by women about the Iraq War, Be Safe, I Love You tells the story of returning soldier Lauren Clay and the challenges she faces in re-entering the lives of her family, friends, and civilian society.

What makes these female-authored novels distinctive is the authors’ decision to focus on aspects of the war that usually fly under the radar of both media and public awareness: what it’s like to be a female in the military; what life is like for the wives (and, increasingly, husbands), children, and family members left behind; surviving the homecoming; coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and adjusting to a world in which the war seems distant both literally and figuratively and civilians often have inaccurate and distorted views of the war and what our military personnel are doing while on deployment.

Hoffman’s book is both a fever dream of one soldier’s struggle with PTSD and a domestic drama about a splintered family and an isolated upstate New York town with little to offer the soldier or its civilian residents. When Lauren Clay arrives in Watertown, her severely depressed father Jack and precocious younger brother Danny are understandably overjoyed to have her home and in one piece. Seemingly. But it soon becomes evident to Lauren’s boyfriend Shane, best friend Holly, and even to Danny that “she is not herself.” She tries valiantly to “act as if” she is well and happy to be home, and in occasional moments, she is. But there are warning signs: she is sullen, distracted, and preoccupied. She has a hair-trigger temper and is particularly annoyed when people fail to do what she says. As a sergeant with a platoon under her command in Iraq at age 21, she is used to giving orders and being obeyed without hesitation.

“She’d come home to a world of fragile baby animals. Soft inarticulate wide-eyed morons with know-nothing epiphanies and none of them — not one of them — did what she said, which was beginning to grate on her, cut to the heart of how wrong things were. Still, she could accept that these people didn’t know how to lead or follow, but they could at least shut up. If anyone owed her anything for serving in Iraq it was to shut the fuck up.”

She refuses to talk about her experiences in Iraq or even what the war was like generally. It is a nightmare best ignored. When her father’s best friend, PJ, a Vietnam veteran, says she can tell him about Iraq later, she thinks, “She would not be wasting one more second talking about acts that shouldn’t be described and couldn’t be undone.” Later she thinks about the soldiers who relied on their religious faith to get them through the war. She didn’t understand how they could believe, and in time she couldn’t understand the war. “People loved this religious stuff because it actually made no sense. Just like the war made no sense. And she knew now for certain that feeling of mystery, that impenetrable false logic was necessary to make people do stupid things.” The morning after a fight with her boyfriend, Lauren realizes “[s]he’d seriously fucked things up with Shane but she wasn’t about to let him get close to the thing she brought home that lived inside her skin. And she needed to protect herself, make sure she didn’t get soft.”

We learn the key elements of Lauren’s back story. Following her parents’ divorce, she took care of her depressed and bed-ridden father and younger brother all through high school while having no contact with her mother, who remained incommunicado in Buffalo. Lauren is a gifted student and singer with a bright future at the college of her choice. But with the family’s money problems, she feels obligated to join the Army for the relatively lucrative pay. She puts her college education and singing career on hold to take care of her family the only way she can devise. During her time in Iraq, she is caught in the double pressure-cooker of her family’s needs and her duties as a sergeant in a surreal war environment.

Her thoughts of Danny helped keep her sane while in Iraq. “[S]he felt the world order itself in the sound of his voice, his throaty baby laugh. This was the thought she called upon in training, in transport, in the emptiness of waiting that would never again be called boredom. It was with her the whole time, that sound. And there was no way she would have come home without it. No place outside that sound where she could live. No home, no country, no body to inhabit. It was the last breath of music she still felt in her belly, a little fire that she needed to stoke and carry.”

We also learn that she became very close with a fellow soldier, Daryl Green, with whom she made plans to reunite and possibly work together in the Jeanne d’Arc oil basin off the coast of eastern Canada. Daryl remains a mystery to us, presented only through Lauren’s memories of their time in Iraq and thoughts of continuing their friendship at home. But something doesn’t feel right about this situation, and the foreboding feeling only grows as the story progresses. Lauren’s relationships with everyone except Danny, whom she adores, soon deteriorate and she becomes increasingly obsessed with visiting Daryl and moving ahead with their plans in order to establish the new future she desires. After reestablishing tenuous contact with her mother, who asks her and Danny to come visit, Lauren decides to make the trip, but only after a detour into Canada to visit Daryl and the coastal oil fields, to which she feels she must make a pilgrimage. The mystery deepens, the ominous mood increases, and the last quarter of the novel becomes a suspenseful psychological thriller as we watch Lauren’s untreated PTSD play out.

Lauren is trying to escape from herself, with little success. “[S]omehow she’d forgotten that she had not returned at all. The woman she was supposed to be, was meant to be, would have been, could never exist at all now, and she was stuck dragging around this ruined version of herself. She owed it to the memory of her real self to get rid of this doppelganger that she was trapped inside….”

Although the plot was compelling, I was equally impressed by the quality of Hoffman’s writing, which alternated between a powerful directness and moments of haunting prose poetry. The supporting characters of Shane and Holly, Shane’s three uncles (so similar they are known as “the three Patricks”), Lauren’s eccentric Gulf War-damaged vocal teacher Troy, and her mentally ill father are well-drawn and credible, and they play a key role in making Lauren’s story realistic and riveting. The reader cares about these people and wants things to turn out well for them.

Be Safe, I Love You is just Cara Hoffman’s second novel, but you will know you are in the hands of a master here. You can add Hoffman’s name to those of Benedict, Fallon, Robinson, Carpenter, and Schultz as writers who have shown us the true and long-lasting consequences and costs of war.



Karen Joy Fowler has been named the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for her 2013 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The book, about a unique sibling relationship and resulting family drama, was both critically acclaimed and a bestseller. Fowler will receive a $15,000 award.

The other nominees included two story collections  (Joan Silber’s Fools and Valerie Trueblood’s Search Party) and two somewhat experimental novels (Daniel Alarcon’s At Night We Walk in Circles and Percival Everett’s Percival Everett by Virgil Russell).

This year’s judges were novelists Madison Smartt Bell, Manuel Muñoz and Achy Obejas. The PEN/Faulkner website states that they considered 430 novels and short story collections. In a statement announcing the award, Muñoz said, “Fowler captures an altogether new dimension of the meaning — and heartbreak — of family dynamics.”

The winning novel is Fowler’s sixth in a wide-ranging body of work. She is perhaps best known for The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), her most accessible novel. Her 2001 novel, Sister Noon, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award in 2001. Fowler has won a Nebula Award, a Shirley Jackson Award and a World Fantasy Award.

The awards ceremony will take place on May 10 at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.