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Henry House, the “practice” baby: Reader’s Circle interviews Lisa Grunwald

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Irresistible Henry HouseLisa Grunwald’s novel, The Irresistible Henry House, is now available in paperback.

Random House Reader’s Circle: When you talk to people who’ve read The Irresistible Henry House, what’s the first question they usually ask?

Lisa Grunwald: It’s almost always whether the story was actually based on a real practice, whether people actually used real babies to teach college classes on mothering. The answer is yes, but I’ve sent a lot of incredulous people to the Cornell University website where I first found the photograph that helped inspire the novel.

RHRC: How did that discovery come about?

LG: In 2005, I was doing research for an anthology of American women’s letters. Specifically I was hoping to find a letter from a home economics student. There was an online exhibit at the Cornell website called “What Was Home Economics?” Among other photographs was this captivating image of a baby called “Bobby Domecon”—the last name a combination of “Domestic” and “Economics.” (Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg at Cornell told me that it’s pronounced “Dough-me-con.”) I quickly learned that at Cornell, from the 1920s through the 1960s, babies supplied by local orphanages were used to teach mothering skills to students, who would take turns bathing and feeding and dressing their charges. Last time I checked, the site was still up at www.cornell.edu, and it’s well worth a look.

Irresistible Henry House baby

RHRC: Did you ever think about tracking down some of the real children?

LG: I certainly thought about it. Before I was a novelist, I was a journalist, and the reporter grunwald_lisain me was really drawn to the idea of writing a nonfiction book. But two things changed my mind. First, I just loved the idea of the practice house as the premise for a novel and as the starting point for a fictional character. How would he ever learn to trust someone? How would he feel about women? How would he ever be able to draw a distinction between being loved and being used? And where might all that lead him—romantically, professionally? It was just—yes, irresistible to me to ponder these questions. And the second thing? Well, I suspected that it would be virtually impossible to find enough of those now-grownup children to make a nonfiction book complete. After their time in the practice houses, the babies were returned to their orphanages and adopted like any other children, or put into foster care. Very few records were kept.

RHRC: Since the novel’s publication, have you heard anything more about the practice?

LG: I did find a series of articles about a case at Eastern Illinois State College, where the superintendent of the Child Welfare Division had objected to the practice. This didn’t

deter a home ec teacher named Ruth Schmalhausen, who passionately defended the practice. At the time—this was the mid-fifties—it was really very common. The program was available at some fifty colleges around the country. In relating the Schmalhausen controversy, Time magazine took what I thought was a somewhat snarky position about the superintendent’s objections, writing “Heaven only knows how many neuroses little David might develop.” It was one of those moments during the research when I really felt the distance we’d come in the way we think about childhood.

RHRC: Some critics have compared Henry to Forest Gump and T. S. Garp. How accurate do you find those comparisons?

LG: Those are extraordinarily memorable characters in fiction, and to think that Henry has been mentioned alongside them just thrills me. But certainly some of the comparison

comes from the fact that all three novels are centered around young men whose stories coincide with, and in certain ways reflect, the changes that occurred in this country’s social and cultural history.

RHRC: Did you have to do research on those changes, too, or are you and Henry of the same generation?

LG: I’m a half-generation younger than Henry. He was born in 1946, and I was born in 1959, so many of the cultural milestones he encounters are things I encountered, but from a much younger perspective. And I loved doing the research. As Henry grows up, we see the new childcare book by Benjamin Spock and the new magazine Playboy from Hugh Hefner. We hear music from Bing Crosby and the Beatles. We witness the March on Washington, the riots at Berkeley, the opening of Hair and the release of Yellow Submarine.

RHRC: And ultimately what does all that have to do with Henry?

LG: It’s the chaotic but passionate backdrop against which he tries to find a place and a person with whom he feels authentic, trusting, and trustworthy. It’s a journey.

RHRC: And do you know how it ends? What happens after the last page?

LG: If I know, I’m not telling.

Win a copy of I GAVE MY HEART TO KNOW THIS by Ellen Baker

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

I gave my heart to know this cover Ellen Baker © JoAnn Jardine

Dear Reader,

When I set out to become a novelist, I didn’t realize the corners it would make me turn, the things it would teach me: how to weld a ship together, live aboard an aircraft carrier – even butcher a chicken. It’s not so surprising that in the process of writing an historical novel I’d learn a few facts. What I didn’t expect at all was that the same process would challenge and guide me through my own explorations of some of the questions my characters encounter: how (and whether) to tame or feed or foster your most outrageous dreams; how to accept unacceptable loss; how to know when it’s time to let go, and then how to do it.

My new novel, I Gave My Heart to Know This, is the story of three women who work as welders at a shipyard during World War II and the tragedy that binds them, even as it divides them. Years later, a great-granddaughter, caring for the family home, pieces together the friends’ long-buried secrets, and learns the difficulties – and the possibilities – of forgiveness.

I began by poring over shipyard newsletters, photographs, blueprints. I interviewed some old-timers who told me “the way it really was.” I read about everything from naval battles to copper mining to photography to rheumatic fever, explored the engine room of a great ship, stood under the spire of a church. I spent a lot of time in archives. One of the best sources I found was a twenty-page, handwritten account of shipyard work by a woman who was a welder. I borrowed several incidents from her amazing descriptions, including an incident when she was standing in a rowboat welding on the side of a ship and leaned too far forward in her heavy welding garb. Her foreman grabbed her, saving her life; if she’d fallen in the water, she’d have sunk straight to the bottom. (The dangers of the job were many, and, to us in the modern OSHA-regulated world, almost inconceivable.)

Then came my favorite part: translating what I’d gleaned into the experience of fiction. How would it feel to make an overhead weld, sparks raining down, in a space so narrow the smoke chokes you? To fall in love with someone you’d “met” only in a letter? To carry an undeniable sense of patriotic and familial duty, alongside your dream of a different life? And then, to try to understand how your best efforts to save precious things might instead have been complicit in their loss.

Next, I developed a mystery. Time passes; things which are broken and missing long to be fixed and found. And there’s an old house with a seeming incontrovertible will of its own that holds the clues, and maybe the answers – if only someone will look.

Pinned to the wall of the attic of this house is a map of the world, with a red X marking “home.” Early on, the children play a pirate game, searching for buried treasure – and perhaps, it comes to seem, the treasure is their home – problematically. I thought a great deal about that map as I wrote: not only the meanings it has for my characters, but how comforting it would be if only I had such a map to write by. Instead, I learned that journeys are best guided by curiosity and desire and a willingness to be taken far – and that the best discoveries are often the things you didn’t know you were seeking.

Best wishes,
Ellen Baker


A new book club gem: Melanie Benjamin’s Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

978-0-385-34415-9IN HER NATIONAL BESTSELLER ALICE I HAVE BEEN, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength. Full of history and intriguing relationships, this book is perfect for book clubs, so here is a handy Reading Group Guide to help move along the discussion.

Also, be sure to check out Kathy Patrick’s Beauty and the Book chat with author Melanie Benjamin for more about the novel:

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin: Reading Group Guide Questions

1. What are the parallels between Vinnie’s celebrity and the definition of celebrity today?

2. Why did Vinnie determine to only communicate her optimism – what was she trying to hide behind, or hide from herself, by choosing not to dwell on the many obstacles in her way?

3. Why did Vinnie go along with Barnum’s humbug concerning the infant?

4. Which is the true love story of the book – the story of Vinnie and Barnum, Vinnie and Charles, Vinnie and Minnie, or Vinnie and the public?

5. Why do you think the notion of the Tom Thumb wedding so swept the nation that, even today, there are reenactments with children?

6. What was the most interesting historical fact in the book for you?  Which was the most startling?

7. Sylvia points out a photograph in the window of a store.  It’s of PT Barnum.  “Really?”  I was surprised and, I confess, a little disappointed; the man in the photograph looked so very…ordinary.  Curly hair parted on the side, a wide forehead, a somewhat bulbous nose, an unremarkable smile.  He resembled any man I might have passed in the street; he certainly did not resemble a world-famous impresario.  Colonel Wood, I had to admit, looked much more the part than did this man (p. 88). Vinnie is used to people making immediate assumptions about her based on her appearance.  What assumptions, though, does Vinnie make about people for the same reasons?  Are pre-conceived notions about people something that is ingrained in us?

8. What do you think it means to live one’s life in the public eye, as Vinnie and Charles did?  How would you react to being scrutinized by the press for your every action?  Compare how you may have felt in Vinnie’s day compared to today’s twenty-four hour news and gossip cycle.

9. For Vinnie, what do you think was the best part of being famous?  What was the worst?

10. Toward the end of her stage career, Vinnie asks herself, “had I ever been simply Lavinia Warren Stratton?  To anyone—even myself?” (p. 385) Do you think Vinnie chose this life for herself, or did she essentially hop on a ride and couldn’t get off?  Was the price she had to pay for her fame and fortune her own chosen identity?

My Secret Siena, Part 2

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Juliet by Anne FortierHere is Part 2 of Anne Fortier’s blog entry on the beautiful city of Siena and its role in her novel, Juliet, now available in paperback.


The Palio horserace is a grand celebration of Siena history

The Palio horserace is a grand celebration of Siena history

As far as I know, there are no family feuds raging in modern-day Siena. At least none as bloody as the proto-Shakespearean rivalry between the Tolomeis and the Salimbenis, which lasted for almost a century and only definitively ended with the Bubonic Plague in 1348. More than six hundred years have passed since that era of deadly neighbour wars . . . or have they?

Those who have dared to visit Siena during the mad, hot days of the Palio horserace might well argue that the ferocity of this recurring event is a window into the feuds of the past. Nowadays, neighbourhood associations have replaced the old noble families, but the spirit of tradition remains. The neighbourhoods, or contrade, spend months plotting and planning their participation in the Palio, not to mention guessing and second-guessing the plans of others, and quite frankly, it sometimes seems as if the pain and anxiety of it all far outweigh the pleasure.

Each neighbourhood has its own flag, but only tourists have the luxury of picking-and-choosing their colors of allegiance.

Each neighbourhood has its own flag, but only tourists have the luxury of picking-and-choosing their colors of allegiance.

Within the ancient city walls of Siena there are no fewer than seventeen such contrade, each with their own magistrates and coat-of-arms, and each passionately fond of their own little neck of the town. They all have their allies and their rivals, and children are brought up to suspect and loathe the enemy unconditionally. Why? If those same children were to ask why, say, “people from the Unicorn stink like sewage”, the answer would simply be: “Because that’s the way it has always been.” In other words, no one knows exactly how these old rivalries began, but for every Palio and every new skirmish on the race track or among the spectators, the loathing grows stronger.

Goose flags mark the Fontebranda fountain as Goose territory. Therefore, the rivals from the Tower per definition loathe this Siena landmark.

Goose flags mark the Fontebranda fountain as Goose territory. Therefore, the rivals from the Tower per definition loathe this Siena landmark.

The members of the Goose contrada, for example, would not be caught dead in the streets of the Tower, nor would a young man of the Eagle ever dream of dating a girl from the Panther. If he did, he might soon find himself in an agonizing re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet.

Part of the charm of Siena is that the whole town is a contradiction, and proudly so. Rivalry and emotional turmoil brew right beneath the calm, conservative surface, and when the pent-up emotion finally erupts, foreigners are wise to keep a distance. Historical records prove that the people of Siena have always been quick to act and take political matters into their own hands; the origins of the contrade, in fact, were military companies that were poised to take to the streets within minutes in order to maintain the peace.

The quiet courtyard of Palazzo Marescotti seems to exist outside of time

The quiet courtyard of Palazzo Marescotti seems to exist outside of time

During the days of the Palio, with thousands of enthusiastic contrada-members roaring through the streets, a tranquil place is hard to come by. Perhaps this is why I fell in love with the inner courtyard of Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, or, as it was known during the Middle Ages, Palazzo Marescotti. If the richness of Siena culture seems overwhelming, this small stone oasis can be a charming refuge. Only steps away from the race track in Piazza del Campo, Palazzo Marescotti has a quiet dignity of its own, and from the moment I first saw it I knew it would come to play a central part in my life, or, more specifically, in my book.

This was where I first felt the presence of Romeo, and began to imagine what life would have been like for a young man during the Middle Ages. Not that different, perhaps, than it is now. It would have been a life full of choices and challenges, a life requiring great responsibility. Not so for Juliet. Her path would have been determined by the wishes of male family members, and she would not have been free to learn from her own experiences. Had this medieval Juliet had the freedom and opportunities young women take for granted today, her life would have been less likely to end in tragedy. Or maybe that is wishful thinking. But then . . . isn’t that what fiction writing is all about?


Read an excerpt of Juliet on Scribd

My Secret Siena, Part 1

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Juliet by Anne FortierAnne Fortier is the author of the novel Juliet, available now in paperback.

Check back next week to read more on Anne’s experience in the beautiful city of Siena and how it made its way into her writing in Part 2 of this entry!


It is only too easy to lose oneself in the magic of Siena
It is only too easy to lose oneself in the magic of Siena

It all started when I fell in love. Not with Shakespeare or some suave Romeo next door, but with the utterly irresistible Tuscan town of Siena. With its medieval architecture and stubborn disregard for most things modern, it is quite simply the perfect escape for romantic dreamers like me, and I had not been in Siena for many hours before I was desperate to set a novel there.

I can still see myself meandering through the Medieval maze that is Siena, aching to unravel its hidden mysteries. I even filled a small bottle with water from the ancient fountain called Fontebranda in a romantic – and probably highly unhygienic – attempt at capturing the magic of the place and bringing it home with me.

Plot hound that I am, I tracked down one of the bloodiest chapters in Siena history, namely the ancient feud between the Tolomei and the Salimbeni families – two households, as the Bard would have it, both alike in dignity, albeit in fair Siena, where we lay our scene…

Palazzo Salimbeni, still today as intriguing as it is forbidding
Palazzo Salimbeni, still today as intriguing as it is forbidding

So fierce was the feud between the Salimbenis and the Tolomeis that they would set fire to each other’s houses and murder mere children in their beds, back in the Middle Ages. Amazingly, their palazzos are still there, standing proudly along the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Siena, little over a hundred steps apart. And although the ancient families have long since moved away, the memory of their bloody rivalry remains.

Perhaps this rich and complex history was what inspired the Italian writer, Masuccio Salernitano, to invent the story of Romeo and Juliet in 1476, and to set it in Siena. This early version is largely forgotten today, and many people think it is my invention. Well, it is not. The famous love-tragedy was already over a hundred years old by the time it landed on Shakespeare’s desk. I’m sorry. As much as I like the film SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I can safely promise you it didn’t happen that way.

In the Siena underground, you lose all sense of time. The past, it seems, is merely asleep...
In the Siena underground, you lose all sense of time.
The past, it seems, is merely asleep…

Readers also often ask me whether it is really true there is such a vast labyrinth of caves in the Siena underground. The answer is yes, and because these caves were originally an aqueduct leading water into public fountains and private houses, Siena is full of mysterious basements with gaping holes leading… where exactly? Obviously, in JULIET, I could not resist the temptation to send the heroine down into this secret world, and I don’t think it is a plot-spoiler to say that she stumbles upon a lot more than just water.

One of the subterranean bone piles from the Black Death in 1348
One of the subterranean bone piles from the Black Death in 1348

Part of my inspiration for setting the original story of Romeo and Juliet in the year 1340 is that this was the era of the Bubonic Plague, which left its grizzly mark on Siena – a mark that is still there, if you know where to look. Why the plague? You might wonder. But the answer lies within Shakespeare’s play. “A plague!” says Mercutio to Romeo and Tybalt, just before he dies. “A plague on your houses!” It was impossible not to make this famous curse a driving force in JULIET.

Similarly, my inspiration for the elusive treasure that has remained hidden for over six hundred years (and which shall remain unnamed, don’t worry!) came from Shakespeare’s tragedy as well. Interestingly enough, even people who claim they know the play forwards and backwards confess to me they never thought much about this particular object before. And so for me, part of the fun of writing JULIET has been to “reinvent” the play in fun and surprising ways, and to fuse Shakespeare’s poetic fiction with the reality of Siena, past and present.


Monday, July 25th, 2011

NEXT TO LOVE new cover

Set in a small town in Massachusetts, Next to Love follows three childhood friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, whose lives are unmoored when their men are called to duty. Beautifully crafted and unforgettable, Ellen Feldman skillfully depicts the enduring power of love and friendship, and illuminates a transformational moment in American history.


“Just when you think you’ve read all there is to know about WWII, [here] comes another story that touches your heart and shows yet another perspective. The writing is eloquent. I highly recommend the book.” —Vy A. (Munds Park, AZ)

“A great beach read but one that you will find yourself thinking about long after you’ve finished the book. I would highly recommend this for book clubs – it will stimulate great discussion.” —Darlene C. (Woodstock, IL)

“What a good read! …this would be a good book for book clubs to put on their reading list.”—Marjorie W. (Bonita Springs, FL)

“An extraordinary book! From page one it carries the reader away…The view into three women’s lives during this trying time is eye opening and at times you feel as if you are intruding into their private thoughts, hopes and fears. A beautifully written book…”
—Mary Lou M. (N Royalton, OH)

“Ellen Feldman has a knack for creating vivid characters that stay with you, still speaking to you long after you close the book. Watch out, you might find yourself opening the book and needing to hunker down and read it straight through.”
—Jen W. (Denver, CO)

I loved, loved this book…. A great read and I will definitely read it again with my book group!!!!!!” —Debra P. (Belmont, NC)

View the Reader’s Guide
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Win a copy of Anne Fortier’s Juliet!

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

JulietAnne FortierJuliet is one of those rare novels that has it all: lush prose, tightly intertwined parallel narratives, intrigue, and historical detail all set against a backdrop of looming danger. Fortier casts a new light on one of history’s greatest stories of passion.” —Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

When Julie Jacobs inherits a mysterious key to a safety-deposit box in Siena, Italy, she learns she’s descended from 14th-century Giulietta Tolomei, whose love for a young man named Romeo inspired Shakespeare’s infamous play. Soon Julie begins to fear that the notorious curse laid upon the feuding families—“A plague on both your houses!”—is still at work and that she is destined to be its next target.

Available in paperback on July 26th.

Read an excerpt on Scribd

Buy the book

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***This giveaway is now closed. Winners will be notified by September 1st.***

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Let's Take the Long Way HomeThis summer, Reader’s Circle is proud to present in paperback one of the best memoirs we’ve read in years. A few months ago, as we started to think about publishing Gail Caldwell’s extraordinary memoir in paperback, we remembered all the many readers, bloggers, authors, and reviewers who loved it when it first appeared in hardcover, and we thought: why not capture some of them on film? The result is a moving testimony to the power of Let’s Take the Long Way Home. As Time magazine said when it named the book one of its top ten nonfiction titles of 2010, this is a memoir “meant to be savored and shared.” We hope you and your book clubs will read this and agree that it’s an experience best fulfilled by passing it on to the friends in your life who mean the most to you. And we hope you’ll share this video with them too!

Included in the video are Kelly Corrigan, bestselling author of The Middle Place; Carol Fitzgerald, president of The Book Report Network; Bethanne Patrick, editor of Shelf Awareness; Esther Bushell, founder of LiteraryMatters.com; and Jesse Kornbluth, editor of HeadButler.com.

“Stunning . . . gorgeous . . . A book of such crystalline truth that it makes the heart ache.”—The Boston Globe

Read an excerpt
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Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets: a letter to book clubs

Monday, July 11th, 2011

tripp_dawnDear readers,

Was there a special game you played as a child? A game you still love now because of what it meant to you then?

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother and my father played cards. They taught me pitch and gin. When my aunt was visiting, they needed a fourth, and so they taught me bridge. But the game I loved was Scrabble. Before I really knew how to play, I would sit with one of them—usually my grandmother—and I would watch her form those disparate letters into words and lay down those words to catch the colored numbered squares and fill the board. It was by watching that I learned the rules. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. We would play after lunch and after a game or two, my aunt and father would drift off to something else. “You want to play again, Nana?” I’d ask. And my grandmother would nod, light another cigarette, and start flipping over the tiles. We would play game after game after game. Until it was time for her to fix supper. Then we’d eat, clear the table, wash the dishes, I would dry them for her and then I’d ask to play again.

When I graduated from college, and moved to New York, I would drive to Connecticut to spend the weekend with Game of Secretsher. We’d play a game the night I came in, usually late, we’d only have time for one. The next morning, I’d go for a run while she had her coffee-cake and tea—then we’d start in, and play game after game. We’d pause for lunch and sit together looking out the window at the swans on the lagoon she loved. Then we’d play until supper, then again after, as the light fell. She had been a concert pianist. And sometimes she played Chopin for me in the evenings—I would beg for that—then she’d have a drink, another cigarette, it would be night by then, I’d grab two cookies from the kitchen, and we’d come back once more to the board still laid out the table. One last game.

The idea for this novel came to me years after she was gone. But as I wrote the scenes of the two women, Ada and Jane, playing Scrabble, I remembered the long sweet hours of those childhood days: the stillness of the house, the light tick-tack as she lay down her tiles, the smell of her cigarette balanced on the ashtray, just resting there untended, dwindling down.

And I remembered too things I did not know I had forgotten, things she had taught me over the years as we played. She played Scrabble for the words, as many women in her generation did. I always played for the numbers. How we play a game can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. In Scrabble, some play to keep the board open, some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own score. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a really good player, a canny player—and she was one of those—will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.

As I wrote the scenes for this novel, the game for me became the perfect lens for a story about two women, two families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets—a brutal past, a murder, a love story. Because what are words if not a bridge? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present, present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.

So reader, tell me this:

What was the game you played as a child? Who did you play that game with? What did it mean to you then? And what has it taught you about life as you are living it now?

Consider these questions when discussing Game of Secrets.
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Win two copies of Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: one for you, one for a friend!

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Let's Take the Long Way Home

Caldwell_gail“A lovely gift to readers . . . You can shelve Let’s Take the Long Way Home,Gail Caldwell’s beautifully written book . . .  next to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s searing memoir about losing her husband. . . . But that’s assuming it makes it to your shelf: This is a book you’ll want to share with your own ‘necessary pillars of life,’ as Caldwell refers to her nearest and dearest.” —The Washington Post (Best Nonfiction of 2010)

Watch Kelly Corrigan and others on why they love Let’s Take the Long Way Home:

Winners will be chosen randomly and notified on September 1st.

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