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Sally Bedell Smith and the World of Queen Elizabeth II

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Bedell Smith_Elizabeth the Queen_TP
It was a surprising first encounter that piqued my interest in Queen Elizabeth II, who until that moment had been a regal and distant icon. My husband and I were introduced to her at a garden party at the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington during her state visit in 2007, and she and my husband had a strikingly spirited conversation about the Kentucky Derby, which she had seen for the first time the previous weekend. Street Sense, the winning horse, had come from 19th to first in a thrilling finish, which prompted the Queen and my husband to replay the entire race, going back and forth. I was transfixed by her animated gestures, sparkling blue eyes, and flashing smile that are familiar to her friends but rare in public. As I watched, I remembered what British artist Howard Morgan had told me years earlier after painting her portrait: “Her private side took my totally by surprise,” he said. “She talks like an Italian! She waves her hands about!”

Nine months later when Random House asked me to write a biography of the Queen, that revelatory memory sprang to mind, and I leapt at the chance to discover the woman behind the image of diamonds, velvet and ermine. I knew that that the Queen had spent her long life in her very own remarkable world, and that penetrating the royal bubble would be challenging, especially since she has had a policy for her entire reign of not granting interviews.

When I began my research, I returned to a group of key sources who had helped me when I was reporting my book about Princess Diana in the late 1990s. They not only agreed to assist me again by introducing me to more people close to the royal family, they served as my advocates in getting cooperation from Buckingham Palace. The senior staff at the Palace briefed the Queen and gave me the green light, opening access to her inner circle of friends and advisers who could describe the humanizing traits we can all relate to: her kindness, humor, spontaneity, and even coziness.

With the assistance of the Palace, I was able to watch the Queen and Prince Philip in many different settings over the course of a year, and I accumulated impressions that helped me understand how she carries out her role, and how earnestly she does her job, with great discipline and concentration in every situation.

Traveling with the Queen was particularly valuable, especially the overseas royal tour I took to Bermuda and Trinidad. She was 83 years old at the time, and her program called for long days of meeting and greeting. Her stamina was impressive, matched only by 88-year-old Prince Philip. I got a real sense of how much in sync they are, with expert choreography honed over many years in the public eye. During these trips I was also able to see the Buckingham Palace machinery on the road, get to know the Queen’s senior officials, and develop a feel for the atmosphere around her and the way her household has changed from the early days when it was run entirely by aristocrats. Her advisers include savvy young women who learned their skills in the private sector; even some of the footmen have master’s degrees.

Getting to know all the places important to the Queen further deepened my understanding: the rolling hills where she spends hours watching her racehorses work out; the countryside around Balmoral, her estate in Scotland where she escapes on long walks and rides on horseback; the stud farm where she oversees the breeding of her thoroughbreds; the modest cottage near Windsor Castle where she visits her elderly first cousin Margaret Rhodes most Sundays after church to drink a gin and Dubonnet while chatting about friends and family.

I was also fortunate to attend several dinners at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Prince of Wales Foundation. Sitting at a table decorated with George III silver gilt candelabra and sculpted centerpieces, I could immerse myself in the experience of being served by footmen in royal livery in rooms where the Queen entertains heads of state.

But the best moments were my two social encounters with the Queen at private gatherings while I was doing my research. After I had been working on the book for a year, I met her at a reception at St. James’s Palace. When I mentioned that my daughter was getting married to an Englishman in London she asked, “When is the wedding?” “The Fourth of July,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, “that’s a little dangerous.” Once more I saw the smile and the twinkle that had been so captivating on our first meeting in Washington.

A month before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, we met again in St. James’s Palace, this time at a party given by one of the Queen’s cousins. I knew the Queen would be there, but I didn’t expect her to stay for 90 minutes, which was unusual. She was in high spirits, and she was making her way happily on her own, without any attendants running interference for her. What struck me was that here she was in her own grand palace, but she was merely another guest, which was a measure of her unexpected humility. As Margaret Rhodes explained it, the Queen can “uphold her identity o f herself as Queen and still be humble. Her inner modesty stops her from getting spoiled.”

Even as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee marking 60 years on the throne in 2012, that “inner modesty” was always evident. In a message on radio and television, she thanked everyone involved in the “massive challenge” of organizing the celebrations, describing them as a “humbling experience” that “has touched me deeply.”

Her unaffected joy was striking, matched by her genuine surprise. “After all these years, she is still overwhelmed by the response, which is a lovely thing,” one of her top advisers told me. At the end of my journey of discovery about the Queen, I realized that the more I had learned about her, the more I had found to admire, which made her life story inspiring for me to write.

Sally Bedell Smith is the author of bestselling biographies of William S. Paley; Pamela Harriman; Diana, Princess of Wales; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; and Bill and Hillary Clinton. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1996, she previously worked at Time and The New York Times, where she was a cultural news reporter. She is the mother of three children and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith.

A letter to book clubs from LAY THE FAVORITE author Beth Raymer

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Lay the FavoriteLay the Favorite is the true story of Beth Raymer’s years in the high-stakes, high-anxiety world of sports betting—a period that saw the fall of the local bookie and the birth of the freewheeling, unregulated offshore sports book, and with it the elevation of sports betting in popular culture. As the business exploded, Beth  emerged with her integrity intact—wiser, sharper, and nobody’s fool. A keen and compassionate observer of the adrenaline-addicted roguish types who become her mentors, her enemies, and her family, Beth depicts her insanely colorful world teeming with pathos and ecstasy. In this letter to readers, Beth shares some of the emotions she went through in putting her very personal history in writing.

Dear Reader,

Following the publication of my memoir, Lay the Favorite, I gave a reading at a bookstore in Pittsburgh. I stood behind a podium and shared stories of my journey from stripper to managing (and modeling for) adult websites, to working for gamblers and bookies. When the evening was over, I packed up my belongings. A young woman approached me. By the tension in her smile, I could tell she was nervous. After some small talk, she came clean.

“When I was twenty-three, I was a total stripper, too!” She whispered.

The woman, who was now married and living in the suburbs, was a voracious reader and had recently signed up for a writing class. She desperately wanted to tell her story but was paranoid of what others would think of her. She couldn’t bring herself to save her writing “to cloud… or even junk drive!”

Her question to me was: “How do you deal with being judged?”

© D.V. DeVincentis

© D.V. DeVincentis

Though I had a lot of fun, and made a lot of money, working in the subcultures that attracted me, I was never particularly proud of the ways I made a living. I certainly never told my family about it (they only found out about my “back-story” when they read my book). However, the shame I felt never stopped me from writing about my personal experience. I wanted to be a writer and the only way to be a writer is to make oneself vulnerable. If anything, my shame fueled my desire to put my most intimate thoughts and experiences on the page. It was the only way I knew to connect with the reader. After all, from their perspective, what’s the purpose in spending 240 pages with a character if she doesn’t let you in on her mistakes, her shortcomings, and the secrets she holds so dear?

I was raised Catholic. I am from a small town in Ohio. Was I judged? Yes.

This is something I’ve come to understand: with memoirs, more so than with novels, readers and reviewers tend to judge the writer’s personality, which somehow takes precedence over the story and the writing. Therefore, there’s something very high-stakes about giving a first-person account.

But as the old saying goes: fortune favors the bold. The way I felt the first time I held my book and, later, saw my life portrayed on the big screen, was worth all the sneers and personal attacks that came my way.

So, dear reader, I ask you this: What’s your secret? What keeps you from sharing it? Would you be willing to confess, if you got a book deal?

I hope that you will enjoy Lay the Favorite and find much to discuss in your book club. I can be in touch via e-mail or Skype.

Thank you,
Beth Raymer

Jane’s Bookshelf: The Books in My Summer Beach Bag

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

When I was a kid, summer meant long sunny days in the ocean, tons of fun with my four siblings, and lots of reading in the hammock. Those long days with few responsibilities gave me a love of summer reading that I still indulge in. Deciding what to read while on vacation can be agonizing: I want books that will keep me turning the pages, discovering new authors, or finally reading something I’ve meant to get to. Having just come back from a week at the beach, I’m excited to share my early summer reads!

My son and I read THE HUNGER GAMES together – some of it aloud and some of it by trading the book back and forth. Suzanne Collins has an incredible gift for driving a story forward; we were both utterly taken by Katniss’s prowess in the woods, strategic instincts, and fierce loyalty. I appreciated her emotional complexity more than my son did – especially when her feelings towards Peeta blossomed (which he did not approve of, but at 10 years old, love is not on your radar!) It was so much fun to discuss the moral complexity of the world Collins has created in THE HUNGER GAMES – I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy soon.

Playing Dead So many people have raved about Gillian Flynn’s writing in the past few years that I had to pick up GONE GIRL. The voices are pitch perfect and the incredible twists and turns in the plot are jaw-dropping, but so believable. Even though you know Flynn was inspired by many a true crime episode about “the missing wife,” you can’t help wondering how she transforms it into such a psychological tour de force. GONE GIRL reminded me of Julia Haeberlin’s debut novel, PLAYING DEAD, which starts with a young woman who receives a letter from someone claiming to be her mother, saying she had been kidnapped 30 years ago. What at first seems completely implausible turns out to be more deliciously complicated and suspenseful than you can imagine – plenty of great plot twists here too!

Going back to an author you haven’t read in a while is one of the pleasures of summer reading and I picked up Ann Patchett’s THE STATE OF WONDER for that very reason. I loved the worlds she creates – Minnesota in winter as compared to the Amazon jungle – but more than anything, I adored the main character, Marina Singh, who goes to find out what happened to her colleague in the jungle and comes face to face with her own memories of tragedy and heartbreak as she navigates this hot (and at times terrifying) world. In the midst of the characters’ compelling stories, Patchett also “presents an alluring interplay between civilization and wilderness, between aid and exploitation.” (Wall Street Journal)

Heat Wave And let’s not forget that summer reads are also known as beach reads—and for the quintessential beach book I turn to Nancy Thayer. Often set on Nantucket, her novels always feature wonderful female characters whose stories of family, friendship, love, and betrayal are a true delight. Every time I look at the cover of her newest paperback, HEAT WAVE, I wish I were on that beach in a red bikini! I’ll be taking another week off from work in late August – what should I take with me for my second spell of summer reading?

Your chance to win dinner with THE PARIS WIFE author Paula McLain!

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Paris Wife hcYou could win an exclusive dinner for you and four members of your book club in your hometown with Paula McLain, author of the New York Times bestseller The Paris Wife! Plus, 25 runners-up will receive an autographed copy of the novel to share at their next book club. Enter now through July 13th for your chance to win!

Click here to enter

See Official Rules for more details.

Jane’s Bookshelf: Historical Fiction as a Window to the Past

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

I’ve been thinking about historical fiction lately. It seems to me that when I was growing up, there were three kinds of historical novels. First were the classics that might have been written contemporaneously to the time they depicted but were historical to a late 20th century reader, whether it was Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE or Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE. Then there were the books that explored life in ancient cultures like Mary Renault’s THE KING MUST DIE or Irving Stone’s THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. And of course, there were portraits of kings and queens of yore in the novels of Jean Plaidy and Margaret George, among others. Today, the classics remain and writers still write these kinds of novels: just this past year saw the publications of THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel, and LIONHEART by Sharon Kay Penman, for example.

ParisWife_hc We’ve also seen the flowering of a different kind of historical fiction. Books like LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan, THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain, and THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff start with the story of real women who have extraordinary men in their lives, whether it be Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, or Brigham Young. And yet in the hands of these storytellers, you don’t feel you are reading lives recreated in fiction, but rather that you are meeting women whose stories enlighten our understanding of these men and their lives. That these stories are based on real people’s lives makes the reading experience that much more vivid, and gives us a deep understanding of the human condition, of love and betrayal.

It’s not just women romantically involved with famous men whose lives have made for great historical novels. Melanie Benjamin created an indelible, fresh portrait of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s novels, in ALICE I HAVE BEEN. Her latest novel THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB brings to life AutobiographyMrsTomThumbLavinia Warren Bump, who became a worldwide celebrity after marrying General Tom Thumb. Benjamin portrays 19th century America so vividly I often felt I was reading a painting. Sometimes I think that this new era of historical fiction began with two novels that married imaginary characters and real people: GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland and GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier. Both have Vermeer as the historical figure at their centers; one created the lives touched by an invented painting while the other imagined the life of his servant. I love both—I tried and failed to acquire Tracy Chevalier, but was lucky enough to become first Susan Vreeland’s paperback editor and now work with her from the start of every book.

I’ve found the way novelists intertwine what actually happened with their own fictional worlds adds nuance to a book club discussion. I’ve always loved history and fiction—so historical fiction is perfect for me. I’d love to hear about some of your favorites, I know I’ll want to add them to my T.B.R. pile! Let me know what they are in the comments section below or on Twitter at @JaneatRandom.

Enter for a chance to win a call with Suze Orman and your book club!

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

For your next book club pick, why not address head on the thing that we have the most trouble talking about? (Hint: It’s not sex.)


MoneyClass_PBA lot of different topics can come up in a book club, but does yours ever discuss money? Do you have financial concerns you’re afraid to admit to your friends, family, or even yourself? Why is it that we can speak frankly to each other about intimate subjects, yet the topic of money is off-limits? Suze Orman can help you put the subject of money on the table with her # 1 bestseller The Money Class, which is THE conversation starter about money. In the book you will learn:

How to find the courage to stand in your truth—and why it is a place of power.

What daily actions will restore the word “hope” to your vocabulary.

Everything you need to know about taking care of your family, your home, your career, and planning for retirement—no matter where you are in your life or where the economy is heading.

Need further convincing?

What if Suze Orman joined your book club’s discussion?

Tell us why, in 200 words or less, YOU (and your book club) urgently need Suze Orman to deliver her trademark straight talk to your book club and you’ll be entered for a chance to win a 30-minute chat with Suze, via phone. You and the members of your book club will also receive copies of The Money Class, now revised and updated in paperback. Enter here!

Join Suze on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter, and Learn more about The Money Class.

Click here for the official rules.


Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Quindlen_Lots of CandlesDiscussion Questions for LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE

1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?

2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?

3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?

4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot? (more…)

Win a copy of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers!

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

LanguageFlowersComing to paperback April 3rd!

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

What inspired Lisa See to write Dreams of Joy

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

see_lisaHaving written a number of reader’s guides to my books, I thought it would be fun to delve into Dreams of Joy from a different perspective by showing you some images that inspired me as I wrote the novel, as well as explain some of the decisions that went into the publication of the book. I’ve selected a few sentences from Dreams of Joy (and included their page numbers so you can find them easily) and then given you an image that inspired me to write those lines. Several of these are travel photos that I shot in China and some are posters from the Great Leap Forward. I’ve also included a couple of things, which, at first glance, may seem not to have anything to do with the novel, but they have everything to do with how I approach writing, how I do my research, how one thought can open a whole new world to me, and the pure serendipity that sometimes happens in the creative process.—Lisa See

“The houses themselves are lovely—with tile roofs, nicely painted façades, and iron grillwork in art deco patterns covering windows, as peek-throughs for doors, and as decoration along the eaves and around mail slots.” (page 23)

Shanghai-houseShanghai house

A lot of my job as a writer of historical novels involves seeing past what something looks like today to what it looked like long ago. This isn’t very hard for me. I grew up in Los Angeles. I drive down streets and through neighborhoods and see things as they were, not as they are. I prefer that old Los Angeles to the one here now. And who wouldn’t? An orange grove is so much nicer than a strip mall, after all. Some might say I look through rose-colored glasses. Maybe I do, but I consider that ability a gift that has allowed me to visit a poor village, such as Tongkou in Hunan province, and see past the poverty and decrepit buildings to what it must have been like in its heyday when Snow Flower and Lily lived there in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It’s allowed me to visit Hangzhou—a city of six million—walk around West Lake, and imagine Peony living in her family’s seventeenth-century compound for Peony in Love. And it’s allowed me to explore Shanghai, come across a little walk street, and see past the laundry, the public toilets on the corner, and the electric wires all over the place, to a house that could be only Z.G.’s elegant home.

“Now I’m to do calligraphy for this man—my father? Why do my artistic skills matter?” (page 28)


If I’d known I was going to write a sequel to Shanghai Girls, I would have set up Joy as an artist or at least as a girl with artistic tendencies. Fortunately, as I looked back through Shanghai Girls, I saw that her calligraphy was so good—“uncorrupted”—that neighbors asked her to write couplets for them to hang on their doors at the New Year. That was enough for me, since calligraphy has a long tradition as one of the main art forms in China.

Lantingji Xu, literally “Prologue to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion,” is probably the most famous piece of calligraphy in China. It was written by Wang Xishu in 353 and commemorates a famous drinking and poetry-writing party. Centuries later, in the Tang dynasty, a Buddhist monk named Huaisu (737?799) wrote an autobiographical essay in which he talked about his love of calligraphy, his search for different calligraphic models to emulate, and his untrammeled life. Although he was a monk, Huaisu loved to drink and was celebrated by his peers for his alcohol-fueled bursts of calligraphy. What makes his calligraphy so memorable and beautiful is that the characters get looser and wilder the more Huaisu had to drink.

As you can see, much of the appreciation for calligraphy comes from the back story. This example of calligraphy was painted by Tyrus Wong, my grandfather’s closest friend, the artist who created the ambiance for Disney’s Bambi, kite maker and flyer (yes, think about Z.G.), and now the oldest Chinese-American artist at 101 years of age. He has inspired me in so many ways and I love him dearly. Here, Tyrus has written Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for the United States, with ink and brush.

“Then we pick up our bags and begin a long, slow hike up a path, over a small hill, and down into a narrow valley, where elm tress provide shade.” (page 32)

Huangcun-villageHuangcun village

When I began Dreams of Joy, I knew that I wanted about half the story to take place in Shanghai and the other half to take place in a small village. As I looked at the map of China and all the different provinces I could chose from, I started thinking about the nature of Chinese written characters and how much depth they have compared to English words. For example, we might read the word pond and conjure up a small body of water with maybe some trees dotted around it. But when you look at the Chinese character for pond, you think of all the magnificent poems, arias, and plays that have featured ponds. Did Li Bai write one of his rollicking drinking poems by a pond? Was there a righteous battle by a pond? Is there an exquisite painting of a lovesick maiden gazing at her reflection in a pond? As I considered the depth of Chinese characters and what they can evoke, I decided to set Dreams of Joy in Anwei province, because it is known historically for its poverty, droughts, floods, and famines. It’s also where Pearl S. Buck set The Good Earth. Other people might not know all these allusions, but I would.

Look for more photos in the back of the Dreams of Joy paperback!

Win a copy of Ellen Feldman’s novel NEXT TO LOVE!

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Next to Love TPFor fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Postmistress, and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of love, war, loss, and the scars they leave set during the years of World War II and its aftermath.

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. And yet the changes that are thrust upon them move them in directions they never dreamed possible—while their husbands and boyfriends are enduring their own transformations. In the decades that follow, the three friends lose their innocence, struggle to raise their children, and find meaning and love in unexpected places. And as they change, so does America—from a country in which people know their place in the social hierarchy to a world in which feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and technological innovations present new possibilities—and uncertainties. And yet Babe, Millie, and Grace remain bonded by their past, even as their children grow up and away and a new society rises from the ashes of the war.

Beautifully crafted and unforgettable, Next to Love depicts the enduring power of love and friendship, and illuminates a transformational moment in American history.

Bertelsmann Media Worldwide