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Friday, April 17th, 2015

The One That Got AwayThe Place We Call Home

I just wanted to write a love story.

As an incurable romantic, I’ve always had a soft spot for those stories that are as warm and gooey as the center of a molten chocolate cake. My lifelong favorite, over even Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, is the story of Anne of Green Gables’ Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. So that’s what was foremost in my mind when I started working on The One That Got Away. But what I soon began to realize, as the book developed, is that it’s equally a story about home.

Home is one of those simple ideas that gets more complicated the harder you think about it. On one hand, it’s such a universal concept that, in its broadest terms, it ought to mean the same thing to everyone—­a place of shelter, safety, belonging. Just the phrase “keep the home fires burning” conjures a place we can return to after wandering, where someone we love will be waiting . . . a place that will always be there. But, unthinkable as it is to ourselves as children, what happens to all of us is that our definition of home changes over time. And sometimes it changes more than once. The thing is, though, that each of our homes, and the people who share them with us, shape us in ways it takes years to fully understand.

Most of us begin with the same kind of home: Where we come from. Where we grew up. Our oldest, most fundamental place; the place we really began. It may not have been happy, but it’s still our origin, and for better or worse, we can’t forget it, or carve away the imprint it left upon us.

For me, this home was the ten acres in the Blue Ridge foothills where my parents built their dream house. Before then, we had been living among clinking sailboat masts and dapper white-­clad midshipmen in Annapolis, Maryland, and my six-­year-­old self utterly failed to see what had so enchanted my mom and dad with this steep and unruly hillside in the boondocks. By the time construction was completed, though, I was as bewitched as they were. And partly because the house had been designed according to my parents’ specifications, I was always aware of the way my physical environment reflected who our family was. One big bathroom for the three of us to share, but separate his-­and-­hers art studios for them. The spacious open-­plan living/dining room, because my parents disliked the tradition of separate “formal” rooms that sat mostly unused. The immense windows along the western façade, so we were seldom out of sight of the rippling blue silhouette of the mountain range that formed our horizon, thirty miles away.

My mother took her last breath in that house. Her blinds were often open as she lay in her bed; I can only hope the beauty of the mountains eased her pain. She had bright eyes and a joyful smile, and the kind of laugh that could make friends from all the way across a room. Her warmth drew people to her like a hearth fire in January. Since I was only thirteen when she died, we were robbed of the time for me to grow to appreciate her, not just as my mom, but as the vivid, kind, charming woman I now know she was. But in the time we did have, her love taught me to value myself, and to treasure beauty, and those two things have been at the core of every good decision I’ve ever made.

My second home, I wasn’t looking for. While I was studying in England during my junior year of college, everything my father had been struggling with at home collapsed. When my winter break came, I had no home to go to. My mother’s older sister, without question or hesitation, said, “You come here.” And her house has been my go-­home-­to place ever since. Because of the woman whose house it is, that place represents as big a part of me as where I came from. My aunt opened both home and heart to me, and her dead sister’s girl became her third daughter. With remarkable patience and more than a little tough love, she knocked a navel-­gazer, overly prone to whining and stewing, into a decisive and determined adult. I owe more than I can ever convey to my exposure to her challenging, sparky intelligence.

If you’re lucky, your own go-­home-­to place, the place you head for holidays and family weekends or just to take a break from being an adult for a couple of days, is still the same as where you come from. But for many people it’s not. Parents move, divorce, die, betray. Your go-­home-­to place may not even be where your parents or siblings are, but it’s a place that brings you comfort when you arrive there. It’s the place where you know all the stories and inside jokes that get retold, and where somebody will have your favorite meal waiting for you when you arrive.

Of course, like most of you, I also have my own home now. Mine is a sunny little aerie in Brooklyn, and I share it with my husband, whose dimples are the only thing that can coax me out of bed in the morning, and our cat, who travels from sunbeam to sunbeam as each day glides by. I made it partly with pieces of my other homes: artwork my mother painted, books my aunt has given me, furniture my grandmother bought in the fifties, which is beautifully scuffed with age and with my family’s use. But also, my home is made with pieces of who I am now. Artwork I drew, books my friends have written. Because I lost my mother’s gardens, I cram my windowsills with flowers, and because my husband loves to cook, I grow herbs to use in our meals. This is the place where I welcome friends and family, both my own and my husband’s. And every single inch of it is made of something I love.

Throughout The One That Got Away, Sarina is on a journey to find her home. The home she comes from is too laden with painful memories to be a welcoming place any longer, so she’s left Virginia behind and made a life for herself in Austin. She’s spent much of her adult life trying to find the right go-­home-­to place, where she truly belongs, and to build her own home at the same time. When the story opens, she believes Noah is the answer to both of those. Except, as Eamon points out, she’s never taken any steps to make her home with Noah a reality; she only thinks it’s her future because it looks like it should be. So what she has to find the courage to do, in spite of the risks, is to open herself up to the person she’s come to realize is the one who really belongs in that future, and in that home.

This is why the home you build yourself, in many ways, is the most rewarding one of all. You can fill it, and populate it, with whatever and whoever you wish. It can be whatever you want it to be, whether it’s the place you share with your partner, or your partner plus the colorful chaos of children (or the furry and malodorous chaos of pets), or just the solitary peace of your sofa, a good book and a big glass of wine. This home is the one you fill with your own family, whoever you choose them to be—­but the peace is in the choosing.

A Letter From the Author: Rowan Coleman on The Day We Met

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Rowan Coleman Day We Met coverThe name of your first-born. The face of your lover. Your age. Your address…

What would happen if your memory of these began to fade?

Is it possible to rebuild your life? Raise a family? Fall in love again?When Claire starts to write her Memory Book, she already knows that this scrapbook of mementoes will soon be all her daughters and husband have of her. In her mid-40s, Claire is scared and increasingly confused by the world around her, struggling to hold onto her identity as thoughts of her mother, her daughters, and her husband grow fuzzier every day. Fearing what will happen if those memories fade altogether, her family’s gift of a red sketchpad is her most treasured possession. As they fill it with scenes from a joyous life lived together, Claire again experiences the ecstatic highs and terrible lows of a life well lived: full of heartbreak and love, tears and laughter.

Here is a letter from the author, Rowan Coleman, describing what this book means to her.

A Note From the Author

About three years ago I was sitting at my desk in my office, looking out the window, thinking about a dream I’d had years ago. It’s a very long story, but I first met my now husband, Adam, when we were both twelve, starting a new school at the same time. I fell in love with him at first sight, I actually did, just like they talk about in movies and books.

Years went by, years of nothing much happening between us (well, we were only twelve) and then around the age of sixteen there was a romance, and there continued to be on and off again for the next twenty-five years. But we never did quite get it together; something, maybe fate, would always conspire to keep us apart. Around fourteen years ago, after a really long time without seeing or hearing from Adam, and believing that that door was finally shut for good, I woke up from a dream so strong and so powerful that I had to check that it wasn’t real. I’d dreamed that I’d married him. I dreamed that a few years earlier, when we had been together, we’d run away and gotten married. And then things fell apart again. My head knew that that had never happened, we had never gotten married, but my heart believed it. My heart remembered how I felt about him, and how I always have felt about him, and it wouldn’t let that feeling go.

Another ten years would go by between that dream and finding him, quite by chance, again. This time we would not be parted, and four years ago we were married at last.

So as I sat in my office and thought about that dream, I thought about how even when life changes everything, everything around you, some things are so indelibly printed on your soul that they never go away. Love will always remain, whether you want it to or not. And that thought, that memory, was the very first inkling of the idea that would become The Day We Met.

There was another incident too: a few years earlier I almost lost my mother. My mum is an amazing woman; she was married in the fifties and was raised to be a wife and mother. For twenty-eight years that was what she did—until my dad left us. Mum had no choice but to change completely, change everything she knew. Battling grief and loss, she went out and got a job, supported my brother and me, and guided us single-handedly into adulthood. My mum brought me up to be strong and independent, to always try my best, to never give up, to believe that my gender would never prevent me from doing anything I chose to do. She encouraged me to take the chances that she never had, and she taught me how to be a mother. So when over a period of years she became increasingly ill, forgetful, and uncoordinated, with a severity that increased in slight but devastating increments, my brother and I feared the worst. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure, with having most likely suffered transient ischemic attacks (sometimes described as mini-strokes), but that never really felt right to me. I saw her change; I saw her personality descend into depression. There would be attacks when she didn’t know us, when she forgot that a friend had died and would insist on ringing his wife at three in the morning to prove that I was an “evil liar.” It was hard, and although she wasn’t even seventy, I believed that the relentlessly cruel disease of dementia was taking a grip on her and taking her away from me. Then one Christmas she became so ill that she was rushed (against her will) to hospital. They were on the point of sending her home, deciding she had overeaten, when I insisted on a CT scan. They discovered that there was a large cyst in her brain, and she was at once rushed to another hospital, where the cyst that was putting enormous pressure on her brain was drained. I will never forget walking into her hospital room just hours after the operation: my mum, the woman I loved and admired, was sitting up in bed, talking and laughing. I had my mum back, and I thank God for it every day since. But it didn’t stop me from thinking about dementia and Alzheimer’s and how this devastating disease is so little understood, and I knew that one day I wanted to write a book about it as best as I could—a book that would somehow open up the mind of a sufferer and show it to the world.

Well, on that day that I remembered my dream about Adam, these two ideas collided, and Claire was born. Several months of research, writing, and rewriting followed, and I found myself pouring my own memories into The Day We Met. Claire’s red wedding dress is my red wedding dress. Claire and Caitlin’s dance to Rhapsody in Blue actually happened when I was a girl. My mum sends me newspaper clippings every week. (Even though I see her in person more than once a week!) I watched my little girl dance and sing solo in the school play full of fear and anxiety and then relief as she came into her own and showed me a strength I never knew she had. Those are some of my memories that are in the book, and there are others too.

So, sometimes when you are working on a novel, there occurs, so rarely, a kind of alchemy that produces from a jumble of words and ideas, thoughts and emotions, something precious. And that’s how I feel about The Day We Met. I hope you do too.

—Rowan Coleman

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Thursday, March 26th, 2015


Hausfrau is a daring novel about marriage, sex, fidelity, morality, and most especially, self. Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno – a banker – and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

Here are some discussion questions to help guide your book club conversation.

1. That Anna. So—really—what’s her deal? Her thoughts loop on a script of immutable passivity, but is that her whole story? From the onset we know she is a flawed protagonist, a damaged character, a woman who is “nothing but a series of poor choices executed poorly.” Taking into account Anna’s personal history, her psychic and spiritual makeup, and those aforementioned poor choices, is there any part of this tragedy that somehow isn’t her fault? What should she be held accountable for? Of what, if anything, are you willing to absolve her?

2. Bruno proposes to Anna with the words “I think you would make a good wife for me.” What, in your opinion, would make him think that? They’ve been together for over a decade. By book’s end it’s clear that Bruno has either known about or suspected Anna’s infidelities the entire time. Why would he tolerate them? Why would he tolerate her? Is this a sign of his weakness or his strength? What does he “get” out of this marriage?

3. Mary, in her decency, stands in direct opposition to the self-centered narcissism of the majority of Anna’s actions. Simply put, Mary seems to be everything that Anna should be but isn’t. But the book suggests that Mary’s two-shoes aren’t altogether goody, so to speak. In three separate instances, she “spills” herself in front of Anna: when she drops her purse and blurts out a more-Anna-than-Mary expletive, when she drops her purse and the erotic novel (and the wistful truth that she regrets not exploring her sexuality) tumbles out, and, finally, when she admits to the bullying and setting the fire. In these ways, Mary has more in common with Anna than Anna is open to recognizing. Do you think Mary can see past Anna’s façade? Do you think she understands Anna on a fundamental level? If not, then do you think she would ever be able to? What do you think will happen to Mary after the book ends?

4. Anna’s lack of morality is almost shocking. What do you think is her gravest mistake? Is there any point during the course of the narrative where she could have stopped the progression of events?

5. Anna rarely tells Doktor Messerli the whole truth. Why, then, do you think she continues the analysis?

6. Anna has never learned to speak German, and yet she exhibits an unmistakable talent for language: she plays with words, turns puns, thinks in entendre—though rarely does she speak these things aloud. Is it shyness that prevents her from showing this side of herself? Fear? What would it look like if Anna could tap into her “voice”? What would it change?

7. Of all the children, Charles is the most dear to Anna. Victor is too much like Bruno for Anna to fully trust. But as the sole memento of the relationship with Stephen, one might assume that Polly Jean would hold the spot closest to Anna’s heart. Discuss Anna’s relationship with her children. She won’t win mother of the year in anyone’s contest—but is there any way in which she can be commended? Is there anything she does as a mother that is correct? Good? Nurturing?

8. Anna confesses she majored in home economics in college. Couple this with the perfect memory of sewing with her mother, and the seed of Anna’s present psychology begins to form. As her station as a wife and a mother starts to fail her (or rather, she, them), we are able to understand that somewhere in Anna’s fundamental self she was raised to be these things. Why does she cling to this fantasy if it doesn’t seem to suit her?

9. At the end of chapter 6, Anna thinks, “I wish I’d never met the man.” Which man do you suppose she means?

10. Doktor Messerli warns Anna that “consciousness doesn’t come with an automatic ethic,” and Anna’s choices seem to bear this out. Taking into consideration Doktor Messerli’s explanation of the Shadow, her story of the Teufelsbrücke, and the final events of the book, is it possible to argue that, ethics aside, Anna has come into complete consciousness?

11. Archie says to Anna that a man can smell a woman’s sadness. In the same vein, Anna talks herself through the morning after the physical confrontation with Bruno with a “You had this coming” speech to herself (“I provoked this. . . . I brought this to myself. . .”). By this reasoning, Anna is an active participant in her own downfall. But Anna claims to be almost entirely passive. Do you consider Anna to be more passive or more active? How does this complicate your understanding of Anna’s psychology?

12. In terms of the structure of the novel, the analytic sessions with Doktor Messerli serve to explicate, illuminate, underscore, and complicate the plot of the book and any conclusion that Anna believes she’s arrived at. Are there any places in the book where this is particularly meaningful to you?

13. There’s an intriguing symmetry to the way that the grammar of the German language—the tenses, moods, conjugations, false cognates, infinitives, et cetera—lays itself out in a pattern that easily overlays the poignant heartbreak of the novel. And yet, one of the themes of Hausfrau is language’s ultimate inadequacy. Is that tension resolvable? If so, how? Is this something you have encountered in your own life?

14. The book depends upon the coolness of the Swiss, the impenetrable nature of the landscape, and the solitude of nighttime in order to fully call forth Anna’s deep despair and alienation. Could this book take place in another setting? Anna’s everyday environs—the hill, the bench, the trains, the Coop—become characters in their own right Are there other functions the novel’s setting serves?

15. Hausfrau is in some sense a study in female sexuality. What might the author be suggesting about the sexual appetites of a woman at midlife? What might the author be suggesting about a woman’s emotional needs?

16. An entirely speculative question: What do you think will happen to Bruno and Victor and Polly Jean? Can you imagine their lives post-Anna?

A King’s Ransom Discussion Questions

Thursday, February 26th, 2015
Kings Ransom Cover

Kings Ransom Cover

A vivid and heart-wrenching story of the last event-filled years in the life of Richard, Coeur de Lion. Taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor while en route home – in violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders – he was to spend fifteen months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils, from which few men ever left alive, while Eleanor of Aquitaine moved heaven and earth to raise the exorbitant ransom. For the five years remaining to him, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and illness were ever present. So were his infidelities, perhaps a pattern set by his father’s faithlessness to Eleanor. But the courage, compassion, and intelligence of this warrior king became the stuff of legend, and A King’s Ransom brings the man and his world fully and powerfully alive.

Take a look at the discussion questions below and discuss with your book club!

1. Richard places a good deal of importance on the notion of honor. How would you define Richard’s code of honor? Does he consistently live up to it? Do you have your own code of honor? If so, can you describe it?
2. Richard reflects on his mother’s sixteen years of imprisonment by his father, noting her fortitude in surviving it for so long. Compare Eleanor and Richard’s responses to captivity. What kind of impact did captivity and isolation have on each?
3. Eleanor is approaching seventy years old during the events of this novel. How do you think her age and experience impact her politicking?
4. As a prisoner, Richard observes that “words were his weapons now” (page 239). How does Richard’s battle style, when he is armed with words, compare to his tactics when he is armed with a sword?
5. While imprisoned by Hadmar, Richard gains a new perspective on Duke Leopold’s reasons for leaving Jerusalem after Richard disrespected the Austrian flag. Before hearing Friedrich’s arguments, Richard had never tried to see Leopold’s side. How do you think this new information influenced Richard’s subsequent actions toward Duke Leopold? In a broader sense, do you think this incident impacted Richard’s diplomatic practices? For example, did it make him more open-minded, or more inclined to empathize with his enemies? Can you think of any examples of Richard demonstrating an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an argument?
6. Discuss Pope Celestine’s leadership from Rome. How did his allegiances impact Richard’s fate? What motivates his actions? What is your view on the Catholic Church’s role in the political landscape at this time? Should the Pope have done more to protect the holy crusaders?
7. Eleanor and Hawisa discuss marriage as being “a man’s game” (page 310). Discuss the power dynamics in the royal marriages we observe in the novel.
8. Richard considers himself a devoutly religious man, as demonstrated by his efforts in the crusades. Discuss the nature of Richard’s faith and his relationship with God. Does he always act in accordance with the teachings of the Church?
9. Discuss the rivalry between Richard and John. What do you think of John’s actions during Richard’s long absence? Do you think Eleanor was too willing to believe the worst of John, as he says when she confronts him about his treachery? Did you believe his claims of innocence, as Eleanor did?
10. Compare Richard’s leadership style with that of the other kings and dukes he encounters. In what ways is Richard more or less effective than his contemporaries?
11. Discuss Richard’s relationship with Berengaria. Were you surprised by his infidelities? Is he right to stay with her, despite knowing she will never give him a son, or does he have a responsibility to the crown to produce an heir?
12. How did you react to Richard’s final days? How do you think the author feels about Richard?
13. Richard, though he was King of England, spent very little time in that country. Do you think his actions in Normandy and France were in the best interest of his country, or was he motivated by his personal connections to that land and his hatred of Philippe II?

A Conversation Among the Generations – Kelly Corrigan

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

9780345532855 (1)Kelly Corrigan’s “Glitter and Glue” – now in paperback – is about who you admire and why, and how that changes over time. Read the conversation between her mom and children and see if you can recognize any of these generational differences in your own family!



A Conversation Among the Generations

July 26, 2014

Last summer, the girls and I visited my parents at Wooded Lane. On our last night (of possibly a few too many), we were told to meet in the TV room at 4:55 p.m. to watch a horse race, one of my mom’s favorite things to do, though after fifty-two years as my father’s wife, she has acclimated to all spectator sports (not to mention all sports commentary, e.g., ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption). “Our horse is number seven, Sierra Alpha,” Jammy explained, because Sierra Alpha was trained by her best friend’s grandson. Turns out, our horse ran a strong race to finish second. Things were looking up.

We moved to the kitchen table for drinks (the girls had the sugar-free cranberry juice my mother bought to placate me) and to play a few rounds of Rummikub. Claire, eleven, won repeatedly, while Georgia, nearly thirteen, pretended not to care. We switched then to King and Scum, a card game Tracy Tuttle and I learned from some Sigma Chi’s in college. Hanging over my head was an assignment from Jen Smith, my editor, God love her, who had asked me more than once if I might be able to capture a conversation with my mom to include in the back of the paperback. I explained to her that this sort of thing—introspecting about interpersonal relationships—ran a high risk of making my mom’s skin visibly slither, but alas, I love Jen Smith, not to mention my readers, so I tried. Here’s what happened:

Me [opening my laptop]: So, Ma, I gotta ask you a few questions before we leave tomorrow.

Jammy [ignoring me, talking only to the girls, referring to her black T-shirt that says grandmas gone wild in small rhinestones affixed by a professional grade BeDazzler]: I wore my diamonds tonight. Don’t you like my diamonds?

Claire: I love them. Jammy’s gone wild.

Me: Nice, Ma.

Georgia [looking up from her cell; frowning at my fingers as they skip around the keyboard]: Mom, you aren’t putting this all in your thing, are you?

Me: Yes, all of it. Okay, so Mom, what are some of the differences between my mothering style and yours?

Jammy [eyeballing my laptop]: I don’t use my computer 7/24.

Georgia [laughing]: Jammy, it’s 24/7!

Claire: 7/24! Jammy said 7/24—

Jammy: 24/7! Whatever. Just wait till you get old.

Me: So, yes, okay, well, other than computers and technology—

Jammy: And iPhones . . .

Me: And iPhones, yes. But all that’s my whole generation. What are some of the more specific differences between the way you and I parent?

Jammy [shuffling the deck, ready to be done with this nonsense]: I think you have more highs and lows than I had. I was more even-keeled. More down the middle. I think you’re very easy sometimes, and then at other times you get very worked up, more stressed, more agitated.

Me [deciding whether to push back or quietly take offense]: Okay, interesting. Duly noted. Moving on: Who do you think was more strict—you or me?

Georgia: Jammy is definitely more strict.

Jammy: Don’t say more strict, Georgia. It’s stricter.

Claire: Me too. I think Jammy is more strict.

Jammy: Stricter, Claire. For heaven’s sake, Kelly, do these girls learn grammar in school?

Georgia: We’re on vacation.

Jammy: Grammar never takes a vacation.

Me [ignoring the grammar talk, except to recall with a smile my backup idea for a title, Poetry and Prose]: Really girls? You don’t think I’m stricter?

Georgia [looking at me]: I’ve had Jammy as a grandmother and she’s way more stricter than you.

[My mother and I share a long, surprised look. Absurd, our expressions say in unison. Jammy is a fool for my girls, an absolute bleeding heart.]

Me: Compare me as a kid and the girls now. How was I different?

Jammy: They’re full of it, I’ll say that, but you were very opinionated. You let me know exactly what you thought about everything. Every. Little. Thing.

Greenie [having wandered over, now laughing in agreement]: You were very verbal, Lovey.

[We are all smiling now. I’m still “verbal.” An easy joke among my friends is that where any crowd gathers—a line at Target, say—I’m liable to flip over the nearest shopping basket and speak out on some issue that I’ve been working through, and I’m always working through some issue.]

Claire: I have a question. What’s the hardest part about being a mom?

Me: I hate not knowing what to do. There’s a lot of times that I don’t know what to do. I thought I was going to be more sure—

Jammy: More sure? Good grief. Surer.

Georgia: Oh my God, Jammy.

Jammy: God? Are we going to church? Are we praying now?

Me [addressing Claire]: I thought I would be surer. But then, and this happens all the time, some situation will bubble up and I’ll be totally lost, or torn. Like you’ll ask to go to some concert, or for some expensive flat iron, and I don’t know whether to give it to you or not. I can’t even decide how late to let you stay up on a school night. And I don’t know how to teach you about money, like whether or not you should have an allowance, how many chores, how many bathing suits.

Georgia: More than one!

Me [suddenly really needing to get this out]: And I often don’t know what’s fair to expect of you, like whether I should punish you for losing your Stanford sweatshirt or forgetting to feed the dog . . . I mean, I lose things. I forget things.

[Georgia nods as if she’s been waiting for me to notice this for years.]

Me: I know I have to pick my battles—I get that—but I find it hard to figure out which ones to pick. [To my mom] You knew, Ma. You always knew. You were dead sure.

Jammy: No, I wasn’t. Never. [I am wide-eyed.] I pretended.

Greenie [looking at me]: She pretended. She pretended beautifully.

Me: Wow. I’m stunned.

Georgia: You don’t pretend, Mom. I can totally tell when you don’t know what to do.

Me [still staring at my mother]: You were bluffing?

[Claire burps.]

Jammy: Very ladylike.

Georgia: Jammy, Claire burps 7/24.

Jammy: Very funny.

Georgia: One thing about you as a mom, Mom, you’re very open with us. You’re, like, emotionally open. I can read you. Like, I know when you say Dad and I are going to talk about it, that means you don’t know what to do.

Claire: And you’re very open to our ideas.

Georgia: Oh, I totally disagree.

Claire [to Georgia]: No, she negotiates. Like if we want a new lacrosse stick or an app, we can try to cut a deal.

Georgia: She’s a compromiser, I guess, sometimes. Except when the wall comes down—like when we wanted to watch Step Brothers, and then, no way, you are not open for business.

Claire: Yeah, you have two sides to you. Your right side and your left side. [Cracking up.]

Georgia: Oh my God, Claire.

Jammy: We certainly are praying a lot tonight, aren’t we?

Me [giving the hush-up wave to the girls]: Okay, Ma, did you ever think I would be a writer?

Jammy: Definitely. You loved to write. Even when you worked at United Way, I still thought you would be a writer. You were very expressive. You are very expressive. [Handing Georgia a few plates] Take this over, Sugar.

Georgia: One sec.

Jammy [feigning shock]: Excuse me? You know what I used to tell your mother: Obey instantly, without comment.

Georgia [taking the plates over to the sink]: More strict.

Claire [to Jammy]: Who is more difficult to take care of: us or your kids?

Jammy: Well, I can spoil you girls. With your mother and your uncles, I had to constantly say No. That’s the job. I was the glue.
[I’m nodding. Glitter and Glue was definitely the right title]

Jammy: Being a grandmother is wonderful. [Looking at me, bemused] Shame there’s only one way to get here. [To the girls] You are the glitter of our golden years.

Greenie: That’s what we say, Lovey: Our grandchildren are the glitter of our golden years.

Me: Is there anything I do that makes you think, Oh, she got that from me?

Jammy [flatly]: No. I can’t think of anything.

Me: Really?

Jammy: Not my religion, you barely know who Barry Goldwater was, and you don’t play bridge.

Me: Don’t you think I got the whole girlfriend thing from you? The Pigeons . . .

Jammy [brightening]: Yes! There’s something. Definitely. When I see you with Betsy or Tracy or Michelle Constable, I think, She’s a Pigeon-in-Training.

Me: Anything else?

Jammy: No.

Me: Okay, so how were you different with me than with Booker and GT?

Jammy: I don’t know. I didn’t raise the three of you the same.

Me: Right. So how?

Jammy: I don’t know. You needed different things.

Me: Like . . . ?

Jammy: Oh I don’t know. [Waving me off] I don’t like these conversations. It’s like you watching Bill O’Reilly. I don’t make you watch Bill O’Reilly, do I?

Me: You’re not going to answer these questions, are you?

Jammy: Let’s just play cards. Can’t we just play cards?

Me: Sure.

I asked her the next morning if she was glad I turned out to be a writer. She said, “Sure, I guess.” Suddenly anxious, I asked her if she ever wished that I didn’t write Glitter and Glue. “Absolutely not. I love that book. I think it’s your best one.” I said, “Well, I would think so. I mean, it’s all about you.” But she assured me that her assessment had nothing whatsoever to do with her portrayal as a tireless maternal genius. She just thought my writing “had gotten a lot tighter.”

After a pause, her hands back in the sink, where there were dishes to be done, she said, “Now can this be over?”

Now this can be over, Ma. Except to include this final photo of a vivacious knockout in her prime, a frank and complicated woman I would have loved to have been seated next to that evening, to have known as a peer, so that maybe it wouldn’t have taken me forty years to appreciate her properly.

Discussion Questions: Remember Me Like This

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Remember Me Like This TR coverFour years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.

Here are some discussion questions below to guide your book club,

1. Remember Me Like This is rendered from the perspectives of various characters, but never Justin’s. Why do you think Johnston decided not to include his point of view? What do the alternating perspectives do for the story?

2. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Who did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

3. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Who did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

4. The novel takes place during a humid summer in South Texas, and Johnston asks the reader to pay a lot of attention to the heat and weather. How does this setting relate to the themes of the book?

5. Early in the novel, the reader learns that Cecil believes love can be shown through not disclosing what you know. Do you agree with him? What role do secrets play in the book?

6. Are Eric and Laura good parents? In what ways do their actions support or undermine each other’s? What would you have done differently in their shoes?

7. Each of the Campbells seeks different kinds of shelter in the book: Eric is involved in an extramarital affair; Laura spends much of her time volunteering at Marine Lab; Griffin devotes most of his energy to skateboarding and Fiona; and Cecil retreats deeper into the grooves of his life. What do these shelters offer the characters? What do the shelters reveal about them? Do the shelters hold up?

8. Most of the novel takes place in Southport, a small coastal town with a tightly knit community. How does that sense of closeness and isolation play into the story? How does the realization that, geographically, Justin was never that far away affect the Campbells?

9. Which character do you identify with the most and why?

10. In your own family, do you think you’re more like Eric or more like Laura?

11. Had Cecil’s plan worked, what do you think he would have done with Buford? Did you believe the story he tells Eric about taking Buford into Mexico? Did he ever intend to include Eric in the plan? Why does he decide against including him?

12. Do you think Buford’s father is being honest with Cecil about just wanting one last day on the water with his family? Why or why not?

13. The novel ends with Eric imagining what might have happened to Buford. What do you think happened to Buford? Do you think Laura had anything to do with it?

14. Where do you imagine each of the Campbells in a year? In five years? In ten?

Five Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self by Gail Caldwell

Friday, February 6th, 2015

New Life, No Instructions cover tpFive Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self by Gail Caldwell

The author of New Life, No Instructions gives advice for young women based on her own experiences. Her new memoir is about the surprising way life can begin again, at any age.

Originally published on Oprah.com


1. Your father was saying something that you couldn’t hear.

My dad was a tough, sometimes domineering Texas patriarch, and his idea of protecting his two adolescent daughters was to scare hell out of the boys in the ’hood. Granted, it was the Texas Panhandle in the 1950s: When a kid came to my or my sister’s window late at night, Wild Bill would do a patrol around the block with an unloaded rifle on his shoulder.

Why couldn’t he just tell us to watch our backs, or say how much he loved us? Now I know that he was telling us, but too often the greatest generation translated love into laconic shows of strength. I wish he could have said, “You are the most precious cargo in the world and I will do anything to keep you safe,” which might have helped me learn to say it to myself.

2. Live inside your body.

You have muscles and brain cells that are poised for amazing possibilities—childbirth and mountain climbing and dancing until 3 a.m. You can learn calculus or walk across half of Spain and your body and brain will barely flinch. Then you can sleep it off and start again. You will be able to do this for many, many years, particularly if you forgo stupid drugs and too much booze and seven helpings of cheesecake and walking in front of speeding vehicles, or, for that matter, getting into them.

3. Walk tall, even—especially—when you are afraid, or cowed, or insecure.

If you assume you are too good to be taken advantage of, the bullies of the world will usually believe you, and move on.
This skill involves daily practice, like sports or meditation, and, as my gun-toting, poker-playing dad would say, a little bluff at the right time. I had a creepy guy twice my size acting inappropriately in an airplane aisle recently—he reached his hand around my waist—and without thinking, I looked him in the eye, moved toward him with my hand up, and said, “Sir, you’re going to need to step back, now.”

I think I’ve been watching too much Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. But hey, the man got out of my way, fast.

4. Everything—I mean everything—matters.

The friend’s kid brother you were nice to when no one else was; the parking place you got into a screaming match over; the bearable, or awful, breakup you had. What matters is not the parking place, but the way you react: the kindness you display, and the mercy and the poise to be your own best self when you can. Everything matters because it morphs into this giant thing called history, or experience, and eventually life itself. Even the murderous Hound in Game of Thrones tells Arya, “A man’s got to have a code.” Find yours and live by it.

5. Remember the gulping-air surprise of being alive.

Love, color, music, the beauty of the planet—all these things will serve you later, decades later, when you are walking down a street in St. Louis, or a beach on Cape Cod, and you hear a song that sends you spinning. You hear “Night-swimming” and want to weep because it takes you back to Point Reyes in California, or a sunset over Mount Bonnell in Texas. Your memory is the motherboard. Feed it the experience and it will always give it back.

P.S. You will note that I have left out much counsel about the bad times in life. That’s because they will always be there, the worry and sorrow and little hells that we can do nothing about. No prep book for those. Do the good stuff, see above, and it will cushion the rest.

Q&A with Weight of Blood author, Laura McHugh

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Weight of Blood A Conversation with Laura McHugh

Originally published on BookPage.com. Interview by Trisha Ping.

You’ll never think of small-town life the same way again after reading Laura McHugh’s chilling debut, The Weight of Blood. Part Twin Peaks, part Tana French, the novel opens just after the body of eighteen-year-old Cheri has been found stuffed into a tree trunk. Lucy Dane may have been the troubled Cheri’s only friend, and after turning up some disturbing evidence she becomes determined to track down Cheri’s killer—especially since her own mother’s disappearance some fifteen years earlier has still never been solved. As Lucy’s quest proceeds, she begins to unearth the town’s darkest secrets, some of which involve her own family.

We asked McHugh, who lives in Missouri with her family, a few questions about her new book.

Trisha Ping: As a former software developer, you took an unconventional path to becoming a writer. Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?

Laura McHugh: I wanted to be a writer all along, but I had no mental road map of how to make that happen. I was a first-generation college student—my dad was a shoe repairman, my mom worked at Waffle House—and I had never heard of an MFA. We viewed higher education in a very practical way, as a ticket out of poverty. I studied creative writing as an undergrad, but for grad school I chose more technical degrees, ones that I thought would result in steady employment. I was a software developer for ten years, and then suddenly I lost my job. That’s when I completely reevaluated my life. I’d been writing short stories, had published a couple, and dreamed of writing a novel. I didn’t want to regret that I never tried. I feel incredibly lucky that things worked out the way they did.

TP: How did you come to write this particular story?

LM: My family moved to the Ozarks when I was a kid. The community was close-knit and wary of outsiders, and the surrounding area was home to groups that wanted to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. We lived down the road from the East Wind commune (a woman would sometimes jog topless past our school bus stop), and not far from the compound of a militia group called The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. I was haunted by the place long after we left, and I wanted to capture what it was like to grow up in such an insular place, and also to show it from an outsider’s viewpoint.

In the midst of writing the novel, I came across a news article from the small rural town where I’d attended high school. A local teen had been victimized in a shocking crime, and the people involved had kept it secret for years. That crime was the inspiration for Cheri’s story.

TP: Small towns are usually associated with words like “peaceful,” “idyllic,” or “friendly.” Henbane is none of the above. Why were you drawn to depicting the darker side of rural life?

LM: For one thing, it’s in my nature—show me a seemingly idyllic town, and I’ll instantly wonder what’s hidden in the shadows. I grew up in a series of small rural towns, and they’re grittier than people might imagine. I’m also fascinated by the way crime plays out in these tight-knit communities where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else. No one wants to speak out against their neighbor or their kin, or maybe they’d rather not involve the law. A good example is the murder of Ken McElroy in tiny Skidmore, Missouri. He was a bully and had gotten away with some serious crimes. The townspeople were fed up and decided to take action. McElroy was murdered in broad daylight in the middle of town, in front of nearly fifty witnesses, and not a single person would rat out the killers. (Also, no one called an ambulance.)

TP: On a similar note, thrillers are often very black and white—but your book definitely deals in shades of gray. Does that present challenges when writing suspense?

LM: I didn’t find it problematic while writing this book. Maybe it helped that I didn’t set out to write a thriller. I wanted to tell Lucy’s story, and I wanted the reader to keep turning the pages, and the story naturally became more suspenseful as it developed. I enjoy books with those murky shades of gray, but I’m not biased one way or the other—I like all sorts of thrillers, and I’ll read anything that grabs my attention and won’t let go.

TP: Without giving too much away, Lucy makes some dark discoveries about the adults in her life—people who care deeply for her might be capable of bad things. The novel is also a coming-of-age story, though, and these revelations mirror one of the rites of passage of growing up: learning that adults are people, too.

LM: You’re right, that’s an important part of growing up. I clearly remember having that revelation as a kid. It’s scary to realize that the grownups in charge are not necessarily making good decisions. For Lucy, as for most people, it’s difficult to process and accept the idea that a loved one might be capable of grave wrongdoing.

TP: You tell this story from several different perspectives. Which character was your favorite to write? Which was the hardest?

LM: Jamie Petree, the drug dealer who is obsessed with Lila, was my favorite. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I have always loved to write creepy characters—they come naturally to me. I liked being able to show Jamie from two different perspectives. We know how Lucy views him, and we also get to go inside his head and get a sense of who he really is.

Lucy’s mother, Lila, was the hardest. She started out a bit more innocent and naïve, but that wasn’t working. I had to let go and let her be a bit more troubled and troublesome.

TP: Although the violence is not at all sensationalized, bad things happen to girls and women in this book. I assume that’s something you thought about, as the mother of two young daughters. Do you think there are lines that fiction writers should not cross in this area?

LM: Truth is always stranger and more disturbing than fiction, and the things that happen to Cheri in this book don’t compare to what happened to the real-life victim who inspired her character. I did not want to portray violence against women in a way that was titillating or sensational, and I was careful about how I approached it in the book. That said, I wouldn’t put any limitations on fiction writers. Real life is so much more dangerous than a book that you can close and put away.

TP: What are you working on next?

LM: I am finishing up my second novel, which will also be published by Spiegel & Grau. A young woman witnessed the kidnapping of her sisters years ago, and now a terrible discovery forces her to question everything about her past, including her own memory. The novel is set in a decaying Iowa river town—I do love small towns and their secrets.

Reader’s Guide: The Dress Shop of Dreams

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014
RHRC: What do you love most about writing?
MVP: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.
RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

9780804178983Meena Van Praag’s new novel The Dress Shop of Derams is a captivating story of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry,, and Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

Read Random House Readers Circle’s exclusive conversation with Meena below!

Random House Reader’s Circle: What do you love most about writing?

Meena Van Praag: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.

RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

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Reader’s Guide: The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy

Thursday, December 11th, 2014


The publication ofThe Great Santini, a powerful, painful novel based on the often cruel and violent behavior of Pat Conroy’s father, Marine Corps fighter pilot Donald Patrick Conroy, brought Pat much acclaim, the rift it caused brought even more attention, fracturing an already battered family. But as Pat tenderly chronicles here, even the oldest of wounds can heal. The Death of Santiniis a heart-wrenching act of reckoning whose ultimate conclusion is that love can soften even the meanest of men, lending significance to the oft-quoted line from Pat’s novel The Prince of Tides: “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.”

The moving eulogy that Pat wrote for his father is immortalized in the paperback edition of the book.

My dear friends and fellow lovers of Santini,

You have written so many letters of condolence since my father died that I’ve been overwhelmed at the task of answering them. But know this: All of them meant something, all of them moved me deeply, all were appreciated, and all were read. Don Conroy was larger than life and there was never a room he entered that he left without making his mark. At some point in his life, he passed from being merely memorable to being legendary.

[Click here to read the rest!]

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