Book Keeping: A Reader's Community

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The Crooked House by Christobel Kent

Thriller author Christobel Kent was kind enough to give us the lowdown on the care and feeding of her bedside reading, balancing writing with childrearing, and her memories of the first story she ever wrote. Her latest novel is The Crooked House.


The Crooked House
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What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?

I’m most frequently asked how I find the time to write (I have five children) and my answer to that is actually the job of being a mother (and make no mistake, it is hard labour, even if no-one pays you to do it) is pretty compatible with writing as long as you let your standards of cleanliness and decency slide. (The great thing about the job of being a mother being that it is hard to get fired, although complaints do get made.) Children eventually go to school and then you have hours and hours in which either to cook and clean, or to write, you decide how to divide the time. You do have to have some discipline about it: I sit down and write the minute the last child is out of the house, for three hours or so, without fail. If I procrastinated it would all fall to pieces. I write a thousand words, then I do the mother stuff.

Who sees your first drafts?

My agent and my editor see my first drafts. I wouldn’t dream of showing them to a non-professional or a friend because I am very over-sensitive to criticism and I wouldn’t have a friend left in the world! Also you absolutely cannot trust a word a friend or relative says about your stuff, they have a different agenda: they would almost always be too nice. My husband is a mathematician who isn’t much interested in fiction, which suits me fine.

What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?

I remember learning to read: reading a whole sentence from a ‘Janet and John’ book in kindergarten. It was a huge moment, I can still distinctly remember holding my breath with excitement. The first book I remember adoring, diving into and not wanting to come up from, was Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. The first grown-up book I read was Brighton Rock by Graham Greene and that moment of understanding that books could be written about terrible things, pain and guilt and betrayal and violence, and that there would be no happy ending, was like a bucket of cold water in the face. Bracing, exhilarating, shocking.

What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?

I don’t remember writing anything seriously until I was fourteen or so, and then it was pretty much a disaster: a snippy English teacher criticized it in a fairly cutting way so I didn’t try again until I was twenty odd and in my first job with a typewriter and time on my hands (it was a very quiet literary agency). On which occasion I criticized myself in a fairly cutting way (for pretension and for having nothing to say) and gave up again until I was forty. This worked for me: it meant that instead of writing I read a vast amount. I think reading, and living, is how you learn to write, and you can’t do it properly until you have read enough and lived enough, and it takes as long as it takes. I wrote in my head, though, from when I was a tiny girl. Scraps and sentences, trying to find the words to describe things properly. Reading inculcates that habit, too.

Can you send a photo of your bookshelf? What makes these books meaningful to you?

My bookshelf is too vast to explain (except that it holds a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in memory of my dad who was the London editor in the ’60s and ’70s), but the messy teetering tower of books beside my bed is perhaps more illustrative of my tastes and inclinations. It is all current reading.

Kent bookshelf

Some I haven’t read yet (the first Elena Ferrante, the new John Banville, a Ruth Rendell someone recommended called Simisola, the Lucia Berlin, a proof of an extraordinary collection of stories Scary Old Sex by Arlene Hyman that I my agent gave me and I have only just begun) but I WILL read them: I generally save new stuff up for my summer holidays otherwise–if I read while I’m writing–it’s too much of a distraction. There are several Raymond Chandlers: I started re-reading The Big Sleep at Christmas then just wanted to re-read all of them. Jane Smiley’s take on the Decameron (Ten Days in the Hills) I re-read last summer when I was reviewing her, it’s a lot of fun. Patricia Highsmith is the QUEEN of crime fiction and I read Deep Water driving down to Italy in December. Maupassant needs to be by my bed for complicated reasons of superstition and hero-worship: he is an absolutely remarkable humane writer, I want him there so some of it rubs off. Ditto Flaubert, who is further down the pile, ditto Tolstoy and Jane Gardam who would both be there except I have lent them out to friends: I have read all of them within the last year. Writers who understand human frailty and who forgive, who burrow inside what it’s like to be human. Reading them is the closest thing there is to magic in my life, now that childbirth is done with: sometimes I look forward so urgently to the day I can stop writing and JUST READ.

Kent bookshelf large

Is there a piece of writer’s advice that has stuck with you?

The best advice is to sit down and write and keep going till you get to the end. It’s my own advice to myself and the advice I give if asked by aspiring writers: it sounds ridiculously obvious but the biggest problem is procrastination. It is deciding that before you write you need to ‘do research’, or make a cup of coffee or something. You can do research, most writers have to do a bit but you should think of it as a luxury, something you can do after you have done some writing, not before. The only advice I got from an external source was not exactly advice but reading somewhere that Graham Greene wrote in the mornings, then edited in the evening after a drink, or I suppose even two drinks. I was encouraged by that as I was already quite naturally doing the same: editing your own work is easier with your defences down. Best done after one drink. Not advisable after three drinks, when your defences are down and a machete mysteriously appears in your non-drinking hand.

Do you have a favorite literary character?

My favourite literary character is Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Or Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. They’re both idiots who pine for the unattainable, but they’re both dreamers and lovers too, they reach out. It is the character that reaches out until he falls that gets me every time. The tug and anguish of rooting for a flawed human being, knowing they’ll mess up and die. Brilliant.

The Crooked House

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Christobel Kent was born in London and was educated at Cambridge. She has lived variously in Essex, London, and Italy. Her childhood included several years spent on a Thames sailing barge in Maldon, Essex, with her father, stepmother, three siblings, and four step-siblings. She now lives in both Cambridge and Florence with her husband and five children.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

Writing From a Distance, by Christobel Kent

“Angel’s Laundromat”, a story by Lucia Berlin

“The Sweet Spot: Book Keeping with James Renner

Finding a Way Home by Mary Costello

The Clasp by Sloane Crosley

This post originally appeared on the Madewell blog.

Our witty friend and best-selling essayist Sloane Crosley—who recently released her first novel, The Clasp—knows a thing (or six) about reading for fun. Here, her tips for making sure your well-intentioned plan to hang with friends, eat some cheese, and, yes, read a few books doesn’t become the thing you feign illness to avoid (including one tip we thought we’d never hear from a writer).

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Tip 1: Keep the group small (specifically, six).

Six seems to be a magic number. It leaves room for everyone’s opinions and also lends some accountability. It’s no big deal if one person doesn’t read the book in a group of 12. In a smaller group, there’s more incentive to actually show up and feel a sense of ownership.

Tip 2: Don’t limit it to your best friends.

I always think the best parties are the ones where you don’t know every single person, and the same applies here. A book club should be about experiencing something together and better understanding your own take by hearing other people’s.

Tip 3: Meet once a month. No excuses.

Monthly meetings help a book club become a habit, and it gives everyone 30 days to read that month’s book. At the first meeting, everyone should come with a few titles and the group as a whole votes on which book to read first and sets a time to meet one month later. At that second meeting, the group discusses the first book and votes on the next. Read, rinse, repeat.

Tip 4: Set up a cozy, inviting environment.

Have good food and comfortable seating—and no cell phones. If you’re hosting, don’t invite people over and ask them to sit on the floor…unless you’re reading a novel about LA in the ’60s, in which case, do that.

Tip 5: Make the discussion a personal conversation, not a pop quiz.

If the fear is that a book club will be like going back to school, start with questions you didn’t ask or get asked in school: Did you even like the characters? Is it important that one does? It’ll incite people to bring their own experiences to the table, to say, “I could or couldn’t relate to this character and here’s why.” As a writer, I’m mostly intrigued by how the author creates tone and meaning, so it can be fun to talk about the book’s style or structure.

Tip 6: Feel free to cheat on the book with the movie.

Movies can help you “finish” the book if you’re afraid of falling behind, but think of a film like another person in the book club—it’s just one take, and certainly not the source material. Cheat, don’t cheat, it’s up to you (you’re not going to get kicked out of class), but you’re most certainly robbing yourself of the experience you signed up for.

Sloane is wearing our Warmlight Pullover, Sidewalk Midi Skirt in Buffalo Check, Backcountry Belt and The Mira Heel.

The Clasp

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Sloane Crosley is the author of the New York Times bestsellers I Was Told There’d Be Cake (a Thurber Prize finalist) and How Did You Get This Number. A frequent contributor to The New York Times, she lives in Manhattan.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

The Other Side of the Wall by Sloane Crosley

Book Keeping with Sloane Crosley

The Voices in My Head by James Sie

Joan Didion and Women by Tracy Daugherty

Photography by Jennifer Trahan

The Great Forgetting by James Renner

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever believed? Because James Renner’s “blasphemous, riveting, insane, and glorious” (Andy Howell, astrophysicist) conspiracy thriller The Great Forgetting might just have something to top it. We were quite excited to get the chance to ask James about the books and experiences that have shaped him into the writer he is today.


The Great Forgetting by James Renner
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What book would you consider an ancestor of The Great Forgetting?

The Great Forgetting could not have come about without Fahrenheit 451. In fact, Bradbury’s classic novel figures into the plot of my book as we come to realize this is a world where every copy of Fahrenheit 451 has been locked away. Both novels deal with the notions of collective memory and how television and the nightly news shape our reality in disturbing ways. The “bad guys” in The Great Forgetting (if, in fact, there are any bad guys) are these ape/human hybrids designed by the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele. They’re called the Hounds as a weird homage to the creatures who chase Guy Montag.

As the work on my novel progressed I came to respect Bradbury all the more for his economy of words and his ability to make his writing so porous and deep. The first draft of The Great Forgetting was 950 pages and it aimed to say the same things Bradbury said in Fahrenheit’s sparse 250 pages. As I was editing my book down to a readable—and marketable—size, I was teaching Bradbury in my classes at the University of Akron. It helped to constantly return to his work, to deconstruct it through the eyes of the student readers, to understand how he did it better.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

That’s easy: World of Trouble, the final book in Ben Winters’ wonderful Last Policeman trilogy. The story is about Henry Palace, a young police officer who investigates a number of mysteries in the days leading up to the impact of a giant asteroid, an event that will destroy much of humanity.

Winters’ story allowed me to understand the concept of existentialism in a way all those college classes at Kent State never could. I think of Palace often as I continue to investigate true crimes in my spare time (my fiction is directly inspired by my work as a journalist). It’s always been a compulsion for me—the need to crack an old cold case. But maybe that’s not a bad thing, even if there’s never really any closure.

Yeah, that last scene in World of Trouble—full of such grace. I’m getting all misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Who sees your first drafts?

Whenever I finish a new book, the first drafts immediately go to three people: my wife (a school teacher in Akron); my friend, Brandy Marks (who reads over 100 books a year); and a person I’ve never met before.

My wife is my ideal reader—the person I have in my mind while writing. What can I do to impress her? What can I do to surprise her?

Brandy reads so much she can always tell when something isn’t working right on instinct alone.

But that third reader, that mystery reader, is the most important. I believe a writer needs to put their work out there to a neutral third party, someone with no skin in the game, who can tell you when you suck and why. Usually, this is a friend of a friend or someone from Goodreads willing to look at a rough draft.

I reserve the option to disagree with any of their notes, though, unless they all give me the same note. Then, no matter how much I love that character or plot turn, it must be changed because it obviously doesn’t work.

Once I edit the manuscript using their suggestions, it goes to my agent, Yishai Seidman, who helps me tighten and improve on the story some more. Eventually, one day, it finds its way to my editor and then the real work begins.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore?

In November, I drove down the west coast of the United States and visited fifty bookstores in five days to promote The Great Forgetting. Along the way I found myself at a quaint used bookstore in Salem, Oregon, behind a marijuana shop. It was called Escape Fiction and I met this guy, Scott Conover, there. Scott grew up inside the bookstore—his playroom was where they keep the romance novels, now.

I was on a tight schedule but I spoke to Scott for about an hour and it was one of the most mind-blowing conversations on publishing I’ve ever had (I promise I had not yet visited the dispensary next door). I learned more from Scott in that hour than I have learned about the business in the last five years. But most importantly, I learned where my novels should be shelved. Both The Man From Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting blend mystery with sci-fi (and maybe a little fantasy). Because of my bi-curious genre problem, some stores will place my books in Sci-fi and some will place them in Mystery and people are hard-pressed to find them quickly. But Scott made a case for the novels to be placed in Thriller. And he’s right. At their core, my books are thrillers.

Can you tell us what you’re reading now?

At the moment, I’m reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. I have it in my mind that I will get around to writing an epic fantasy saga in another decade or so and I want to take some time to study the masters. I’d read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and King’s Dark Tower books already, so I figured it was time to get around to The Golden Compass. It’s brilliant but not for the reasons most people get excited about—not the atheist mumbo jumbo. It’s brilliant because of Pullman’s mastery of simple, effective grammar. His writing reminds me a lot of E.B. White, actually. And because of that I think his words hit that sweet spot in our hearts that is nostalgic, that pulls us back toward the first stories we read in grade school.

Is there a piece of writer’s advice that has stuck with you?

There’s this conversation I had with Dan Piepenbring once that comes back to me again and again when I’m editing. At the time, Dan was the assistant to my editor, Sarah Crichton (he’s some big shot at Paris Review now) and we were working on an early draft of The Man from Primrose Lane. I kept fighting them to keep in some weird passage about this crime reporter in Cleveland who obsesses about a cold case murder. It wasn’t coming across as believable. My reasoning for keeping it was, “but this is how it actually happened to me.” Dan countered with “Oh, I see. That’s great and all but just because it happened, your reader will never believe it because you haven’t written it in a way that convinced us.” Until then I think I was always just telling a story. After that I learned to listen to the story, as well.

The Great Forgetting by James Renner

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James Renner is the author of a previous novel, The Man From Primrose Lane, published in 2012. He teaches composition at Kent State University and is a contributor to BoingBoing, Cracked, and Cleveland Scene.

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The Truth Will Drive You Mad by James Renner

The Voices in My Head by James Sie

Book Keeping with Heather O’Neill

Finding a Way Home by Mary Costello

The Road Home by Ethan Nichtern

The author himself has written a guide to the digestion of The Road Home, a book that American Buddhist legend Jack Kornfield has called “A beautiful guide and invitation to a sane life.”


The Road Home by Ethan Nichtern
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Introduction: Where Do You Live?

1) What is your personal experience of home, both externally and internally? And what is your experience of being a “commuter?”

2) How does the confusion of a life lost in commute relate, for you, to the three types of materialism (physical, intellectual, and emotional/spiritual)?

3) What did the Tibetan Lama who hates small talk say to Ethan’s father, David? How can we make use of this one-line response in your own life?

4) How do you relate to the full, literal translation of Buddhism as “Awake-ism?”

 

Chapter 1: Meditation – Accepting Your Own Friend Request

1) Discuss the two definitions of meditation (cultivation and familiarization).
How are each of these aspects present in the chapter’s title?

2) What are your own personal obstacles to starting (or deepening, or getting back into) a meditation practice? How are you working with these?

 

Chapter 2: Karma – Taking Responsibility for Home

1) What are some common misconceptions of karma? How does Ethan propose we examine the topic?

2) Using the diagram of the 12 steps of karma, trace your way through a small habit or reaction (it could be as simple as the way you use your smart phone, for example, probably better to start with relatively light issues) – how does the past influence the present in this habitual patter?

3) Using that same habit or reaction, reflect and discuss on what resting in the GAP might mean with respect to this issue, both in meditation practice and in the flow of daily life.

 

Chapter 3: Coming Home 24/7/365 – Ethics in Everyday Life

1) Which if any, of the three reactions to ethical discussions (apathy, defensiveness, righteousness) resonates with you?

2) Take on one of the five ethical contemplations to consider and practice with for a period of time between 1 and 7 days. What are the specific, real world applications of this general contemplation for you? Do you notice any of the three obstacles above in relation to the practice you chose?

 

Chapter 4: Being Human – Buddha Nature and the Cocoon

1) What is the problem of “unicorn abuse?” How does it relate to mistaken understandings of the “ego?”

2) What is the relationship between Basic Goodness and “living in the center of your awareness?”

 

Chapter 5: Where I End and You Begin

1) What is your experience of post meditation in relationships? In what ways is post-meditation a different practice for you than formal meditation? In what ways do the principals of meditation apply to dealing with other human (or sentient) beings?

2) What does it mean that Mahayana meditations are about “Changing your Freudian Slip?”

 

Chapter 6: Ears, Mouth, and Fingertips – Communicating with Mindfulness

1) What is the importance of listening in relationship to right speech? How do you experience the four obstacles to listening in your own life?

2) How do you relate to right speech with regards to all the various forms of technological communication available to us in the 21st-century?

 

Chapter 7: Spiritual Bypassing – What Emptiness Means and What it Doesn’t

1) How can we make the teachings on emptiness a practical lesson (or lessons) to be remembered in daily life, instead of an abstract philosophy?

2) How do you relate to the danger of spiritual bypassing in your practice?

 

Chapter 8: A Bodhisattva’s Boundaries – Compassion, Idiot Compassion, And Knowing The Difference

1) What do you find inspiring about the commitment to becoming a Bodhisattva? What do you find challenging or overwhelming about it?

2) Discuss one of the four types of “idiot compassion” in your daily experience.

 

Chapter 9: Eye To Eye – The Student-Teacher Relationship

1) What is your experience of seeking guidance, teachers or a guru for your spiritual journey? Discuss your understanding of the three types of teacher relationships.

2) Discuss your understanding of the problem with strict patriarchies in a student-teacher relationship, as well as your experience of no hierarchy, each person relying solely on their own or “group” wisdom without looking to a teacher or leader for guidance. What sort of hierarchy feels the most helpful to your process as a student?

 

Chapter 10: Religion, Secularism, And A Sacred Path

1) What is your relationship to the question of whether or not Buddhism should be regarded as a religion?

2) What is the relationship between “sacredness” and the social and spiritual ceremonies which make up our lives in the modern world?

 

Chapter 11: Imagining a Basically Good Home – The Practice of Visualization

1) Discuss the following statement from the chapter: “Our minds aren’t only innately perceptive, they are also naturally projective.”

2) Which of the three approaches to visualization’s effectiveness resonates with you? Do any of them challenge you?

 

Chapter 12: Sacred Emotions, Sacred Environment

1) Choose any one of the five major emotions discussed in this chapter and describe how viewing that feeling as “sacred” might change your relationship to it.

2) What is the relationship between our inner transformation and our experience of the external environment, or the relationship between windhorse and drala within the Shambhala teachings?

 

Chapter 13: The Wisdom of No Escape from the World

1) How does living in a modern, globalized world change the approach of our practice? In what ways is our journey of awakening the same as it was 2600 years ago?

2) How do you view the three levels of practice as a template for being in the world as a modern practitioner?

 

Chapter 14: Scared World vs. Sacred World – 3 S’s and 3 C’s

1) What do the 3 C’s and the 3 S’s have to do with the classical Buddhist teaching called the 3 poisons? How do you understand the relationship between working with personal karma and social karma?

2) Big question: From the standpoint of Awake-ism, how would you define what it means to be an “activist?” Do you consider yourself one?

 

Chapter 15: The Culture of Awakening – Art and Transformation

1) Why do you think “Dharma Art” is considered such a key element of social and cultural transformation? How does an Awake-ist related to the intention behind creative practice?

2) Ethan describes his first childhood poetry lesson from Allen Ginsberg as a “lineage transmission.” Can you think of a similar cultural or artistic transmission that you have received from an elder, mentor, or teacher? How do such artistic or cultural transmissions deepen our understanding of the spiritual path and of enlightened society?

 

Chapter 16: Conclusion – Coming Home

1) What inspires and challenges you about the possibility of identifying as a Buddhist in the modern world? Do you identify as a Buddhist? Why or why not?

2) One of Ethan’s teachers said that “There should be no sign” that one is a Buddhist. How can this idea inform your Buddhist, or Awake-ist, practice?

3) Having finished reading The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path, what are your aspirations and intentions for your own meditation practice? Your spiritual path? Your life?

The Road Home by Ethan Nichtern

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Ethan Nichtern is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and the author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence. He is also the founder of the Interdependence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to secular Buddhist study as it applies to transformational activism, mindful arts and media projects, and Western psychology. Nichtern has taught meditation and Buddhist studies classes and retreats across the United States since 2002. He is based in New York City.

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The Human Commute: Ethan Nichtern in conversation with Maud Newton

Read an excerpt from The Road Home

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Only the Animals
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Inventive and illuminating, Only the Animals traces a century of human history from the perspective of ten animals caught up in human conflicts. Connected to both famous and little-known writers in surprising ways, each animal tells an astonishing story of life and death, exploring provocative questions about the experiences that make life more than a quest for mere survival. From a beast of burden on an excruciating mission in Australia, accompanied by a poet drifter who was raised on Dickens and Poe, to Colette’s impeccably wise cat, stranded in a trench on the Western Front, this collection weaves vignettes of beloved literary figures with intricate dilemmas for reader and narrator alike. A dolphin sent to Iraq by the U.S. Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath. A turtle is passed from Tolstoy’s daughter to Virginia Woolf and then on to George Orwell, ultimately becoming enlisted in U.S.S.R.’s space program. At every turn, we absorb new levels of insight (particularly about longing and fulfillment) that only the animals can impart.

Ultimately raising the question of what separates human nature from the nature of our fellow creatures—and invoking the power of storytellers to enhance our understanding of our interconnected world—these intricately woven, exquisitely written stories form a beautiful meditation on life and literature. We hope that the following discussion topics will enrich your reading group’s experience.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Which of the book’s epigraphs resonated with you the most? How do these fictional stories, showcasing fiction writers as characters (often in stories within stories), give voice to reality?

2. In the opening story, what does the camel have in common with the Aboriginal cargo? What do Mister Mitchell’s memories illustrate about profit and power?

3. How do Colette and Kiki echo and influence each other? Are Kiki’s feelings of superiority well deserved? (Is she indeed superior to the other creatures in the story?)

4. Discuss the reference to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” featuring a public performance of starvation, that appears in Red Peter’s story. What do Red Peter, Evelyn, and Hazel hunger for besides food?

5. Is karma proved or disproved by the wolf-dog’s life story, winding from a vegetarian master who seeks enlightenment (from a master who compares Hitler to Krishna) to the execution of the pragmatic pig, culminating in the narrator’s assignment as a soldier?

6. As the passionate mussels fulfill their battleship dream (with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, no less), what do they tell us about the urge to become a hero? What does Only the Animals teach us about the forces that propel humans into war?

7. What accounts for the turtle’s astonishing longevity, from the Russian Revolution to the Space Age? If you were to become someone’s pet, would you be better off in the hands of a literary luminary?

8. In “I, the Elephant, Wrote This,” how do the narrator’s beautiful descriptions of motherhood compare with her beliefs about a glorious death? How did each of the stories in Only the Animals affect your beliefs about mortality—and immortality?

9. Can the tales of the brown bear and Irena be read as fables? If so, what is the lesson? What does the presence of the supernatural witch in this chapter indicate about the presence of evil in the world?

10. What makes the life and literature of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes an appropriate backdrop for the dolphin’s autobiography?

11. How did you react to the closing scene, where Barnes the parrot is forced to live alone? Would you have made the same choice if you had owned Barnes under similar circumstances?

12. In each of the book’s story lines, what remains consistent across time, regardless of place?

13. Red Peter asserts that masochism is what separates humans from other animals; Evelyn rejects this, saying that romance is the defining trait. What do you believe is the key feature that distinguishes humans from other animals? Has the book changed the way you perceive animals?

14. How did the book’s illustrations affect your experience of the characters’ soulful journeys?

15. How does Only the Animals further develop the perspectives on tragedy, destiny, and power presented in Ceridwen Dovey’s previous book, Blood Kin?

Praise for Only the Animals

“The life stories related by these very civilized animals are in some cases touching (the elephant), in others amusing (the mussel), but all are absorbing. They are transmitted to us with a light touch and no trace of sentimentality.” —J. M. Coetzee

“By appropriating history, mythology, folklore, and even astrology, Dovey finds impressive depth and complexity in the souls of an array of animals . . . Dovey finds humanity in her diverse protag-onists, and the stories are full of surprises, warmth, and insight.” —Publishers Weekly

“Dovey succeeds in providing original bittersweet tales with the hard-edged truths of history. An essential collection, enthusiastically recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Wonderfully weird and profoundly witty . . . Dovey’s stories, at once charming and haunting, are something else altogether. ‘Absorbing’ is not quite the right word for them—their poetic oddness keep them at arm’s length—but they are intoxicating nonetheless. As unsettling as they are beautiful, these quietly wise stories wedge themselves into your mind—and stay there.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Only the Animals

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Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, Blood Kin, was published in fifteen countries, short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Award, and selected for the U.S. National Book Foundation’s prestigious 5 Under 35 honors list. The Wall Street Journal named her one of their “artists to watch.” She studied social anthropology at Harvard and New York University, and now lives with her husband and son in Sydney. Only the Animals recently won the 2014 Readings New Australian Writing Award.

Guide written by Amy Clements

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Book Keeping with Ceridwen Dovey

Read an excerpt from Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals

Novelist Karen Olsson as photographed by Matt Valentine in 2015.

It was a great pleasure to get to bend the ear of sophomore novelist Karen Olsson about her new book, All the Houses. From the unique pleasures of longform to the exact ratio of stick-to-itiveness and megalomania necessary for writing, Karen had a lot of intriguing things to say! Be sure to check out her book trailer below, shot by her filmmaker husband, Andrew Bujalski.


All the Houses by Karen Olsson
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BK: What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?

Karen Olsson: “Are you still working on a book?” Other versions include: “Weren’t you working on a book?” and “Are you working on anything these days?” These questions tend to drive home the fact that the book you’re working on has taken too long, in the unlikely event that it had slipped your mind.

I hope I’ll one day have a novel just come upon me in a rush—I’ve heard of this happening to other people—but in 2006, when I began the work that became All the Houses, my early attempts were quite different from what the book ultimately became. A couple of secondary characters stuck around, but I banished other people and eliminated situations that had been in early drafts. I was moving indirectly and in the dark, and gradually I backed into writing a story about a family and the long-term impact of a political scandal on that family. In the meantime, I got married and had two kids, so it makes some sense that I found myself veering toward the subject of family. (Fortunately, I became embroiled in no political scandals during the writing of this book.)

BK: What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?

KO: My second-grade teacher once gave us an assignment to write a story, and another girl and I started competing to see who could write a longer one. I’m not sure who won and I’m not sure what I wrote about—maybe a trip to an amusement park? (Trips to amusement parks and visits to grandmothers were recurring motifs in my early writing.) What I remember is how thrilled I suddenly was by the blank pages in my notebook and the possibility that I could fill as many of them as I wanted with something I’d invented. Whether to count this as an early memory of writing or as an early memory of writer’s megalomania is hard for me to say. I suppose both the habit and the delusion are necessary developments if you’re going to try to write novels.

BK: If possible, can you send a photo of your bookshelf? What makes these books meaningful to you?

Karen Olsson bookshelf

KO: I have a rotating bookshelf in my office—rotating in the sense that the actual piece of furniture revolves but also in that the books change over time, depending on what I drag in to keep me company. It’s a place where, freed from the strict government of alphabetical order that rules over the other shelves at my house, books can rub shoulders with strangers and distant cousins. Some of these books are longtime favorites, like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne, and some I’m planning to read soon, like Bill Cotter’s The Parallel Apartments and Fernando A. Flores’ Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1.

BK: Can you tell us what you’re reading now?

KO: I’ve been reading How To Solve It, a classic book on problem-solving by mathematician George Polya, published in 1945. I studied math in college and then left it behind, but lately I’ve been thinking back on that time and reading about mathematicians. I’m also reading All Our Names, the Dinaw Mengestu novel that came out last year, which accomplishes such a marvelous intertwining of political story and love story.

BK: Who would you say is your ideal reader?

KO: I don’t think Henry James meant to praise those 19th century novels he referred to as “large, loose, baggy monsters,” but I tend to think of that description when I think of novels. Unlike short stories, they can afford to be baggy, and I like that bagginess—in moderation. (Occasionally I’ve thought of the novel as an actual bag, a suitcase let’s say, and I’m that person trying to stuff a pair of running shoes into an already full one. Something editors have helped me to do is to put a few items back in the closet.) I’d usually rather read a book that wanders down artful back roads than a book in which a tight plot is relentlessly executed, and that’s how I write too. So I hope for a forgiving reader who will tolerate the indirect route, and in exchange I try to offer roadside attractions along the way.

But maybe every book has a different set of ideal readers, readers who respond to a particular book’s sensibility and concerns. While I was writing All the Houses, certain questions were lurking in the back of my mind and sometimes in the front of it, among them: What is our relationship to the (often mystifying and/or horrifying) public events we absorb via the news media? How do we shape our versions of who our parents were and are, and how do our own identities depend on that? Why do adult siblings fight with one another as though they are still kids? Why does Washington D.C., where I grew up, rile and unsettle and lure me the way it does? This book’s ideal readers would be engaged by at least some of those questions. They would also find it funny!

BK: Is there a piece of writer’s advice that has stuck with you?

KO: The writer Robert Boswell, who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the good luck to encounter, once said to me, “Your strengths are also your weaknesses.” He said this like it was a nugget of wisdom already known to most people, but I hadn’t heard it before, and in the cartoon bubble over my head, a light bulb went on. That advice has come to mind many times since then—and not just in writing situations. It reminds me to be more skeptical of what I take to be strengths and more tolerant of what I see as weaknesses.

I also regularly think of Julia Child, who was quoted in a New Yorker profile as advising home chefs: “Never apologize! They don’t know what you were aiming for. Just bring it to the table.”


All the Houses by Karen Olsson

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Karen Olsson is the author of the novel Waterloo. She has written about politics, science, and popular culture for magazines, including The New York Times Magazine and Texas Monthly, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a former editor of The Texas Observer. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she now lives in Austin, Texas, with her family.

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Witches of America by Alex Mar

When the documentary filmmaker Alex Mar set out to report on the nearly one million Americans who practice Paganism today, she found herself drawn into a world that defies stereotype. Witches of America retraces Mar’s five-year trip into the occult, which takes her from Paganism’s American mecca in the San Francisco Bay Area, to a gathering of more than a thousand witches in the Illinois woods, to the New Orleans branch of one of the world’s most influential magical societies. As she introduces us to the array of women and men who seek a variety of experiences through rites both ancient and new, a unique community emerges—one that provokes us to examine the very nature of faith.

Illuminating the shadowed world of witchcraft, Witches of America speaks powerfully to the mysteries of the spirit. We hope the following guide will enhance your discussion of this extraordinary journey.


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Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss your own experiences with spirituality. How do the rituals described in the book compare with the religious traditions you observed as a child?

2. Victor and Cora’s magical descendants will have to “pass on the Feri current,” although revisions and regeneration are encouraged. How do the communities described in the book create hierarchies and leaders while remaining open to change?

3. While many religions restrict sexual behavior, considering it a path to sin, the author confronts the belief that sex can have magical and spiritual power. Did the book change the way you view sexuality?

4. As we see at Stone City, in the woods of Illinois, and through several outdoor rituals and initiations, the natural world plays an important role in Paganism. How does this relate to the author’s own relationship to nature as described in chapter 15, “Three Nights at the Castle”?

5. Morpheus built Stone City with her own hands. Could you survive off the grid? How would you be affected by an intensely unplugged existence?

6. While televangelists broadcast to global audiences, Wicca and other Pagan traditions are mostly practiced in the shadows. How does secrecy affect the belief system? Would you be comfortable worshiping “underground”?

7. Which of the book’s many symbols was most powerful for you? What are your beliefs about the power of rituals?

8. Initiation rituals appear in various places throughout the book. What role has the concept of initiation played in either your religious or your secular life?

9. When the author goes into training with Karina, who struggles with earthly poverty, what does she learn from her mentor besides the practice of witchcraft?

10. At one gathering, the author meets a group of Dianic Wiccans of an all-female strain that emerged as part of second-wave feminism. But many Pagan traditions attract both men and women. Before reading the book, did you think of witchcraft as exclusively for women? What does the Pagan movement offer men in equal measure to what it offers women?

11. Before you read the book, what was your definition of magic? Did the practices in the book—whether those of Morpheus, Karina, or Josh—change your view of magic? Do you believe that a spell is similar to a prayer?

12. In chapter 17, “Sympathy for the Necromancer,” do Jonathan’s practices, while probably upsetting to most readers, also raise questions about how we view death?

13. In the final chapter, what transformation did you recognize in the author? What do you think the message of the closing section is?

Praise for Witches of America

Witches of America is brave and sharp and tenaciously researched. I would never have described myself as someone ‘interested in witchcraft’—Alex Mar’s book left me feeling the fault had been mine.” —John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

“Written with a beguiling blend of heart and wit, Witches of America sustains its thrall with something that runs much deeper than intrigue or pageantry. With the depth and scope of her curiosity, Alex Mar compelled me to follow her driving questions—about meaning, faith, and longing for community and wonder—on a breathless, deepening, and constantly surprising quest.” —Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams

“Like the best immersive subcultural reporting, Witches of America has its proper share of erotic charge (daggers, velvet, ritual nudity) and comic flair (a neurotic New Yorker meets an inedible Black Mass wafer). But what Alex Mar has actually achieved is something altogether more haunting. This is an intellectually serious and sweetly vulnerable work about connection both on and off the grid, and our common aspiration to lead lives spellbound and spellbinding.” —Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction

Witches of America could be seen as a Gulliverian journey through various oddball sects scattered from California to New England, all of which believe in salvation through Magic—but the book is so much more than that. This is a quest to come to terms with the Unknowable.” —Richard Price, author of Lush Life

“Whatever you thought about witches, be prepared to think again. In Witches of America, Alex Mar exposes what we fear most—our own power. To be a witch is to reimagine the world.” —Terry Tempest Williams, author of When Women Were Birds

Witches of America

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Alex Mar lives in New York City, her hometown. She has contributed to The Believer, the Oxford American, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, New York magazine, and other publications. Mar is also the director of the documentary feature film American Mystic. Witches of America is her first book.

Guide written by Amy Clements

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Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams

In her wildly inventive debut novel, Naomi J. Williams reimagines the historical Lapérouse expedition, a voyage of exploration that left Brest in 1785 with two frigates, more than two hundred men, and overblown Enlightenment ideals and expectations, in a brave attempt to circumnavigate the globe for science and the glory of France.

Deeply grounded in historical fact but refracted through a powerful imagination, Landfalls follows the exploits and heartbreaks not only of the men on the ships but also of the people affected by the voyage—indigenous people and other Europeans the explorers encountered, loved ones left waiting at home, and those who survived and remembered the expedition later. Each chapter is told from a different point of view and is set in a different part of the world, ranging from London to Tenerife, from Alaska to remote South Pacific islands to Siberia, and eventually back to France. The result is a beautifully written and absorbing tale of the high seas, scientific exploration, human tragedy, and the world on the cusp of the modern era.

By turns elegiac, profound, and comic, Landfalls reinvents the maritime adventure novel for the twenty-first century. We hope the following guide will enhance your reading group’s discussion.

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Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In the prologue and the opening chapter, what do we learn about the purpose of the French expedition and the state of relations between France and England? What is the significance of the galley stoves? Why does the naval engineer Monneron lie about who he is working for? In his meetings with Sir Joseph Banks and the artist John Webber is there any foreshadowing of the ultimate fate of the expedition?

2. Jean-Honoré-Robert de Paul, Chevalier de Lamanon, who likes to be called “chevalier,” and who is nicknamed Monsieur de Lamentation by his shipmates, is a memorable character, a tragic and comic figure. What are the flaws in his personality that lead not only to his death but, ultimately, to the loss of his legacy as a scientist? Do you see him as a dedicated and brilliant man of science or as a self-important, insubordinate bumbler?

3. Lapérouse and Langle, the captains of the Boussole and the Astrolabe, are experienced leaders and honorable men. How do they differ in their approaches to their work? What are their strengths? Their shortcomings? Who do you think is wiser? More softhearted? Better liked? Both were qualified to lead the expedition. Why was Lapérouse chosen?

4. Landfalls tells the stories of many complex men and women, each with desires, jealousies, worries, ambitions, and frailties. Which of the characters do you most admire? Who do you feel sorry for? Who do you dislike?

5. The novel begins with three epigraphs, one a quote from Captain John Smith: “A good Land fall is when we fall just with our reckoning, if otherwise, a bad Land fall.” Based on this measure, can any of the stops made by the expedition be considered “good Land falls”?

6. Each chapter is told from a different point of view, encompassing not only members of the crew but also the people they encounter in various locations around the globe. What are the advantages of this type of narrative? In the end, does it confuse or deepen our understanding of events? What insights do we gain by hearing the same story told by more than one person?

7. In each of the Spanish colonies visited by the expedition, Lapérouse meets women who are married to powerful men—Eleonora in Concepción and Doña Eulalia in Monterey. What are his feelings toward each of them? What details about them are missing from his understanding of their circumstances? How accurate a picture do you think he has of what his own wife’s life is like?

8. The fog the ships encounter in chapter 6, on course between Alaska and California, is as much a symbol of the men’s grief over the loss of twenty-one shipmates as it is real. Monsieur Lavaux, the physician on the Astrolabe, is concerned about the low spirits of the crew and especially the captain. He gives as his prescription for recovery the elements of light, warmth, visibility, and color. What are other periods of doubt or despair (fog) on the voyage? What are the moments that offer relief?

9. What does the story of the millstone in chapter 7 reveal about European attitudes toward the indigenous people of the Americas and the South Pacific? How do the Spaniards see themselves and their mission? How do the French see the Spaniards?

10. In chapter 10, Vaujuas is the officer charged with writing the report about the massacre on an island in the Navigators Archipelago. As the sole author, he has the power to alter the truth to serve his own purposes. Does he do this? Is there evidence that his dream, at the end of the chapter, contains more truth than his report?

11. In chapter 11, Father Receveur’s death is presented as a mystery story. We hear from several unreliable witnesses when the priest died and each of them has a theory about what happened. Based on the final section of the chapter—Father Receveur’s journal entry—what is the most likely explanation for how he died? How did the personal bias of each witness obscure the truth?

12. The last words in Father Receveur’s journal are about mangrove trees and how they are able to shed salt through their leaves in order to survive. He writes, “If only men could do this—shed from their bodies and their selves the things that would destroy them.” What things might the men of the expedition need to have shed for their story to have had a different ending?

13. What effect does seeing the relics discovered by Peter Dillon have on Lesseps? Besides the objects brought home by Dillon, are there any other “relics” of the voyage? Why is Lapérouse’s sister obsessed with correcting the spelling error on the document that grants her family permission to use his name?

14. The epilogue is titled “Folie à Plusieurs,” which refers to a condition also known as folie à deux, or shared madness. Do you agree that Landfalls is a tale of madness, the men victims of the madness of a French king who wants to prove that his nation is as great as its rival? Or was their shared experience of the voyage, along with its modest accomplishments, enough to justify their fate?

15. Have you ever had an experience that in any way compares to that of the men on the Boussole and Astrolabe? A long trip where everything went wrong? An extended period of homesickness or loneliness? Feelings of intense grief or intense connection to another person? In times of uncertainty, are you more like Lapérouse or Langle—an optimist or a worrier?

Praise for Landfalls

“The best kind of historical fiction . . . should involve intelligence, experimentation, boldness and curiosity. These traits are all in evidence in Naomi J. Williams’s ambitious and meticulous debut . . . Both disjunctive and rigorous, Landfalls confirms that history and literature share a fundamental exploratory impulse.” —Katy Simpson Smith, The New York Times Book Review

“The drama in Landfalls is unrelenting: There’s petty infighting, rampant egotism, insufferable personalities, drunkenness, heartbreak and rivalries—sort of a maritime version of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” —Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times

“Thrilling . . . Landfalls is intelligent and utterly human. Ms. Williams has written a seductive page-turner that, although we know the story ends tragically, draws the reader in and doesn’t let go.” —Andrea Wulf, The Wall Street Journal

“Extraordinary . . . With keen sensual flair and understated poignancy, especially as she limns the friendships of men at sea, Williams has delivered a bona fide masterpiece.” —Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

Landfalls

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Naomi J. Williams lives in Northern California with her family. Landfalls is her first novel.

Guide written by Amy Clements

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A House in St. John's Wood In Search of My Parents

In the midst of a heady world of poetry and liberal politics, gay love affairs, and tense silences, Matthew Spender grew up the child of two brilliant artists. Taught how to use adjectives by Uncle Auden and raised among the British cultural elite, Spender led what might have been a charmed existence were it not for the tensions in his household.

In A House in St. John’s Wood, Spender draws on unpublished letters and diaries, family keepsakes, and his remembrances to give his account of a family in the midst of its own cold war. We asked him about the interaction of fact and memory and the challenge of recreating his parents as characters in a memoir.


A House in St John's Wood: In Search of My Parents by Matthew Spender
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BK: How do you think this book would have differed if you’d set out to write it twenty years ago?

Matthew Spender: It was impossible to write this book while my parents were alive. My mother had fixed ideas about her husband and her marriage, and would have experienced it as an infringement of her privacy if I’d ever challenged these. Indeed, one friend of theirs has written to tell me I have betrayed them by writing this book at all, even though they are both dead.

There is so much compromising material in public archives that it would be easy for someone to write a hostile book about them. This could still happen, but whoever comes next will have to challenge my book, which I believe is more subtle than anything an academic could write. I know the story. After all, I was there.

Underneath the memories, however, my book includes a great deal of academic research. I am proud of having clarified several sub-plots which had remained unclear to posterity: the different attitudes of Britain and America towards Russia, for instance, or the reaction of British society to the Cambridge Spies. These themes are now academic, yet I have managed to include lots of evidence into my book, in spite of the fact that it often reads as a novel.

BK: Do you think it was easier, from this vantage of the present day, to recreate your parents as characters?

MS: You describe my parents as “characters,” and this implies that I’ve used the strategy of a novelist in writing my book. I take this as a compliment. My parents are the main protagonists, plus a narrator, who is myself. In fact there are two narrators: the sixteen-year-old, complete with his adolescent problems; and the older, wiser, person who is writing the book. All four are “characters” within the events that envelope them. As I was writing I often asked myself, “Who is speaking now?” This is what novelists ask, not academics.

What is the relationship between your parents’ archives and the narrative? Were there pieces of the archive you chose to ignore? Or anecdotes you had to abandon?

The first hundred pages of my book cover ground that has already been dealt with in several books. In spite of having uncovered new material, I had to hurry along to the moment when I was born, because only then could I insert my own viewpoint into the book. I had to abandon masses of research into the early period covering my father’s life, and this I regret.

BK: Did your memories change, going through the physical documents of the past?

MS: The book consists of memories, and these did not change, but they were certainly modified by my archival research. For instance, research into the Secret Service which watched my father confirmed my impression that, at the highest level, everyone knew each other and trusted each other. And they were right to do so, even though now and again there were disasters to do with espionage.

Free societies depend on trust. When that trust is betrayed, governments can move towards greater control, but obviously this will limit individual freedom. Getting the balance right, during the Cold War and even more so today, is very hard. I think my father’s generation did all right.

A House in St John's Wood: In Search of My Parents by Matthew Spender

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Hemingway in Love by A.E. Hotchnere

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Hemingway in Love by A. E. Hotchner

In June of 1961, A.E. Hotchner visited an old friend in the psychiatric ward of St. Mary’s Hospital. Ernest Hemingway had just undergone a second round of electroshock treatment at the Mayo Clinic and was suicidal and paranoid, convinced that his rooms were bugged and movements recorded. It would be the last time they ever spoke: a few weeks later, Hemingway was released home, where he took his own life. After fifty years of silence to protect those parties involved, Hotchner relates that final conversation and the whole story of Hemingway’s formative years in his memoir, Hemingway in Love.


Hemingway in Love: His Own Story by A.E. Hotchner
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As I reached the outskirts of Rochester in my rented Chevy on that June day in 1961, I was feeling anxious about Ernest’s condition. I hoped the latest round of ECTs, along with accelerated sessions with the Mayo psychiatrists, had eliminated Ernest’s phobias, or at least reduced their hold on him.

I checked into my hotel and went directly to the hospital. The head nurse opened Ernest’s door for me with her key, a foreboding. The room was small, but it had a large window that admitted abundant sunshine. There were no flowers and the walls were bare. On a table beside the bed were three stacked books, and next to the table was a straight- backed metal chair. There were metal bars horizontally across the window.

Ernest was facing the window, his back to the door, standing at a hospital table that had been raised to serve him as a desk. He was wearing his old red woolen bathrobe (christened by Mary the “Emperor’s Robe”), which was secured with a worn leather belt that had a large buckle embossed “Gott Mit Uns,” a belt he had liberated from a dead German soldier during World War II’s battle of Hürtgen Forest. He wore his favorite scuffed Indian moccasins and a soiled white tennis visor over his eyes. His beard was scraggly and he seemed to have lost quite a bit of weight.

“Mr. Hemingway, your guest is here,” the nurse said. Ernest turned; the startled look on his face held for a moment and then faded into a broad smile as he connected with me. He came to greet me, pulling off his visor as we wrapped our arms around each other Spanish style and thumped each other’s backs. He was genuinely glad I had come. He appeared attenuated, as if the man he once was had disappeared and the man before me was only a marker to show who he had been.

“Well, Hotch,” he said, “welcome to Never Never Land, where they frisk you and lock the door on you and don’t have the decency to trust you with a blunt instrument.”

The nurse was standing in the doorway.

“Nurse Susan,” Ernest said, introducing me, “this is El Pecas, the famous matador. Pecas, this is Susan who holds the key to my heart.”

That got a laugh out of both of us.

I gave her a tin of caviar I had brought for Ernest, to keep in the refrigerator.

Ernest and I sat for a while, he on the bed, me on the chair, and at first he sounded like he was back on solid ground, but to my dismay, he began to lapse into a repetition of his old miseries: the room was bugged, also the telephone outside the door; poverty complaints; accusations against his banker, his lawyer, his doctor in Ketchum, all the fiduciary people in his life; worries about not having proper clothes; distraught over imagined taxes. There was much repetition.

I stood up, intent on directing him away from the same grievances that had assailed him when I had visited him during his previous confinement. The ECTs obviously hadn’t affected them. I walked over to the table and asked him what he was working on.

“Paris.”

He was referring to his impressions of Paris and of some of the people he knew when he first went to live there with his first wife, Hadley, back in the early twenties.

“How’s it going?”

“That’s the worst of it. I can’t finish the book. I can’t. I’ve been at this damn table day after day after day after day. All I need is . . . maybe a sentence, maybe more, I don’t know, and I can’t get it. Not any of it, you understand? I’ve written Scribner to scratch the book. It was all set for the fall, but I had to scratch it.”

I asked him if these were the sketches from the Ritz trunk, the ones I had read. He said they were, plus a final new one, which mattered most.

“But those sketches,” I said, “as wonderful about Paris as anyone can hope to write.”

On one of our trips to Paris, when we were staying at the Ritz (the time our Hemhotch syndicate won a steeplechase race at Auteuil that paid 27–1), we had lunch one day with Charles Ritz, who had succeeded his father, César. Charles informed Ernest that in redoing the hotel’s storage area, they had recently discovered a Louis Vuitton trunk that Ernest had stored there in the thirties. It was a trunk that Vuitton himself had made for Ernest, and he was delighted to see it come back to him. We opened it in Charles’s office, and among other things inside, there were a number of schoolboy blue notebooks in which Ernest had written about Paris in the twenties and the people he knew during his early years there. Ernest had given me the sketches to read; they were exquisite, poetic, penetrating, callous, timeless, like no one had ever written about Paris and the fascinating people of the twenties who were Ernest’s contemporaries.

There was a rap on the door and nurse Susan came in. She said that Ernest’s doctor wanted him for some tests but that he wouldn’t be long. Ernest took a sheaf of papers from his improvised desk and handed them to me to read until he came back. He said this was a chapter I hadn’t read, the one that would conclude the book, the one that had to count.

A.E. Hotchner is a life-long writer and the author of seventeen books, among them O.J. in the Morning, G & T at Night and Papa Hemingway, a critically acclaimed 1966 memoir of his thirteen-year friendship with Ernest Hemingway. Hotchner’s memoir, King of the Hill, was adapted into a film by Steven Soderbergh. In addition to his writing career, Hotchner is co-founder, along with Paul Newman, of Newman’s Own foods. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and his indispensable parrot, Ernie.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

A daring, captivating tale from France’s most famous living literary figure, Submission imagines a French presidential election in which a Muslim candidate emerges victorious—not through a coup but through a peaceful runoff. Narrating this turn of events is a middle-aged literature professor whose passions include sleeping with his students and studying J.-K. Huysmans (the Decadent author who eventually converted to Catholicism). As he watches Islamic law come into force, our sex-obsessed scholar misses seeing women in short skirts, but he is intrigued by polygamy. Ultimately, he must decide whether to convert in order to advance his career.

Brimming with satirical wit and provocative what-ifs, Submission poses essential questions of our time, examining the changing face of Europe and the role of religious fundamentalism in global politics. We hope the following guide will enhance your reading group’s experience of Michel Houellebecq’s comic masterpiece.


Submission by Michel Houellebecq
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Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. As you read the epigraph from Huysmans’s novel En route, what route did you expect Submission to take? What makes Huysmans an ironic choice for François’s research, despite the many parallels in their lives? What makes a professor of literature an ideal person to narrate this novel?

2. How did your opinion of François shift as he recounted his experience? What traits make him an effective storyteller?

3. In Submission, is Michel Houellebecq satirizing only the French intelligentsia? Do you notice the same points being raised in American political life?

4. If Submission had been set in America, would Ben Abbes’s election have produced the same cultural transformations? How would higher education change if Harvard were owned by a Saudi prince?

5. What does sex mean to François before and after the election?

6. When Myriam considers immigrating to Israel despite not knowing Hebrew, what does her situation illustrate about the precarious position of assimilated Jewish citizens in France’s rapidly changing society? What has French culture meant to her, besides good cheese?

7. Is it possible to truly separate religion and politics? Does this question have a different answer in America and in western Europe? Could the French policy of laïcité ever be implemented in America?

8. Does Ben Abbes’s economic plan appeal to you? Would you vote for a candidate who supports distributism (“neither capitalism nor communism—a sort of state capitalism . . . [in which] the basic economic unit was the family business”)?

9. Over dinner, Alain Tanneur tells François that Ben Abbes’s foreign policy is to “shift Europe’s center of gravity toward the south,” integrating perhaps Turkey and Morocco, and then Tunisia and Algeria, into the European Union. What do you predict for the real future of Europe’s identity? Do you agree with the Sorbonne’s fictional new president, Robert Rediger, in his belief that Western society is obviously doomed?

10. When François flees to the southwestern countryside in his Touareg, what does he discover about the limitations of his survival abilities?

11. How would the novel be different if it had been told from a female professor’s perspective?

12. In each of the book’s story lines, what remains consistent across time, regardless of place? Discuss François’s ultimate decision. Would you have made the same choice? Is conversion always synonymous with submission?

13. Is the novel realistic about the democratic process? Is Ben Abbes really a moderate? In reality, will his brand of rhetoric become the status quo in elections around the globe, or will extremism become the key to winning?

14. Did you enjoy Houellebecq’s sense of humor? What techniques does he use to draw out the ironies in Francois’s narration? How does Submission enrich your understanding of the author’s previous books?

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

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Michel Houellebecq is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic. His novels include the international bestseller The Elementary Particles and The Map and the Territory, which won the 2010 Prix Goncourt. He lives in France.

Lorin Stein is the editor of The Paris Review and editor-at-large at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in New York.

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Read an excerpt from Michel Houellebecq’s Submission

Heather O'Neill

As Daydreams of Angels lands on our fair U.S. shores, Heather O’Neill was kind enough to powwow with us here at Book Keeping. From the construction of invisible cities to the farthest reaches of her memory, Heather shares some of the reasons she got into the writing business in the first place.


Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill
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What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
My mother’s brother and his girlfriend came to visit me in Montreal when I was seven. They had come from Virginia. They were in their twenties and they seemed so wild to me. They were the only adults that I knew who professed to being in love. My parents had just divorced and so I was accustomed to love being described as a fraudulent thing. And it was nice to have new love in the house.

As a gift, they gave me a black journal to write in. I didn’t regard it as a diary. I didn’t give it a name. It was more of a captain’s log, and I had a distinct feeling that my notes might one day be made public.

I described how I had made spaghetti sauce with my dad. I stood on a chair stirring the giant pot with a wooden spoon. He screamed at me that I wasn’t stirring the bottom of the pot. I would write down all the things that my dad said to me. It seemed back then that later on, I would be able to look back at them and judge as an adult whether or not I deserved to be punished.

There was something fascinating that began to happen as I was writing. I discovered that the events began to take on a different quality as I wrote them down. They became tales. They seemed more ludicrous and funny as I was writing them. The events seemed more luminous. I had found that in every event, all the themes of a novel were transpiring. It made life seem important. That’s when I began to love writing. Isn’t that what happiness is—the feeling that one’s life is important?

If you could say anything to your book’s protagonist, what would it be?
I would talk to the little girl, Turtledove, in “Conference of the Birds”.
She is essentially trying to construct an identity that is completely distinct from the world around her. She has to make these great leaps of understanding. She has to really be brave. Her psychic existence is sort of like a video game where she is firing at alien ships, except the ships are the insults and idiotic assumptions people make about her. So I would just like to give her a break one day. Whisper into her ear that she is wonderful. And then she can take the day off and read a book. She just wants someone from the outside world to tell her that she is bright and important.

There’s a really open-hearted bear in one of the stories that I would like to have tea and cookies with. And then throw my arms around him and weep into his fur. (But I am probably being Canadian in public right now.) The bear represents the good side of the child in the story. Sometimes it feels as though it would be nice just to spent time with our decent part. It’s so hard to get to. Our psychic atmosphere is so polluted with bitterness and self-recrimination and greed. So if I somehow just got to sit down with the bear, I think that I might just say hello, how do you do?

There are also some funny angels in the book. I would like to just go out and see a film with them. One of my favorite things is walking home (up the steep hill from downtown that leads to my neighborhood) after seeing a film and discussing it—using it as a springboard for philosophical discussions. Imagine doing that with an angel who’d been around since our thoughts were just amoebas in an ocean.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?
Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal. I bought Invisible Cities there today. My daughter called in and got them to order it. We’ve both already read the book, but we were both aching for a copy of it the other night.

In high school my daughter had to make an art project based on one of the cities. We worked for weeks with egg cartons and cardboard and popsicle sticks and papier maché in order to create a maquette of a city that can only really exist in language. Trying to pin down the geography and architecture of one of Calvino’s metaphorical cities.

It’s a book that you always rediscover new nooks and crannies and brilliant ideas in – the same way that you get to know a city. I have spent my whole life in Montreal, but I swear that there are alleyways that move and doors that appear out of nowhere in the middle of the night.

Can you tell us what you’re reading now?
I’m in the middle of reading Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. He’s a wonderful Canadian writer. It’s a book in which the Greek gods Apollo and Hermes bestow human consciousness on a group of dogs and then wager whether they will end up happy at the end of their lives. It’s as wonderful as that premise suggests.

What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
I was given a giant book of Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes from my great grandmother. It was about the size of me. The book was too heavy for me to hold. I tried to make sense of all the talking animals and bloody revolutions.

I think I learned to speak while reading that book – it was filled with a vocabulary that I couldn’t grasp yet. The strange rhythms and metaphors were ones that became part of the way that I speak.

I liked the little girls drawn in blue ink at the corners of the pages. I thought they were drawings of me. I remember thinking that the book was magical. It told the story of my past and my future. I was so consumed by the things that I read, that I thought that every book was a book about myself. And that there was no discernible difference between the life that one lived and the life that one read about.

Daydreams of Angels by Heather O'Neill

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Heather O’Neill is a contributor to This American Life, and her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. Her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, an international bestseller, won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Canada Reads competition in 2007; was short-listed for six prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Governor General’s Literary Award; and was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, was short-listed for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She lives in Montreal, Canada.

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Heather’s first interview with us

The Other Side of the Wall by Sloane Crosley

Book Keeping with Jennine Capó Crucet

Dreaming up Skies by Benjamin Johncock

The Clasp by Sloane Crosley

A rollicking, modern twist on “The Necklace,” Guy de Maupassant’s classic tale of a nineteenth-century material girl, The Clasp opens on a private island in Florida, as three hapless twentysomethings gather for their friends’ wedding. For Kezia, the trip fails to deliver a break from her boss from hell, a jewelry designer in Manhattan. Nathaniel was a literary cool kid but now struggles to get Hollywood backing for his brainchild: a television show called The Pretenders. Victor was just fired from his job at a mediocre search engine, but his fortune—and the fate of his friends—changes dramatically when he begins snooping around and, in a drunken stupor, passes out in the groom’s mother’s bed. She slaps him awake, but instead of scolding him, she tells him an enticing secret about a valuable necklace that disappeared during the Nazi occupation of France.

Embarking on a madcap treasure hunt that leads from New York to Paris, with an excursion to the chateau where Maupassant was born, the trio struggles to interpret cryptic clues while separating fakes from the real thing—not only in the world of gems, but also in life and love. We hope the following questions will enhance your reading group’s experience of this sparkling debut novel.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss the Yeats and Maupassant epigraphs. Which of the novel’s characters do they capture the best?

2. What first impressions did you get of Kezia, Victor, and Nathaniel as they gathered in Florida for the wedding? As the scenes shifted in points of view, who were you rooting for the most?

3. In chapter seven, Victor and Nathaniel’s English professor delivers her passionate rendering of “The Necklace.” How would you have responded to her request for a one-word summary of the story? Do any of the characters in The Clasp share traits with Mathilde Loisel, the woman who loses the borrowed necklace in Maupassant’s story?

4. Johanna tells Victor that she doesn’t want Felix to know about the necklace because “he’s very sensitive about anything having to do with Nazi heritage” and because it might not still be where the soldier hid it. Do you think it’s that simple, or was Johanna up to something else when she decided to entrust a stranger with her secret?

5. What were your theories about the drawing? What results did you predict for the treasure hunt? Make a virtual visit to Chateau Miromesnil (www.chateaumiromesnil.com) and imagine what other hidden surprises such a place could hold.

6. What does The Clasp say about the nature of friendship? What has kept Victor, Nathaniel, and Kezia from achieving success in their careers as they approach age thirty? What do you predict for the next decade of their lives?

7. Johanna tells Victor that jewelry is “a blank canvas that gets filled by the person who wears it.” Is there a piece of jewelry in your life that has special significance for you? Do you care whether jewelry is made from precious gems, or is all jewelry “real” in your eyes? Would you value fake jewelry inspired by fictional stories?

8. Discuss the idea of a clasp, which is meant to provide security. What does Claude teach Kezia about the practical aspects of his craft? What do all of the characters discover about weak links and ways of strengthening them?

9. If you had been Victor, would you have been able to hide the truth?

10. What took Nathaniel and Kezia so long to acknowledge their attraction to each other? What makes them simultaneously an unlikely couple and a great match? How are they different from Caroline and Felix, and Grey and Paul?

11. In the closing scene, on the flight home, have the characters been transformed, or are they simply able to be themselves at last?

12. As you read about the life of Guy de Maupassant, how did you react? Why don’t short stories have as much mainstream cultural impact as they did in the nineteenth century? Are writers like Nathaniel (pitching shows like The Pretenders to executives like Lauren) our modern-day Maupassants?

13. What is unique about Sloane Crosley’s sense of humor? How does The Clasp enhance your experience of her two nonfiction bestsellers?

Praise for The Clasp

“I took so much pleasure in every sentence of The Clasp, fell so completely under the spell of its narrative tone—equal parts bite and tenderness, a dash of rue—and became so caught up in the charmingly dented protagonists and their off-kilter caper that the book’s emotional power, building steadily and quietly, caught me off guard, and left me with a lump in my throat.” —Michael Chabon, author of Telegraph Avenue

“The Clasp reads like The Goonies written by Lorrie Moore. A touching but never sentimental portrait of a trio of quasi-adults turning into adult adults, this is one of those rare deeply literary books that also features—a plot! From the shores of Florida to the coast of Normandy, wonderful, unforgettable things happen in this enormously hilarious novel. And they are written in a language so beautiful, I gnashed my teeth at Sloane Crosley’s talent.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

The Clasp

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Sloane Crosley is the author of the New York Times bestsellers I Was Told There’d Be Cake (a Thurber Prize finalist) and How Did You Get This Number. A frequent contributor to The New York Times, she lives in Manhattan.

Guide written by Amy Clements

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The Clasp by Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley’s “signature wit is sharp as ever” (NYT) in The Clasp, her debut novel. From carrot forests to Maupassantian necklaces, Sloane shares the genesis of her reading and writing.

The Clasp
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Would you say you have an ideal reader?
I’m so grateful for my readers, I’m not in a position to put up velvet ropes. Mostly the answer is any reader who connects with the tone of my writing and therefore trusts me. It’s important to feel like you’re in good hands when you read a book, especially a novel. Beyond that? Someone creative who sees the emotions behind the humor, who wants to get to know other people, who is looking to see the tiny corners of the world differently. A snappy dresser. Light sleeper. Tall but not too tall. Type O blood, obviously. The universal donor.

What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
I was diagnosed with a spatial learning disability when I was little and my parents went into overdrive, trying too hard to help me with every little thing. So I wrote my first story mostly to get these well-meaning baby boomers off my back. It was about a family of rabbits who go into the forest to bring back carrots for their youngest rabbit. Everything is very cute. Then one day the parents get shot by a hunter and the baby rabbit starves because it can’t fend for itself. Carrot forests, as we all know, are mystifying and dangerous places.

What book would you consider an ancestor of The Clasp and why?
The Guy de Maupassant short story, “The Necklace” is in the bones of the book. If readers are looking for a 380-page bloated retelling of an old French short story (who isn’t?), they won’t find it. Instead, each of the three main characters roughly follows the plotline of the story, one of them becomes obsessed with Guy de Maupassant and sees him as a great symbol of manhood, there are two necklaces, both possibly real, both possibly fake, and a large portion of the book takes place around the are of Normandy where Guy grew up. So the DNA of Guy and “The Necklace” is all over The Clasp in various forms, even and obviously in the title. Of course, Guy de Maupassant is very dead so I can’t speak to his enthusiasm about having me as a “descendent.” But the man had such a massive ego; he’d be flattered at the very least.

What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
The concept of “trying” but failing to finish a book is an odd one. I know what it means—a slog of a book, an impenetrable book—but if you try, you’ll succeed. See also: “I’ll try to make it to the party.” I mean, if you really tried to make it, what could have gone so horribly wrong? You walked down the subway steps and some big burly stranger pushed you back up? There are hindrances (trapped in a dull conversation) and there are hindrances (locusts). This is all to say that I finish the books I actually attempt to finish. I had trouble getting through Middlemarch — you may have to revoke my femininity for that one. Moby Dick I only skimmed despite my efforts to concentrate (take my masculinity while you’re at it). I’ve never read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake but I have a feeling those are some big burly strangers. The rest I’ve either finished—chapters that lag or confuse tend to be temporary—or put down the second I didn’t want to try. God knows what I’ve missed.

What’s the last book that made you cry?
My most recent instance of crying from a book was rereading “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham. That last line kills me every time. I was inexplicably inconsolable after The Chosen by Chaim Potok. I cried several times during What is The What by Dave Eggers. I cried at the end of Project X by Jim Shepard. I cried during Blue Nights by Joan Didion and The Book of My Lives by Aleksander Hemon and The Long Goodbye my Meghan O’Rourke. I’m okay. Really, I am.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?
Three Lives wins for geographical reasons (it’s two blocks from my apartment) but I have a feeling it would win for greatness reasons as well. It’s the most warm, inviting, assuring and unintimidating place. And yet you walk in and know that you’ll be walking out with something smart to read. The staff has impeccable taste. I mean, this is true of all independent bookstores so it’s tough say what makes Three Lives so special. Walking past their display windows at night feels like walking into a New Yorker cover. Maybe that’s it. The last books I purchased there were Old Filth by Jane Gardam and The Sellout by Paul Beatty.*

*Rookie move. I’m pretty sure I could have wrangled you guys into sending me that one for free.

The Clasp

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Sloane Crosley is the author of the New York Times bestsellers I Was Told There’d Be Cake (a Thurber Prize finalist) and How Did You Get This Number. A frequent contributor to The New York Times, she lives in Manhattan.

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Photograph by Caitlin Mitchell

Only the Animals by Ceridwin Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is a social anthropologist and a hugely talented author. When we signed up Only the Animals, which the Guardian has since called “dazzling,” the whole office was abuzz. It was a treat to ask her about her life in books, from nailing down dialogue to her favorite Sydney bookshop.


Only the Animals
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What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?
I grew up between South Africa and Australia, and perhaps as a result of living in the “colonies,” became obsessed with the English author Enid Blyton’s books. My first story was written on one of those old word processors with the black screen and green text, probably around age 10, and it blatantly plagiarized her style. A few children were almost caught by an incoming tide out on the rockpools, but were rescued in the nick of time, after which they ate sandwiches their mother had made and said appreciatively, “Mum’s a brick.” I took it to my mother to read when I’d finished it. She was a literary critic and lectured in postcolonial literature at the local university, so she read it with a rather critical eye, and asked me why I’d used dialogue that didn’t sound South African at all. “Have you ever heard somebody say Mum’s a brick?” she asked me. I hadn’t. It took me a while to get up the courage to write another story after that, but when I did, I made sure the dialogue sounded more natural.

What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?
My first novel, Blood Kin, and my new story collection, Only the Animals, sit within a tradition of fabulism, floating above the constraints of realism, and I think sometimes people seem frustrated that I’m not putting more of myself in recognizable form in my fiction. A frequent question is, “Why don’t you write about your own life?” But so far, I’ve been drawn less to writing what I know and more to what Colum McCann calls writing towards what you want to know. That may change in the future (in fact, I hope it does), but for now I prefer to explore what seem to be my recurring thematic obsessions (power, complicity, accountability) through fables.

What book would you consider an ancestor of Only the Animals?
This is hugely presumptuous of me, but in my wildest dreams I would like to think that an ancestor of Only the Animals is Australian writer Nam Le’s story collection, The Boat. I loved the audacity of his collection, how each story evoked an entirely new set of people, set in a different place around the globe, and each voice was so dissimilar from the others, but together the stories added up to a portrait of the radical act of imagining itself. I also loved his critique of autobiographical fiction, the way the first and last stories in The Boat undermine the assumptions that authors should act as witnesses, or that authenticity in fiction is directly related to personal experience. The stories in Only the Animals have very different registers, but are thematically linked, and my hope is that taken together they are also more than the sum of their parts.

What’s the last book that made you cry?
The memoir Ransacking Paris: A Year with Montaigne and Friends by a wonderful Australian author, Patti Miller. She and her husband spend some time in Paris, trying to adapt to life beyond the exigencies of being parents to young children; their youngest son has just left home to go to university. Early on, she describes sitting beside her husband in a Paris park, watching a small boy playing: “Anthony and I looked at each other. I could feel his shoulder warm on mine. We didn’t say anything. Accidentally we had made creatures together for whom we would both crawl across deserts of broken glass, but mostly it had been washing nappies and spooning avocado mash into mouths, then later, cheering on the side of chilly soccer fields and reading endless chapters of Lord of the Rings, and later again, ferrying them to parties and discussing homework and marijuana and girls. There was nothing to say but my heart felt tight to bursting.” I’m in a different stage of life than Patti, just starting out on the parenting journey with very young boys, and sometimes I long for the freedom of being out the other side of it. But these words brought me to tears, and reminded me that while the days of parenting may feel long, the years are short.

If possible, can you send a photo of your bookshelf? What makes these books meaningful to you?

Ceridwen Dovey's bookshelf

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of buying books—I tend to get them out the library—which doesn’t bring me very good karma in terms of sales of my own books. But one of the perks of this job is getting to know other authors, and I keep a shelf of books by authors I’ve met or know well. This isn’t meant to be a name-dropping brag, I promise! It’s just such a rich experience to read and admire a book written by somebody you’ve met. I love the disjunction between who we are with other people, and how we express ourselves in works of fiction or non-fiction. The self is so mutable. And whenever I look at this shelf of books, it gives me courage to take risks on paper that I would never take in real life, as if the books and their authors are keeping me company, telling me that I’m not alone in thinking this is a worthwhile endeavor.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?
I live in Sydney, Australia, and my favorite indie bookstore is Gleebooks in Glebe, a neighborhood in the inner west. If you’re making a trip to Sydney be sure to stop by—Gleebooks has the best programmed author events in the city, and it has been open since the 1970s. Most recently, I purchased Euphoria by Lily King. I initially trained as a social anthropologist, so I was intrigued by her fictional take on a fertile period in Margaret Mead’s life.

Who would you say is your ideal reader?
The stories in Only the Animals are love letters of a sort, to authors of the past century whose fiction about animals I’ve loved and learned from; each story can be read as a quirky form of literary biography, inspired by real events in that author’s life, or mimicking his or her style. It’s a book about the moral importance of reading as much as it is about writing, and my own attempt to figure out how my life-long obsession with reading fiction has formed me as an ethical human being. So my ideal reader is anybody who also feels that reading fiction has saved her life, who believes there is no greater pleasure than falling into a world of somebody else’s creation, and that reading fiction is an important pathway to empathy for others.

Only the Animals

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Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, Blood Kin, was published in fifteen countries, short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Award, and selected for the U.S. National Book Foundation’s prestigious 5 Under 35 honors list. The Wall Street Journal named her one of their “artists to watch.” She studied social anthropology at Harvard and New York University, and now lives with her husband and son in Sydney. Only the Animals recently won the 2014 Readings New Australian Writing Award.

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Read an excerpt from Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals

Wilberforce by H. S. Cross

Wilberforce, H. S. Cross’s stunning debut novel, is out this week. In celebration we were only too glad to pick her brain. See her dig into the literary archaeology of the school story, and even produce the very first yarn she ever finished solo—from second grade, no less!


Wilberforce by H. S. Cross
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What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?

Enraptured by my first trip to the theater, I wrote my first book when I was five—that is, I dictated it to my mother, who set it down in ballpoint on a notepad and stapled the pages together so I could read it at night. The genre was Self-Actualization. Here is the first page: “When Heather is six years old, she is going to play Gretel in The Sound of Music.” Page two: “She is going to sing Do-Re-Mi.” The earliest story I can remember writing on my own was penned in . . . second grade? It’s on “story paper,” and I had been given an abstract, red cutout for inspiration. (Oh, the 70s . . .) A Xeroxed reproduction survives. You will see that it received a starred review:

Cross - The Devil's Servant

 
What books would you consider ancestors of Wilberforce?

Besides the obvious school stories the characters themselves have read (Kipling’s Stalky & Co., Wodehouse’s Wryken stories, Tom Brown, etc.), Wilberforce also descends from edgier school stories like Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth, his brother Evelyn’s Charles Ryder’s Schooldays, or Ernest Raymond’s Tell England. Less obvious is Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series: written in the 1980s and 90s, these books revolve around a fictional cathedral town called Starbridge and concern the relationships between priests-in-crisis and their spiritual directors. Howatch is interested in the intersection of psychology and spiritual life, and each volume features a different theological trend. She cut her teeth writing gothic-style sagas, and the Starbridge books are quickly paced, melodramatic constructions, with a touch of the supernatural. Several of her characters are memorably charismatic, the kind that walk off the page and make you ache to know them personally. The first Starbridge book, Glittering Images, and the eight that followed made me into someone who could write Part Three of Wilberforce.

Is there a book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?

I’ve failed to finish many books. Sometimes I quit because the book has to go back to the library. More often, I abandon a book because I’ve realized life is too short for it, or because I don’t want to spend any more time in its author’s worldview. There’s an oft-quoted verse for church fundraising: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” As corny as this sounds, it’s proven true for me with material things, and I’m beginning to understand that it’s also true of mental treasure. I’ve always been a fan of reading at whim, reading anything and everything. Periodically, I’ll institute a regime of “finish everything even if you have to speed-read or skim.” These disciplines never last, though, and the older I get, the more I’m learning that books can diminish as well as build up, and that discretion in reading can be a prudent, even necessary, practice.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

The chronology is vague, but I think the most recent sob-fest was Lewis’s The Last Battle. There I am racing through this children’s book for a discussion group when the last two chapters strike—they should have put a trigger warning on that thing. I’m crying again now just flipping through it. Another recent tearjerker was Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. I had no idea what was coming, so I naively opted to finish the book during a subway journey. I wound up gasping on the A-train platform half-blind with tears, feeling utterly demented (because—spoiler—the narrative takes you inside a successful suicide) and dissociated from myself. Pro-tip: finish books like this at home.

Do you have a favorite literary character?

It depends what you mean by favorite. The most brilliant example of portraiture in English fiction has to be Esther Summerson in Bleak House. The character I wanted to be when young was, of course, Scout Finch (of To Kill A Mockingbird, one now must add). I would have liked Stalky from Stalky and Co. as a best friend in high school; he would have dragged my paralyzed good-girl self into some adventure and courage. As for a literary crush—and let’s take as given Jane Austen’s various heroes, plus Aragorn—I fell heavily for Peter Wimsey in Strong Poison. That jail-cell proposal is one of the most outrageous scenes I’ve ever read in a British manners-mystery.

If you could say anything to your book’s protagonist, what would it be?

Morgan Wilberforce is seventeen, headstrong, and in the grip of forces beyond his control. I can’t imagine he would listen to a word I said. Besides which, where could I start? If I ever did capture his attention for some brief moment when he wasn’t wreaking havoc, I’d probably say what everyone else says: Oh, Morgan!

Wilberforce by H. S. Cross

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H. S. Cross was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and studied at Harvard University. Wilberforce is her debut novel. She has taught at Friends Seminary and lives in New York. Cross is at work on a new novel set at St. Stephen’s Academy.

A Manual for Cleaning Women Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the Laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians. We hope you revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form.

The following discussion topics should enrich your reading group’s experience. Read the first story, “Angel’s Laundromat,” here on Work in Progress.


A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
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Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. “Mama” is one of several stories portraying a mother who is seldom nurturing, often vicious, frequently drunk. The relationship is complex. Is Sally, one of her daughters, bitter? How does Sally feel about this mother? How do you feel about her?

2. “Tiger Bites” is about crossing the border for an abortion during the 1950s, when abortion was generally not available in the United States. What is the author’s attitude toward the narrator? Does the author present a stance on a society that offers no other way? Why does the narrator decide against the abortion?

3. Berlin’s characters often seem to act on a whim, even when faced with important decisions. Is this seen as a good idea? A bad idea? Why? (“So Long,” “Bluebonnets”)

4. Does Berlin pass judgment on her characters? Are any of them villains? How does she make seemingly bad people likable?

5. Many of Berlin’s characters exist on the margins of society. They work at odd jobs; they are jazz musicians, expatriates, alcoholics. Does Berlin champion such people? Does she pity them? (“A Manual for Cleaning Women,” “Emergency Room Notebook,” “Carpe Diem,” “Melina,” “Strays,” “502”)

6. In “Phantom Pain,” the narrator has always felt affection for her father, but the sense of awe and intimidation is finally letting up as he ages. How does Berlin show us this? Are the ending and its fast reversals too much?

7. In “Emergency Room Notebook,” Berlin writes about good deaths and bad deaths. It is easy enough to view death as bad, but what about “good deaths?” Is it, in fact, positive to see someone’s death as good?

8. In “Sex Appeal,” Bella Lynn tells her young cousin she’ll attract Rickie Evers by looking at him “as if he was the lowest-down, mangiest old hound dog [she] ever saw.” Is it plausible that Evers would actually take that kind of bait? Why?

9. In work stories such as “A Love Affair” and “Mourning,” low-paid women display great empathy as they do their work. Yet the employers (a doctor, an affluent brother and sister) offer them very little respect. Still, the women soldier on, helping others and carrying themselves with dignity. How do they do that? And why?

10. “El Tim” is a very early story, written more than ten years before the others. Does it differ from the rest?

11. From her backseat perch, the child in “Electric Car, El Paso” seems aware that the doddering older women up front don’t share her view of things. In what ways is she both rebellious and protective of the older women? Is she a trustworthy narrator? How does she help us see so vividly what it was like inside the little car?

12. “Good and Bad” features a misguided schoolteacher who wants to do good in a poverty-stricken country. The main character, a young girl, looks down on her, partly because of her clothing. The girl’s father, who collaborates with the CIA, has the teacher fired after the girl tells him about her. Are any of these characters sympathetic?

13. In “Bluebonnets,” there’s a whole trajectory of ups, downs, and ambiguity in the couple’s rapidly forming and dissolving relationship. Can this be seen as a microcosm—a tiny model of an entire marriage?

14. Many of Berlin’s stories are autobiographical. How do you suppose it felt for her to expose herself this way, especially given the dark terrain? Painful? Cathartic? Who else does she expose? Is that fair to her sons, ex-husbands, and parents?

15. Berlin’s lively style is sometimes unorthodox. But “La Vie en Rose” offers a straightforward example of short, choppy sentences building tension as Gerda and Claire defy the father and sneak off with two boys in a boat. How does this clipped style serve the narration? What does it feel like to be these girls?

16. In “Silence,” Berlin’s narrator closely depicts the contrasts between her own household and her friend Hope’s. What do these contrasts mean to the girl herself? As the story winds forward over decades, what makes her estrangement from Hope so bitter?

17. “502” is a comical story about alcoholics and their missteps. Why is it so funny?

18. “Mijito” portrays a young mother contending with poverty, abuse, a perplexing transit system, and an ailing baby. Do you think Berlin sees the mother as a victim of social forces? Does the mother try hard enough?

19. In “Homing,” Lucia Berlin seems to look back on her own life, on the things that have gone right and gone wrong. How does she see this colorful life that she’s lived? How do you see it?

Praise for A Manual for Cleaning Women

“I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well-known as they should be—their work talked about, quoted, taught, performed, filmed, set to music, anthologized. Perhaps, with the present collection, Lucia Berlin will begin to gain the attention she deserves.” —Lydia Davis

“An important American writer, one who was mostly overlooked in her time . . . She is the real deal.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Sheer literary star power . . . I just loved it.” —Marion Winik, Newsday

“Berlin . . . deserves to be ranked alongside Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Anton Chekhov.” —Nick Romeo, The Boston Globe

“This writing affirms . . . Berlin’s rightful place in the canon of American short fiction.” —Maggie Doherty, The New Republic

“It’s just an incredible book. Lucia Berlin is a laugh-out-loud & burst-into-tears writer.” —Elizabeth McCracken (on Twitter)

“Lucia Berlin’s electrifying posthumous collection A Manual for Cleaning Women is a miracle of storytelling economy, showcasing this largely unheard-of writer’s genius for streetwise erudition and sudden, soul-baring epiphanies.” —Lisa Shea, Elle

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

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Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Her stories are inspired by her early childhood in various Western mining towns; her glamorous teenage years in Santiago, Chile; three failed marriages; a lifelong problem with alcoholism; her years spent in Berkeley, New Mexico, and Mexico City; and the various jobs she later held to support her writing and her four sons. Sober and writing steadily by the 1990s, she took a visiting writer’s post at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1994 and was soon promoted to associate professor. In 2001, in failing health, she moved to Southern California to be near her sons. She died in 2004 in Marina del Rey.

Guide written by Amy Clements

Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie

We loved hearing from professional voiceover actor James Sie about the experience of recording the audio book of his debut novel, Still Life Las Vegas, and are just as excited today to be able to share these stories from his life in reading! If you’ve been looking for recommendations, James has you covered.


Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie
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Who is your ideal reader?

I think the ideal reader for this book is someone who enjoys ellipses . . . who is happy or even excited in not knowing everything at once. A reader who likes to fit the pieces together. Still Life Las Vegas is told through different points-of-view, jumping from the past to the present to the more distant past, to the future. I imagine the book to be like an archeological dig of a family’s history, with different strata of discovery, different artifacts to examine. There are sketches embedded in the book, graphic novel sections . . . a lot to explore. The story itself is straightforward, but the truths are not. There are a lot of twists and turns, and you have to be ready to go along for the ride.

What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?

When I was a fourth-grader at Kutz Elementary in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, our school had a book contest. We would all write stories and poems and bind our own books. Mine was called Take a Peek and it had a blue fabric cover with yellow and red flowers on it. I think I won second prize. The next year I wrote “Stories Gruesome and Nice” and because of this book my mother would hereafter accuse me of always killing off red-headed women (she was herself a red-head). Perhaps not so coincidentally, in Still Life Las Vegas there is a mother who dies; I don’t explicitly say she has red hair, but she does have the same tortoise shell sunglasses my mother once owned. Sorry, Mom!

What book would you consider an ancestor of Still Life Las Vegas?

The World According to Garp was one of the first contemporary adult novels I read that wasn’t for a class, and that didn’t include space travel, wizards or the supernatural. It has definitely influenced this book, and my writing. John Irving creates worlds and families that are so complete and rich and textured, his characters are so full of life you feel like they live on beyond the page. And in Garp there’s this blend of humor and melancholy, absurdity and tragedy, that I strive for in this book. On the other side of the family tree would be the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, not only because of the graphic novel element, but because of the myths, both ancient and contemporary, that his books are steeped in. My book is all about myths, and storytelling. Gaiman and Irving are both masters at these.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

Gabriel, a Poem, by Edward Hirsch. It’s an elegy to his son, who died of a drug overdose at the age of twenty-two. It’s a sometimes harrowing, sometimes heartbreaking, look back at the life of a boy, from time of adoption to time of death. We watch him grow up, moment to moment, much like the movie “Boyhood,” except instead of ending with promise and possibility, we are left at a graveside. Beautifully composed, and devastating.

Who is your favorite literary character? Why?

Poor, doomed, Lily Bart from House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. She’s such a complex character—self-aware but deluded, deeply vain and shallow at times but with flashes of real genuine depth, which she seems to hide, even from herself. Every time I read the book I am pulled in by her plight and hope against hope that she will somehow prevail. Wharton has created one of the great tragic figures of literature.

What are you reading now?

Life #6 by Diana Wagman. It’s about a woman who, diagnosed with breast cancer, remembers another time in her life when she faced death, on a catastrophic ocean boat ride on the ocean. It’s very suspenseful; Wagman does dread really well. Also on the nightstand: A Life in Men, by Gina Frangello. Don’t be put off by the title—Frangello is such an exquisite writer, both formal and fresh; she’s this generation’s Edith Wharton.

James Sie was born in Summit, NJ. and raised on the East Coast by a Chinese father and an Italian mother. He attended Northwestern University and lived in Chicago for many years, working as an actor and playwright, most notably at the Goodman Theatre and Lifeline Theatre. He continued his migration west by moving to Los Angeles with his husband and soon after adopted a son from Vietnam. He currently works as a voiceover artist in animation, most notably featured in “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness”; “King of the Hill” and “Jackie Chan Adventures.” He wrote and performed in a solo show about his bi-cultural upbringing, “Talking with My Hands,” as part of the East West Players/Mark Taper Forum New Works festival.

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The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty

The The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty is an exciting new entry on the life and letters of Joan Didion, a writer celebrated as one of the foremost voices of her generation. The excerpt below shows the true extent of her star power—how Didion turned assumptions about what a writer could be completely inside out.


The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty
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“There’s something weird going on with Joan Didion and women,” Caitlin Flanagan said her father remarked one night.

“Apparently, vast numbers of women—students, staff members, faculty, Berkeley people—were thronging to her office hours, hanging around the door of her classroom, arranging their schedules so that they could bump into her, or at least catch a glimpse of her, as she walked from the Faculty Club to Wheeler Hall,” Flanagan said. “It was becoming clear that she didn’t have just readers; she had fans—not the way writers have fans, but the way musicians and actors have fans—and that almost all of them were female.” The English Department faculty had pretty much written her off. She could never be embraced by the Establishment; she just wasn’t cut out for it. Said Flanagan: They “hadn’t simply underestimated” her “huge, mesmerizing power” over certain readers. They had been “almost entirely unaware of it.”

A reporter named Susan Braudy arrived to interview Didion for Ms. Apparently, the magazine had forgiven Didion for her attack on the women’s movement, and decided a successful female writer was a feminist icon, regardless of her politics.

Braudy’s approach to writing her article was to tell Didion she had spoken to a friend of hers—usually someone Didion didn’t know very well—and that the person in question had said this or that. Then she’d ask Didion what she thought. What Didion thought was that this reporter was terribly annoying. The process reenforced her belief that interviewing people for biographical profiles was generally a waste of time. When Greg Dunne heard that Braudy had asked his wife why she wrote about such emotionally crippled women, instead of strong women like herself, he exploded, saying this reporter knew nothing about literature.

Dunne had gone to Berkeley at his wife’s insistence. She had gotten nervous, anticipating the public talk capping her stay here. Further, she had dragooned Henry Robbins into flying from New York for moral support. She wanted to hand him personally the manuscript of A Book of Common Prayer. She needed his immediate encouragement and enthusiasm—plus, she distrusted Susan Braudy. Didion planned to read from the novel as part of her talk, and she didn’t want to see it quoted in Ms. Somehow, the pages would be safe in Henry’s hands. If Ms. tried any funny business, he would know what to do. “[E]ditors do not, in the real world, get on the night TWA to California to soothe a jumpy midlist writer,” she wrote later. But that’s precisely what Robbins did.

The English Department secretary had booked a room for Didion’s lecture. One afternoon, she and Flanagan’s father took the Dunnes to check it out. Heidi, the secretary, asked Didion if the room suited her.

Later, in a letter to Lois Wallace, Didion said she had worked up the nerve to say the room was too tiny for the audience she’d attract. The chair, impatient and disbelieving, gave her a thin smile but agreed to indulge her and book another space.

Flanagan told a different story. “Didion said nothing” to Heidi, she wrote. “[She] just looked up at her husband. He remarked coldly, ‘It’s too small,’ and Joan nodded fiercely, as though this were obvious.

“Never antagonize a secretary. Heidi marched back to her desk and scheduled Didion’s talk in the biggest hall she could book. Let her see how she liked lecturing to a half-filled room!”

When Didion saw the new lecture hall, she panicked. The first one had been too small, but this was a monster—she didn’t believe she could fill it. Heidi had set her up.

In fact, on the night of the lecture, “tearful women . . . were turned away at the door, others [were] grateful to stand in the back or to sit on the floor . . . [It was] a huge, rapt crowd of the type that doesn’t feature in even the wildest dreams of most writers,” Flanagan wrote. “It was a mad house.”

Before she was introduced onstage, Didion hid in a bathroom, convinced she was going to vomit.

Trembling in front of the microphone, she cleared her throat and said, “I’ve been sitting here trying to get used to the idea that I’m here and you’re there, but it may take me a little while. So if I look at my feet and don’t talk very loud, I hope you’ll bear with me until I get used to the idea.”

Her lecture was entitled “Why I Write.” She told her adoring audience, “[T]here’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

She said—in front of the English Department faculty, many of whom had stopped taking her seriously until this stunning crowd showed up—she could no longer remember most of what she’d learned as a Berkeley undergraduate. Really, what she’d learned was that she was not an intellectual but a writer: “By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer.” So much for Schorer’s dream of getting her back.

How does one write? Not by revisiting the dusty tomes of Henry James criticism. Not by swaggering into a teacher’s office, arrogantly announcing oneself as a writer and declaring the teacher’s time was done.

No.

One becomes a writer by being the inappropriate and dismissible creature the faculty had laughed about after the formal dinner. “You just lie low . . . You stay quiet,” Didion said. “You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out . . .”

The standing-room-only crowd pressed forward.

This was one mouse who damn well knew how to roar.

Tracy Daugherty is the author of four novels, four short story collections, and a book of personal essays. His critically acclaimed biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, was published in 2009. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently he is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.

Joan Didion is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as several screenplays written with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. Her books include The White Album, Play It As It Lays, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She lives in New York City.

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Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet

Debut novelist Jennine Capó Crucet shares her most recent recommendations, the nuance between fact and fiction, and the childhood dream-theft of a tomato that (arguably) set her on the path to writing. Make Your Home Among Strangers was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.


Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet
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What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story?

I was 8 years old: I tried to write a story based on a wacky dream I’d had. The story tried to be faithful to the dream, but it involved the phrase “GIVE ME BACK MY TOMATO!!” (I remembered this phrase very vividly upon waking) and an underwater garden where I worked with a dolphin who was possibly my co-farmer. The story was pretty much a failure (at least according to my critics—namely, my little sister, who was forced to hear me read it aloud when my parents backed away in fear at my insistence that I had to get this thing in my head out of my head).

What is the question you are asked most frequently about your writing?

I’m very often asked how much of my work is based on my real life, which I think is an odd question to ask of a fiction writer: it’s all made up. Of course, the feelings I try to convey via my work are true in that I have felt some version of those feelings. But the way I see it, if the reader believes the story, then the story is true, regardless of whether it really happened to me (or anyone) or not. I also sometimes wonder/worry if I get this question so often because I tend to write about women who happen to be Cuban-American—I worry that the person asking the question feels comfortable conflating me with my characters for that reason.

What book would you consider an ancestor of Make Your Home Among Strangers?

Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, from which the epigraph was taken.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I recently reread for the fourth time in an effort to recalibrate my heart.

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?

I have so much hometown love for Books & Books, which is in Miami (and which my family knows is my go-to place for holiday gift shopping: If you are related to me and I love you, you’re getting a gift card to Books & Books). But I have a new flame now that I’ve moved halfway across the country: Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln, NE. It’s two blocks from my apartment and so is quickly becoming my home away from home (away from home).

The most recent book I purchased was while on a trip out west at a whole other indie bookstore—Powell’s in Portland. I bought Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

What is the first book you ever remember reading?

The first book I can remember reading myself is an elementary school reader called Birds Fly, Bears Don’t. Does anyone else remember this book? What a buzzkill, that title. Five-year-old me was very bummed to learn bears couldn’t fly. Thirty-three year old me takes issue with such an assertion.

Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of Make Your Home Among Strangers and a story collection, How to Leave Hialeah, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, John Gardner Book Prize, Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, and named a Best Book of the Year by the Miami Herald and the Latinidad List. A PEN/O. Henry Prize winner and Bread Loaf Fellow, she was a Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany. She was raised in Miami and is currently assistant professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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