Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rosie-Colored Glasses

Graeme Simsion's debut novel, The Rosie Project, has proven to be a very successful breakout for him from his earlier career in information technology. (The author earned a PhD in 2006 with his thesis on data-modelling for information systems.) Simsion clearly understands the potential for technical minds to discount the value of human emotion, and he fashions just such a main character in Don, a geneticist with Asperger's syndrome. Don is so socially remote and self-unaware that he doesn't even recognize his own symptoms. Enter Rosie, the personification of human emotions, then add a wacky genetics projects, thwarted attempts at romance, and you have an enjoyable book!

Below are two book reviews to consider, if you wish, before our book group discussion:

Friday, April 10, 2015

Inspiration for The Human Stain

In the open letter linked below, Philip Roth revealed the true-life incident that inspired his novel, The Human Stain, which we will discuss at our meeting.

"An Open Letter to Wikipedia"

Friday, March 6, 2015

Memories, Stories, and Fiction: Tim O'Brien

Book Group Members, please refer here for a biography of Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried. This entry, by Literary Reference Center, also includes summaries of his books as well as a brief literary analysis of them (see item below for our book.) In addition, I am including a PBS interview for background on his time in Vietnam.

The Things They Carried First published: 1990
Type of work: Short stories
A composite work of intertwining stories narrates the experiences of Alpha Company in Vietnam through the voice of character Tim O’Brien.
When The Things They Carried appeared in 1990, critics were overwhelmingly positive in their responses. Indeed, this work continues to be O’Brien’s most studied and applauded. Another Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried does not fit neatly into any conventional generic distinction. Scholars are divided over whether to treat the book as a collection of interwoven short stories, as a novel, or as a fictionalized memoir. O’Brien calls the book simply “A Work of Fiction,” refusing to corral the book into one genre or another.
Many of the chapters of the book were at one time published as short stories in a variety of periodicals; five of the stories first appeared in Esquire. The title story, “The Things They Carried,” and “How to Tell a True War Story” are perhaps the most frequently anthologized of O’Brien’s short stories. Something happens in this book, however, that seems to push it beyond a simple collection of stories. The juxtaposition of the stories along with the additional material O’Brien wrote for the book work together synchronistically, and the effect of reading The Things They Carried as a complete work is very different from reading the stories individually. The characters, events, and memories swirl through the stories, turning back on themselves, self-revising as they go. What the reader learns in one story opens possibilities for the later stories.
The first story is, fittingly enough, “The Things They Carried.” On first reading, the story seems to be just a list of the things that Alpha Company carries with them as they trudge through the Vietnamese countryside. However, O’Brien’s attention to both the physical and emotional weight of the items demonstrates that this is not just a catalog of things but rather an inventory of trauma, something short-story writer Charles Baxter notes in a 1999 article in the journal Ploughshares. The items structure both the story and the book; they introduce a cast of characters, and a list of events that the following stories detail.
Although The Things They Carry is not a book that can easily be discussed in terms of plot, it is a book in which a great deal happens. It is essentially the stories of the men (or boys, as they might more appropriately be called) of Alpha Company, generally filtered through the voice of the narrator, a character named Tim O’Brien, who shares with the author not only his name but also his age and his profession. The stories, then, produce a sort of double vision: that of a forty-three-year-old writer, considering the Vietnam War from a distance, and the impressions of a young soldier who finds himself in the middle of war he does not believe in for reasons he does not understand.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Versatile Jussi Adler-Olsen

Pacifist, editor, comic book collector, bookshop owner, entrepreneur, and author, Jussi Adler-Olsen has secured a spot in the hearts of Nordic crime fans everywhere. His popular Department Q series introduces memorable, believable main characters facing tense and thrilling crime dilemmas. The author's own knowledge of mental illnesses informs the motivations of his criminals and murderers; it's interesting to note that this knowledge is an outgrowth of his childhood spent growing up in various Danish mental hospitals where his father was a resident psychiatrist. Our book, The Keeper of Lost Causes, is the initial one in the Department Q series, but Adler-Olsen has since added four more titles to the series. Here's a little taste of the author's personality below.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Garcia Marquez Archives

The archives of the late Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez have just been acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Collections of other notable authors are also housed at this research library and museum, including those of Hemingway, Lessing, Luis Borges, Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot. In the article linked below, University bibliographer Jose Montelongo nicely sums up the author's literary contribution:  

"Heir and admirer of literary innovators like Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, García Márquez experimented with intricate narrative structures, with lush and winding long sentences, with the clash of the ordinary and the impossible," said José Montelongo, interim Latin American bibliographer at the university's Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. "He was a master of the short form in novellas that read like Greek tragedies set in the Caribbean, as well as a consummate long-distance literary runner, master of the sprawling, genealogic novel in which everything fits, including history and crime and love and miracles. Above all, he was an intoxicating stylist with the primal instincts of a storyteller. As one literary critic has put it, García Márquez's imagination was so powerful and original that he will be remembered as a creator of myths, a Latin American Homer."

Click on this link to learn more about the Garcia Marquez archive and about the author.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Purple Hibiscus Takes Root

Here are several interesting websites to explore for more information about our latest author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Included among them is her TED talk of 2012. Please note that Bernardsville Public Library has all her novels and her short story collection on our shelves!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book to Movie, Duh

"A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail" is to become a movie starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Link here for the article.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."

In October, Bernardsville Public Library will host a month-long community reading event known as One Book Bernardsville.  A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson has been selected as our One Book.  To become better acquainted with the author, please view the enjoyable video posted below.
Bill Bryson’s 1989 book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, begins with the words “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”  That opening line also kicks off this video about the author’s childhood.  Aired in the United Kingdom on Melvyn Bragg’s The South Bank Show in 2006 (South Bank Show – Bill Bryson,) the video features Bryson’s recent return visit to his hometown to discuss what it was like growing up in Iowa. Included in it are numerous charming clips from home movies his father took.  Bryson’s mother appears in it as well as high school friend, “Katz,” who accompanied Bryson on part of his Appalachian Trail hike. That attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail is recounted in our One Book Bernardsville selection, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, to be read and discussed by the community during the month of October. Please click here for information about A Walk in the Woods and about the One Book Bernardsville events our library has planned throughout October. Now, enjoy the video! 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Today's Read

Jonathan Lethem has an interesting website to explore. In it, he provides several published interviews, one of which is linked here.  Motherless Brooklyn, his childhood, and his writing style are all discussed. Feel free to learn more about him and his other books at this website:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cooking Up Trouble

Here's a recent review of Nick Reding's book Methland, which we will discuss on Saturday, July 12.  The author's website for the book also provides a number of reviews including this New York Times review from 2009.  Further, there is an interview with the author and biographical information to explore.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Finished Reading?

For those who have finished our next book, What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty, you might want to look through the reviews and discussion questions posted by LitLovers on the link below.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Some Secrets Revealed

Refer to this 30 minute CBC-Radio Canada interview between Alice Munro and Peter Gzowski for some background insights into the germination of Ms. Munro's story ideas in her collection, Open Secrets. For a short clip about this charming 2013 Nobel Prize winning author, link here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Adventurous Writing

In Robert Sullivan's Author Statement for the NEA, he notes that "I especially love researching the history of people, places and things that are situated in close proximity to swamps, dumps, alleys, tidal areas, brackish waters, or really water of any kind. Alongside a river, for instance, especially a river near a city, you can get a good idea of what people have done in the past and what they are currently up to."  For him, writing is an adventure, indicated by the subject matter of his previous books, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City (Anchor), and A Whale Hunt: Two Years with the Makah and their Canoe (Scribner).  For an in-depth interview with our author, refer to this 2011 article in The Awl. Mr. Sullivan also maintains an active Twitter feed, @RESullivanJr.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The "Dickens of Detroit"

To learn more about Elmore Leonard's biography and books, scroll through his website. There you'll even find the video of a local news broadcast featuring his home, which was up for sale following his death in 2013. (Fascinating tidbit: the house had ivy-patterned wallpaper.)  The website also posts recent news about the television show "Justified" which is based on one of his short stories. 

You may also refer to The Atlantic's article for more information about other Leonard stories that were made into movies. Further, The Guardian's article discussing Elmore Leonard's body of work offers high praise for this great American novelist. "The beauty of Leonard's novels can be achieved at the expense of any kind of moral judgment. It's often been said that it is hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are in his novels. Sometimes, as in Freaky Deaky, you only work out who you might have been rooting for when you see who is left alive at the end. In a world of unbridled criminality, the criminal who carries out his robbery or murder with style and wit is the object of our admiration. Above all, the allure of intelligence and of articulacy carries the day: we tend to like the man who speaks best and most wittily in Leonard, the one who says "motherfucker" with the best timing."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Two Books In An Hour

For background information on the Japanese-American experience in American internment camps, please refer to the following PBS link for the documentary, "Children of the Camps:"  This site has many resources for you to explore as you wish. 

For author biography and information, here's Julie Otsuka's webpage - - as well as The New York Times book review of The Buddha in the Attic:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Two Cups of Tea

I thought it would be helpful for Saturday Samplers to read the short story, A Cup of Tea, by Katherine Mansfield before we discuss Amy Ephron's book which is based on this short story.  Katherine Mansfield, born in 1888, left her New Zealand homeland to live and write in London as well as other European cities. She was considered to have led a bohemian lifestyle, cut short by tuberculosis from which she died at the age of 34.  Mansfield is classified as a modernist writer of the early 20th century. Here is the full text of her short story, A Cup of Tea, published in 1922.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Ghost Map

For more videos and information on the story behind the book, go to

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cathy Day: Know Your Place

Indiana author Cathy Day knows her place, writes about it, and urges her creative writing students at Ball State University to know their places, too. And yes, we're talking about place or setting in a novel, not one's station in life. In a faculty interview on the Ball State English Department webpage, she notes "That's been a big thing for my writing and teaching: trying to encourage people to look at the places they're from for their material. It's usually all there."

By happenstance, her latest teaching blog entry deals with the importance of place or setting to the success of a good story and is quite interesting to read by itself. Ms. Day admits she didn't appreciate that her hometown of Peru, Indiana, was any different from any other place until she moved away from it as a young adult. The fact that Peru had been the winter quarters for a circus for many years seemed extraordinary only when outsiders remarked about it.

In deciding to write a fictionalized account of Peru's relationship with this traveling circus, she found herself naturally culling out the historical facts and bits that fascinated her, and these became the elements of her first book, The Circus in Winter. What gives her book its heart is the way the author anchors her story in a setting so well described as to be known and felt by the reader. Chapters of the book, like short stories in themselves, move backward and forward through time, taking the characters (and their descendants) away from Lima (the fictionalized town of Peru), but then bringing them back to it again, over and over. In this way, we get to know the town as if it were one of her main characters.  For more information about Cathy Day, please refer to her website

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tony Horwitz

Here's Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Tony Horwitz, whose book Confederates in the Attic will be discussed today.  We'll surely need more than an hour to cover even some of the many interesting, perplexing and vexing attitudes the author encountered on his odyssey into the Civil War's lasting pull on late 20th century American minds and hearts. To learn more about Mr. Horwitz, please use these links to explore his publications and biography.  His website provides examples of his stories and other items of interest about the author.

Friday, July 12, 2013

If You Missed The Netsuke...

In regard to The Hare with Amber Eyes, I think we all would say, "Where are the netsuke?" Perhaps the next edition of the book will include some photographs of the Ephrussi  netsuke collection, particularly the pieces often mentioned by the author, Edmund de Waal.  Meanwhile, feast your eyes on the revolving slideshow of gorgeous netsuke on the homepage of the International Netsuke Society.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

We're YouTubing It!

British author Jason Goodwin is a visual writer who employs beautifully described images of Istanbul and its notable features for the setting of his mystery, The Snake Stone: Investigator Yashim Returns.  Nonetheless, we are a YouTube generation, so here's another way to visualize "Yashim's Istanbul."  In this author-produced video, you'll even see the Snake Stone!  For further images, google "basilica cistern" for some great photos.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Driving With Monica Holloway

Monica Holloway is an advocate for the letting go of shame.  Perhaps it is by force of personality that she has come to grips with horrible and dismaying acts of betrayal and abuse experienced in her lifetime, enabling her to put them all out there. For instance, when questioned about how her memoir Driving With Dead People was received by her home town, she states, I’m not sure. I get reports from my hometown and it is a conservative place. This is a town that I never heard of sexual abuse come up, ever, when I was young. They are talking about this subject now and whether they believe or they don’t believe me. That’s OK with me. It is a huge triumph (for me) that these people are discussing this topic. I almost feel like I have climbed Mount Everest. My sister and I don’t have the shame anymore. We gave the shame back in a way, not to the public, but to the people who can accept responsibility — and that is why I wrote the book.” 

A book blogger who knew her and who grew up in the same town gives another view of Monica Holloway after introducing the author this way, "It isn't often that someone you went to high school with grows up, marries someone involved with the longest-running show on TV, and writes a memoir." Here we learn about the very negative reaction of at least one townsperson to her portrayal of him, but he died before the author could discuss it with him.

Monica continues the act of shedding shame in a new project she is involved with, Dancing at the Shame Prom, in which 27 authors tell their true stories.  In this excerpt, Monica begins to share details about her husband's infidelity, "My husband cheated on me. I'm just going to say it up front because it's so cliche and stupid sounding.  And while I'm at it, I might as well say that it broke my heart."  Apparently she has a lot to say and is not ashamed to say it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Last Newspaperman

Saturday Samplers book group will be present for author Mark Di Ionno's talk on Saturday, April 6th, in the Community Room of Bernardsville Public Library.  Mr. Di Ionno, an award-winning reporter for The Star-Ledger, has authored The Last Newspaperman, an acclaimed piece of historical fiction set entirely in New Jersey. The Last Newspaperman recounts the life and journalistic exploits of fictional reporter Fred Haines, now elderly, who reminisces about the years he spent working in tabloid journalism of the 1930's.

Four sensational episodes in New Jersey history become the framework by which Fred comes to judge the nature of journalism and his own lack of scruples therein. Among those episodes were the Morro Castle fire and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In covering these events, Fred must face a number of moral dilemmas which tear away at his reporter's distance and dispassion.  The reader is left to compare this era of celebrity and disaster-driven journalism with that of today's reporting, be it by newspaper or other medium.

Friday, March 1, 2013

My Cousin Rachel

Daphne du Maurier's spellbinding novels, Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel,  assured her a place in 20th century notable English literature.  Along with Rebecca, her 1951 book, My Cousin Rachel, must be counted among du Maurier’s best works.  My Cousin Rachel is memorable for its moody narrator, Philip Ashley, who drives the reader’s feelings first one way, then another, forcing us to weigh what’s real against what is fantasized.  Philip Ashley tells the story of his cousin Ambrose Ashley, the man who had raised him and who had somewhat mysteriously acquired a wife, Rachel, shortly before he died. Philip is convinced that Rachel has killed Ambrose. But when she appears at his home he becomes less certain. He is both attracted and repelled by Rachel. By the time she dies, readers do not know whether Rachel killed Ambrose, tried to kill Philip, or was even guilty of any criminal intent. The book is ambiguous to the end, leaving the reader to judge Rachel."Daphne du Maurier." Contemporary Popular Writers. Ed. Dave Mote. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.

My Cousin Rachel is far more than a suspense novel, although many people will simply be happy to  puzzle over the novel’s ending and the motivation of the title character. The author stated that she was "not so much interested in people as in types--types who represent great forces of good or evil. I don't care very much whether John Smith likes Mary Robinson, goes to bed with Jane Brown and then refuses to pay the hotel bill. But I am passionately interested in human cruelty, human lust and human avarice--and, of course, their counterparts in the scale of virtue." "Daphne du Maurier." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 28 Feb. 2013. The story of My Cousin Rachel is rooted in suspicion, desire, and misunderstanding.  It details a feverish infatuation with what is unattainable, exotic and self-possessed, all  in the guise of cousin Rachel.  Philip, naively provincial, foolish and jealous, finds himself to be no match for her. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities, Wherein Two Is Significant

Dualities, alter egos, two cities, twins, opposing halves...yes, duos are an essential aspect of Charles Dickens' novel,  A Tale of Two Cities.  Characters are paired or opposed according to their nature and roles, law and disorder starkly contrasted, and literary themes and motifs neatly matched up in sets of two's.  Let's see what we make of all this in a book so unlike his other works. An hour's book discussion may not be enough time...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Under the Banner of Heaven

Saturday Samplers will discuss Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer this Saturday, Dec. 1, at 3:30 p.m.  Under the Banner of Heaven is an examination of an extremist religion born and bred in America, that of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints, an outgrowth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise know as the Mormon Church.  Centering on a savage murder by two Fundamentalist brothers in 1984, the narrative of this fascinating nonfiction book follows the Mormon faith from its inception to the splintering off of polygamous sects which have spread throughout the American southwest, Canada and Mexico.  Mormonism as practiced by the modern LDS  is also brought under the glare of Krakauer's far-reaching, well-researched book.  The intertwining of faith, zealotry and delusion makes Under the Banner of Heaven a very compelling and thought-provoking book.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Steve Hamilton

"Hello! I hope you'll come in and look around, warm up by the fire, and have a cold Canadian."  So begins the website of award-winning Michigan author Steve Hamilton.  Garnering acclaim for his Alex McKnight series featuring a Detroit ex-cop who has moved to the Upper Peninsula, the author continues to write to favorable reviews. His stand-alone book, The Lock Artist, was selected for the 2011 Edgar Award.  A graduate of the University of Michigan, Hamilton is a Detroit native (now living in upstate New York) who brings a sense of place and character to his Michigan-based stories.  So why not cozy up to his website and learn more about him before we discuss The Lock Artist?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Daniel Woodrell

Here's a interview done last year with Daniel Woodrell, author of The Bayou Trilogy, in which he graciously and frankly discussed his career, writing style and life in the Ozarks.  Movie projects and future books were also discussed as was his break-out book, Winter's Bone.

Since characters are so important to the success of the stories in The Bayou Trilogy, you'll be interested to know that he stated, "I always start with character, I never start with plot. I like to muse on a character and see where they go in my imagination and then follow them and begin to see what they’re up to. Which is a slower way of doing things, but it’s the only way it’s fun for me. And if this racket isn’t fun, there are a lot of things where you can make a lot more money. So it’s got to be fun or I’m not doing it."  Read on to learn how the three Shade novels came about and what he thought of them. Interesting reading.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Christie Hodgen

Christie Hodgen, author of Elegies for the Brokenhearted,  is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an award-winning writer. Her father (shown above with her daughter) is John Hodgen, a poet and college teacher.  A 2006 interview by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette with Christie and her father can be read here.  As John Hodgen notes, Christie has always been quite observant, and that quality stands out as a strength in her writing.  

Certainly the characters in Elegies for the Brokenhearted are beautifully observed portraits of flawed or wounded individuals leading marginal lives, lives most of us might overlook or ignore.  Her narrator, Mary Murphy, does not overlook them, but rather speaks to the ways, large and small, each of five dead people have shaped her own life. These five people may have known her for only a brief time (a college roommate) or all her life (her mother), but each one has impacted Mary's own course through a difficult upbringing. 

While never having experienced a scatter shot life of poverty and marginalization herself, Hodgen creates such memorable, well-formed characters existing on the fringes of society that the reader might think otherwise. The voices given her characters are embued with as much depth as her descriptions of them, each character perfectly identifiable by dialogue and cadence of speech.  Perhaps it was the influence of poetry in her upbringing that gave Hodgen the ability to lift heavy topics to a lyrical, captivating sphere, a place where the reader will not want to look away, but rather savor each story, each elegy.
~review by Evelyn Fischel~

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Broken for You

Published in 2004, Broken for You is the debut novel of Seattle-based writer Stephanie Kallos. The book received numerous positive reviews, and she was named Best First Novelist in 2005 by Library Journal.  Her second book, Sing Them Home, also garnered praise for its development of characters in a physical and spiritual landscape of loss and healing.  While her stories deal with death and loss, sadness and broken lives, the author's use of humor and whimsy lightens the load, reminding us that what is damaged (in life or in the physicality of things) might come to be mended in unexpected ways. To get a taste of the author's whimsical humor, visit Kallos's Web site for her charming, chatty biography, not the official bio, but the one entitled Directions To Where I Live.  The author also includes a lengthy question and answer posting for book groups, so I hope our group will explore away here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sneakers Advised

The merry month of May is just the perfect time to read and discuss Phillip Lopate's Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan.  Our improving weather offers a suitable kick to get us out the door, feet on the street, and heads craned in search of great vistas. We're primed and ready for new adventures - to paraphrase Mr. Lopate, well, that's Spring for you!  

And, of course, Phillip Lopate's book offers innumerable possibilities for day hikes and strolls in neighboring New York.  Coincidentally, there are several walking events taking place in Manhattan this weekend which are referenced by the author.  One is the Great Saunter sponsored by the Shorewalkers which takes place tomorrow.  You'll recall that Mr. Lopate participated (to some extent) in this 35 mile organized walk around Manhattan's shores.  Here is their Web site.  The other notable walking event is sponsored by the Municipal Art Society of New York and is entitled Jane's Walk NYC, in honor of urban booster Jane Jacobs who was discussed numerous times in Waterfront.  There will be over 70 guided, free walking tours throughout the boroughs on both Saturday and Sunday.  Roosevelt Island is featured in one of the tours, and another one is entitled "An Accessible Waterfront for East Harlem."  Link to their Web site here for more information.

In no case are you to pay any attention to these!  Your duty is to show up and discuss the book, right?! Well, I hope to see many of you for our discussion tomorrow; if not, I'll know where you've been. If you wish, please refer to my commentary on Waterfront in Book News and More, also.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff is an award-winning biographer and the author of Saturday Samplers next book, Cleopatra: a Life.  Her biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupery published in 1994 became a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Schiff's biography of Vera Nabokov won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.  A biography of Benjamin Franklin preceded her latest publication, Cleopatra.  (Link here for a list of her books and essays.)  Born in 1961, Schiff attended Williams College and worked for Simon and Schuster as a writer and editor until 1990, at which point she appears to have settled into the steady work of an acclaimed biographer. The video interview below from Borders touches on her writing plans for the future, but is primarily directed to questions about Cleopatra - the person and the book.
~Evelyn Fischel~

Friday, March 2, 2012

Orange or Khaki?

Piper Kerman's prison memoir Orange is the New Black will be discussed tomorrow by our Saturday Samplers group.  Perhaps we should start with the title?  Can't wait to hear what you think of both Kerman and her story.  Here's a Slate review which sentences the author to thirty lashes, while The Book Lady's Blog would vote to commute her sentence.  You be the judge!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Human Nature, Capote-Style

Yes, we did meet in December, didn't we, and we discussed The Complete Stories of Truman Capote.  Our group had mixed feelings about these stories, but that would be natural considering his oeurvre ranged from the 1940's to the 1980's.  Capote's understanding of human nature was remarked upon, even though some members thought he dwelt heavily on its darker side, as exemplified by "A Tree of Night."  The dreamlike inability of the young character, Kay, to help herself stood out in this short story as Kay rode a night train back to college, forced to share seating with strangely unsavory passengers. Victims abound in his stories, many of them young, but Capote also made the victimizer a young person in "The Walls are Cold."  The group enjoyed the ease of Truman Capote's southern storytelling and admired his literary style very much.  The sentimental favorite "A Christmas Memory" and the charming  "Jug of Silver" counterbalanced  more deeply imagined character explorations in such stories as "Master Misery" and "Children on their Birthdays."

Friday, September 30, 2011

S.O.S. The Help

Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, has bloomed into a mega-hit regardless of criticism for its historical inaccuracies and racial insensitivity.  One blog in particular, "A Critical Review of the novel The Help," is just loaded with interesting critical commentary. Nonetheless, many readers seem to adore it for the dialogue and punchy characters inhabiting a story the author thought would never be published.  In fact, according to Stockett, the manuscript was rejected by 60 literary agents before hitting pay dirt in 2009.  Since that time, The Help has enjoyed a great run on the book club circuit, has been released as a major motion picture, and will now be discussed this Saturday by our book group, Saturday Samplers.

The reaction to this particular book is all in one's point of view, but let's start with the book cover. The British book cover shows two black domestics caring for a white toddler in the 1950's or 60's.  The U.S. book cover consists of a muted, pretty illustration of three tiny birds set against a golden background.  What does this suggest?  I don't know, but clearly you are meant to feel good about picking up this novel and going with the flow.  If you read the first edition, would you notice that Medgar Evers's death was inaccurately attributed to a bludgeoning rather than a gunshot?  In several interviews, one with Barnes and Noble on their Web site, the author repeats this error.  Subsequent editions were corrected, but here is a screenshot of the mistake.

Stockett states in a Daily Mail UK interview that the story came about from her memories of her own family's black maid, Demetrie.  Demetrie worked for the author's Mississippi family for 32 years, raising Kathryn and her siblings, and accompanying the family on vacations.  Still, Demetrie was never allowed to use the family toilet, tub or dinnerware, and it never occurred to a young Stockett that this was unusual.  

In an NPR interview with Michele Norris, Kathryn Stockett states about her book, "It's fiction, but some of the facts and the settings and the backdrops - sure, that was Southern life.  Having a separate bathroom for the black domestic was just the way things were done.  Certainly, in my grandmother's time and when I was growing up, yeah, Demetrie's bathroom was on the side of the house.  It was a separate door.  Still, to this day, I've never been in that room."  Regardless, Stockett expresses her love for Demetrie and says, "Demetrie was treated like a queen, in my mind growing up, I should say."  As I said, it's all in your perspective.    

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Elizabeth and Maeve

Elizabeth Cunningham, author of our September book, The Passion of Mary Magdalen, was "called" by her main character through the medium of magic markers. 

Yes, Cunningham possesses a delightful, fruitful, and fanciful imagination which she let wander one day after writing an earlier book.  She decided to pick up markers and start drawing.  What appeared on her sketchpad was a voluptuous naked woman whom she named Madge.

"Madge" had bright orange hair and an attitude.  It wasn't long before Cunningham decided Madge would make a great book character, perhaps a retired prostitute who moves to Maine to take up painting.  From there the idea morphed into a book about Mary  Magdalen, imagined as a flame-haired Celt named Maeve, prostitute, healer and true love of Jesus. 

Now that you are tantalized, read more about Elizabeth Cunningham, her series of Maeve books called "The Maeve Chronicles," and her interesting upbringing as an Episcopalian who became an interfaith minister and counselor. Check her Web site,, and, if you like, follow her on Twitter as EliznMaeve.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist whose first novel, Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague (2001), will be discussed this Saturday at our book meeting.  Brooks grew up outside of Sydney, Australia, and resides there today with her family.  She is a graduate of the University of Sydney and reported for a Sydney newspaper in the early part of her career. After attending a master's program at Columbia University, she also worked for The Wall Street Journal. Her writing demonstrates a wide-ranging interest in historical and cultural topics of an international scope.  Among her books are Nine Parts of Desire: the hidden world of Islamic women,  the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, as well as People of the Book, a fictional piece based on the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah.  The latest novel, Caleb's Crossing, has just been published to excellent reviews and concerns the interplay of cultures, Native American and English, during the American colonial period.  Please visit the author's Web site for more information.  You might also enjoy reading here The Guardian's July 14, 2001 review of Year of Wonders.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

An Immortal Hit in Narrative Nonfiction

Rebecca Skloot, author of our next discussion book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has a very comprehensive Web site on which you can explore her biography, news and articles concerning her science writing career and her award-winning book, and other interesting avenues of information.  Among the articles under the tab, About Rebecca, is an interview she did for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.  Here she discusses how she structured her complicated narrative of Henrietta Lack's story. Shown in the photo below are her colored cards for storyboarding this book.  Enjoy exploring the many interesting links on the site.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tom Rob Smith

London-born writer Tom Rob Smith just may be the go-to author for people who are ready to move on from Stieg Larsson's  Millenium series. Smith's first book, Child 44, bears all the hallmarks of a great crime thriller - enduring suspense, characters who grow with the well-plotted storyline, and a relevant setting of historical authenticity, in this case, post-Stalinist Russia. His subsequent novel, The Secret Speech, and an upcoming publication, Agent 6, carry forward the story of Leo Stepanovich Demidov, former member of the MGB, as he and his family adapt to his new position in the Soviet State security system.

At the heart of Child 44 is the mystery behind a seemingly inexplicable and horrible series of child murders occurring across a wide area of the Soviet Union.  A secretive, paranoid regime is unable to acknowledge that such crimes are possible, let alone that they may be connected.  Innocent victims face torture, character assassination,  gulags and misery, all so that the myth of a perfect political state might be perpetuated.  Meanwhile the vicious child slaughters continue unabated.  

One man, Leo Demidov, develops the conscience and courage to investigate these murders as crimes of a serial killer.  As the author notes on his Web site, "How a crime is investigated is a very useful litmus test for larger forces within a society, the priorities and prejudices of that world.  I guess with CHILD 44 I wanted to combine both those elements, the puzzle and the period in which this puzzle is unraveling." Although the novel's child murders are based on the true crimes of Ukrainian serial killer Andre Chikatilo, Tom Rob Smith fits them into his own web of cause and effect, and once again it is Leo Demidov who is at the center of it all.  

Smith shares that he was always a reader, loved adventure stories and took them in whatever form they came - mythology, history, science fiction, television, drama or film.  Perhaps the author's work as a storyliner for various British television shows following his graduation from Cambridge helped shape Child 44 into a story that would translate well cinematographically.  Apparently Ridley Scott, director of "Alien" and  "Blade Runner,"  thinks so too, as he has bought the rights to the book for a future film production.

~Evelyn Fischel~

Friday, March 4, 2011

Jill Ker Conway

Why reinvent the wheel?  Here is The Harvard Lamplighter's brief bio of our next author, Jill Ker Conway.

A slightly more extensive recap can be found on the PBS Web site.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

John Steinbeck: From Salinas to East of Eden

John Steinbeck 1902-1968
Steinbeck and wife Elaine, 1963

John Steinbeck may be regarded as a quintessential "American" author. His fiction focused on the common man - the Dust Bowl migrant, cannery worker, the  farmhand,  prostitute - the lowly of the American earth.  Nonetheless, he often cast his downtrodden characters in stories suffused with Biblical allegory or Arthurian references.  The stories of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, the banishment from the Garden of Eden, were explored repeatedly in his writings, particularly in our discussion book, East of Eden, published in 1952.

Like the Biblical Adam who was created from dust, Steinbeck's literary life seems to have sprung from the dust of his Salinas origins, the setting for East of Eden.  Born John Ernst Steinbeck III in 1902 to Olive and John Steinbeck in Salinas, California, the author spent his childhood, not entirely happily, in this transitional farming community in the Salinas Valley.  A somewhat lonely child who loved reading, Steinbeck left the valley to attend Stanford, but could never quite buckle down to graduate.  He worked odd jobs as a ranch hand, factory worker, and reporter to support himself while he wrote.

One of his first literary successes was Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, followed soon by Of Mice and Men in 1937 and The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.  Cannery Row was published in 1945 and The Pearl in 1947, although there were many other books and short stories written in the intervening years.  For his body of work, John Steinbeck received The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, ten years after the publication of East of Eden.  He married three times, his last marriage to Elaine Scott being a happy and sustaining one, and he had two sons by his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who was problematic in his life.  His sons suffered from their parents' divorce and were never as close to him as he would have liked.

It is for these two sons, Thom and John IV,  that Steinbeck wrote East of Eden.  In his journal he noted, "And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all - the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness.  I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable - how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born."  In this same journal, which he kept as he was writing East of Eden, we learn that he thought this book " the only book I have ever written.  I think there is only one book to a man."  This journal has since been published as John Steinbeck: Journal of a Novel.

Set in the Salinas of his upbringing, Steinbeck said that East of Eden was also an "autobiography" of this region.  His original title for the book was "Salinas Valley."  Additionally,  it is a history of his mother's family, the Hamiltons.  Steinbeck asserted that all the episodes in it about the Hamiltons were true.  I believe the Trask family, on the other hand, is a device to explore his stated subject of good and evil on a symbolic level and how it interplays with the Hamiltons on a personal level.  Steinbeck was sure that East of Eden would be his greatest work.
~ Evelyn Fischel~

Friday, November 26, 2010

100 Years and Still Writing

Harry Bernstein, author of our next book, The Invisible Wall, is a man with a plan.  Having celebrated his 100th birthday this year, Mr. Bernstein's plan for 2010 is to finish his fourth book, based on his older sister, Rose.  The Invisible Wall was his first major publication which came to print in 2007 when he was 96.  Since then he has written two more memoirs, The Dream, about his family's immigrant life in the United States, and The Golden Willow, about his 67 year happy marriage to this wife, Ruby.

Ruby's death in 2002 precipitated a dark spell of grief for Mr. Bernstein, but he states, "I had this gap to fill.  Writing was sort of therapy.  When you're old, it seems you have no future.  Where are you going to go?  But I could go back to my past." The Invisible Wall takes the reader back to Harry's earliest memories of life with his hard-bitten family in an English mill town in the early 1900's.  Bernstein credits old photographs with bringing back a flood of memories which he then turned into his family's story of poverty, prejudice, cruelty and love.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

X-Rays of Madame X

Technical analysis completed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and published in 2005 reveals some very interesting data about John Singer Sargent's struggle with the composition and shading of Mme. Pierre Gautreau's portrait before and after it was debuted at the Paris Salon of 1884. Museum conservator, Dorothy Mahon, and associate research scientist, Silvia Centeno, demonstrate through X-radiography that Sargent reworked Gautreau's profile at least eight times.

The placement of her arms was changed from a completely different pose, and the angle of the tabletop was revised after the Salon exhibition. Most notably, Sargent altered the falling strap after it had been exhibited, as we know both anecdotally and from a black and white photograph of the Salon painting.  X-ray imaging shows the fallen strap underneath the repainted right arm of the sitter. As the article explains, Singer also changed the color background.

John Singer Sargent sold this portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916. Photographs in this posting are from the article cited:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Freudian Slip of the Strap?

Saturday Samplers will discuss Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis on Saturday, November 6, at 3:30 p.m. in the Community Room of the library.

Strapless tells the fascinating story behind John Singer Sargent's famous portrait of Mme. Gautreau. This life-size oil painting caused an absolute sensation at the Paris Salon of 1884. Exhibited alongside hundreds of paintings by renowned and aspiring artists, Portrait de Mme *** singularly attracted the disdain of both art critics and the Parisian public.

Why should this particular painting of a Belle Epoch socialite arouse such instantaneous revulsion and criticism? After all, Mme. Gautreau was considered to be an exotically beautiful young woman known for her remarkable neckline and figure. Why should John Singer Sargent's work be so reviled when he had successfully exhibited paintings at previous Salons? Could the artist's placement of her loose dress strap be enough to inflame the French or were there other factors behind their general disdain for what is now considered to be a masterpiece? In Strapless, Sargent's career is examined in terms of the impact this portrait had on both the artist and the sitter, Madame X.