Thursday, September 8, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante (continued)

I finished the book last night, and I still highly recommend it. (See my first blog on the book below.) I didn’t correctly figure out the whodunit, and I was surprised. The end felt a shade contrived to me, but on the whole it’s an excellent book. There are many literary decisions that were made by the author that I applaud. For example the way the author shifts the point of view as the book goes on is very interesting and contributes to the reader’s understanding of the growing sense of alienation caused by the disease. The book is divided into 4 sections, and I like that choice and the reasons for the separation.

The book is very dialogue-heavy, and I especially enjoyed the dialogue. This author writes good dialogue. There was an interesting ( and increasingly common in other books as well) choice made not to use quotation marks.  The main character speaks and makes observations in regular font, and the person or persons to whom she is speaking are in italics, and that is how the reader knows who’s talking. (There were also really big line breaks between lines of dialogue – almost as if they were trying to pad the books’ length!) I’ve seen other authors use this technique recenlty (Nicole Krauss comes to mind), and I wonder why this choice is made. Is it simply too difficult/annoying/time-consuming to type in all those quotation marks when you’re writing? (I have tried to write dialogue, and in fact it is annoying to keep typing the quotes!) Maybe this is another convention that is changing because of computers (like the now frowned-upon habit of putting two spaces after each period). 

But I digress... Read this book!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Back to school!

School started yesterday, both in the Rosemont graduate publishing program (where I work) and for my kids, so summer is officially over! Welcome back to the real world, y'all!

I’ve been staying up late the last few nights reading a great book. It’s called Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante. I had read somewhere, I think in Publishers Weekly, that the book was getting good reviews, so I requested it from the library. I am grateful to the reviewers for pointing this book out because I am loving reading it!

The book tells the story of Dr. Jennifer White, a 64 year old woman descending in Alzheimer’s. Interestingly, it is told from her point of view. I think the author does this masterfully, giving us a sense of the confusion of time, the forgetting, the trying to make sense of the world, and the moments of lucidity when she knows what is happening and what she is in the process of losing. 

The crux of the plot is that Jenny’s dear friend Amanda, a slightly older woman and life-long friend who lives three houses down in the same Chicago neighborhood, has been found murdered. She was killed by a blow to the head and, strangely, someone has surgically removed four fingers from one of her hands. Since Jennifer White is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hands, she is the prime suspect. But how to pin a crime on a woman who can’t remember anything and who doesn't from day to day, even remember that Amanda is dead?

As we go through the book, we flash back and forward in Jenny’s life, learning stories and secrets about her husband, who died the year before the book opens, her two adult children, her complicated friendship with Amanda, and about Jennifer herself. As I read, I am of course wondering about the “whodunit” aspect of the book, but for me the more interesting part is the literary peek inside this woman’s mind, and the clever way the author presents memory, experience, and conversation. 

I’m about 50 pages from the end of this book and will be sorry to see it end. Kudos to the author!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Literary Update and a Great New Book!

I’ve been busy collecting new books to read. Last week I met with the wonderful Erin Lovett of W.W. Norton and talked about some of their very interesting books coming up for Fall ’11. I’m looking forward to reading a new book by Pam Houston (love her!), as well as two other novels, White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby (sounds like a great book for foodies) and Heft by Liz Moore, a Philadelphia author.

Speaking of Philadelphia authors, in October I’ll be launching a new reading series at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts ( called Philly Writes, in which we’ll be featuring local published authors. If you want to save the dates for the first few readings, they will be October 19, November 9, December 14, and January 11. Authors to be announced soon!

And speaking of reading, I read a wonderful first novel in my last meeting of this past spring/summer session of Hot Off the Press called The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (Viking). I love this book! It’s smart, quirky, fun, unusual, and well-written. Just my kind of book!

If you want to learn more about it go to the author’s website and start by reading an FAQ written by the author. You’ll like her immediately—she’s sharp, funny, and sassy:

The Borrower borrows its title from a classic children’s book by Mary Norton and tells the story of children’s librarian Lucy Hull, who borrows a ten-year-old boy named Ian Drake for a cross-country road trip where one of them may or may not be kidnapping the other.

The story begins in a Midwestern city that Lucy decides to call Hannibal, MO. Lucy meets Ian during the library story hours she conducts. He is an exceptionally bright child whose reading interests are hampered by his evangelical parents (who may be trying to de-gay him with classes with Pastor Bob). Soon they wind up taking off on a journey that brings them into contact with a host of wacky characters including Lucy’s Russian immigrant father, a pianist (lots of fun to be had with that word!) named Glenn, and more!

The book is fun and playful and clever and you might stop there and never notice (but you should) that beneath its deceptively playful exterior is an examination of a complex array of serious issues (what it means to be an expatriate, running away, the importance of literature...). There are Lolita and Huck Finn parallels and references to a wealth of wonderful children’s (and adult) literature. I highly recommend it!

Thursday, August 4, 2011


I get the prize – not the Nobel, not the Pulitzer – the Patchett! I have now read every single book Ann Patchett ever wrote! I set myself this literary goal and I achieved it! Hurrah for me!

Here’s what I read (Note: I did not read it in chronological order):



The final entry on my Patchett reading list was Taft. It was wonderful! In fact, after Bel Canto, it’s my favorite of her novels. It’s the story (I think) of two men struggling to figure out how to be good fathers. The first is John Nickel, a former drummer who manages a bar in Memphis (it takes place late 80s/early 9os). His ex-girlfriend has recently moved to Miami with their nine-year-old son Franklin, and he is struggling with learning how to father the boy from afar, and filled with regret for his perceived past misdeeds, such as not marrying Franklin’s mother, Marion.

Into John’s bar one day walks a young girl named Fay seeking work. Fay brings with her a host of complications, including her brother Carl, and a sad story that slowly unfolds of their father, Taft, who has recently died, and the life they left behind in a “hillbilly” town in eastern Tennessee. As Fay comes to mean more and more to John, he begins to imagine the life of Fay and Carl’s father, and the story begins to cut back and forth between these imaginings (or are they real?) and the present day story, which encompasses the bar, music, love and relationships, family, and some danger. (When John casually mentions, early in the book, the gun left in his desk drawer by the bar’s owner, we must think of Chekov’s warning: when there’s a gun in Act I, it will go off by Act III.)

The book is masterfully written and is, I think, a Patchett gem that should receive more acclaim. Some refer to it as one of her weaker books, but I disagree. I also read somewhere that she doesn’t think it is well-titled. With that I do agree. Nonetheless, if you’re a Patchett fan and haven’t read this one yet, bump it up the list!

Now back to that prize I mentioned. I was chatting yesterday with my friend Debbie Albert, who is also a member of this select club of readers who have conquered the Patchett canon. Debbie thinks we deserve lunch with the author. I think that’s quite an excellent idea. I told her I’d look into it. So as soon as I post this, I’m going to e-mail Ms. Patchett’s publicist at HarperCollins and send her this link. So, Jane, what do you say?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lorene Cary launches Literally Speaking: Author House Parties

On June 30th I launched my new event series: Literally Speaking: Author House Parties. My first guest was author Lorene Cary.

Lorene Cary is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, founder of Art Sanctuary, and author of the memoir Black Ice and the novel The Price of a Child, the 2003 selection for One Book, One Philadelphia.

The event featured Cary’s newly-published book, If Sons Then Heirs, which tells a complex story of family, race, and the challenges of reconciling the present with a persistent past. Publishers Weekly says: “Cary pairs generations of loving, and loyal individuals with social history, making for an absorbing and moving tale.”

The book is a compelling read, with lively, likeable characters and fabulous dialogue. Cary’s got a great ear for voices. I particularly liked Selma, the aging matriarch trying to hold together the family farm in South Carolina, fighting off conflicts from family, the law, racism, and a slew of memories from a life lived through a number of controversial periods in American history.

My great thanks to Lorene Cary for making the trip and sharing her time, her warmth, and her insights with the audience at Literally Speaking!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Patchett Again

The other Patchett book I read recently (in addition to the one discussed below, The Patron Saint of Liars) is her newest one, State of Wonder, just out and already on the bestseller lists. Patchett’s publicist calls this book “her best one yet,” but it’s no Bel Canto. Hard to imagine anything can beat Bel Canto. The students in my Hot Off the Press class liked this book, but my feelings are more lukewarm.

It’s a Heart of Darkness of a book, a fraught voyage down the Amazon to a deep, dark outpost where scientists are studying the amazing long-lasting fertility of a particular tribe. To this place goes Dr. Marina Singh, sent by her pharmaceutical company employer (whose president is also her lover) to a) find out what happened to the guy they sent before who never came back (Mr. Kurtz, he dead), and to find out what’s happening on the promised drug development front down there. The company wants a return on its extensive investment!

Why send Marina? Well, because she has to go, of course. That’s how the plot works. Never mind that she’s just some obscure scientist toiling away on researching lipids for a cholesterol drug, hardly an Amazonian warrior. Besides, it turns out (ta da!), that M’s deep dark secret is her mistake in medical school, a botched delivery while studying obstetrics, studying under the fearsome Dr Swenson—the very doctor now ensconced in said Amazonian outpost.

Marina goes, descends Orpheus-like to hell, and lives to tell the tale. On the way we meet doctors and scientists, local tribesmen, gatekeepers and hangers on-ers. An anaconda is wrestled, a baby is successfully and dramatically delivered (to make up for past mistakes), and the missing man’s whereabouts are accounted for. We also chew some tree bark and there’s the requisite Patchett tie-it-all-up-neatly twist near the end, but hey, I’ll leave you a surprise or two.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Patron Saint of Liars

Just finished another Ann Patchett book, The Patron Saint of Liars. One more (Taft) to go in my campaign to read all of Patchett’s work! This one’s from 1992, and it has Patchett’s signature style: great storytelling that draws you in, richly-drawn characters, and beautifully-crafted sentences.

The book begins in the early 20th century with a prologue in which a farmer discovers on his property a spring which appears to have healing powers, healing his animals and ultimately & miraculously saving the life of his young daughter. This draws crowds and a wealthy couple who build a fancy hotel at the site, which for many years is a popular destination. When the Great Depression hits, the spring dries up, as do customers for the hotel. The couple donates the hotel to the Catholic Church which uses it first as a convent and then as a home for unwed mothers.

Fast forward to the mid-1960s where we meet Rose, a nineteen year old Catholic girl lighting holy candles and praying for her sign from God to tell her what to do with her life. She meets a guy she thinks she’s meant to marry, marries him, and soon discovers her mistake. A few years later she finds herself driving away from life as she knows it. She’s leaving, she’s pregnant, and she’s heading for St. Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers, the above-mentioned former spa and hotel.

When Rose arrives at St. Elizabeth’s, the author carefully describes the somewhat shabby grandeur of the place. I picture a huge white-washed cedar-shingled Victorian, a quiet oasis where guests relax and read and ponder life. Sounds like a great place to be—I could use a retreat like that!

The book is in three sections, each narrated by a different character (if I tell you who the three characters are I’ll totally give away the plot!). Rose is the thread throughout, Rose the perhaps-failed Catholic who is the title’s patron saint of liars, who covers her tracks as she goes through life, sharing as little as possible about herself with those with whom she shares her life.

Rose, as presented through her own voice and then from the point of view of two other characters, is an interesting character. I liked her, while at the same time wanting to smack her on the side of the head and say “come on, give a little – a word, a hug – something!” Rose makes so many choices that seem so wrong. In fact, now that I think of it, I’m pretty mystified by many/most of Rose’s choices. This would be a great book club book, because it bears talking over. I need someone to discuss Rose with!Anyone out there read it?