Saturday, April 27, 2013

Event Recap: John Boyne

Last Friday I had the pleasure of meeting two fabulous people.

John Boyne was at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL. Prior to the event I met up with Suzanne, an online friend who I was meeting in person for the first time. We initially meet on Twitter and Goodreads and it was really Books On The Nightstand that brought us together for Boyne's event. It was great to meet her in person (and to hear about her experiences at Booktopia)!

I'm trying something new with author events this year. Instead of  taking copious notes on everything an author says, I'm trying to sit back and enjoy the event, listen to what the author has to say, to the questions asked and answers given. I used to approach author events like quasi lectures, sitting on the edge of my chair as if THE answer on how to become a writer would be revealed. Nowadays I know I'm a writer and that writing is a matter of me sitting in my chair and writing & revising the story that I want/need to write.

John Boyne talked a bit about the writing of his new book, The House of Special Purpose, and then read a bit from it, after which he opened things up to questions about the new book or any of his books or anything at all. Boyne actually wrote much of the book in the Winter Palace which now houses a museum and is open to the public. There were about 12-15 people in attendance and folks asked questions about a number of his books.

The House of Special Purpose was orignally published in Ireland and the UK in 2007 and is just now hitting the US market.

One thing I've been pondering since the event is that Boyne said he's regularly asked when will he write a novel set in Ireland. He's Irish, so its not that far-out of a question, but he said that only writers from small countries tend to get asked that question. Writers from the US or the UK don't get asked when they'll set a novel in their own country, but are instead free to write novels set in other countries without question. Interesting, yes?

If you're a John Boyne fan and/or a reader who likes books set in Ireland, you'll be happy to know that the book he's currently writing IS set in Ireland. Boyne said he wasn't necessarily aiming for it, but the right story came along and grabbed him.

I was happy to hear that a screenplay is currently being written for The Absolutist which I read last year and loved. Keeping my fingers crossed that it actually makes it to the big screen.

John Boyne giving a thoughtful answer.
Suzanne and me
Wanda, a boss from my days at Borders, was Boyne's author escort that night--a happy surprise! Boyne is also a former bookseller--he worked at Waterstone's for seven years.
I also purchased a copy of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas which I haven't read yet. I'm waiting to read the book before seeing the movie.
Visit John Boyne's website:

Or click here to go directly to the page about The House of Special Purpose which shows the book's international covers and has a video of Boyne reading from the book.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Recap: World Book Night 2013

Yesterday was the second World Book Night in the USA. I handed out copies of David Benioff's novel City of Thieves at Hines VA Hospital, which is where I handed out books last year. (Last year's recap.)

My first destination was the Women's Health Center and then the cafe (where two baristas accepted books). After that, since Hines already has a book program for inpatients and books are in waiting rooms for those waiting for appointments, I targeted people in the hallways--staff and veterans/dependents that were there for appointments, meetings, etc.

It doesn't take very long to hand out 20 free books at a busy place like Hines. Maybe 30 minutes if you add in some conversations. Most of the people I approached said yes, but there were some that immediately and definitively said NO. Books were not their bag and they didn't have time to talk. Also, my pick this year didn't have the name recognition that my pick last year had which was Stephen King's The Stand (last year a few people said that they'd seen some of King's movies and hadn't read his books, but they'd give it a try).

Below are some pictures of my WBN2013 experience. I didn't take pictures of recipients because it was just way too busy and crowded yesterday in the hallways of Hines.

The box, the book, the badge of honor.
Welcome to Hines!
I ran into my friend and coworker Ann and her friend Phillip. They were walking in as I was walking out of Hines. Ann handed out Tina Fey's Bossypants.
Here's a picture of me. Another rainy day in Chicagoland, but free books seemed to brightened things up!

If you want to get involved with World Book Night next year, I recommend you signup for their newsletter:

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Today is big, big day in American letters--the release date for one of the most important books in recent literary history, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.

Visit the UNL library website here tonight at 7pm CST to watch a live video celebration of the book's release.

I've been excited about the release of other books. I've stood in line at midnight release parties. I've stood outside waiting for bookstores to open in the morning. But when I first heard that some of Willa Cather's letters were to be published I yelled in excitement at my computer monitor. It frightened my dog.

Much has been made of the fact that these letters are being published against her wishes, but even Cather knew that she could not forestall the inevitable. Editors Jewell and Stout explain that Cather's "will itself envisions a moment when her preferences would not rule the day; acknowledging her inability to govern publication decisions indefinitely from beyond the grave, it leaves the decisions for publication "to the sole and uncontrolled discretion of my Executors and Trustee" (ix).

I've been reading my way through the letters. They are refreshing. It is rather thrilling to get a sense of Cather's personality from her own words. I won't presume to write anything more than that at this time, but I do recommend this article about the book by Jennifer Schuessler from The New York Times.

If you're curious about Cather's letter I can't imagine a better introduction to them than these 10 short videos featuring editor Andy Jewell from the The University of Nebraska Archives. Each video is only 1-2 minutes long. In each Jewell talks a bit about what was going on in Cather's life at a particular time and then a female voice reads one of Cather's letters. Great pictures of Cather, the letters, and/or from the period provide backdrop. One of my favorites is number six where Cather pokes fun at her growing fame.

  1 Series Overview
  2 Precocious--1888, the first letter in the collection, Cather at 14
  3 Sarcastic--1896 to a college friend upon moving to Pittsburgh
  4 Frustrated--1908 to Sarah Orne Jewett 1908
  5 Confident--1912 to S. S. McClure
  6 Funny--1919 to her mother
  7 Intimate--1936 to her partner Edith Lewis
  8 Opinionated--1937 to Zoe Akins
  9 Fragile--1938 to Roscoe Cather
10 Reflective--1947 to E.K. Brown, her first biographer

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, editors
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, April 16, 2013
Source: uncorrected proof supplied by the publisher

Full disclaimer: I went to the University of Nebraska, Lincoln for my master's degree and drank the water: I am a die hard Willa Cather fan, but am getting no free stuff from UNL to promote this book. The publisher, Knopf, did send me an uncorrected proof of the book, but only after I begged. I'm also purchasing a copy of this book (my local bookstore has a copy on hold for me) so that I'll have the "real thing." I'm looking forward to seeing the index of this book (uncorrected proofs often don't have all the bells & whistles).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Prairie Silence: A Memoir by Melanie Hoffert

I saw an advertisement for this book on the sidebar of the Lambda Literary Foundation's website. Any book with the word 'prairie' or 'plains' in the title catches my eye. Although I grew up in an urban environment, my family spent many hours driving back and forth between Chicago and Plattsmouth, Nebraska where we spent a lot of time visiting friends that were like family. I loved those drives through what others consider flyover country. We made the drive out there at least once a year and running around the comparatively small town of Plattsmouth made me feel like a country girl.

As an adult I lived in Lincoln, NE for a couple years and spent my free time driving around the dirt roads and exploring abandoned farmsteads in Nebraska and Kansas and South Dakota, only rarely all the way up into North Dakota. I love dirt roads and farms and small towns. I feel like they're a part of me, but I've never been a part of them. I've only ever been a visitor.

Melanie Hoffert grew up on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota. I don't know what the population was when she was growing up, but the 2010 census puts it at 429. Prairie Silence is her effort to try to figure out why it was and is so hard for her to find her voice in her hometown.

Her memoir is about how the silence of the land and the people who work it contribute to the factors that drive young people away from the land and into cities. Its about how the silence of her family conditioned her not to know how to talk about her life, her emotions, her differences from others. She's also a lesbian and knew from the young age of four that she was destined to love women. This, no doubt, compounded the silence. Don't expect a memoir of active abuse, because this is nothing like that.

There's a scene when Melanie is an adult coming home to visit where her mother puts the blame for the silence on her: I didn't ask about your life, she says, because you don't talk about your life. Classic. What came first, the chicken or the egg? At first what the mom says made sense, it sounded reasonable in the context of the story, but the more I thought about it the more it annoyed me.

Reading this memoir solidified my belief that older generations need to speak up, ask questions, create the space for younger generations to talk, hear, breathe. Even if younger people seem like they're not listening, its important for older folks to share their emotions. Maybe if older generations would speak their truth, would share their wisdom rather than give sermons or orders, share their own experiences of emotions, perhaps we could chip away at this cycle of familial and societal silence. It's an emotional version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a policy that is no longer needed.

It seems that many families have this silence, that the prairies of North Dakota are not necessarily unique in this, but for Hoffert the connection is there and she explores it, exposes it. Place is unique. This memoir is both funny and sad, but not tragic. Well, at least it's not capital T tragic. Melanie lived to write about her struggle. Too many don't.

Prairie Silence is reflective and questioning. This is the first LGBT memoir that I've come across that grapples with the issue of place and how place shapes us and impacts our coming out as well as our acceptance of self and growing in to who we want to become. I've read memoirs or essays that touch on silence, but not in a way that ties it so strongly to sexual orientation and place.

When I first finished reading Prairie Silence I wrote in my journal, "Fabulous attempt to put feelings into words and to try to figure out what one is truly feeling in the first place. Will have to let this one sink in for a few days before writing about it." A month later and I feel like I'm still letting it sink in.


Last night I was fortunate to attend a reading that Hoffert gave at Women & Children First along with her "literary midwife" and former writing teacher Barrie Jean Borich. Hoffert said that she wrote about her experience and how she couldn't break through the silence precisely because she couldn't break through the silence. I like that. It's honest. She's still working on her silence. If we're honest, aren't we all, in one way or another?

Melanie Hoffert
Melanie Hoffert at Women & Children First 4/12/13

And here's the trailer for the book:

Melanie Hoffert
Prairie Silence: A Memoir
Beacon Press, January 2013
Source: library copy

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I started reading this novel back sometime in the 1990s, when I was in college or graduate school and still fairly new to the world of academic feminism where The Handmaid's Tale is (was?) considered a must-read. I started it, but didn't finish it, and don't remember how far I read. I just wasn't in the mood for it at the time.

It is probably a book that I've lied about reading...well, maybe not actively lied about, but nodded and said yes, yes when others talked about it. Like Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood is a writer that I've read more about than have actually read of her work.

But The Handmaid's Tale was a novel that I knew I'd eventually read and it was one of the first books that I included on my reading list for The Classics Club.

For those of you unfamiliar with this novel, it's a dystopian story about a future America that is organized into districts. The U.S. government was destroyed in a brutal takeover by a militaristic Christian organization called the Sons of Jacob. The new country is renamed the Republic of Gilead.  Like some of our contemporary politicos, the new leadership warps Christianity to fit their purposes. Women are not allowed to read and Bibles are kept under lock and key. Women are subjugated, races segregated, and Jews given the option to convert to Christianity or to move to Israel.

In this future society, many people are rendered sterile. Let me rephrase that, many Caucasians of the upper classes are rendered sterile or just don't procreate as much as other races. In addition to sterility, another reasons for the downward trend in Caucasian reproduction was the increase in birth defects, access to birth control, and women having careers. After the Constitution was eliminated, one of the first steps taken by the new government was to dismiss women from their jobs and eliminate their access to their own money.  Money is available only to husbands or to the male next of kin. Behind the scenes centers are set up that indoctrinate young women into becoming handmaids, women who will be used for breeding purposes by the leaders of the new government.

The story is told by Offred, a youngish woman who is of the first generation of women selected for training and work as handmaids. In the days before the new theocratic government Offred was married and had child. It's through her eyes that we learn about life before and during the early years of the new republic. Her mom was an activist feminist and her best-friend, Moira, a lesbian. Neither woman fares well in the new society. Indeed, no one really fares well in this new society, not even the elite men who designed this society. For a time, these elite men try to have their cake and eat it, too.

At the end of Offred's story is a surprise "ending," a metafiction that takes the reader even further into the future, into a lecture hall at an academic conference where a scholar of the Republic of Gilead talks about the discovery of and significance of what has been been named "The Handmaid's Tale." It turns out Offred's narrative was a recording made on cassette tapes, which were already an archaic form of technology when the tapes were recorded. We learn more about the society through this lecture.

The story itself is excellent--thought provoking, tense, thrilling. There is fear, secrecy, longing, resignation, risks, betrayals, and executions. The social critique that Atwood offers is still highly relevant, perhaps even more relevant today than when it was published in 1985.

It was also enjoyable to see the influence of this novel on subsequent books that I've read. Two recent novels that came to mind are The Hunger Games, which also divides its totalitarian United States into districts, and The Passage, which incorporates a futuristic academic conference as part of the story.

Have you read The Handmaid's Tale? Are there novels that you've read that were influenced by it?

Oh, and if you're an Atwood fan, which novel of hers should I read next?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Review of ON THE ROCKS by For Every Morning

The blogger over at For Every Morning was one of the winners of the giveaway WildmooBooks hosted for On The Rocks, the first book in the new mystery series featuring Willa Cather and Edith Lewis by Sue Hallgarth.

Here's a snippet of For Every Morning's review of On The Rocks:
Hallgarth excels at descriptors. Her restrained depictions of environments or the simple movement of a hand are clear evidence of her adoption of one of Cather's most revered devices. Evidenced throughout the novel, this asset is consistently very well placed, more than once causing me to stop and engage my senses in the scenery. Very refreshing!
To read the review in its entirety click here or copy this address in your browser:

To learn more about Sue Hallgarth, visit her website at

Monday, April 1, 2013

Hello April!

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey

I am so excited/relieved that March is over and we're now in April. March is usually one of my favorite months, but this month has been strange. Actually, the whole first quarter of 2013 has been a bit odd for me for a variety of reasons. As a result I have let my 2013 reading challenges languish: 0 books read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 0 books read for the Revolutionary War Challenge (although I did buy a copy of James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy), and 2 books read for the TBR Pile Challenge (My Life in France and Max Perkins).

One thing that's different about this year is that I've started writing fiction much more consistently than in years past. I now have a fantastic writing partner and a monthly deadline, both of which are helping me be accountable to my goals. So far I've written and/or revised three stories and submitted one to a contest. It's been years since I've submitted a story.

During this first quarter I also volunteered as a judge for a book prize. This is the second time I've served as a literary judge. The first time was for a short story competition hosted by my local NPR station, WBEZ in Chicago. I read 40 short stories for that and it was quite manageable. This time around the reading load was much heavier, 22novels. I think the novels started rolling in around late January and my deadline for reading and giving feedback was mid-March. This was a tough time frame for me as I'm a slow reader, and it meant cutting out pretty much all of my other reading. I'm glad to have gone through this process and look forward to seeing what the final outcome is for the books under review, but I'm so happy its over and I can read whatever I want to again! (At this time I can't say more about the judging process or what organization this was for.)

The first book I picked up after the judging was Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery. I was saving it for my birthday weekend and it was a delightful treat. Penny's novels are so full of humanity—humor, pain, confusion, knowing—and she's taking the characters down some pretty hard roads. I cannot recommend her Chief Inspector Gamache series enough. (But if you start it, note that it does take a couple books to rev-up, at least it did for me. Stick with won't be sorry!)

I also read Prairie Silence, Melanie Hoffert's memoir of growing up gay in North Dakota and learning how to come home as an adult who speaks her truth. FYI for those of you in Chicagoland, Hoffert is doing a reading at Women & Children First on April 12th at 7:30pm.

I'm currently (finally) reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I bought it for my sister's birthday last summer and she loaned it to me a long time it'll be like a new present by the time I give it back to her. I'm enjoying Gone Girl, but find I'm reading it in small chunks. Based on what everyone I know whose read it has said about it, I'm surprised I'm not tearing through this novel. I love Flynn's writing thus far and kinda feel like I did when I was a teenager reading Stephen King for the first time (although I read those in huge chunks). I'm also savoring reading through a galley copy of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. If you know a Willa Cather fan, buy it for them (or yourself!) when it comes out on April 16th.

What are you reading now? Have you read any standout books this year that are must-reads?
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