True Events of Unlikely Female Spies & Doctor Zhivago Inspire a Debut Novelist
They say inspiration can come from the most unlikeliest of places. For Lara Prescott, debut novelist of the recently released book, “The Secrets We Kept,” it was a room full of post-World War II typists working at the CIA in Washington DC. Gossipy, repressed, often bored, but always curious, these women, referred to as “the girls” by their male superiors, longed to make their dull responsibilities as challenging and exciting as their families assumed they were. Unbeknownst to the rest of the pool, two of the women managed to do just that. And thus began a writer's journey that would lead several intriguing story lines, based on actual historical situations, and memorable characters that cross over continents and alliances.
Throughout the novel, readers are taken from the typing pool at the CIA, to Boris Pasternak in the Soviet Union as he eagerly and painstakingly crafts the his now famous book, “Dr. Zhivago. While he takes it over the literary finish line, he, with the help of his mistress, they try to keep it out of the hands of Russian officials who hardly want it to see the light of day in Russia, let alone get translated and garner the international acclaim it eventually did. It isn’t long before the banned masterpiece is coveted by the CIA, determining its value far beyond entertainment. It was believed to be a love story with important political messages between the lines, and the CIA, with the help of two female agents, would go to great lengths to acquire it and launch its worldwide release. “The Secrets We Kept” uniquely and successfully ushers in a world of drama, love, international espionage, with a hint of bad-ass female power.
The men would arrive around ten. One by one, they’d pull us into their offices. We’d sit in small chairs pushed into the corners while they’d sit behind their large mahogany desks while speaking into the ceiling. We’d listen. We’d record … Sometimes they’d refer to us not by name but by hair color or body type: Blondie,, Red, Tits. We’d had our secret names for them, too: Grabber, Coffee Breath Teeth. They would call us girls, but we were not. We came to the Agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. We were the first daughters of our families to earn degrees. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly planes. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was “Can you type?”
Several months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Texas-based writer, Lara Prescott while she was in the Bay Area promoting the novel. I just recently followed- up the initial connection with a phone interview on the heels of books release this month. Here is part of our conversation -
PF: The story crosses genres, including historical fiction, suspense and literary fiction. Did you plan that or did it happen organically as the story evolved in the writing process?
LP: Towards the end of the first draft I could see there were all these different pieces coming together and different genres. At first it wasn’t super intentional but once I could see the different influences from my own reading coming on display with what I was writing.
PF: You obviously formulated great use and presentation of strong female characters, despite the suppressive era of which they lived. How did you approach those character developments, especially of the two leads, Irana and Sally?
LP: The first voice that came to me was the typists. I had been thinking about writing this story about the hidden story behind Dr. Zhivago , but I was pretty intimidated. As I was researching and going through a lot of redacted memos, I came across this voice of the typists. I kept thinking about the typists behind the memos. That sent me down a rabbit hole of researching the CIA, typing pools and the clerks. At first I saw them as a group, but then Sally and Irina emerged from that. Once I was writing their stories, I began research on Boris Pasternak and how his wife and mistress, no matter what, stood by his side. I knew if I only told the Wester/ CIA side of the story, it wouldn’t be complete. Pretty soon it was anchored by the strong female voices, but I wasn’t limited by it. In both stories- in the East and West- I was very interested in the women behind the men.
PF: Throughout the story, the reader is taken back and forth between story lines, between the characters of the CIA in the West, and those in Pasternak’s life. Did you write it that way, going back and forth?
LP: I wouldn’t say it was written as it appears now. Once I got the key players, I would write through their story lines and spend multiple months with each one. When I was in my Olga phase, I would stay there awhile, but then I would go to Sally, etc.
PF: You obviously spent much time devouring Dr. Zhivago, the book and the movie. Were you a fan before setting out on this project?
LP: Absolutely. I was raised with it because it was my mom’s favorite book, and for both my parents, it was one of their favorite movies (the David Lean version). I grew up watching the movie and then read the book in my teens. As a teenager I became obsessed with all the great Russian novelists. It’s changed the way I’ve read and perceived it over the years, but I definitely have a true love for the novel. I didn’t hear about the CIA connection until 2014 when Washington Post journalist, Peter Finn, did a FOIA request for these documents to be released by CIA. As a result, he wrote a non-fiction book call “The Zhivago Affair.” I read that and it inspired my process.
PF: Did you read and/or watch Dr. Zhivago during your writing process or did you feel that would distract?
LP: I read the novel while writing my book about three times just because with Boris, a lot of Uri Zhivago is kind of his counter. That help me to know how he viewed him. Plus, I wanted to figure out which parts of the book would have been state censored. As far as the movie while writing, I watched it twice. Once was while visiting family during the Christmas- that’s a beautiful and appropriate time of year to watch it. And then I watched it again when an old theater in Austin was showing it. That viewing was with a group of friends and after I sold the book to Knopf. That made for a particularly special experience.
PF: Is it true there was travel involved for your research process? You made connections abroad related to the book.
LP: The first place I went to was Russia. That was while writing the first draft. I went to Russia and outside of Russia where the writers’ colony took place and where Boris lived. It was absolutely inspiring to go to his house, to walk around the village where he lived, and to see his burial site in a local cemetery. I don’t speak Russian, so it was hard to navigate, but just to be in that atmosphere was effective.
I did also go to London. Oxford is where Boris’ family settled after leaving the Soviet Union- his father, mother and two sisters. Boris’ great niece still lives in the family house, Ann Pasternak. I got to meet her. As you can imagine, that was a special experience. Different parts of the family have varying views of Olga and elements of the Pasternak legacy.
PF: I noticed your name is spelled L-A-R-A, as opposed to more traditional American way of the spelling. Is that at all related to the story?
LP: Yes, I was named after Lara in the story. It’s funny, I always resented the way my name was spelled cause people were always mispronouncing it. Now it actually was a source of inspiration to investigate the story, ultimately write the novel, so I see it as a gift.
Currently, Lara is in the throes of an extensive book tour, but is still contemplating her next project. She told me she’s considering two ideas with one being a historical novel taking place in her hometown of Austin, while the other one is more contemporary. That being said, she is allowing herself space to enjoy the success of what’s going on now, and eventually maybe some downtime, but soon enough, she’ll decide on her next novel and focus on that.
The Writer’s Nightstand - Writers are readers, with either new reads their devouring, or books they love revisit. I asked Lara what’s on her nightstand?
LP: I recently finished “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips, and I’m reading “How We Fight for Our Lives,” a memoir by Saeed Jones. As far as the favorite I go back to is “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones. That book is a masterpiece. I also read his short story collection frequently. As far as what I’m looking forward to, that would be Ann Patchett’s new book, “The Dutch House.”
“The Secrets We Kept” has been translated into 28 languages and will be adapted for film by The Ink Factory and Marc Platt Productions. It is published by Knopf and available for purchase. It’s destined to be a favorite among booksellers and make the “Best Of” many literary lists for 2019. Please be encouraged to purchase it from your local independent bookstore in person or online. Below are a few indie store selections and their links.
Book Passage - San Francisco and Corte Madera, CA - https://www.bookpassage.com/
The Strand - New York City - https://www.strandbooks.com/
Books are Magic - Brooklyn, NY - https://www.booksaremagic.net/
Mahogany Books - Washington D.C. - https://www.mahoganybooks.com/
A Real House of Racist Horrors Make For Great Fiction
From the atrocities of slavery to the horrific realities of the Jim Crow South, award-winning author Colson Whitehead delivers a literary one-two powerful punch with his latest novel as follow-up to masterful book, "The Underground Railroad." This 2019 release is very different in style, structure and elements, but equally impressive book from a more contemporary era. “The Nickel Boys” takes place in Florida during the Jim Crow era. In it, he does a fictionalized version of the life of two boys in a reform school that is more about imprisonment and racism than actual reform or education. Although the name of the school has been changed, it did exist. And the real life recently revealed atrocities and murders took place there, served as inspiration for the novel. The main character, Elwood, who, after abandoned by his parents, spends most of his childhood with his grandmother in a predominantly black community of Tallahassee, Florida. Throughout his youth he is kind, quiet and obedient. He is also smart, which does not go unnoticed by one of his teachers, and his boss, the owner of a small tobacco shop. They, along with his grandmother, are thrilled that he gets an opportunity to accept a scholarship to attend a nearby black college a year or two ahead of the traditional timeline. In the months leading up to his departure, he follows the progress of the Civil Rights movement and its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is in awe of his teachings and social impact, and he is excited to be closer to “the action” when at college.
It is en route to the school that Elwood, and the readers, are reminded that life is not fair, especially for a young black man in the Jim Crow South. While hitching a ride to the college, he and the driver are stopped by police because they were black while driving a nice car. Despite Elwood's age and obvious innocence, they both end up arrested for car theft. Elwood was sentenced to several years in Nickel Academy- far from college and his dreams of academia, and even further from his grandmother, the only family he had. The harsh environment of Nickel Academy initially proves especially challenging for a sweet soul like Elwood. When he tries to do the “right thing” and help someone else, he is beaten and stored in solitary confinement. Upon release and after being befriended by classmate, Turner, he learns, for a period at least, to keep his head down and play by the rules. All the while, his hope for freedom and a better life, is through retrieving the teachings of Dr. King that he committed to memory, and obtaining freedom for his fellow inmates. As such, Elwood yearns to have the reform school exposed for what it really is.
King described “agape” as a divine love operating in the heart of man. A selfless love, an incandescent love, the highest there is. He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side oft the struggle. Elwood tries to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. The capacity to suffer. Elwood- all the Nickel boys- existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured.
Throughout the novel, which is a surprisingly brief 200 plus pages, Whitehead commands an assured voice. He has fully drawn characters whose psyche and circumstances you sympathize with, empathize for, and champion on. What is not expected, is a wonderful and welcome restraint of which Whitehead craftily incorporates throughout. He could have overwhelmed the reader with intensity and details- rightfully so, understandably so given the subject matter- and still have been appreciated and applauded. Instead, to his credit, Whitehead takes you right to the edge, without pushing you over. His prose and descriptions are nuanced, brief, yet impactful nonetheless. It is the combination of a writer operating at the top of his skills, along with a horrific history and rich fictionalized characters that make "The Nickel Boys" an inspired, essential read.
I know people don’t usually think in terms of non-fiction books for a good beach read, but why not? There are plenty of non-fiction books that read like a novel and/or can maintain a lightness, which is the preferred style for summer. I’ve selected a few for your consideration. Don’t think because they’re lighter, per say, that they lack in substance or likability.
HOT READS IN THE SUMMERTIME: Portable & Affordable
Although summer officially kicked off a couple weeks ago, there are still plenty of hot, long days left, with most people getting their vacation on. That will involve traveling far and way as well as lounging on local beaches for many. As such, I’ve compiled my now annual list of recommended titles for “Summer Reads,” and I’ve got something for everybody, so don’t think this is for the ladies who lunch … or rather lounge. I’ve got you covered for mixing up the genres too, including a mystery thriller and a dramedy) For the most part I’m keeping it light, regarding content and physically speaking (paperbacks rule!). That goes for both categories, fiction and non-fiction. There are a couple of exceptions as two of the novels have heavier story lines (“American Marriage” and “Washington Black”), and one is in hardback. Obviously, I thought these two were worth making an exception for, and you should too. Trust me on this.
Taking Up Space Has Never Tasted So Good
"Supper Club" is brash and delicious debut novel by Lara Williams, and an appropriate follow-up to her acclaimed short stories collection, "A Selfie as Big as the Ritz." At the center of this dark comedy is Roberta, who is somewhat awkward and shy. Like most women, she has always felt the need to not be seen or take up much space while navigating life and love, or the lack there of. She is on the threshold of thirty, friendless, and caught in between a lackluster job writing product descriptions for a fashion website and pursuing any semblance of personal and professional ambitions. The only thing more painfully boring than her current state of affairs, was her time in college ten years earlier. Enter new friend Stevie, an outgoing artist who quickly consumes Roberta’s world, igniting her to reach for more in life and to pursue her passion for food. Early on in their friendship that led to sharing a flat, Stevie spied out Roberta’s culinary skills coupled with her enjoyment in cooking. As such, Stevie encouraged Roberta to consider cooking professionally, and when one night artist friends of Stevie’s stopped by and were treated to a Roberta special dinner, they too endorsed the idea. Initially, Roberta balked at such a prospect, but soon enough, she comes around.
In bed I blinked at the dark while Stevie shuddered to sleep. I thought back on the evening. How perfect and imperfect it had been, both in equal measure. How nourishing it was to cook for people I actually liked. I thought of the mountain of washing-u[ I had to do. The removal of a Matchstick that hd been trodden into the carpet. I wanted more evenings like that. In the morning I woke up, and idea was already in my head.
“That’s what I want to do,” I told Stevie, shaking her shoulder. “What?” She asked hazily.
“I think I want to start, like, a supper club?” I said … “But kind of a wild one.”
And though I enjoyed cooking for Stevie, there was always a sense of deeply private communion to it. I liked the option to eat feverishly alone. But the thought of gathering people together and cooking for them felt plump with potential. A clan of my own that I could feed and nurture. An image of us, wild and hungry- and still expanding. The weight gain was Stevie’s idea. She wanted us to be living art projects.
Thus begins a unique collaboration of feasts and friends, a food club taking place in random and sometimes ill-gotten-access locales. Such a story deserves more than a traditional review. After getting an opportunity to meet the Manchester, England-based author while she was on a U.S. book tour, I followed up with a few questions about her quirky, funny, yet touching novel that is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a testament to female empowerment.
PF: Can you summarize the novel’s main character and what motivates her to co-create this unusual group? Please also expound on the group’s behavior during the meetings.
LW: Supper Club is split into two timelines, and we first meet Roberta at university, and then again, ten years later, when she comes up with the idea for Supper Club. I wanted to spend the first timeline exploring the different ways women are tacitly encouraged and rewarded for taking up little space, and through that, explore ideas about the female body and appetite. The idea driving the Supper Club is, what if you lean into what you want and more, what if you actively take up more space than that to which you feel entitled. I was also interested in the novel as a transgressive text, and what a transgressive novel might look like from a female perspective. Women’s bodies are so often used as the tools through which men transgress, in books such as American Psycho or A Clockwork Orange, and so part of the Supper Club is a reclamation. I would say there is a low-level dark comic voice which runs throughout the novel, and I was definitely interested in humor as a distancing strategy in parsing trauma.
PF: What drew you to create such a unique character? Or maybe she’s not so unusual. Do you see her as representing the angst of many young women of her generation?
LW: I don’t know if she necessarily represents any kind of generational angst, and that wasn’t really what I was trying to represent, so much as I was interested in the various ways women are socialised not to take up space, which I don’t think is a particularly generational thing, though is certainly still experienced.
PF: Besides being a character-driven novel, it’s also a fun food-themed story. How did you approach combining the characters, issues and food aspects?
LW: I wanted to include not exactly recipes, but sort of embodied or methodical experiences of following a recipe throughout the novel, or slightly protracted meditations on different types of food and what they might represent. Part of that was my interest in what it meant for me as an author to take up space on the page, and part of that is very much representative of Roberta and her state of mind at a given point.
PF: I hear you’re vegetarian. Was that a particular challenge for you to incorporate meat, etc. into the dinners?
LW: Yes, I have been vegetarian for over ten years, and it is something I feel strongly about, however, I also felt strongly the women of Supper Club needed to be eating meat. I am a big fan of the writer Carol J Adams and her work on gender and meat eating, it is quite a masculinity reinforcing practice. And thinking about the Supper Club as a transgressive text, meat eating felt important in that.
PF: From inception to completion, how long did this project take you? What was your writing routine?
LW: It probably took a few years, all in all, and had a few different iterations. I didn’t have a hugely strict writing routine, and I went from working full-time in marketing to being a freelance writer while writing it. And so to begin with I was writing on weekends and after work. But after going freelance I wrote a lot of it in Manchester Central Library’s reading room, which I actually sort of hated writing in as it’s deathly silent and any tiny movement reverberates around the room. It was really a space in which your movements are very contained, and you can take up very little space.
PF: D id you have any eating habits or favorite snacks and meals while working on Supper Club?
LW: I don’t really eat or snack when I’m writing. Maybe the occasional doughnut.
PF: Who are some writers that inspire you?
LW: A lot of writers I consider “influences” are probably writers who mainly write short fiction, writers such as Mary Gaitskill, ZZ Packer, Bobbie Anne Mason, Lorrie Moore.
PF: What are some of your favorite books?
LW: Some books that I have been thinking about and returning to a lot recently are The Answers by Catherine Lacey, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, and Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto.
PF: What’s on your nightstand?
LW: I’m currently reading The End Of The Story by Lydia Davis.
PF: What’s next for you- another novel, short story collection?
LW: I’m currently working on a new novel, and it’s a work of speculative fiction, which is not something I have written before.
Support indie! Support local!
"Supper Club" is released on July 2nd. Buy it from an independent bookstore near you!
Access suggested link here: BOOK PASSAGE
From "The Beautiful No" to Oprah & the Beautiful Now
If you were an Oprah Winfrey Show viewer, or even if you were like me, only occasionally tuning in, you probably remember her long-time producer, Sheri Salata, who Oprah often referred to and gave credit to. Sheri was a fixture on camera for the behind-the-scenes footage during the countdown to the show’s conclusion. It was obvious she was an Oprah confidant and a producing guru, lovingly steering the #1 talk show in America. Many probably had the thought at one time or another, “How did she land that dream gig, and what was it like moving on from it?” Sheri answers those questions and many more in her recently released memoir, THE BEAUTIFUL NO AND OTHER TALES OF TRIAL, TRANSCENDENCE, AND TRANSFORMATION. It wasn’t easy getting that dream job that she ended up devoting her life to. She also didn’t start at the top there, working hard at several positions within Harpo Productions, and after 20 years, it was a major transformation to walk away and re-set her life on several levels. She recounts that pivotal time in her book while encouraging others to take stock of the past, present and most importantly, the future.
I’ve had a dream-come-true career but not a dream-come-true life. Will that be my whole story? What will be yours? Being someone’s faithful wife, someone’s excellent mother, or being someone’s devoted employee does not a a full life make. It’s not the whole dream. As I lift my eyes to the big, beautiful, expansive second half of life the is yet to be formed, I summon up the courage to take a good look at what I have created so far. It is time for a reckoning.
Most of the book does not focus on Sheri’s dream job and larger-than-life boss. The focus is on transitions and finding her footing post- all-consuming job while in the middle of her life. It’s some of what the many fans of her podcast hear regularly, and then some. I had the pleasure of recently meeting Sheri and the honor of moderating a book talk with her. Below is part of what we covered throughout the fan-filled (hers, not mine- ha) event.
PF: You mention that in looking back on your life, you realize you were born to be a producer. How so?
SS: Well, what it looked like to others was that I was very bossy and I had to be in control of every detail of everything, so my cast members of all of my early “productions” were my cousins. Once I got my first big break as an adult, it was in advertising as a secretary by my best friends fiancee. I wasn’t a very good secretary, but he taught me everything. And then I knew I was in the vicinity of what I thought I was supposed to be doing. It felt great and creative, and aligned with my talents. It felt like making something.
PF: You took advice early on from a friend who told you, once you got your foot in the door at the Oprah Show, to keep your head down, do the work and you’ll be noticed. You don’t have to push yourself on someone, but rather your hard work and talent will have people taking notice.
SS: Well, when I started at my entry level role as a promo producer at the Oprah Show, 35-years-old, I’d had a string of not so great years. In fact, the day before I started I was totally broke and didn’t think I’d be able to pay my rent, and when I walked through those doors, I had enough experience, working other places to know that oh. My. God! This is amazing. Look at this coffee bar, and everything is free. There was a TV in my office that I was required to watch and look over as Oprah talked to people like Depak Chopra … and that was my job! I knew I won the Powerball, while the 21-year-olds were whining. I was there 15 years in different roles before being offered Executive Producer.
PF: But was it there or then that you noticed the power of stories, personally and professionally, that you reference in the book?
SS: True, but that came late. I didn’t necessarily have that wisdom then. It only was in the middle of life that I finally, really see how important the stories we tell ourselves. Why that makes all the difference. That voice that we have in our heads that repeats, and if you take a moment and listen to that voice, it is very shocking and sobering to hear how you talk to yourself, how you may have talked to yourself for many years. Most of my revelations have come at the end of that magical experience at Oprah.
I worked for Oprah for almost 21 years. I was in the promo department a really long time, and then they pulled me out from there. I really did take the advice of my former boss. I just put my head down, you give me a job, I’ll do it. Even more than that, because I was older, I had disappointments, I had felt like a failure so many times, that I knew what it was. I knew I was in the midst of something special. This was going to be more like a mission than a job. My favorite experience of the whole thing was that I was paid to build a spiritual life and exposed to new ideas. I needed to use story to make sense of these experiences, and the biggest one of all was you need to fire that voice in your head. You have achieved in spite of that. The second half of your life is going to very much depend on bringing in a new voice, and the number one quality of that new voice is tenderness and compassionate.
PF: How did that realization help you through that fateful transition from being married to a job you love, supporting your boss and your staff, to it all coming to a halt?
SS: I had this epiphany that I had manifested the career of my dreams, but not the life of my dreams. I sat with that and hunkered down with my best friend who was going through a similar situation but for different reasons. What we said to each other was that we believe it’s never too late to live the life of your dreams, but if not now when? If not now, maybe never. All of a sudden life looks very different. I call it the RECKONING, and you can either appreciate what you’ve accomplished and just coast, or you can look forward to or embrace the new paths.
PF: Where does the title come from? What is the beautiful no?
SS: I knew I wanted a job at the Oprah Show, but in trying to get there I thought I needed to land one last major job, no more of this freelance stuff. I thought if I could just get a big job at a big agency, making lots of money on huge brands, that’s going to be great. As such, I got an interview, felt I nailed it and celebrated way too early, last ten dollars is in the bank, I’m broke again cause I’ve been freelancing, so I’m waiting for my start date with the ad agency and it never comes. I get the fateful letter from HR saying I didn’t get the job. I go through the usual depression routine of hair in ponytail, sitting in front of TV eating potato chips, then a few days later I get a message from the Oprah Winfrey Show. After dusting off an old resume I had submitted years ago, they asked me to come in as a freelancer. Fast forward years later, I had a revelation of what would have happened if I had gotten that ad job I interviewed for. I never would have quit it- give up a full time, big pay ad job to freelance at Oprah?! I wouldn’t have done it cause I thought I needed security in my life at that time. I realized then, that was the best no I had ever gotten in my life.
PF: A true life lesson for anyone at any age, that there can be life after no, after rejections.
SS: Or maybe this. I’ll take it one step further. All no’s are beautiful! The real trick, the master here, in that moment even if you can’t see it yet, just say, “Okay, it’s going to be exciting to see how beautiful this is.”
PF: Through your podcast, do you and your friend and podcast co-host Nancy, have now regular events helping people navigate the middle of life like the one mentioned by an audience member?
SS: No, we’ve only done one so far. We wanted to help people, like us figure out how to up our game in the middle of life. It’s the only question we want to have.
For more about Sheri’s unique journey, life after Oprah and the exciting things going on with her now, buy her book from an independent bookstore, check out her website (thepillarlife.com), and listen to her podcast, The Nancy & Sheri Show.
SHOP INDIE! SUPPORT LOCAL!
"The Beautiful No" is available at an independent bookstore near you or on their website.
Access the suggested link here: BOOK PASSAGE
If your reading is inspired by seasons, celebrations and commemorations, then June is a great time to take advantage of books centered around gay and lesbian characters and stories. According to Wikipedia, ‘the month of June was chosen for LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As a result, many pride events are held during this month to recognize the impact LGBT people have had in the world.” Since the literary world has been greatly impacted by LGBT writers and stories, there is much to read. As such, let’s get started with yet another list (not in any particular order):
- PAPER IS WHITE - Hilary Zaid
Set in ebullient, 1990s Dot-com era San Francisco, Paper is White is a novel about the gravitational pull of the past and the words we must find to make ourselves whole.
- LESS - Andrew Sean Greer
Who says you can't run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can't say yes--it would be too awkward--and you can't say no--it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world. This is a unique, hilarious travel romp as well as coming-of-age in the middle of your life story. It’s easy to understand why it won the Pulitzer Prize.
- STRAY CITY - Chelsey Johnson
A thoroughly modern and original anti-romantic comedy, Stray City is an unabashedly entertaining literary debut about the families we’re born into and the families we choose, about finding yourself by breaking the rules, and making bad decisions for all the right reasons.
He Will Either Compel or Repel- Ocean Vuong Stands Out as a New Voice in Fiction
ON EARTH WER’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, is a unique story with an even more unique approach and style by poet Ocean Vuong. The novel is written as a letter from a son, at the time in his late 20s, to his mother who is illiterate. The letter/story, the narrator-protagonist called Little Dog, reflects back on his life as the son born to a Vietnam immigrant single mother. Throughout, he gives images of harsh upbringing and struggles with his sexuality and lack of acceptance. The harsh background was due in part to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, a pattern carried on because she too had been abused throughout her life in Vietnam. It’s as if when she beats him, she is in a trance and unaware of what she is doing and the toll it will take on his young life.
In his teen years, Little Dog, has a connection and friendship with a white classmate, Trevor, who too comes from a one-parent household, and also victimized by that parent, his father. Trevor’s father is a tough, macho type of guy, who is also bitter and an alcoholic, often going off on his son in fits of drunken rages. It doesn’t take long for Trevor and Little Dog’s friendship to deepen, giving way to first time sexual experiences for them both. While Little Dog falls in love, it is uncertain that Trevor adopts such feelings, or allows himself too. Either way, their sexual relationship and any romantic feelings, remain a secret. That is until Little Dog confesses to his mother, all the while anticipating banishment as a result. Given his cultural background, steeped in homophobia, and his mother’s background, steeped in over-sensitivity and abusiveness, he broaches the subject with trepidation.
Sometimes, when I’m careless, I think survival is easy: you just keep moving forward with what you have, or what’s left of what you were given, until something changes- or you realize, at last that you can change without disappearing, that all you had to do was wait until the storm passes you over and you find that-yes- your name is still attached to a living thing.
A few months before our talk at Dunkin Donuts, a fourteen-year-old boy in rural Vietnam had acid thrown in his face after he slipped a love letter into a classmate’s locker. Last summer, twenty-eight-year-old Florida native Omar Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub, raised his automatic rifle, and opened fire. Forty-nine people were killed. It was a gay club and the boys, because that’s who they were- sons, teenagers- looked like me: a colored thing born of one mother, rummaging the dark, each other, for joy.
The pages are filled with ruminations on being beat down by life and survival, as well as really seeing each other, and the importance of throwing out a life line to one another. Stylistically, it often bounces in and out of thoughts and rhythms, more liken to stream of consciousness writing than a traditional format or pattern. By design, and unapologetically, there is no plot. There is also no means to an end or “gotcha” moments. Some will In that beautiful and engaging, while others might find it a bit contrived and too tricky to navigate. Either way, do not be fooled by the books brevity. Clocking in at just under 250 pages, it’s still not a quick, easy read. On one hand it’s a statement on a mother-son relationship fraught with both love and troubles, but on the other, it boldly goes into literary territories exploring issues of race, class and sexuality, without supplying solutions.
it is not surprising that Ocean’s background is rooted in poetry and ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, would serve as his transition into literary fiction. It’s an impressive debut novel with a distinctive voice that will not be for everyone, but sure to be appreciated by many.
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Photo credit: Deborah Feingold
A Dynamic Fictional Rock Band Makes for a Great Summer Read (and movie)
For a fun romp through 70s rock music era, wonderfully mixing sex, drugs and rock n roll, look no further than “Daisy Jones and the Six.” Taylor Jenkins Reid (TJR), author of the “Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” and pictured above, uniquely presents her characters through a series of interviews. Initially and throughout much of the book, we do not know who is conducting the interview, and there is no need to. What is important and utterly captivating are the subject of the interviews, which is made up of members of the young new band, The Six, the deliciously sexy and talented singer/wanna-be- songwriter, Daisy Jones, and their entourage, family and friends. The purpose of the audio documentary is to uncover what brought the group together, and more importantly, what tore them apart. While the Q&A writing style can initially be daunting, maybe off-putting, after a quick mental adjustment, it feels just like reading any other traditional novel format. In very little time, readers will be hooked on the disparate, carefully crafted characters and TJR’s addictive writing.
Daisy is a product of her LA upbringing in the late 60s and her non-attentive artist parents. At the tender age of fourteen, she frequently slips out of her house and into seedy parts of the city, including sneaking into clubs on Sunset Strip. She’s intrigued by the music and drugs, while boys in the bands are intoxicated with her stunning beauty. While she’s growing up wild in LA, across the country, two brothers hone their musical talents and form a band with nominal notoriety. Over the next several years, and while they the time they make their way to LA to cut a follow up to their debut album, Daisy has come into her talent as a singer and determined to be taken seriously. Their worlds collide through a common manager, who susses out that in order for The Six to get more attention for their next project and on the road, they need Daisy, and she could use them to launch a career. The results of the union are explosive on every possible level. While a musical hit is made in studio, taking it on the road proves more challenging. Like many a 70s rock group, temptation is rampant, tensions run high and personalities clash with Daisy and the Six. Will they survive their own passions and demons? Ultimately, the journey through their ups and downs; the break ups and make ups, is as heartfelt and poignant as it is exhilarating. The end will both surprise and slay you.
Thanks to the intrinsic details of each wholly realized, engaging character and believable situations, it’s easy to forget this is fiction. Every step of the way, you are there-in the recording studio, on the road, in hotel rooms, in rehab, in clubs and stadiums. Likewise, you feel you can hear the songs and see the tie dye shirts, floppy hippie hats, frustrated record producers, hot sex and omnipresent groupies because with every aspect, Reid successfully transports the reader. As a result, it's been endorsed by Reese Witherspoons Book Club and picked up for film rights. Look for it to come to a movie theater near you.
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An Enchanting Tale of Magic and Harsh Realities
It’s easy to approach the debut novel "She Would be King" by writer Wayétu Moore with an odd mixture of excitement and skepticism. Excitement because there had been much buzz within literary circles that Moore was a welcome fresh voice to fiction and that her novel was unique and fanciful against the backdrop of the harsh topic of slavery. The skepticism among some, like myself, due to my unfounded bias against magical realism. As it were, the very elements one would think could work against this ambitious work of literature, is in fact it’s greatest strength. It is instead a refreshing blend of history, literary fiction and magical realism that absolutely and wonderfully works. This wholly unique retelling of Liberia’s origins is both powerful and poetic, and half way through the read, the thought comes across, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?!'
To tell her tale, Moore enlists the personalities and talents of three dynamic and unforgettable characters to shine light on the dramatic realities of the formation and liberation of Liberia. The characters come from different lands making up the slave diaspora, and end up joining forces in Africa. Gbessa, a young orphan who is a loner and unlike the other children in her West African village, is exiled and left for dead because the community believe her to be a witch. June Day a field-turned house slave of a plantation in Virginia is put in a situation where he can no longer deny or hide is epic strength. As a result, he successfully flees his people and circumstances only to end up on a ship bound for Africa. Eventually, June Day connects with Norman Aragon, a slave from Jamaica born of mixed heritage and touting the indispensable gift of being able to vanish from sight. All three meet in Monrovia where they’re shared history of being outsiders and feeling useless, find a new home, albeit still fraught with unique challenges. It is in their new found companionship that their special powers and storylines converge for the country’s greater good.
Beyond the book’s complex themes and dynamic and magical characters, is the sheer talent of Moore, the creative mind that brought this story to life. She seemingly writes with ease, clarity and confidence beyond her young age and limited experience as evidenced in the passage below.
In those days they called it Monrovia. Monrovia is where they would meet.
Norman Aragon had climbed onto the ship completely unseen, remained hidden under the quarterdeck for most of the two-month trip. He stole food from passengers and the crew to eat during the night. He vanished and toured the for anything he could find, and retreated to a hiding place in the midst of the cargo. Some weeks he went days without eating, and his strength lessened with the rolling tide. To distract himself from his hunger, he used the thin light from a crack in the ship to read and reread on of the three books he carried in his linen bag. I watched him through those openings; I spilled into his hiding places, turned the pages of his books. We did not have books on Emerson. That place where we lost our language, lost ourselves. They told us we had no history but darkness, so they kept the books away for fear we might understand the truth better, and thus find those lost selves.
Although Moore fled Liberia as a child with her family, moving to the U.S., the love of her country and interest in its history has been ingrained. With “She Would be King,” and at the age of 33 now, she is exploring ways to bring stories of her homeland to American audiences in a unique way. No surprise that people here and abroad are taking notice and anticipating what’s next from this unique, young talent