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Teju Cole – Known and Strange Things

There is another possible book that contains all that is not in this one.

 So says Teju Cole in the introduction to his wonderful essay collection, Known and Strange Things. Wide-ranging and deliciously exploratory, the collection tackles politics, art, literature, and travel. I love essay collections that are not narrowly defined, collections that lay the path open for surprise, as this one does. 
While Cole is referring, in part, to the many previously published pieces that he has not included in this collection, hos words ring true for me as a novelist. In every book I write, I fall short of my own expextations. For every book that I publish, there exists another one, just out of reach, “that contains all that is not in this one.” 

A Review of the New Thriller Baggage, by S.G. Redling

Baggage, by S.G. Redling, is an edge-of-the-seat thriller about a young woman haunted by her violent past. Anna Ray works in the student advocacy office of a small liberal arts college in Western Virginia. Her mother incessantly sends her letters from prison, where she is incarcerated for the murder of Anna’s father. A year ago, Anna’s husband committed suicide. When a professor who has been courting Anna is murdered in a particularly gruesome way on anniversary of her husband’s and father’s deaths, the reader and Anna are both left to wonder who has come back for vengeance, and why. Is Anna herself to blame? Her controlling but supportive cousin? Redoing had me until the end, when the resolution veered away from a deeper exploration of character, toward horror-film shock value. I’ll be interested to see what Redling writes next.

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My Interview with Elizabeth Strout, & her new book My Name Is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout Interview

Following the publication of Olive Kittredge, I sat down with Elizabeth Strout at the JCC in San Francisco to interview her. I found Strout to be kind and very funny, generous with her stories, and a bit shy. She spoke of growing up in the end of a dirt road, and of her mother’s desire to be a writer. Her mother, a high school writing teacher, bought her notebooks and encouraged her to write everything down. “She’s the whole reason I’m here,” Strout said. The notebooks have not survived, as “we were not a sentimental family.” She also discusses the stage fright she felt when Amy and Isabelle was published, a stage fright she has since gotten over, and the difference between being a writer and an author.

When My Name Is Lucy Barton was published, I was surprised to find the voice of the narrator so different from the voice of Olive Kittredge and so similar to the voice of Strout, the author. I read the book in a single day, carried along by the unflinching way the narrator addresses her childhood, her marriage, and her life as a writer.

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

If you loved Olive Kittredge, read this. If you hated Olive Kittredge, read this. What this slim novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, shares with Strout’s blockbuster bestseller is an intense examination of the life of one woman. What differs is the tenderness of the voice. If Olive Kittredge is all (or most) hard edges, Lucy Barton is fragile, a woman capable of great love and even greater forgiveness. This is a story of mothers and daughters. It takes place almost entirely in the Manhattan hospital where Lucy is convalescing. Her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in many years, comes at the behest of Lucy’s absent husband to sit at her bedside. Over the course of their guarded conversations, made up of unanswered questions and rapidly told stories, we learn about Lucy’s childhood–made difficult both by poverty and by her parents’ great shortcomings. The mother who has never said “I love you,” and still can’t, who once locked the young Lucy in a truck for infractions real or imagined, who failed to keep her daughter safe or warm or clean or even properly fed, is seen here in her deep vulnerability and in her guarded love for the child she can’t understand.

In the second half of the novel, Barton tells of her accidental encounter in a Manhattan clothing store with a writer named Sarah Payne. Years later, Lucy takes a writing class with Sarah, who tells her that she must be fearless, that she must be honest and write her one story without the fear of hurting anyone. This novel feels like that story.

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Listen to my 2010 interview with Elizabeth Strout, following the publication of Olive Kittredge.

Coffee instead of tea, please!

 Fika: The Art of The Swedish Coffee Break, with Recipes for Pastries, Breads, and Other Treats, by Anna Brones, Johanna Kindvall (Ten Speed Press)

A sweet, inspiring guide not just to baking, but to the concept of the Swedish Coffee Break. This is tea-time for coffee lovers, a compendium of recipes combined with meditations on the art and essence of fika. The traditional recipes aren’t for the impatient, though. These require time, love, and care…which is what fika is all about.

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5 Great Novels to Read This Fall

The RoomThe Room by Jonas Karlsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightfully strange novel that brings to mind Kafka and Hrabal. When a narcissistic office worker named Bjorn discovers a secret room, his co-workers, who do not believe the room exists, ostracize him. While in the room, however, Bjorn does his best work, making himself indispensable to the company. The co-workers who despise him come to resentfully rely on him to keep their entire department relevant. A slim, tricky, maddeningly amusing novel that leaves many questions unanswered.

There Must Be Some Mistake: A NovelThere Must Be Some Mistake: A Novel by Frederick Barthelme
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forgetful Bay reminds me a lot of the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. No one does Gulf Coast torpor–the heat and humidity and wrenching boredom of it–quite like Barthelme. Wallace Webster lives a quiet life, observing the strange goings-on and frequent deaths in this backwater community with a sharp eye and quick wit. I was reminded of the short story “The School,” by Barthelme’s brother Donald, in which a series of small animals dies, leaving a group of innocent children wondering, “Is death that which gives meaning to life?” As with “The School,” the crimes that befall Forgetful Bay become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Barthelme draws Webster’s relationships with the various women in his life–daughter, co-worker, and occasional lover–with tenderness and complexity. A wonderful novel by one of my favorite writers, whose work proves, again and again, that you don’t need a lot of pages to cover a whole lot of emotional ground.

Marta Oulie: A Novel of BetrayalMarta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal by Sigrid Undset
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 1907 novel by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1928, still holds up to scrutiny today. It is now, as it was then, a very modern novel. The subject–the interior life of a young married woman who desperately longs for a more passionate life–made waves in Norway upon its publication and has been translated for the first time into English. A beautifully written, deeply affecting journey into the mind of a woman struggling against convention.

Academy GirlsAcademy Girls by Nora Carroll
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When single mom Jane Milton, recently divorced, returns as a teacher to the stuffy boarding school where she spent her formative years, she is bombarded by sinister memories and shadowed by a former classmate. Moving back and forth between Milton’s senior year and her current life as a teacher, Academy Girls is a compelling mystery about how the crimes of the past echo into the future.

The New NeighborThe New Neighbor by Leah Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Delightfully creepy and quietly terrifying.

View all my reviews