Guest Post and Giveaway: Are You Sometimes (*gasp*) a Reading Lemming?

Kelly Simmons, author of the new novel Standing Still, is sitting in for me today!  Read the giveaway details at the end of this post:

us_coverAre you sometimes (*gasp*) a Reading Lemming? 

In a great article recently in the New York Times fiction reading has finally been declared as being on the rise.  The folks in charge of the National Endowment for the Arts credit community-based reading efforts, book clubs, and popular franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight for this turnaround. 

We should all rejoice at this news, indeed.  But . . .  popular franchises driving reading?  Ouch.   That’s like fast-food driving eating.    That’s like sequels driving movie-going.  That’s like . . . oh crap, that’s America, isn’t it?! 

ksimmons_4866One of the biggest challenges I face with my daughters is convincing them to read books that aren’t series.   (That, and convincing them that normal high school freshmen don’t wear designer dresses and drink Bellinis like they do on Gossip Girl.) But they’re young, and young readers have loved lining up numbered books on their bookshelves since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.   But what about adults?   Grown men and women so hungry for sameness, for a “sure thing”, that they read the same franchises and authors over and over and over again with a blind eye to their flaws.  (Confession:  in my youth I was a Kurt Vonnegut junkie. And you?) 

But book clubs don’t do this – they support diversity, they embrace new authors, they mix it up.    Don’t they?   Well . . .  I visited 86 clubs in 2008, promoting my debut novel Standing Still, and while I loved every minute of it (except for getting hopelessly lost in Maryland, where you apparently sometimes need to take the Beltway East when you’re heading West –who knew?)  I was truly shocked by  how many well-known titles were being chosen month after month.   It seemed only books that were heavily promoted by the publisher, heavily reviewed by lots of media , and heavily blurbed with quotes from other authors were being picked.   Worthy books, sometimes.   But very, very, popular worthy books.  And, yes, the same books did seem to be selected by every club I visited. (If I heard the words “Three Cups of Tea”  one more time I thought I was going to choke on a cinnamon stick.)  The bottom line:  in that kind of environment, I had to consider myself extremely fortunate to have been chosen by any book group at all.   Even though Standing Still, with its cynical view of marriage, its romantic view of activism and kidnapping,  its flawed, panic attack-laden main character and its ambiguous plotting and ending, is a book guaranteed to spark discussion and debate.  Even though I’d gotten some truly glowing reviews.   Even though the book clubs raved and said it was like a “simpler starker Bel Canto.”  I was flat-out lucky to be getting considered, and I was humbled down to my bones once again. 

What happened to me is by now a familiar lament.   My book didn’t have an advertising budget.  My handful of glowing reviews all arrived too late to be placed on the jacket cover (they had to be saved for the paperback.)   And no famous writer wrote me a fawning quote for my cover because I’ve never canoodled with any famous writers, other than sitting next to Tom Wolfe at an Amtrak station.    (And yes that’s how it’s done – through favors, just like Illinois politicians.  Oh, don’t act so shocked!) 

Yes, even book group members, as intelligent and independent-thinking a group as you could hope to find, are looking for guidance.   For the comfort of someone else’s belief to inform their decisions.   That’s not bad, that’s just human.   And we all do it, even those of us who know better. 

What I hope you realize, though, is the power you have as an influencer yourself.   Surely your friends ask for your opinion on what to read all the time.  And is there any point in recommending something everyone else is reading?   Don’t people depend on you to go a little deeper?   After all, when you ask a stylish friend where to get a great fitting pair of jeans for Saturday night, do you really want her to whisper “Gap” in your ear? 


Kelly Simmons, a former journalist and advertising creative director, is the author of Standing Still, in paperback February 10, and coming soon, The Bird House.   She visits as many book clubs as she can (here’s a great article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about her visiting clubs).  And she’s now offering an exclusive Book Group DVD to those she can’t.   For more information, see her website or email her at kellysimmonswrites@yahoo.com.

Now for the giveaway!  Win an autographed paperback copy of Kelly’s new book, Standing Still!  From the product description on amazon.com:  “A riveting debut novel that will appeal to fans of Sue Miller and Janet Fitch, Standing Still is a powerful exploration of the darker side of mother-hood and marriage.”

Leave a comment here by Monday, Feb. 9th, for a single entry, or mention the giveaway on your blog (send me the link) and be entered twice.  Good Luck!

Hot Town, Summer in the City

I hope you enjoy this really cool group, Pilobolus!  I especially like the elephant!

Don’t forget, today is the last day to enter the contest to win Live a Little by Kim Green from Hachette Book Group and Books on the Brain!  I’ll have a new review and giveaway beginning tomorrow.  Have a great weekend!

Giveaway and Q & A: Immortal by Traci Slatton

Jennifer at The Literate Housewife is starting an online book club in September, and the first reading selection is Immortal by Traci Slatton!  I have 2 copies of Immortal to give away (I received 3, but selfishly, I’m keeping one!).  I ask that you only enter the contest if you’re interested in participating in Jennifer’s online book club.  All you need to do is leave a comment here by Friday, August 15th.  

**edited to add:  If you sign up for Jennifer’s book club, she’ll send you a fancy handmade bookmark.  She rocks!

The publisher sent me a Q & A with the author to use along with the giveaway, so here goes:

About the Book

Q&A for Traci Slatton
Author of Immortal
Tracilslatton.com

Tell us about your book, Immortal.

Immortal is a rags-to-riches-to-burnt-at-the-stake story. It’s a journey of spirit and an education of the heart. That said, it’s the story of a mysteriously gifted street urchin who undergoes the darkest moments possible and still goes on to find true love, deep friendship, hope, faith, and ultimately the deepest secrets of his origins.

Why did you write this book?

I love to tell stories! I was working on a non-fiction book about science and spirituality. (Piercing Time & Space, ARE Press, Virginia Beach, VA: 2005.) It was fascinating research, but I found myself longing to write fiction, to create characters and wrap myself around adventure, conflict, and obstacle. Story lust drove me.

The book takes place in Florence during the Renaissance: What inspired you to choose this setting?

This goes back to the previous question. Renaissance Florence is a character in this novel–it’s inextricably interwoven into the story. It’s why I wrote THIS book. More explicitly, I am married to Sabin Howard, who is one of the foremost classical figurative sculptors working today. (www.sabinhoward.com) Think Michelangelo’s work: that’s what my husband’s work resembles. Moreover, Sabin is half-Italian; his mother is from Torino and he is completely fluent in the language. So, for him, Renaissance Italy is alive and well. It’s a part of our everyday discourse. I was always interested in Renaissance art but it’s become a passion because of living with Sabin.

Also, Florence between 1300 and 1500 was an intense and extraordinary place, almost unequalled in history. Art, philosophy, learning, commerce, banking, and government were all burgeoning and concentrated into this small city, making it the center of Europe. Out of Florence radiated invention and innovation. One of the popes called it “The fifth element of the universe.” Only Paris between the two world wars comes close to the fervor of creativity that was taking place in Florence during the Renaissance. It’s a powerful time to write about.

How did you come up with a protagonist like Luca?

I wanted a character who would meet and make an impression on my two great Renaissance heroes: Giotto and Leonardo. This character had to be the kind of man who could inspire love, lust, envy, admiration, and riveting hatred in other people. And he was going to face terrible challenges, so he had to have personal resources to help him through. And his suffering would make him humble and give him a hunger to love and be loved.

Lucas plays many different roles – orphan, companion, healer – throughout the story, which do you personally relate best to?

Perhaps to the healer and the companion. I was a hands-on or spiritual healer for many years, and Luca gets to do what I always longed to do: lay hands on and cure someone completely, even bring a dying man back to life.

I have four daughters, and in the best moments of parenting, there is a companionable aspect to it. There are moments when all the little stuff falls away, all the blah-blah-blah about messy bedrooms and parties and grades and allowances and health concerns, and my children and I are friends, laughing together. Even my little one, who is 3, sometimes sits and chats with me as if we were two good buddies. I treasure those moments.

Luca meets da Vinci, Botticelli…“immortals” whose impact on society is still apparent. Can you talk to us about some of those figures, and the way they still shape modern society?

They have left a legacy of art and ideas which is the foundation of western civilization. Petrarch, who is a friend of Luca’s in Immortal, articulated the notion of the individual self (see Ascent of Mount Ventoux) on which we built the United States: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” This is a radical change from the earlier systems of society, and it came out of the Renaissance. The great Cosimo de Medici who led Florence from 1434 to 1464 established the Platonic Academy, which formulated the ideals of humanism which are now axiomatic in our worldview. Even our pop philosophy, eg The Secret, has its roots in Pico della Mirandella’s Oration on the Dignity of Man: “O highest and most admirable felicity of man to whom it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills!”

The great artists like Leonardo and Botticelli left us ideals of beauty that are still unparalleled. Leonardo left behind a prototype of a polymath genius as the highest aspiration.

Part of what makes Luca’s story so beautiful is the time period it is set in and the people he encounters. Do you think it would have had the same significance had it been placed at another time, such as the present?

Renaissance Florence is such an integral part of the story that it’s hard to say. I am, however, considering bringing Luca back in a future book that is set in Paris between the two world wars. Readers who love Luca can stay tuned…

Luca witnesses many important historical events throughout his life. What kind of research did you conduct for these?

I read a million books (okay, maybe a hundred), searched on-line, spoke with friends and relatives with extensive historical knowledge (my husband is a Renaissance sculptor and my father-in-law is a history teacher with a PhD), and I corresponded with, or spoke to, a couple of professors. I also like the History channel for shows on history! And we visited Italy several times, spending much time in the Medici chapel in Florence and the Pinacoteca Vaticano in Rome.

No one but me is to blame for inaccuracies, distortions, and out right fallacies.

What are your future writing plans in writing?

I am working on the sequel to Immortal right now.

Any advice you could give to beginning novelists out there?

Persist! And know who to trust with your work.

Queen of the Road Giveaway!

 “Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents..”  Why is this song stuck in my head, you ask?? Well, because I’m reading “Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion, a romantic travel memoir of when the author and her outdoorsy husband decided to chuck it all and spend a year traveling the country in a converted bus.  Yes, a YEAR in a bus, with 2 cats, a poodle, and lots of shoes! I’ve barely started the book, but so far it’s fun and funny- I love her sense of humor. Here’s more about it from Broadway Books:

Summary: A pampered Long Island princess hits the road in a converted bus with her wilderness-loving husband, travels the country for one year, and brings it all hilariously to life in this offbeat and romantic memoir.

Doreen and Tim are married psychiatrists with a twist: She’s a self-proclaimed Long Island princess, grouchy couch potato, and shoe addict. He’s an affable, though driven, outdoorsman. When Tim suggests “chucking it all” to travel cross-country in a converted bus, Doreen asks, “Why can’t you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?” But she soon shocks them both, agreeing to set forth with their sixty-pound dog, two querulous cats—and no agenda—in a 340-square-foot bus.

Queen of the Road is Doreen’s offbeat and romantic tale about refusing to settle; about choosing the unconventional road with all the misadventures it brings (fire, flood, armed robbery, and finding themselves in a nudist RV park, to name just a few). The marvelous places they visit and delightful people they encounter have a life-changing effect on all the travelers, as Doreen grows to appreciate the simple life, Tim mellows, and even the pets pull together. Best of all, readers get to go along for the ride through forty-seven states in this often hilarious and always entertaining memoir, in which a boisterous marriage of polar opposites becomes stronger than ever. — Broadway Books

Want to win your own copy of Queen of the Road?  Just visit the Queen of the Road website and click on the “share a thought” link on the roadsign on the left.  Once you are there, leave a comment by Monday, July 28th, about anything!  You can talk about your own travel experiences, your love of shoes, a trip you took with your spouse, your pets, how much you enjoy my blog (hee hee), the author’s website, or ANYTHING AT ALL!  It’s entirely up to you. Just leave a comment along with your email address, and mention that you got there via Books on the Brain.  Ms. Orion will be selecting a winner and will forward the info. to me so that I can send out the book.  This contest is open to US and Canadian residents only (sorry!)

This book is everywhere right now.  It was the featured book club selection in June at Borders and is the Adventure at Every Turn book club July selection at Celestial Seasonings!  In fact, Celestial Seasonings is running an awesome Iced Tea Drink recipe contest inspired by this book, which starts each chapter with a cocktail recipe.  The prizes are pretty spectacular, so I suggest you check it out.

Doreen Orion’s website can be found HERE.  She is more than happy to visit with book clubs via speaker phone.  Here’s a reading guide to help with discussions.

And you can check out reviews of Queen of the Road HERE and HERE.  Good luck!

Guest Blogger: Author Joshua Henkin Talks about Book Groups

In conjunction with a giveaway of a signed, first edition hardcover copy of Matrimony, author Joshua Henkin is sitting in as a guest blogger at Books on the Brain.  Leave a comment on this post by May 15th for a chance to win!

These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, “Daddy, are you going to a book group or just a reading?”  My daughter doesn’t really know what a book group is, but in that phrase “just a reading” she has clearly absorbed my own attitude, which is that, given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter.

I say this as someone who has never been in a book group (I’m a novelist and a professor of fiction writing, so my life is a book group), and also as someone who, when my new novel MATRIMONY was published last October, never would have imagined that, seven months later, I’d have participated in approximately forty book group discussions (some in person, some by phone, some on-line), with fifteen more scheduled in the months ahead.  And this is while MATRIMONY is still in hardback.  With the paperback due out at the end of August, my life might very well become a book group.

Part of this is due to the fact that my novel is particularly suited to book groups.  MATRIMONY is about a marriage (several marriages, really), and it takes on issues of infidelity, career choice, sickness and health, wealth and class, among other things.  There is, in other words, a good deal of material for discussion, which is why my publisher, Pantheon/Vintage, has published a reading groups guide and why MATRIMONY has been marketed to book groups.

But I am really part of a broader phenomenon, which is that, as The New York Times noted a few months ago, publishers—and authors—are beginning to recognize the incredible clout of book groups.  I recently was told that an estimated five million people are members of book groups, and even if that estimate is high, there’s no doubt that book groups have the power to increase a novel’s sales, often exponentially.  I’m talking not just about Oprah’s book group, but about the web of book groups arrayed across the country that communicate with one another by word of mouth, often without even realizing it. 

I make no bones about this:  I participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY in order to sell more copies of my book.  But there’s a paradox here.  On several occasions, I’ve driven over four hours round-trip to join a book group discussion of MATRIMONY.  You add enough of these trips together and it’s not surprising that my next novel, which was due at the publisher last month, is nowhere near complete.  I have spent the last year publicizing MATRIMONY as a way of furthering my writing life (writers need to sell books in order to survive), and yet what I love to do most—write—has had to be placed on hold.

I say this without a trace of resentment.  I lead a charmed life.  I get to write novels and have other people read them, and if I, like most writers, need to do more than was once required of us to ensure that people read our books—if writers now are more like musicians—then so be it.  And in the process, thanks to book groups, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting far more readers than I could have imagined and have learned a lot more than I expected.

So I want to speak up on behalf of book groups, and to offer a few cautions, and a few hopes.  First the good news.  From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers from all ages and backgrounds who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful.  I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because there’s more time for sustained discussion with a book group, and because for many people the kind of reading they do for a book group marks a significant departure from the rest of their lives, and so they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.

Speaking of passion:  I don’t want to give away what happens in MATRIMONY, but something takes place toward the middle of the book that has, to my surprise and pleasure, spawned shouting matches in a number of book groups.  I haven’t been one of the shouters, mind you, but I’ve been struck by the fact that MATRIMONY has proven sufficiently controversial to make readers exercised.  I’ve been trying to determine patterns.  Sometimes the divisions have been drawn along age lines; other times along lines of gender—on those few occasions when there is another man in the room besides myself!

Which leads me to my hopes, and my cautions.  First, where are all the men?  True, my novel is called MATRIMONY, but men get married too, at more or less the same rate as women do.  Yet my experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes.  And women join book groups and men don’t.  Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting.  And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.

Second, if I were allowed to redirect book group discussions, I would urge the following.   Less discussion about which characters are likable (think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters.  Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  The novels of Martin Amis.  Lolita.), less of a wish for happy endings (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.), less of a wish that novels make arguments (Readers often ask me what conclusions MATRIMONY draws about marriage, when the business of novels isn’t to draw conclusions.  That’s the business of philosophy, sociology, economics, and political science.  The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.)  But this is all part of a longer and more complicated discussion—perhaps one we can have in a book group!

Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it.  This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books.  Eat, Pray, Love.  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.  Water for Elephants.  Kite Runner.  I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read.  I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about.  There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers.  This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the demise of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages.  For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.

Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel MATRIMONY, which was a 2007 New York Times Notable Book, a Book Sense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection.  If you would like Josh to participate in your book group discussion, you can contact him through his website, http://www.joshuahenkin.com, or email him directly at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu.

Thanks, Josh, for a great post!  Hooray for book groups!

If you are interested in winning a copy of Joshua Henkin’s 2nd novel, Matrimony, please leave a comment here by May 15th.  Good luck!  Lisa, Books on the Brain

 

Review and Author Interview: Keeper and Kid by Ed Hardy

Keeper and Kid by Edward Hardy is a wonderful, funny novel about what happens when the past and the present collide.  James “Jimmy” Keeper has just purchased a home with his girlfriend, Leah.  He co-owns a business hunting down antiques and selling them on eBay and in a store called Love and Death.  He enjoys a few beers at his weekly “can’t miss” card night with his buds.  Life is good, until he receives a call from his former mother in law.  His ex wife Cynthia is in the hospital and has a favor to ask of him, one that will change his life forever.

When Cynthia suddenly dies, Keeper discovers that the favor doesn’t involve a dog, as he was told, but a 3 year old boy, the son he never knew he had.  Thrown into parenthood completely unprepared, Keeper brings his son Leo home to stay while girlfriend Leah is away on business.  Leah freaks and takes off, leaving Keeper to deal with the house, the job, and of course the kid.  Overwhelmed by the constant demands and needs of a drive-you-crazy toddler who is mourning the loss of his mom, he makes a ton of mistakes and ultimately finds he can’t do it all alone.  Keeper,  quite clueless at first, learns a lot about love, responsibility, family, friendship, and growing up in the process.

This bittersweet novel touched my heart.  The characters are believable and endearing.  I carried this book everywhere for 2 days and would pick it up even if I only had a minute or two to read.  I loved it and would recommend it to anyone who has children or is thinking about parenthood. Discussion questions can be found on the author’s website.

       hatch_d070602_062e.jpg       03123752471.jpg   

Ed Hardy graciously agreed to be interviewed for Books on the Brain, and here is what he had to say:

 Hi Ed, Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new novel!  How did you come up with the idea for Keeper and Kid?

When I started the book, almost five years ago now, our oldest child was three and a half and his sibling was on the way, so we were already deep in the land of early parenthood, which can sometimes feel like living on another planet.  Along the way I began to wonder how this might feel to someone who wasn’t at all ready for the trip, and that’s how it started.

 Having children changes your life, obviously, but Keeper can only see the negative aspects of that at first.  The thing that startles him most about sudden parenthood seems to be the ‘dailyness’ of it.  Was that a surprise to you as well?  Did you feel like your life, or “life as you knew it,” was over with the onset of parenthood?

 One level you know that with kids your life is going to change, but I think it’s the thoroughness of the change that comes as a shock.  For me it seemed that the life I knew before kids just receded into the background, and over time you find out that some of those things you used to do you can still do, but differently or only once in a while.  I do think the dailyness of it comes as a surprise to many parents.  You’re in the kitchen, way down on sleep, refilling that sippy cup for the eleventh time and you can’t help but have an occasional moment of thinking: “How did we get here again?”

 Maintaining his relationship with Leah becomes a big problem for Keeper, but even under ideal circumstances, a relationship changes when children enter the picture.  Did you find that to be true in your own life?

Sure, with kids the focus in a relationship changes drastically and that can be hard.  One trick seems to be figuring out ways to occasionally jump back in time and remind yourselves that there was something else there before the kids arrived.  Babysitters help.

Keeper seems like the all American guy.  A card playing, beer drinking, stubborn “guy’s guy”.  He’s a really likable character who seems to understand his shortcomings,  yet he’s trying to do everything by himself.  Why do you think it’s so hard for him to ask for help with Leo?

Keeper gets a kick out of figuring things out on his own, only once Leo arrives it takes him a while to realize that he really doesn’t have that luxury any more.  He’s also one of those guys who would much rather keep on reading the map instead of stopping to ask for directions.

The voice of 3 year old Leo seems very real to me.  He’s an unusually bright and verbal child.  How were you able to write him so authentically?  Were you inspired by your own children?

I was definitely inspired by my own kids and by their friends.  A lot of getting Leo’s voice on the page had to do with really listening to exactly what kids say and paying attention to how their sentences move, compared to the ways that adults speak.

How long did it take you to write Keeper and Kid?  What is the writing process like for you.. do you write at home?  In an office?  On a laptop?

The book took about three and a half years to write, but there were a lot of interruptions in there:  teaching, parenting, a massive house renovation.  I work at home, upstairs in a small office off our bedroom and on a laptop.  I used to be a newspaper reporter and editor years ago so at this point I can only write on a screen.

The cover of the book is adorable and joyful.  Did you have any say over what the cover would be like?  Who decides these things?

The publisher came up with the idea and I only got a look at the cover pretty late in the process, but I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it.

Any chance Keeper and Kid might become a movie?  As I was reading, I could see it on the big screen in my mind’s eye.

I’d be thrilled if Keeper made it to the big screen, but there’s nothing in the works right now.

I read that you had written for various publications and had a short story featured in Best American Short Stories.  How is writing a novel different?  Do you prefer one format over another?

I started out writing stories and I’m probably a story-writer at heart.  With stories you’re working in a much smaller space and for a story to really click everything needs to line up and getting there is a big part of the fun.  In a novel characters and events tend to build up layer by layer and that means you’ve got a lot more room to roam around.

I loved Keeper and Kid and look forward to reading more of your work. What are you working on now?

 I’m in the gathering-wool stage for a new novel.  I think it’s going to be about a group of over-extended grown-ups who start an alt. country band and run into a string of unintended consequences, but if I say much more I’ll jinx it.

A big THANK YOU to Ed Hardy for answering my questions and for writing such a wonderful book!

 If you’d like to win a copy of Keeper and Kid, please leave a comment here on my blog by Friday, March 27th.  I’ll let the random number generator do it’s thing and pick a winner. Post about the giveaway on your blog and you’ll get an extra chance to win.  Don’t have a blog?  No worries.. just make sure to leave your email address here so I can alert you when you win!