Sunday Salon – 4/5/09

img_2438Good Morning!  I hope everyone is feeling refreshed and relaxed today!

We woke up to a whole lot of soggy toilet paper on our lawn this morning.  Even my car in the driveway was wrapped in TP.  This is the second night in a row.. paybacks, I suppose, for my kids’ antics of a couple of nights ago when they did the same thing to their friends.  They’re excited and are calling and texting their friends to see who did this.  No one is ‘fessing up.

img_2436We had a mid life-wake up call this week.  On Thursday, my husband, a big strong man who thinks he’s still in his 20s but is really twice that, had sudden chest pain.  He said it felt like a lightning bolt through his chest and into his back that lasted for 10-15 seconds, then after that what felt like a sore muscle in his back.  I was out doing my daily 4 mile walk with a friend when it happened, but when I came home he was standing there, pale and scared.  My first thought was ‘heart attack’.  I said- we better go to the hospital, and he said- I don’t have time!  I have too much to do! But I insisted, so off we went.  

At the hospital they took him immediately (now THAT was a first!), put him on oxygen, took all his vitals, drew blood, did an EKG.  They take chest pain very seriously.  Over the course of 6 hours in the ER he had 2 EKGs, a chest x-ray, 3 blood draws, and a stress test, and it was determined that he did not have a heart attack (whew!  dodged a bullet!).  They said the problem appears to be muscular-skeletal in nature- his heart and lungs are fine. I asked if it could be a muscle pull, because the day before he had been lifting and moving furniture into his new office.  I said to my husband (in front of the doctor), “Maybe you’re a little too old to be lifting heavy oak desks, what do you think?” and he just gave me a look, like- mind your bizness, woman.  

Seriously, though- he doesn’t get enough sleep, eats crappy food, doesn’t exercise, works long hours, and is constantly stressed.  That’s a recipe for disaster at his age. I do the best I can but I can’t force him to act like an adult and take care of himself. I hope this episode will be the catalyst for him to at least think about a healthier lifestyle.  I’m not sure, though, since he’s been working in San Diego all weekend.  I can’t monitor if he’s eating, sleeping, etc. when he’s not even here!  I do know that he and a couple of the guys went out for a big steak dinner at 8 pm last night, and I’m sure cocktails were included, so..  no major changes yet. Fingers crossed for next week.

So.. reading.  Let’s see.  I finished The Mechanics of Falling by Catherine Brady this week for an upcoming TLC tour stop.  It’s a top-notch short story collection.  Then I started Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  I love her writing.  LOVE it.  I love being wrapped up in the little worlds her books create.  I can’t wait to see her at the LA Times Festival of Books.  She’s on a fiction panel on Saturday called Window on the World, along with authors Vanina Marsot, Muriel Barbery, and Jonathan Rabb.  

I’m also reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aloud to my youngest.  This child drives me crazy..  her AR reading level is the 2nd highest in her fourth grade class, yet she insists on reading the Magic Treehouse series and Katie Kazoo books.. way beneath her level.  She doesn’t like to read- to her it is a big chore, so she goes for whatever is easy.  Her teacher requires 20 minutes of reading a day as part of their homework and she wants the students to get 50 AR points by the end of the year, but the books my daughter reads are one and two points each, so she’s not even close to her 50 points.  The Harry Potter books are 12 points each but she didn’t think she’d like them- she thought they’d be too hard (almost anything is going to be harder than what she’s been reading).  I’m reading the first one to her in the hopes that she’ll get hooked, and so far it seems to be working.  I overheard her very animatedly telling my mother about the mail delivery system with the owls in HP so I guess she’s becoming interested.  

OH!  I have winners to announce!  I almost forgot!  The second winner of The Blue Notebook is Zibilee from Raging Bibliomania– congratulations!  And the (long overdue) winner of Hope’s Boy is Ti of Book Chatter and Other Stuff- congratulations!   (Ti’s in Palm Springs this weekend so she’s probably a little too busy to care about winning a book.)

Well that’s it for me.  What are you reading this week?

Review: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

51be1lrnnnl_sl500_aa240_ The School of Essential Ingredients is a lovely new book by Erica Bauermeister. With intimate tables and soft lighting, heavy linens and crystal, glossy hardwood floors and fabulous aromas drifting out of the kitchen, Lillian’s is a place to celebrate, propose, and announce.  It’s the kind of restaurant that will surprise and delight, with personal attention from Lillian herself and creative meals that leave all of your senses satisfied. 

On Monday nights, Lillian teaches a cooking class at the restaurant.  Eight students make their way to class, coming through the side gate and following the golden glow to the kitchen in back, where they will learn to cook from a woman who knows how to inspire her students to create food from the heart and from their memories rather than from a recipe. 

Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different student, alternating between reflections of their past and what is happening in the present, how they found their way to the class and how they get to know the other students.  Lillian seems to know just what her students need to learn, and the lessons transform not only their culinary skills but also their lives. 

Reminiscent of Garden Spells and Like Water for Chocolate, there is a bit of magical realism to the book- but just a touch- not overdone at all.  Abuelita is the woman who helped a young Lillian get her mother’s attention through cooking, who taught her to understand what is essential in each situation and what is not.  She shows her how food can evoke memories in a person, how you can bring about certain moods, certain behaviors and certain feelings with different types of dishes.  Lillian learns well and is able to pass that particular brand of culinary magic on to her students.  When they make a white on white cake, it brings back remembrances of the early days of a marriage for two of her students, a spicy tomato sauce brings thoughts of an Italian childhood for another, and a decadent tiramisu acts as the catalyst for a new romance in two more. 

Bauermeister’s vividly detailed descriptions of food leave your mouth watering and put you right into Lillian’s kitchen.  The writing is richly textured, lush and sensual.  It is really quite beautiful.    This is a debut novel but felt like it was written by a wise old soul.    

To give you an idea of the gorgeous flavor of the writing, and the beautiful imagery, here are a couple of passages.  I read an uncorrected proof of The School of Essential Ingredients, so the finished book may differ slightly. 

From page 23:

 At home Lillian opened the bag and inhaled aromas of orange, cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate and something she couldn’t quite identify, deep and mysterious, like perfume lingering in the folds of a cashmere scarf. 

From page 35:

 Set between the straight lines of a bank and the local movie theater, the restaurant was oddly incongruous, a moment of lush colors and gently moving curves, like an affair in the midst of an otherwise orderly life.  Passersby often reached out to run their hands along the tops of the lavender bushes that stretched luxuriantly above the cast iron fence, the soft, dusty scent remaining on their fingers for hours after.

From page 158:

The air was beginning to fill with the sweet spiciness of roasting corn, the soft whispers of the tortillas flipping, then landing on the grill, the murmured conversation between Abuelita and Antonia, something about grandmothers, it sounded like.  Chloe placed the tomato on the chopping block.  She was surprised to find how much affection she had for its odd lumpiness.  She tested the point of the knife and the surface gave way quickly and cleanly, exposing the dense interior, juices dripping out onto the wooden board, along with a few seeds.  Grasping the knife firmly, she drew it in a smooth, consistent stroke across the arc of the tomato, a slice falling neatly to one side.

See what I mean?  The whole book is like that!  I just opened random pages and easily found wonderful examples.  My only complaint about this book is that there are no recipes, however that makes sense since Lillian is teaching her students to cook without using recipes.  Still, it would be nice to know how to make these dishes- or to know what essential secret ingredient to add to tonight’s dinner to make my children behave and my husband pay attention!  

If you like good fiction and good food, The School of Essential Ingredients, which will be released tomorrow, is the perfect combination of the two.  I realize I’m gushing here, but I loved the warm little world within these pages, and was sorry to leave it.  

The author’s website can be found HERE.

What a difference a year makes

Sometimes I wish I had not shared this blog with my mother, brother, sister, husband, neighbor, book club, friends, and half the city I live in. Sometimes it would be nice to speak the truth, even if it’s ugly, to rant about my mom being a bitch (not YOU, Mom-it’s just an example), or my husband being an asshat (I borrowed that term from Chartroose), or my annoying neighbor who continuously shows up at my doorstep unannounced (I’m not talking about you, I mean the other neighbor, I swear) without fear that said mom or husband or neighbor would read my words.

Sometimes I’d like to show the unvarnished me, not the G rated version.

So I was wondering if those of you with blogs are public- does your real life and your blog world mesh or collide? Are you free to say whatever is on your mind, or are you constantly self-editing? Are you an open book? Does your mommy read your blog? Is your sister looking over your shoulder?

I’ve been thinking about this blog a lot, as I just had my one year Blogiversary on Saturday (with no mention and no fanfare). I’m thinking about what direction I want to take it in – do I want to just keep doing what I’m doing or turn it into something else? I’m not sure. I find it interesting that on the rare occasions when I get a little personal, I get a huge response (views and comments). Anything slightly controversial gets attention.

So here are my one year stats. I never dreamed a year ago that anybody would click over to read my little book reviews and commentary. Seriously, it blows me away. Thanks to all of you who read, lurk, and comment.

Total Views: 62,233

Busiest Day: 783 Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Posts: 263

Comments: 2,967

Book Review with the most hits: The Other Boleyn Girl

Non Book Post with the most hits and comments: I Hate You, Mom

2nd Highest Non-Book Post (hits and comments): The Last Girl on Earth Without a Cell Phone

Post where I offended someone I like and got a bunch of comments: One Divisive Book (and then the debate continued HERE, and HERE, where Elizabeth Gilbert claims to be God).

Weekend Update post (in my pre-Sunday Salon days) with the highest hits: Weekend Update: From a Hormonal Preteen to Pinewood Derby Cars

In Praise of Book Clubs, Volume 22

In this 22nd volume of In Praise of Book Clubs, CB James of the wonderful blog Ready When You Are, CB (where you can find out which book his basset hound, Dakota, has eaten lately) writes about his book club, which has the honor of being the oldest club we’ve heard about in this series!  Forgive me for not adding links to all 114 books they’ve read!

I’ve been a member of the same book club off-and-on since 1993. That’s fifteen years, with a hiatus for graduate school and a couple of breaks here and there. 15 years and 114 books read so far.

The original members all worked together at the same elementary school, but one who worked at the school in the next neighborhood over. We started off with Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, which we all enjoyed. For the first few years, our after school meetings begain with a “discussion session,” mostly complaints about various people we worked with and didn’t like. Then we’d move on to the book. Our reading taste in the early days was a bit more literary than it is now, but there have always been a dash of popular titles and young adult titles on our TBR list.
To choose books, anyone who had one they wanted to suggest brought it to the meeting and we all hashed it out, ultimately deciding the next book via consensus. We never picked a book that any of us had already read, which, in retrospect, may not be the best rule. Most of the time at least a few members enjoyed the book and there were many that we all loved, but there was Jeanette Wintersteen’s Written on the Body, which has become infamous among book club members as the book no one liked at all.

While the book club has been around for 15 years no single member has. I took a couple of years off for graduate school. Some members have moved away; some moved away and moved back. New members have joined. Currently there are nine active members, three former members and two members who stop in whenever they are in town, in one case in the country.
Our current book is Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan. We’ve changed the way we select books; now each member takes a turn choosing the book, which is working out well. After 13 years, we’d fallen into a pattern where two or three members selected almost all of the books. This was okay with me, since I was one of the selecting members, but became a problem for other people. Like everything that lasts a long time, the club has changed the way it works over the years. This year, for the first time, we established a set of ground rules that everyone agreed upon. Bring a book or two when it’s your turn to select, or pass to the next person if you don’t want to choose; make a serious attempt to read the book no matter how much you do or don’t like it; come to the meeting with something to say on way or another.
We’ve all become very good friends over the years. We’ve watched one member’s daughter grow up and head off to college, attended member’s weddings and major birthdays and mourned the loss of several boyfriends and a beloved cat. (The cat was the greater loss.) I fully expect the book club to be around for another 15 years in one form or another and to hit 250 books read before the end. Once something has been around for a long time, it tends to stay around for a long time.

Here’s a list of all the books the club has read over the past 15 years. Not a bad reading list, if you ask me. The books I recommend are in blue. The pictures are books various members voted as their all time favorites. They are listed in the order we read them.

  • Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
  • A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, Julia Alvarez
  • Becoming a Man, Paul Monette
  • The Ginger Tree, Oswald Wynd
  • Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Call It Sleep, Henry Roth

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

  • World’s End, T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner
  • The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
  • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Peristroika, Tony Kushner
  • Nobody’s Fool, Richard Russo
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • The Bingo Palace, Louise Erdrich
  • The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  • Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, Dorothy Allison
  • Dear Mem Fox, Mem Fox
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, David Gutterson
  • A Map of the World, Jane Hamilton
  • School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap, P.E. Orenstein
  • Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  • Jazz, Toni Morrison
  • Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi
  • A Civil Action, Jonathan Harr
  • A Parrot in the Oven, Victor Martinez
  • The Color of Water, James McBride
  • A Prayer for Owen Meaney, John Irving
  • She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb
  • Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Brendt
  • The Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike
  • Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  • Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
  • Here on Earth, Alice Hoffman
  • A Stranger in the Kingdom, Howard Frank Mosher
  • Lolita, Valdamir Nobokov
  • A Perfect Agreement, Michael Downing
  • A Pale View of the Hills, Kazuo Ishiguri
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterho od, Rebecca Wells
  • Where the Heart Is, Billy Letts
  • Charming Billly, Alice McDermott
  • Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
  • The Reader, Bernard Schlink
  • I Know this Much is True, Wally Lamb
  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rawling
  • The Archivist, Martha Cooley
  • Dreams of My Russian Summer, Andrei Makine
  • The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
  • Goodnight Nebraska, Tom McNeal
  • For Kings and Planets, Ethan Canin
  • The Hours, Michael Cunningham
  • Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  • River Angel, A. Manette Ansay
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  • Corelli’s Mandoline, Louis de Bernieres
  • Girl with Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
  • Nervous Condidtions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
  • Wait ’til Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • I Married a Communist, Philip Roth
  • The Last Life, Claire Messued
  • Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  • House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III
  • The Night Listener, Armistead Maupin
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Letham
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
  • Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Seabiscuit-An American Legend, Laura Hittenbrand
  • Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
  • The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
  • The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Tears of the Giraffe, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Mystic River, Michael Lehane
  • Riven Rock, T.C. Boyle
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
  • Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
  • How to Make a Tart, Nina Killham
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
  • The Sixteen Pleasures, Robert Hellenga
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hossein
  • Back When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguru
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • Don’t Think of an Elephant-know your values and frame the debate, George Lakoff
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  • Mendocino, Ann Packer
  • A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • My Antoni a, Willa Cather
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundara
  • The Devil in White City, Erik Larson
  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  • Songs in Ordinary Times, Mary McGarry Morris
  • Farewell my Lovely, Raymond Chandler
  • Hard Times, Charles Dickens
  • The Good German, Joseph Kanon
  • Julie and Julia, Julie Powell
  • Criss Cross, Lynne Rae Perkinds
  • Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Black Swan Green, David Mitchel
  • True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey</li&g t;
  • Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck
  • Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris
  • Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
  • The Reading Group, Elizabeth Noble
  • Small Island, Andrea Levy
  • Eat, Love, Pray, Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Losing Battles, Eudora Welty
  • The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
  • Mutant Message Down Under, Marlo Morgan
Blogger Bio:  C.B. James lives with his spouse and their many pets in Vallejo, CA.  He teaches 7th grade English and history in Marin County.  He has been in the same book club for over 15 years.  The book club is all teachers, most of them elementary school  teachers. When not teaching, reading or blogging, C.B. James can be found in his art studio where he makes mixed media art books or walking his Bassett Hound Dakota who would love to eat every book in the house if she could.
***Would you like to share about your book club here at Books on the Brain? If so, leave a comment and I will get in touch with you about a guest post!

For previous volumes of In Praise of Book Clubs, click HERE

For more info on starting your own book club, click HERE

For fun ways to make your book club better, click HERE

To win a copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin (who ADORES book clubs), click HERE

If Only They Would Send Books AND Chocolate..

My day wasn’t going so well earlier.  It started off with a stupid fight with my stupid dear husband and went downhill from there.  It’s pretty sad when you find yourself snapping at the dog for not getting out of your way fast enough (and the poor dog has stitches on her head!) and then telling your 9 year old that her head would be shaved if she didn’t brush her hair RIGHT NOW.  And then the damn zipper broke on my favorite shorts- the ones that actually fit.  And for chrissake, is that a zit on my chin??  (Pass the Midol- and the chocolate- and the tissues!)  Grrrrrr grrrrrr grumble grumble leave me alone.  

Ok, so not the best day ever for moi.  But it did get better.  I had some really positive emails this morning on my new venture.  Yeah, me!  And then my dear husband apologized, because (obviously) everything was his fault.  And remember how I wanted to be WOWed by a book?  Let me just tell you, I have been WOWed, big time!!  I spent an hour and a half (while my kids were at their tutoring) reading, and I may not sleep tonight trying to finish this fabulous book.  

And then, the icing on the cake- when we got home, I had a package of two beautiful new books from Hyperion waiting in my mailbox.  They are Schooled by Anisha Lakhani (YA fiction that just came out yesterday) and Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon (chick lit, coming out Aug. 12).  They both look great.

Free books in the mailbox.. almost as good as chocolate!  Now, if only I could get them to send both!  

Thanks, Hyperion, for making my day!

Review: The Heartbreak Diet by Thorina Rose

The Heartbreak Diet: A story of family, fidelity, and starting over by Thorina Rose is like a comic book for adults.  However, there are no action heroes here:  no laser beams or men in capes; just the brave heroine, Thorina, who puts the worst part of her life on display in an honest, heartbreaking, and hopeful manner.  

Thorina finds out her husband X does more with his running partner than run.  She handles the discovery of his adultery with such dignity and class, even going so far as to meet the other woman, Vivienne- who is younger with glowing skin, bigger breasts, and an unencumbered lifestyle.  Thorina’s husband, a cruel selfish bastard, wants to try a polyamorous relationship (yuck) and they go through gutwrenching counseling sessions, but ultimately, he leaves Thorina and their two young sons (who later tell her, “Vivienne’s really nice!  It’s kind of like having another mom!” OUCH).  Thorina’s friends prop her up and keep her sane, and she eventually comes to terms with the end of her marriage.  

Ok, so the story isn’t very original, but the execution of it certainly is.  I really liked Thorina.  I laughed through her revenge fantasies and was completely charmed by the frankness of the writing and the freshness of the illustrations.  The Heartbreak Diet is a quick read. I read it in under an hour.  It was my first foray into the world of graphic novels, and I enjoyed it immensely.  This book would make a great gift for anyone who is on their own Heartbreak Diet, forgetting to eat lunch due to major distractions in their lives.  I would highly recommend it.

Interview and Giveaway: DeLaune Michel, author of The Safety of Secrets

Before we begin with the interview, here is a bit about the book The Safety of Secrets from the author’s website: 

“Now we’re just alike.” So begins Fiona and Patricia’s friendship that warm Autumn morning in first grade in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a friendship made as close as sisters by Fiona’s abusive mother and Patricia’s neglectful one, and by the fantasies that the two girls share.

Fiona and Patricia’s relationship is a source of continuity and strength through their move to LA to become actresses; through Fiona’s marriage and not-yet-famous career; and through Patricia’s ups-and-downs with men and rise to fame. Then when their husbands’ needs and the pressures of Hollywood begin to exact a toll, the women are forced to wonder if their friendship can survive. But the true test of their devotion is just beginning. When a dark secret from their past begins to emerge, it threatens to destroy not only the bond the women have shared, but all they’ve worked for as well. 

What happens when your most treasured friendship suddenly seems broken beyond repair? Humorous and poignant, The Safety of Secrets is a beautifully written exploration of the bonds forged in childhood and challenged decades later, of the fulfillment of dreams and the damage they sometimes cause, and of secrets being uncovered and the truth that we find inside.  

BOTB:  Welcome DeLaune Michel, author of The Safety of Secrets!

First off, I’d like to know how your name is pronounced!  I’ve never seen the name “DeLauné” before.  Is it a family name?  Is it French? 

DM:  That’s sweet of you to ask! It’s pronounced duh-LAWN-ay, and it is French. Some people say it with more of a French accent, but I don’t really care, as long as they don’t call me de-lawn-ee – or late to dinner. Sorry, I can never resist a stupid joke! I was named for Helene DeLauné, the first woman over from France on my momma’s side of the family.  Helene DeLauné was in the court of Marie Antoinette. Her husband, Jules André, fought in the French Revolution. Antoinette gave Helene DeLauné jewels to help her and her husband escape to South Louisiana. Ever since I was young and heard that story about my namesake, I have thought of her whenever things were difficult because no matter what I am going through, I can’t imagine it being a harder than leaving the court of France, and ending up in the wilds of South Louisiana. So in a funny way, I have always felt very connected to her.

BOTB:  Your book, “The Safety of Secrets” centers on a female friendship.  Do you have a lifelong friendship like Fiona and Patricia’s?

DM:  I feel very blessed that I have a number of lifelong friendships, some from early childhood, and some from high school, though none of those were an exact model for Fiona and Patricia’s friendship in this book.

BOTB:  Do you think friendships are more important to women than to men, and if so, in what way?

DM:  I don’t think that they are more important to women than to men, but I think they get expressed differently. There was a study from UCLA that showed that contrary to long-held beliefs, not everyone has the fight or flight reflex when faced with stress or danger. Only men do. Women don’t respond by fight or flight. Women turn to their community, to their friends. We process, and get feedback, and find strength by turning to a friend. Not to say that men don’t, but it isn’t their first impulse when faced with those situations. I think that is how they are different. And that is one area that I wanted to look at in this book. Fiona’s connection with Patricia is so strong that Fiona feels she has to juggle her loyalty between Patricia and her husband. A lot of readers have told me that they really related to that. I don’t think that is something men go through the way we do. 

BOTB:  Do you think women feel more secure, or safe, in telling their secrets to other women?

DM:  It depends. There are secrets I’ve told to men that I know will never be revealed. But I think that a close friendship between women is marked – at least the ones I have – by an ability to tell each other pretty much everything, so in that sense, revealing a secret to another woman is easy because it is so natural. Definitely in this book, Fiona feels more safe keeping secrets – particularly the big one – with Patricia than with her husband, and the effects of that is something she has to deal with.

BOTB:  How much do you think childhood friendships shape our lives as adults? 

DM:  Very much, particularly ones that are like siblings, as Fiona and Patricia’s is in this book. And I think sometimes we find a friend to be a kind of family member that we didn’t get to have, or for us to be the person that we can’t be with our own family. 

BOTB:  The book is mostly based in Los Angeles and the main characters work in the film industry.  You seem to know LA and the business of Hollywood quite well- the realistic side of it rather than the glamorous.  Do you live there?  Were you/are you in the industry?

DM:  I live just above New York City, right near the Hudson River. But I lived in LA for many years, and while I was there, acted in television and film, so, yes, that world is one I know quite intimately. And I loved writing about it. It was wonderful to be able to take a trip there every day in my mind, and then return home easily. I wanted to show a side of that industry that isn’t written about very much. Most books that are set in Hollywood only show the upper echelon, and while Patricia is hugely successful, Fiona works steadily but hasn’t achieved that level of fame or fortune yet, if she ever will. I thought it would be interesting to show what that kind of career is really like, since that is the kind of life most working actors in LA have. And besides, some aspects of that life are so ridiculous; it was fun to be able to write about it, having lived through it myself.

BOTB:  What would you like readers to take away from The Safety of Secrets?

DM:  I hope that it will enable them to look at their own friendships, and the issues of loyalty and betrayal that are at play in them, even on the smallest scale. Eudora Welty said that the novel is the most intimate art form because it is the writer’s words in the reader’s mind with the reader’s life, and imagination, and beliefs creating the story. I love that. I also think that that old saying that if a tree falls in the wood and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound applies, too. I think novels don’t really exist until someone reads it and brings it to life, so I hope that the life that the reader creates with me is one that has resonance for them, and enables them to see their world from a new angle. I do a lot of book clubs in-person and via speaker phone chats (I can be contacted at delaune@delaunemichel.com), and I love getting to hear how women view Fiona and Patricia’s friendship and how it relates to their lives. 

BOTB:  What are you currently working on? 

DM:  My third novel. I wrote my first two novels while I was pregnant with my two sons, so this will be the first novel that I write without being pregnant. I’m enjoying not being sleepy or nauseous while I work! My husband asked me how I’ll be able to finish the new book without that built-in deadline, but I assured him that I will find a way! 

BOTB:  Thanks so much for your time!  

DM:  Thank you for your very thoughtful questions!

BOTB:  Many thanks to DeLaune Michel and to Jennifer Ballot from Over the River Productions for sending me 2 copies of the book- one for me and one to give away- and for arranging this interview with DeLaune!  If you would like a chance to win a copy of The Safety of Secrets, leave a comment here by Friday, August 8th.  Good luck!

You can read fellow blogger Sheri’s review of The Safety of Secrets at a Novel Menagerie.

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!

The Calliope Experiment #3: The Beach

This is for the fiction writing challenge called The Calliope Experiment.

Shivering as she made her way across the rocks, she wondered why she hadn’t thought to bring a sweater.  It always irritated her when Jack reminded her of things like that, but apparently she needed the reminding. 

She came to a place that required her to set the box down so that she could boost herself up and onto a large boulder.  The rock, smooth and flat, was table-like, and standing on it afforded her a clear view of the coast all the way north to Rocky Point and then south to the old lighthouse.  She could see someone near the water’s edge but from this distance couldn’t make out if it was a man or a woman.  She had hoped to be alone out here, so she sat down next to the box, thinking she would wait until the person moved on. 

Carefully lifting it to her lap, she thought again how surprisingly heavy the box was.  She hadn’t expected ashes to weigh so much, but of course there were bones in there too.  Jack had said it was silly to cremate a dog, but Bear wasn’t just any dog.  Bear was her friend, her companion, her confidante.  Bear was her substitute child.  When people asked if they had kids, her reply was always, “No, but I have Bear.” 

And now he was gone, and there was still no baby.  The months of tests and shots and sex on demand; all the hoping and waiting had taken their toll on her psyche.  Waiting-waiting for nothing as it turns out.  The crazy mood swings and everything else might have been more tolerable if the end result had been a baby. She felt so tired, so empty, so alone.  And now her pseudo-baby, Bear, was gone too. 

The person was moving down the beach slowly in her direction.  She could see now that it was a man.  He was tall, like Jack, and had a fishing hat on.  He was wearing a green sweater and jeans, rolled at the cuffs.   His gaze was focused on the ground and he bent down now and then to pick something up, presumably a shell or a rock, and put it in a bag.  “Move on, old man” she thought, ungraciously, but he was clearly in no hurry. 

She smiled, then, as she thought about how much Bear had loved the beach as a pup and a young dog.   How he’d pull on the leash and his entire body would wiggle with excitement as they approached the water.  How he’d race into the waves the second he was released.  He was definitely a water dog- a big chocolate lab.  It had been a couple years since they’d brought him down here.  His arthritis had gotten so bad that it was hard for him to walk over the rocks, and he’d tire himself out so much that he could barely make it back.  He was too big for them to carry.  Still, she wished she’d brought him back for one final visit, but they’d had a windy, cold spring and the time had never been right.  

She’d come down here without much of a plan, and it was freezing.  She thought she’d scatter his ashes over the surf, but now she could see how ridiculous that idea had been.  The wind wouldn’t gently scatter the ashes, it would just blow them back in her face.  She thought of the futility of it, of everything.  Bear was gone, he wasn’t coming back, there was no baby, and probably never would be.  

She put down the box and brought her knees up to her chest, resting her head on them and finally allowing herself cry.  So she wasn’t made of stone after all, as everyone suspected.  At first it was just a couple of tears but before long it was huge gushing sobs, smeared mascara, snot and all.  For several minutes she gave in to the despair of losing her precious pet, and along with it, her dreams of motherhood.  She startled at the feeling of an arm around her, and looked up to see green eyes matching the green of his sweater.  Jack.  “What are you doing here?” she asked.  “I brought you a sweater,” he said. 

 

Review and Giveaway: Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring

When my kids were very small, I would find myself with little snippets of time, perhaps while waiting at the pediatrician’s office, or watching a toddler gymnastics class, or while the kids were napping.  I found I could read short stories in a single sitting, and there was something really satisfying about that, unlike a novel, where it might be days until my next opportunity to sit down with my book, and I would need to go back and reread to figure out where I was. 

Springtime on Mars by Susan Woodring is a short story collection filled with intensely personal domestic situations of quiet desperation.   There are 11 stories, set in the 1950’s until the present day, loosely connected by recurrent themes of science and technology, marriage and relationships, love and loss.  

Charming, deceptively simple, and utterly American, many of these tales depict the country at the brink of change and huge scientific advances. Others show the struggle between faith in God and faith in science.  Ranging from the introduction of the television into our living rooms, to the Kennedy assassination, to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Springtime on Mars holds up a mirror and shows us not only who we were, but who we are. 

In Zenith, 1954, Reverend Joe and his wife Marianne, pregnant with twins, are given a welcoming gift by their congregation: 

I knew Frank did not hold to the elders’ decision to gift us with a television set, a worthless diversion that not only inspired rampant idleness, but also one that was relatively new- the whole thing could turn out to be nothing more than a Hollywood fad.” 

Woodring breathes life into her characters so quickly- within a few short paragraphs you fully grasp who they are.  In the story Inertia, Lizzie’s mother sends her to the basement for a jar of preserves and some beans.  She’s reluctant to go, and when she gets there, we understand why:  

“The shelves on the far wall held my grandmother’s canning efforts:  tomatoes, okra, peppers, and preserves: strawberry, pear, and rhubarb-strawberry.   There were empty spaces now, as there always were this late in summer, but since my grandmother had passed away last winter, the holes were unsettling.  My mother had promised to keep the garden up, but she’d tended only to her bees…” 

Later, Lizzie’s father attempts to explain her mother’s grief over her grandmother to Lizzie this way: 

“He assured me my mother’s need to tend to them {the bees} would pass, the same as people’s need to watch the skies for news from other worlds.  He taught math at the junior college and this seemed to give him an insight into why people believed what they believed.  It’s all, he said, an irrational desire to control the uncontrollable.  I wanted him to think I had a scientific mind like his, so I nodded and told him I understood, though I didn’t.” 

I was perhaps most touched and completely caught off guard by the story Beautiful, in which a father is staying in a hotel, apart from his family, on an extended business trip.  His wife and daughters come down for a visit, but there are huge walls of silence and misunderstanding.  He realizes his 13 year old didn’t want to make the trip; she seems embarrassed and unsure of how to act around her dad.  He then remembers how it used to be: 

“When she was little, though, she used to cup his face in her hands and draw it very close to her own.  Listen, she would say.  There’s a crisis on planet Gimbel and we have to go there now. “ 

Throughout that story, I was rooting for the dad so much.  I kept thinking,  Do something!  You’re going to lose your family!  The relief I felt when he finally took some action to connect with his kids is hard to describe.  I got so choked up and was surprised at how much it affected me. 

Susan Woodring has a unique voice and a disarming style.  Many short story collections are woefully uneven, but that is not the case here.   I found real moments of charm and humor in every single story.  I enjoyed this book so much and enthusiastically recommend it. 

The author has generously agreed to provide a copy of Springtime on Mars to one lucky commenter.  Please leave a comment here and a winner will be selected on June 6th, the date of Susan Woodring’s Books on the Brain stop on her blog tour.  On that date I will post a beautiful essay Susan has written on why a short story collection is a great choice for a book club. 

Susan Woodring’s website can be found HERE 

Here are excellent discussion questions for Springtime on Mars: 

Book Club Discussion Questions compiled by Ashley Roberts, March 2008.

1.   Though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, what were your expectations before reading the book? Did the stories meet these expectations or were you surprised?

2.   Susan Woodring plays with family dynamics. What do these different types of families have in common? How are they different?  

3.  Why do you think “Springtime on Mars” is the book’s namesake? Does this story accurately represent the rest of the stories? 

4.  In “Birds of Illinois,” what do the birds symbolize? The meat? 

5.  Six of the eleven stories are written in the first person. Do you think these stories would be diminished in any way if we didn’t have the thoughts of the leading characters?  

6.  Woodring plays with different fears in “Inertia.” What fears are present? Are the characters fearful of different things? Does fear appear in other stories? 

7.  Compare Jean and Harold’s relationship in “Morning Again” to Gladys and Andy’s. How would you describe their understanding of their roles in their respective relationships? 

8.  In “Love Falling,” there’s a lot of tension in the house. What is the breaking point for Julie? Why does she ultimately decide to leave? 

9.  Woodring describes the weather with much detail. Why do you think this is, and can you draw any connections between the weather and the temperament of the story?  

10.   What do you think Woodring is implying in her observations of belief systems: religious, political, and extraterrestrial? 

11.   Russia makes a frequent appearance in the stories. What do you think it symbolizes? 

12.   The parent/child relationship is often very strained in the stories. What do you think Woodring is trying show the reader?  

13.  When Shannon urges Jean to take the triangle IQ test in “Morning Again,” she responds, “I’ve raised three children.” What do you think this implies about Jean’s values? Shannon’s? 

14.  All of the characters are unique. Is there one in particular you most empathize with? Why or how?