I became a fan of Colin Jost after he delivered the commencement speech at my daughter’s high school graduation – more of a stand up comedy routine than a speech, but he did end up delivering a great message in the end. So I pre-ordered his book as soon as I learned of its pending release and it was like one of those gifts that hits at the perfect moment. Written with humility to the point of self-deprecation, A Very Punchable Face will have you laughing out loud, smiling, and as was the case with the chapter about why he loves his mom, maybe shedding a tear. I suggested my daughter listen to the audio on a recent long drive and it was the perfect travel companion – entertaining yet inspirational. Colin’s honesty and commitment to hard work shines through every page. He is a great guy and Scarlet Johansen is one lucky gal. I highly recommend for any age, to inspire, to make you laugh, to get through a dark time. Really great.
Wow, The Days of Abandonment was well written with important things to say, but still pretty tough for me to read. As Olga navigates the dark days and weeks after her husband’s departure, the reader cringes and worries for the helpless beings in her care. It really triggered something painful in me as a wife and a mother (and maybe also from my helpless inner child??) I stressed our vulnerability to our spouses, but also how hard it is for mothers to break down when so much depends on us.
I was aware of the general premise of The Vanishing Half before I began it, however the structure was unexpected and delightful. I really loved the multi generational component of this novel, the idea that decisions travel forward and backwards, and that lying is a form of loving. Bennett writes with beautiful language and imagery, especially in the scenes set in Louisiana.
Amy Poeppel is my go to author for funny fresh read. Musical Chairs didn’t disappoint in its laugh-out-loud smartness, its keen observation of family relationships – especially parenting adult children. Love all the musical references and boy did this book hit home in light of my three adult children flocking home during COVID!
Love this novel’s well researched setting. The World’s Fair, New York, burgeoning science and synchronized swimming. Max and Vivi are great characters, bold and ambitious. The book highlights the importance of female friendship in a male dominated society. This is the first novel I have read by Susie Orman Schnall and can’t wait to go check out the Subway Girls.
I am a sucker for anything to do with boarding school life, first of all. Second, this book kept showing up places which I took that as a sign it was meant to be my next read. From page one I was addicted and couldn’t stop reading My Dark Vanessa. I am fascinated with Vannessa’s incessant denial of victimhood and instead deeming herself special and just more damned interesting than everybody else. I was so drawn to the psychology behind protecting one’s abuser, not only to keep him out of prison but in order to hold their relationship on a pedestal. What’s more the damaging effects of emotional abuse toward a child are so brilliantly captured in this novel. When Jacob Strane tells Vannessa “I will ruin you,” he wasn’t kidding.
It was refreshing to read the arc of a strong female protagonist who has to deal with baggage, both family baggage and societal baggage. I also loved that the happily ever after trope is turned on its head and redefined by Queenie, a character I found myself enthusiastically rooting for. This book provided interesting insight into a young woman’s challenges and I can see it serving as a source of inspiration for readers of Queenie’s age bracket.
On our recent trip to Asia I barely scratched the surface of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality, but I did have the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony which gave me a glimpse. As I lay awake that night combatting jet lag, I began to see parallels between the author/reader relationship and the tea ceremony. This might be the type of idea that only seems brilliant at 3am… but here goes…
The concept of service or hospitality runs very deep in Japan, the core being that each human encounter is unique and that every moment is once-in-a-lifetime. Each meeting, therefore, is entered into with great planning and intention. The height of the practice of omotenashi is a traditional tea ceremony. I must thank my dear friend Andy Goldfarb for introducing me to this concept before our departure.
The Tea Ceremony
The interaction begins before the guest arrives – with the host’s planning. She takes great care with the aesthetics: selecting the tea service, arranging the flowers, hanging a scroll. The details may consume the host’s thoughts before the meeting, but they are invisible to the guest, done without any expectation for appreciation.
When the guest arrives, the host kneels in front of a shrine to prepare the matcha with prescribed movements. She takes the tea vessel in her left hand and ladles the perfect amount of water over the green tea powder with fluidity and grace. She then rapidly whisks the mixture back and forth (approximately fifty times) until it is topped with a froth just so. She bows before passing the cup to the first guest who also shows great humility and appreciation for the final product. The guest is even expected to enjoy the last sip of tea with an audible slurp.
The Ritual of Writing
As is the case with creating any art, there is a moment when the artist (or novelist in my case) begins to consider her audience. Revisions and edits to early drafts serve the piece, making language more clear, and conveying ideas with nuance and subtlety. Achieving refinement and simplicity requires the writer do more work. It’s not always what the host or writer does, but sometimes what she decides not to do that makes all the difference. Just like spending time selecting the correct tea set, the writer does not expect nor necessarily desire the reader to know everything that went into the preparation. It’s an unspoken contract between us that immense intention was involved.
One of the most satisfying things about writing fiction is using my imagination as an instrument. I picture a cloud of energy forming then percolating in my brain, finding its way out through my fingers typing on my keyboard – sort of like whisking green tea into a froth? I work to perfect my craft, ladling just enough action to mix with character detail. When the final product is ready, it is my offering to readers.
Readers take the vessel in hand and turn it, appreciating the cover art. If they are willing,they consume it, and voila: my imagination and stream of energy finds a path to theirs. If they really enjoy the book – and hopefully they do – they might finish with a big healthy slurp that sounds something like a five star review.
So like the master of the tea ceremony, working to tend the aesthetic of her tea garden, I sit down to write each day, aware that each sentence I craft is unique to this moment, and attuned to my experiences. I bow in humility to each reader who, like the guest at the ceremony, is willing to accept this version of omotenashi and drink from my cup.
The following article was originally published on BooksByWomen.org.
A friend suggested recently I write an essay about how one went about being taken seriously as a female writer over fifty. My first reaction to this suggestion was actually surprise, and my second was wonder …. maybe she didn’t take me seriously? I sat back in my chair and regarded her more closely.
No, the suggestion was definitely intended as a compliment, and I got the feeling as we sat there that she hoped I had some special secret. The truth was, I hadn’t stopped to think about it.
Her suggestion reminded me of the time a father on the sidelines of a girls lacrosse game asked my husband what we’d done to make our daughter so hungry for the net. My husband just shrugged, “That’s how she came out.” Likewise, my ability to pursue a writing career at fifty, with no real credentials to speak of, might also be a matter of good instincts or good fortune (neither of which do I take for granted). After some consideration, I’ve come up with some pointers that might be useful for anyone embarking on a similar “under-dog” journey.
If you want others to take you seriously, take yourself seriously.
Let me rephrase that, don’t take yourself seriously, that’s unattractive. Take your writing seriously. I sit at my desk every morning, I decline invitations. I write whether I feel like it or not. I call myself a writer. I introduce myself as a writer. I talk about my books. I am not shy.
I accept invitations and view every opportunity to discuss my book as a blessing. I have fully immersed myself in the literary community in Boston. I attend readings. I take classes. I am workshopped, and I accept feedback. I blog and submit essays for publication. If I am writing I tell other people not to bother me. My business cards read “author.” I attend conferences. I approach people. I watch what the authors I admire do and I try to emulate them. When I am not writing, I am reading. I review books.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
While a traditional book deal with one of the big five is very prestigious and the gold standard in publishing, there are many other ways to connect with the reading public if that is your goal. Starting later in life, I made the decision that chasing prestige and prizes couldn’t be my priority. From day one connecting with readers was my singular focus, through my books, my blog, and through social media. I might not have an MFA, but I’ve had a relatively eventful life that provides plenty of material and emotional knowledge to infuse into my writing. I don’t think there is a writing program in the world that can teach what it feels like to love, to give birth, to lose, to bounce back, or to choose compassion.
Reject those who are rejecting you.
I decided to stop banging my head against the wall called the New York publishing world. After many years of rejection from New York agents and editors, I decided it was a party I wasn’t likely to be invited to. Luckily, in this digital age, in this age of disrupters, I was able to find an alternate path to publication and have never looked back. I found a hybrid publishing company called She Writes Press founded for women who have life trajectories and aspiration similar to mine. We help and inspire each other and through our collective success, motivate each other. My sisterhood has provided me with strength and more drive than I had when I thought this struggle was mine alone. When EDEN finally made it out in the world, it was embraced by many readers. That was all I ever wanted.
Accept the fact that creating art requires vulnerability.
Vulnerability and authenticity are necessary not only in creating art, but in creating a life with connections (and that includes connections with readers). Readers have a very accurate bullshit meter and will dismiss work that doesn’t feel real very quickly. Brené Brown, renowned social worker and author, teaches in her book Daring Greatly that putting yourself out there is essential. Being vulnerable, she writes, is the key to making connections. When you embrace vulnerability, you are also expressing your sense of self-worthiness. Don’t confuse this with ego, it is the opposite.
When you put yourself out there, when you allow yourself to be truly seen, others stop and take notice. They admire the honesty. They equate vulnerability with courage. They say “Wow.” The hardest thing about putting yourself out there is letting go of the worry you aren’t good enough and the fear of being judged.
In the weeks before EDEN was released I could barely get out of bed in the morning, I was so overcome by nerves. But if you are putting the work in (see pointer #1) you needn’t worry. Whether your writing career started in your twenties or your fifties, strive to tell your authentic story with your authentic voice. You will make connections. People will respond positively. I struggled whether to list this as pointer number one or pointer number four because it’s a necessary concept from the start, but it is also an evolving realization. I also have to think this is that secret something my friend was searching for when she suggested I write this article.
The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.
And that’s okay.
When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.
The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.
Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.
It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.
Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.