Leap of Faith Book Launch Party was a great success! We packed the house and sold out the book. But, fear not — more copies have been ordered and are now available at Elliott Bay Book Company, your favorite independent bookstore and online here.
How does Anne Tyler do it? How does she create these wonderfully quirky characters who say and do cringe-worthy things in their daily lives yet share qualities that strike uncomfortably resonant chords in her readers? In Breathing Lessons, we meet Maggie and Ira Moran, a long-married couple who, as the novel opens, are on their way to the funeral of Maggie’s best friend’s husband. The action of the novel takes place in one day and much of it on their road trip from Baltimore to Deer Lick, Pennsylvania. Of course, I had to Google “Deer Lick” to see if it really exists. It does. It’s just southwest of Pittsburg and more than a three-hour drive from Baltimore, an interminably long time to be stuck in the car with these two characters. Maggie is a busy-body. But she is also good-natured – the kind of person who strikes up conversations with strangers and then divulges the most personal information. While stopped at a convenience store along the road, Maggie tells the clerk her family troubles: her son can’t keep a steady job, has once been arrested, pretends to be a rock star and is divorced with a young daughter. In fact, Maggie is certain she has heard her ex-daughter-in-law, Fiona, on a talk show this very morning as she was driving their car out of the auto shop. She’s so surprised to her Fiona’s voice that she slams straight into a truck. Here is another of Maggie’s characteristics: She’s accident prone. And Maggie takes the notion of “wishful thinking” to a whole new level. While she doesn’t exactly lie to her friends and loved ones, she habitually tells what Mark Twain would call “stretchers.” She frequently creates elaborate scenarios in her head in which she can change things, to make them better, with little regard for the real impact on other people’s lives. The most audacious example of Maggie’s “meddling” here is her plan to stop in on her ex-daughter-in-law and granddaughter and convince them to drive back to Baltimore with her and Ira — a thinly-veiled attempt to get Fiona and Leroy back together with the Morans’ immature and irresponsible son. We also learn, through Maggie’s conversation with the stranger at the diner, that their daughter, Daisy is leaving for college the next morning with a full scholarship to an Ivy League school. The girl has become “unrecognizable” to Maggie who, with tears in her eyes, tells the clerk that Daisy recently asked her this chilling question: “Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?” Ouch. Later Ira suggests that Maggie’s hare-brained idea to stop bring Fiona and Leroy home with them is her way of replacing Daisy with Leroy. Maggie wants an opportunity to start anew with her granddaughter, to do things right this time. This, it seems to me is what Anne Tyler is examining in this novel – the wish we all have to turn back the clock, to get one more chance to dosomething better the next time around. That said, there are some lovely moments between Maggie and Ira, moments which only happen between long-married couples who have known and loved each other for many years. And while Maggie has, no doubt, settled for being “ordinary,” Anne Tyler reminds us that, in the final analysis, it’s what we all have in common.
Breathing Lessons is a beautifully written novel which highlights poignant moments in a couple’s ordinary life. Though sometimes painful and close to home, there were also times when Maggie’s reflections had me laughing out loud. And for me, looking for a sense of the State of Maryland in this novel, I got a great feel for the countryside on the road between Maryland and Pennsylvania. I particularly liked this description of driving out of Baltimore: The scenery grew choppy. Stretches of playgrounds and cemeteries were broken suddenly by clumps of small business – liquor stores pizza parlors, dark little bars and taverns dwarfed by the giant dish antennas on their roofs. Then another playground would open out. And once they cross into Pennsylvania: They entered Pennsylvania and the road grew smooth for a few hundred yards, like a good intention, before settling back to the same old scabby, stippled surface. The views were long and curved and green – a small child’s drawing of farm country. Distinct black cows grazed on the hillsides. And when they return to Maryland after their adventure: They were in Maryland now, and Maggie imagined that the country here looked different —more luxurious. The hillsides emptied of livestock, had turned a deep, perfect green, and in the faded light the long white fences gave off a moony glimmer. Yes, I have a sense of Maggie Moran’s world now, both the physical landscape and the emotional turmoil inherent in any ordinary, long-lived life, beginning with youthful hope, taking the bumps and disappointments as they come but never losing sight of the possibility for positive change, and maybe a little well-intended meddling.
On to Maryland! My initial internet search for bookstores in Maryland worried me: are all Maryland bookstores in shopping centers? Is all of Maryland merely a suburb of Washington, D.C.? Wait, wait! That can’t be true. There’s Annapolis, which I’ve visited. I found a lovely bookstore there, but it specializes in maritime books, not for me. Their page featured a lovely Robert Frost poem: The sun was warm but the wind was chill. You know how it is with an April day. Despite the fact that I was reading this on a very warm summer day, I appreciated the poem nonetheless.
My continued search brought up several bookstores in Baltimore, so I decided to go there. Turns out, my favorite is The Ivy Bookshop. Here’s a place I’d love to visit. The website describes the ideal bookseller as “literate personal shoppers, mind readers, therapists, and bartenders (non-judgmental advice without the booze)” I loved that! Especially a quote from a customer which said, “I stop in at the Ivy after work for my happy hour.” I’m pretty sure there’s no bar or bartender at the Ivy, but I can certainly understand the idea of getting buzzed on great literature.
Turns out the Ivy was voted “Baltimore’s Best Bookstore” by Baltimore Magazine and Baltimore City Paper. Its owner, Ann Berlin, has been in publishing since 1975, with all very impressive credentials including editing a publication for the Smithsonian. But, more than that, I’m interested that their booksellers are described as knowledgeable and friendly individuals who make a point of getting to know their customers’ personal preferences and recommending books based on that. I spend a little time cruising the book blog, the book recommendation of the day (both fiction and non-fiction) and then I’m definitely ready to make the call.
My call is answered by bookseller Nancy Chambers, who definitely fits the bill of “knowledgeable and friendly.” After I explain my project and ask for a recommendation (or two) of Maryland authors she likes, she immediately suggests Anne Tyler. Now, I have read several of Anne Tyler’s books, The Accidental Tourist being one of my all-time favorites. I’m charmed to learn that the author lives in the bookstore neighborhood, and that Nancy has been reading her for years, speaks of her like a friend. Nancy recommends Breathing Lessons which I have not read. She asks if she can call me back in a couple of hours after she has spent some time thinking over other possible recommendations and talking to her colleagues. Yes! This is great—I love it when booksellers are enthusiastic about my project and take the time to consider their recommendations.
Nancy and I chatted a bit about Baltimore before ending our call. I tell her I’ve never visited but have watched a few episodes of The Wire. She laughs and tells me that she hears that a lot but assures me that Baltimore is a great place to live and work – no more dangerous than any other city. Nancy is also tickled that I want to order books from The Ivy Bookshop when I could probably find the same books in Seattle. I explain that this is part of my quest – reading books from each state and supporting the independent bookstores in those states as I go along – and that I’m having as much fun talking to booksellers as I am reading the books they recommend. “It feels like my birthday whenever those packages of books arrive in my mailbox.” I say. She laughs, tells me she’ll call me back at three.
Nancy is right on time in calling me back. She still recommends her first choice – Anne Tyler, and she has added John Barth as her other suggestion, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. Great! Send them to me, I say.
When the package from The Ivy Bookshop arrives a week later, I can’t help but smile. Nancy has taken the trouble to wrap each book in ivy paper with gold ribbon around. It truly does feel like my birthday now. There’s also a hand-written note: “Thank you! ENJOY!” I can’t wait to tear the wrapping off and get reading.
This was originally posted on writeinseattle.
Do you ever dream about being interviewed by the New York Times after your novel becomes a bestseller? Yes, well. . . I love that feature in the Book Review, By the Book, where an author is interviewed and asked, among other things: “What’s on your nightstand right now?” Sometimes I scoff at how pretentious those lists can be. You know, Proust, Nietzsche, the complete works of James Joyce. Of course I know writers read those books, but I like it a lot more when an author will fess-up to reading the latest Stephen King or a new thriller by a young or not-yet-discovered writer.
Also, I’m seeing a lot of lists appear in the newspaper and at my local independent bookstores right now — it’s time for summer reading! I love summer reading. Well, I love Spring reading and Fall reading and Winter reading too, but in the summer you get a pass to read whatever the heck you feel like. (Fall, for me, is the time to hunker in with the classics or at least a serious literary read.) So I thought I’d suggest a few titles for your summer reading list, including books I’ve recently read and also some titles that I’ve recently discovered and are stacked up on my virtual night stand right now.
First off, if you have not yet read Donna Tartt’s excellent novel, The Goldfinch, go out and buy or borrow it as soon as possible. It is unequivocally the best novel I’ve read in the past year—or maybe the past five years. And, it’s hefty. You can start this one on the plane (if you’re flying somewhere on your summer vacation) and then finish it sitting in a beach chair, or on the porch, while sipping your favorite beverage. This assumes, however, that you have planned in time for significant leisurely reading. At 771 pages, this novel will keep you in its thrall for days. And, if you’re like me, as soon as you close the cover, you’ll want to turn back to the beginning and start all over. Tartt not only composes beautiful sentences, again and again—the kind you’ll want to read out loud and savor—but the story of Theo Decker (thirteen years old when the book opens, in his twenties at its end) will keep you rooting for him through the chaos of his formative years. With the backdrop of the wealthy private school world in Manhattan to the weird world of the moon-like Las Vegas suburbs, Theo makes his way back home as best he can with only the kindness of strangers and his own wits to see him through. Oh, and yes, also that stolen painting of the Goldfinch which continually haunts Theo and the reader.
And here are some books I’ve read reviews of and can’t wait to get my hands on. First, there’s a debut thriller by a young Swiss writer, Joel Dicker, which is a bestseller in Europe and has now been translated into English. The book, The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, described in the New York Times Book Review as “unimpeachably terrific.” The plot appeals to me: A young novelist, Marcus Goldman, suffering from writer’s block after the success of his first novel, travels to a coastal town in New Hampshire to write along-side his mentor, Harry Quebert, “a gruff, grandiose, tough-talking romantic who uses boxing to illustrate writing tips.” The visit to New Hampshire doesn’t go well or last long but soon after Marcus returns to New York, the body of a fifteen-year-old girl, missing since 1975, is found on Harry’s property. And Harry has been arrested. Apparently Harry’s only literary masterpiece—published soon after the girl’s death—centers on an improbable love affair between two characters much like Harry and the dead girl. So Marcus returns to New Hampshire with the intention of helping his mentor and clearing his good name and legacy.
The novel is “a playful, page-turning whodunit, dense with suspects, multiple timelines, contradicting stories, past sins, town secrets, personal entanglements and an array of colorful (suspiciously behaving) locals.” Sounds great – I’m off to the bookstore. (Found it yesterday at Elliott Bay Books!)
Next up for me is Stephen King’s latest, Mr. Mercedes. This is, Megan Abbott says in the New York Times Book Review, King’s first foray into the straight-up detective novel genre—no paranormal or horror story here. It’s a hard-boiled detective novel with a twist: “Instead of another hard-drinking soulful detective, King presents a hero who lost interest in alcohol upon his retirement, and whose only addiction is daytime television.” Abbott suggests that by successfully deviating from the detective novel’s “creakiest devices,” Mr. Mercedes feels fresh.
In true Stephen King style, the first half of the novel “tickles our anxieties, his detective engaging in a classic cat-and-mouse game with the killer.” But, the reviewer tells us, “King is up to something sneaky” involving one of his female characters. Apparently, the MacGuffin in the novel is a fedora which appears halfway through the story but doesn’t quite fit any of the characters except, maybe, Holly Gibney, who “jostles her way into the center of the action, playing a critical role in the investigation but also, more substantially providing the nerve, drive and jittery heart of the novel.” She never gets to wear the fedora, but its disappearance “marks a shift in the story itself,” where the spotlight moves to Holly. Now that appeals to me—a hard-boiled detective novel with a nod to female ingenuity. Need to get it.
Following is a list of the other books on my nightstand. Find full reviews for them in the NY Times Book Review.
Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke, described as a “chiller” from an author who is not only a suspense novelist but a prizewinning poet. “The best sections of the book take place at the Siberian orphanage . . . “ I’m in.
Sedition by Katharine Grant, “In Georgian London, a tale of seduction, sex, love, death and the pianoforte.” Enough said.
Love, Nina, A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Sibbe: “[A] series of letters Nina Stibbe wrote to her sister while working as a young live-in nanny 30 years ago for Mary-Kay Wilmers, then and now a top editor at the London Review of Books.” Fun!
So much to read! And I hope you’ll let me know what you’re reading this summer—there’s always room for more!
Leap of Faith
An Ann Dexter mystery published by Rat City Publishing
My mystery novel, Leap of Faith, was chosen as the debut book for new Seattle imprint Rat City Publishing. Read all about it here.
About the book:
Seattle Times reporter Ann Dexter is always on the hunt for the big story – the one that will catapult her from beat reporter to the Pulitzer Prize. When a wealthy widow jumps to her death from the city’s suicide bridge, leaving all her money to a sketchy New Age church and its resident psychic medium, Ann is on the case. Intent on exposing the church as a fraud, Ann signs up for a psychic workshop and finds herself inexplicably drawn to the very man she suspects.
Eager for justice, Ann follows a trial of clues that lead from the board room of a software startup to a Mexican spa and retreat center. Ultimately Ann’s search for the truth brings her face to face with a twisted killer and challenges all her beliefs about love and life and death.
I’m a dog lover. That’s probably why I chose to read Pete Nelson’s book, I Thought You Were Dead as my second Massachusetts book. I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Seattle’s own rock star author Garth Stein, but had to wait a couple of years to read it since its publication date followed too closely after the death of my precious Golden Retriever, Maddy.
I loved the beginning of the book. The protagonist, Paul Gustavson, getting home late one night, fairly drunk, fumbling with his keys by the light of his front porch, as the snow falls heavily around him. His dog, Stella, greets him with “I thought you were dead!” Paul explains that since dogs have no sense of permanence, Stella believes he’s dead whenever he’s not around. Okay, must get this off my chest early. If one believes this about dogs, one cannot also believe that dogs are as intelligent, philosophical and conversational as Stella proves to be throughout this book. I know it’s a nit-pick, but it bothered me from page one.
That said, the book is great. At the outset, Paul is a mess. He drinks too much, his job—writing a series called, Nature for Morons— is not fulfilling, he’s been unlucky in love, and his father has just had a stroke. Could things possibly get worse? Not really. But over the course of the novel, we get to know Paul and root for him as he works his way through a new (difficult and possibly doomed) relationship, struggles with impotency, maneuvers through the family dynamics of dealing with aging parents and finally comes to terms with himself. I Thought You Were Dead is a coming of age sort of novel where the main character’s best friend, confessor and confidant, is a dog.
Paul and Stella have conversations about love, sex and impotency, drinking and stress. Their witty repartee had me laughing out loud. Like this conversation about drinking and impotency. Stella has just explained what everyone who has ever slept with a dog in their bedroom understands: she has been watching. From Stella’s point of view, here is Paul’s problem: And what I’ve seen with my own two eyes, as a noninvolved observer, is first you get sad or stressed and then you don’t get a boner, or first you get happy, and then you do. And drinking makes you sad. That’s my observation. So Paul sets out to drink less and exercise more.
But the poignant parts of the story involve Paul trying to connect with his father after his stroke. Paul’s job is to communicate with his father through computer chatting because Paul lives in Northampton, Massachusetts and the rest of his family is in Minnesota. His father can hit a yes or no key on the keyboard so Paul’s sessions with his dad become like therapy — Paul does the talking and his father can only agree or disagree. Through these intimate sessions, we get inside Paul’s head and learn his deepest thoughts. We discover how confused and frightened they both are at these different stages of life: Paul, at the thought of losing his father and the grim trajectory of his personal life, and Paul’s father, at the thought of losing his memory and control of himself.
I Thought You Were Dead is a very good read. The writing is sharp and intelligent, sometimes funny and often moving. The themes here are universal, and exploring them through Stella’s eyes is a bonus.
What about the sense of Massachusetts that comes through the narrative? Well, it seems this story could take place in just about Anywhere, USA. However, when Paul first takes up running, we get a very thorough feel for Northampton as he runs down Main Street past a furniture store, a high-end clothing shop, a lingerie shop, a diner, several used book stores, importers of third-world knickknacks, a dozen ice cream parlors “dairy being the last vice the local Birkenstockers allowed themselves,” He passed a laundromat, the “Healing Cooperative” complete with homeopathic remedies and “a pamphlet rack by the door offering flyers for all the various local shamans and magical practitioners and caregivers.” Typically, he tells us, he would run past “petitioners getting signatures . . . girls’ soccer teams collecting donations, and New Age people offering incense or poetry, and disturbed zanies . . . Main Street was generally alive, seven days a week and year-round with trust fund mendicants, panhandlers and mooches, crow babies and white Rasta kids in Jamaican black, yellow, green, and red knit caps, Goth waifs and death punks who asked for spare change to make ‘phone calls,’ and one-time, a kid squatting on the sidewalk with a sign that read, PARENTS SLAIN BY NINJAS — NEED MONEY FOR KUNG FU LESSONS!”
Now I get the picture. Here’s a fairly typical New England college town—
though Northampton’s website would beg to differ. There, the town’s mayor describes Northampton as a slice of paradise. And it looks lovely to me—the Connecticut River on one side and Mt. Holyoke on the other, home of Smith College, former home of Amelia Earhart, Calvin Coolidge and Sylvia Plath, among others. I’d love to visit.