Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gabby (2011): Mark Kelly,Gabrielle Giffords & Jeffrey Zaslow

Gabby is an inspirational memoir written by Captain Mark Kelly and United States Congress Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly describes the aftermath of the January 8, 2010 shooting of Giffords in Tucson, AZ and his final trip into space as commander of the space shuttle, Endeavor. The author gives details of Giffords miraculous recovery and her struggle to regain her ability to speak. He explains that she is able to comprehend 99% of what is spoken but is still at work on her ability to communicate her thoughts and feelings. The book also depicts Kelly’s adventures in space and his complicated work as an astronaut. He shares interesting details regarding life as the commander of the Endeavor shuttle. As a reader, I was immediately engaged in the events surrounding Ms. Giffords horrific shooting and her brave recovery. As a twenty-five year officer in the U.S. Navy and astronaut, Kelly is methodical and precise in his descriptions. There is a tinge of anger regarding Sarah Palin and her politics and the response of NASA administrators regarding the public opinion of Kelly’s decision to return to space after the attack. In my reading, I was struck by the extreme patriotism and work ethic displayed by both Kelly and Giffords. I was also interested in reading about their unconventional marriage. Due to their demanding careers, the spouses kept homes in separate cities and spent much time apart. The overall message is one of love, resilience, and Ms. Giffords amazing capacity to heal after such a traumatic event. In a culture that can sometimes seem troubling, this book demonstrates the beauty of two people who strive to make the world a better place through perseverance. Gabby perpetuates the theme that good will eventually win over evil and that strength in character is a still a noble calling.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007): Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007): Sherman Alexie

This fictional book for adolescent readers was penned by Sherman Alexie as a semi-autobiographical tale of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington State. The narrator is Arnold Spirit, Jr. or “Junior” as he is known on the rez. As an infant, Junior had hydrocephalus or “water on the brain” resulting in seizures and an enlarged head. These abnormalities make Junior an outcast and the brunt of jokes and bullying. Life on the rez is bleak, Junior’s father and many adults are addicted to alcohol and Junior attends many funerals which are usually alcohol related. Junior is smart perhaps due to his mother’s influence. She is intelligent and is a reader but is still affected by the negative perplexities of the reservation. Some of the main characters in the book include Junior’s best friend, Rowdy, a tough young man routinely beaten by his father. Mary Spirit is Junior’s sister and valiantly attempts to break free from her home life. Junior (like Alexie) decides to leave the rez and attend the all white high school in nearby Reardon, WA. The book chronicles Junior’s adventures at Reardon such as hitchhiking to school, befriending beautiful Penelope and brilliant Gordy, and becoming an unlikely star on the high school basketball team. Junior is a witty and engaging storyteller and this reader was laughing out loud as I read this unique piece of literature.

The novel deals with sensitive issues in a humorous tone and contains comical cartoons throughout which will appeal to both juvenile and adult readers. The book also has language and mature themes which resulted in it being banned in three states. Ironically, the novel was named the 2007 Young People’s Literature winner for the National Book Award. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an engaging, humorous, and thought provoking read about a young man and his culture. Sherman Alexie is also a filmmaker (Smoke Signals, 1998), poet, and writer of short stories (What You Pawn, I Will Redeem, 2003).

You can see more of the work of this brilliant author at:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hystera (2011); Leora Skolkin-Smith

My novel, HYSTERA, tells the story of young woman’s struggle with mental illness in the 1970’s. It was a time before pharmaceutical solutions, a time of widespread political unrest and social disorder. Patty Hearst stood out in my imagination as the symbol of this strange time. She represented, to me, the rapid societal and class changes, as well the confusing changes in women’s sexual roles and identity. A millionaire’s daughter who, after being kidnapped and held against her will,  was transformed into a fellow revolutionary, appearing in the newspapers holding up a bank, clad in the uniform of her own kidnappers--the  “People’s Symbionese Army” --donning an Afro-wig and carrying a machine gun slung across her shoulders.

The confusion inside  HYSTERA’S main character, Lillian, sprung from the same wild era and seemed as much a part of the instability of those times as of her personal family tragedy. Lillian blames herself for a family tragedy and, after tripping through failed love affairs with men, and doomed friendships, she retreats from the outside world into a world of delusion. She is incarcerated inside the private terrors of a New York City Psychiatric Hospital.  

While trying to find a language for the painful and inaccessible emotional states Lilly feels as she floats in and out of reality, I stumbled on a book called SORCERY AND ALCHEMY. Inside were wild etchings drawn by early alchemists in the Renaissance which,--more than our contemporary psychological vocabulary,-- seemed to capture the inner chaos and dissolution of the psyche during a psychotic break. Dream-like, sexually ambiguous, and enigmatic pictures and symbols of the body represented people engulfed in a dangerous inferno of desires and confusions. Neither male, nor female, the figures were drawn with ambiguous genitalia-- males spawned large oval eggs, dropping from penises like sacs; the pubis’ of women sprouted rods and long snakes. Hermaphrodites possessed acacias for genitals that shot up with pulp red flowers into the heavens. There were also symbols of citadels with towers on the pages; drawbridges over long wavy rivers, hawks, green lions, lambs, people with yellow solar faces and skulls.  The rich and disturbing imagery was the closest I had ever seen in capturing the disorder of a delusion, a psychosis, or even just an emotional depression where one might feel the universe as topsy-turvy, nonsensical, splintered, and overwhelming.

The alchemist (like a person experiencing emotional and mental illness), could no longer tell “the psychically real from the physically real,  the book explained, but, engulfed by their subconscious,  the alchemist falls into a pit without knowing the boundaries between reality and imaginings, no longer able to function as a whole person in the world. Because many feelings were inexplicable and often impenetrable, their emotions became part of a quasi-mystical experience. By fracturing inside, the alchemists had found themselves unified with larger oceanic passions, much as one would feel when entering a cathedral, mosque, or synagogue during mourning, moved and comforted by ancient and archaic images from the Bible which are primal: bloody, sensual, immediate, and ineffable. This is not to romanticize mental illness or say one is “with the Gods” during a breakdown, but, perhaps, to suggest that falling apart, madness in itself, can bring on these quasi-mystical moments. 

        These states are what Freud called "archaic remnants”.  Wikipedia defines this phenomenon further as “mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual's own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind”. These “archaic remnants” can be powerful to someone experiencing a psychotic break, connecting them to a universal and timeless identity and humanity, bringing them the comfort of knowing they aren’t as isolated from a recognizable context as they feel. 

In HYSTERA, Lilly has such a psychotic break. But she also, like me, finds a book on the ancient art of alchemy, connecting with the wild images depicted in the alchemy book, as if her unconscious had finally found a country that spoke the same language as she.  I wanted to track the map of this psychotic young woman as she rummages through the lost imagery and relics of madness, finding, through them, solace and identification. The unexpected shock of recognition between what Lilly is experiencing and the symbols throughout centuries she reads about in her alchemy book give Lilly moments of peace and comfort. Though HYSTERA is also about a family tragedy, trauma, and illness, I hope it will penetrate further, too, and resonate with some of these perpetual and everlasting mysteries.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving 2011

N.C. Wyeth; Chadds Ford Hills (PA)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pictures of You (2011): Caroline Leavitt

New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt on her novel Pictures of You

Pictures of You started as an obsession. I've always been phobic about cars and even though I have my driver's license, I have never driven since I was sixteen. My novel swirls around a mysterious car crash, and how it impacts the lives of three people: Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband who has just gotten his girlfriend pregnant; Sam, a young boy with asthma and a terrible secret; and Charlie, a husband and father who begins to realize he never really knew his wife. The novel also tells the story of April, Sam’s mother and Charlie’s wife, who is killed in the accident, and gradually, it unfolds what she was doing three hours away from home with a suitcase in the car. I also wanted to explore the question, How do we forgive the unforgivable?

Because I’m such a movieholic, Pictures of You also pays homage to film, in particular an old Elia Kazan film I adore, Splendor in the Grass. I loved the way the film ended with nothing neatly tied up, and how emotionally aching it was. I hope I’ve captured that feeling in Pictures of You.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, which was also a Costco Pennie’s Pick, a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick, and one of the Best Books of 2011 from Bookpage and Bookmarks Magazine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Q & A with Dr. Samuel Park (This Burns My Heart, 2011)

Q & A:  Dr. Samuel Park – This Burns My Heart
1.      What motivated you to write this particular work of fiction?
To be really honest about it, I wanted to write something that lots of people would read. Up to this point, I’d been writing what I felt like writing, regardless of the marketplace or my audience. For instance, the book I wrote before it (which didn’t sell) was a college-set drama. Now, there is no market for a college drama, unless you’re Tom Wolfe. So I asked myself, what is the kind of book that is both something I’d like to write, and that others would like to read; where’s that intersection in the Venn Diagram? It turned out to be this book.
2.      How closely is Soo-Ja Choi based on your mother?

She’s very similar to my mother in two aspects: her courage (my mother is not afraid of anything) and her resilience (she always tries to make the best out of every situation she’s in). But although the character of Soo-Ja is based on her, she is not Soo-Ja. I had to embellish, fictionalize, and dramatize situations and dynamics to make the story entertaining. I would say that she’s very similar to Soo-Ja in terms of what she’s like; less so in terms of what happens to her.

3.      Which male character in the story do you most relate to and why?

I actually relate more to the female characters, Eun-Mee and Hana in particular. Hana’s eagerness to move to America was based on my own feelings as a teenager, and Eun-Mee’s campy sense of humor is very similar to mine—she kind of talks the way I talk in real life, when I’m trying to be funny. (Except Eun-Mee probably wouldn’t know that she’s being comical.) In terms of the male characters, I would say I relate to Yul on a really, really good day.

4.      How did you do your research on Korea and how familiar are you with the settings in the novel?

The novel is set in the neighborhood that my mother grew up in, and I visited it a couple of times as a teenager and have vivid memories from both trips. I read pretty much every book in the library I could get my hands on that described Korean customs, culture, and cities. I also watched a lot of Korean movies from the 50s and 60s, to get a feel for the “look” of the country at the time. A lot of what’s in the book, though, are patterns and habits I’ve observed in my parents—the way they use money to express their feelings, for instance. These are cultural details that you don’t find in books, but if you grow up in a Korean family, you know them by heart.

5.      Can you describe the unique culture of Korean immigrants in the United States?
Korean immigration in America began more than a century ago, with the arrival of the first immigrants in Hawaii, a state with a very large Korean population. Most Koreans, however, came to the United States in the 70s and 80s, in response to a period of great growth but also great political repression and economic frustration. Korean culture is probably too heterogeneous to generalize, but for most Koreans, I would say it is focused around the church and business; for the 1.5 and 2nd generation, around professional aspirations and a hybrid relationship to their ethnic background. I would say Korean culture is most commonly experienced, by both Koreans and non-Koreans, through food: sticky white rice, vegetable side dishes, seafood dumplings, kimchee; and through holidays such as Seollal, where you eat rice cake soup filled with egg strips and dumplings.
6.      How was the process of writing this novel different from your other work, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets."

I wrote Shakespeare’s Sonnets extremely fast, in about four to six weeks. It’s very short, about 50,000 words; I wrote it the way an aspiring screenwriter (which is what I was at the time) would write a novella. By the time I wrote THIS BURNS MY HEART, I was a lot more serious as a fiction writer, and way more committed to writing a novel. I took much more care to write it, and it took me significantly longer, about four years from starting the first draft to finishing all the revisions.

7.      What has been the reception of the novel and has social media played a role in its publicity?
That’s the $64,000 question—the role of social media. I make a point of connecting with anyone who’s read the novel and tweeted about it. I do it out of appreciation, because I feel genuinely grateful when someone has read it and bothered to tweet about it. But to my surprise, when you acknowledge someone’s tweet, you often start a relationship, one that may lead to guest posts on blogs like this (which is what I think happened to us, correct?). In terms of the reception to the novel, it’s been an absolute dream. I didn’t expect any of it. When I got Amazon Best of the Month, I literally thought it was a mistake at first. And when the Today Show did a piece on the book, I was floored. And then when People picked it as Great Read in Fiction, I was once again amazed. I’m always completely surprised and delighted by anything good that happens to the book.
8.      How do you balance the craft of writing with your other career as a college English professor?
I think it’s tricky, because even though on the surface those activities may seem related, they’re actually at odds. It’s like being a gymnast and then having to dance a waltz—what makes you great at one thing actually hurts the other. A good novel is the opposite of a good lecture—you have to unlearn your tendency toward analysis and focus on the feel, colors, and textures of things. They require completely different vocabularies and approaches. Most novels by academics are terrible. One exception, I think, is Andre Aciman, who is brilliant at both.
9.      What authors do you find inspiring and what books are you reading at this time?

I love the work of Curtis Sittenfeld and Sarah Waters; I greatly admire their ability to write gorgeous, literary language, and combine it with compelling, original plots and characters. Right now I’m reading a number of books, including Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I’m enjoying and admiring immensely. I’m an extremely slow reader, and it takes me forever to finish a book. I do, however, love savoring a book that has great language, and will end up going back to it again and again, as I’ve done with Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

10.  What are your current projects and future plans with regard to your writing?

I’m working on a new book, and I subscribe to the old adage that the less said about a work in progress the better, so I will have to plead the Fifth! All I can say is that it’s about a mother-daughter relationship. I’m excited also, for the upcoming paperback release of THIS BURNS MY HEART. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but the cover they came up with is amazing. I have a weak spot for paperbacks, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing it. And thank you so much for letting me be a part of your blog; I love D.C. and hope to visit it soon!

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Lesson Before Dying: Ernest Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying: Ernest Gaines

  A Lesson Before Dying (1993) by acclaimed author, Ernest Gaines, is set in the rural South (Bayonne, Louisiana) in the late 1940’s amidst the still raw racial tensions of this era. This classic novel is narrated from the first person point of view by Grant Wiggins, a young teacher who has returned home from receiving his education to teach grades primer through high school in the local church.  Gaines introduces the conflict in the first chapters which occur in the courtroom where a young man named Jefferson has been unjustly convicted to death for the robbery and murder of a white store owner, Mr. Alsace Grope.  Jefferson was in the wrong company and is actually innocent of the crime. He is called a “hog” by his lawyer and is represented as someone who cannot distinguish right from wrong. The teacher, Mr. Wiggins, is instructed by his aunt, Tante Lou, and Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to visit Jefferson in jail and help him to die with honor.  As the novel progresses, Grant is extremely conflicted with leading the life of an educated, nonreligious black man in a town which is still dictated by the codes of racially immoral white men. His education has brought him a different perspective and he experiences complex feelings in his role as a teacher to Jefferson and mentor to the people of the town. Themes running through the story include the role of religion in society, family dynamics, martyrdom, and prejudice. The story also includes the love story between Grant and Vivian Baptiste, “a lady of character,” who is still married but provides an avenue of deep love and escape for Grant. The title refers to the metamorphoses experienced by both of the main characters. Each reading of the novel has been unique for me and Gaines brilliant description and dialogue fuel the events of the plot. The prose is intricate and thought provoking, perhaps a reason this novel is read in many schools. Finally, there are interesting references to the French culture in the characters, food, and places that pervade the novel alluding to Louisiana being an original French territory in the United States.

In analysis of the book and the author’s background, readers may observe an autobiographical element to the novel. Mr. Gaines was raised in a pastoral town in Louisiana and left his home to become educated in San Francisco, CA where he was permitted as an African American to attend college. He was raised by strong women such as the ones depicted in the story. Also, during his studies Gaines became enamored with Russian novelists but noticed a void of such stories describing his own people.  From my personal readings and discussion of Gaines work, it seems that he is an important writer for noticing a niche that was not recognized in the literary world: the post slavery plight of African Americans in the South. There is an old saying, “everyone has a book in them or a story to tell.” With this novel, Ernest Gaines has illustrated this vital point and simultaneously recorded the stories of his people that will be remembered beyond his own life. Isn’t that the legacy that all serious writers strive for in their art?  Read and share this important book, you will be gain new insight into this time in American history.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Q & A with Jennifer Gardner Trulson

       Q & A:  Jennifer Gardner TrulsonWhere You Left Me

1.       Why did you decide to share your personal story at this time?

I never intended to write a book.   My children were four and two-years-old when Doug was killed.  I knew one day they would ask about their father, and I didn’t want Doug to be a ghost, his memory faded and diminished by time.  I wanted to give my children, to the best of my ability, real-time, detailed recollections of their father.   To that end, I frenetically recorded memories, anecdotes, conversations and observations in the weeks and months following 9/11.  I threw everything into a storage box and left it in my basement.  It was a mess, but at least it would be a personal archive for my kids one day.

Two years ago, I took a friend’s suggestion to organize my jumbled collection into a narrative so the kids would have a real history of their father’s life and the impact of his loss.  Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop.  One story turned into two and suddenly I’d written fifty pages.  I decided to go forward with turning our story into a book because I wanted to pay tribute to Doug and those who helped my children and me find our footing again.  With ten years, there is some perspective, and perhaps others will gain insight into the events that could not be gleaned from news accounts.  I also wanted to give back to the community that opened their hearts to the 9/11 families.  Accordingly, proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation, which supports quality after-school programs for at-risk children in New York. 

2.       What is the meaning behind the title of the book?

The title WHERE YOU LEFT ME felt poignant because in many ways I am still standing where Doug left me after kissing me good-bye that last time.  I miss him as if it were ten days ago and not ten years.  I still feel Doug’s presence and will never be able to reconcile his loss.  However, the title is also a hopeful one.   I was a happily married mother of two children on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Now, ten years later, I am still, improbably, a happily married mother of two beautiful, resilient children. 

3.       How long did it take to complete your memoir, and how did you manage writing with your family obligations?

It took about a year and a half to write the book.   While my children were in school or away at summer camp, I’d devote as many days as possible to writing.  I always wrote in the mornings through the early afternoons so that I’d be available when the kids came home from school. 
4.       You mention in your memoir that you were an English major. Did you ever aspire to write before this book?

I’ve always been a voracious reader, but never thought I had the “stuff” to write a book.  I was a lawyer, and the most ambitious thing I’d ever written was a decent legal memorandum.  One writes a book when she has something to say.  Tragically, my husband’s death gave me that something.  Though I’m proud of the memoir, I wish I never had to write it.

5.       Are there certain authors or books that you believe have influenced your writing?

For many years this story has churned inside me.  I have told and retold pieces of my family’s experience like some modern-day Ancient Mariner from the Coleridge poem.   I don’t really think that I was conscious of being influenced by any particular authors because my story was so personal.  However, I have always been attracted to authors who can paint a vivid picture with simple, straight-forward prose.   

6.       Do you plan to continue writing?  If so, will it be fiction or non-fiction?

Dorothy Parker once famously said, “I hate writing.  I love having written.”  After enduring the stark loneliness, frustration and undulating emotions associated with writing my first book, I appreciate the paradox.  Still, I would like to write again, but I’m not sure I have another book in me right now.  I certainly do not see myself writing fiction, but I think I’d like to explore writing essays, articles or commentary next. 

7.       Can you tell the blog readers about the mission of the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation and your involvement?

My children and I established the Douglas B. Gardner foundation in 2004 to support quality after school programs for at-risk children.  Doug served on the boards of several children’s charities and talked of becoming an “angel” to a select group of motivated organizations that made a real difference in the lives of the kids they touched.  I wanted to ensure that Doug would always be that angel; that in his name at-risk children in New York would receive real support and opportunities to achieve success.
I work closely with the organizations we support to create programs that otherwise wouldn’t exist or foster those that continue to have a positive impact on the children who participate.

Over the years the DBG Foundation has created an instructional swim program now in its third year, sponsored several AAU boys’ and girls’ basketball teams through which the kids are mentored and tutored as well as coached, and funded arts and leadership development programs. 

8.       How has your life changed since the publication of the book, and what has been the reception from readers.

I am deeply touched by the thoughtful comments, posts and emails I’ve received from people across the country who have connected with my story.  It’s true that grieving is the great leveler.  It doesn’t matter what the circumstance, religion or background, the catastrophic loss of a loved one brings everyone to the same place.  I found it heartening to know that no matter what I was feeling – sadness, anger, dark humor, fear – others have felt the same. 

9.       What do you feel is the universal message of your memoir? 

I certainly do not have a monopoly on pain and loss, but I hope that a reader will find a kindred spirit within the pages.   Indeed, whether a loved one died on 9/11, on a battlefield or from a long illness, every loss shatters the foundation under those left behind.  I would like the book to connect even if the reader has not experienced a loss like mine.  Maybe my story will help restore someone’s faith in life’s possibilities, to remind one that, even as life can turn on a dime for the worst, it can also turn again in a positive direction.
Mostly, I would like a reader to know that one doesn’t have to shut the door on the past in order to move forward.   We hear all the time that we should find “closure” and “move on.”  I don’t think we move on; I think we simply continue to move through a loss like this and learn to live again. I’ve never looked for closure, not only because it doesn’t exist, but because I want Doug’s memory to sting, to remind me that he existed and mattered.  It’s the only way I can give him to my children and love my husband, Derek, with the full and open heart he deserves.   I have to believe that you can live a fully present life, carry your loss and somehow joy will find you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where You Left Me (September, 2011)


Where You Left Me (September, 2011)  
Jennifer Gardner Trulson
During the week of the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001, I became interested in the stories of two amazing women who were victims but ultimately survived the horrific tragedy of this day.
My first reading was a memoir, Where You Left Me, eloquently and candidly written by Jennifer Gardner Trulson, who was the wife of Douglas B. Gardner, an executive director at Cantor Fitzgerald. This company was located on the 101st-105th floors of One World Trade Center and lost 658 employees in the attacks. The book chronicles the remarkable love story of Jennifer and Doug Gardner who were living a charmed life on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  The Gardners were the loving parents of two adorable young children, Michael and Julia, enjoying wonderful friendships, and had just spent a tranquil summer in the Hamptons. It should also be noted that the Gardners were the best friends of Cantor Fitzgerald CEO, Howard Lutnick and his wife, Allison. This friendship provides an insight into the frenzy and despair in the days after September 11th for the close-knit Cantor families. After the horrific events of this day, Jennifer cherished the time she had with her husband and the immense love they shared. She vowed to be resilient and raise her children properly but acknowledged that this was her one love and that part of her life would be over.
Gardner, a lawyer by training, writes in an intelligent and pragmatic manner. The twist in the book comes about a year later in the form of Mr. Derek Trulson, a handsome native of Seattle who has recently moved to New York City. A complicated but beautiful new romance develops between the Jewish widow, Mrs. Gardner and the WASPy, Trulson. Mrs. Gardner describes their differences and similarities in key scenes such as a visit she and her children embark on for their first Christmas in Seattle.  I will not divulge the entire plot which is the strength of the memoir but it is enlightening to see the author put the pieces of her life back together and flourish.
Finally, Gardner’s descriptive narrative and dialogue create a real intimacy with the reader. It seemed to recreate the desperate events of this time and will serve as a vivid record for her children and others who will not remember the experience. In honor of all the victims who lost their lives on that tragic day, I hope you take some time to read this memoir and remember them. I must leave you with one last comment, I read this book in one day and it is a story you will not regret reading.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

This Burns My Heart

This Burns My Heart (September, 2011)

This Burns My Heart is a compelling novel of historical fiction written by author, Samuel Park, an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College in Chicago. Dr. Park has explained that the inspiration for the novel came from his mother, a Korean immigrant to the United States.  The novel is multifaceted but overall, a love story which encapsulates the hardships Koreans faced in the 1960’s in the aftermath of the Korean War.  As a reviewer, I became engrossed in the struggles of the female protagonist, Soo-Ja, an independent and spirited young woman battling the conventional standards imposed on Korean women during this time period. As a writer and a male, Park has a talent for delivering a narrative from a female perspective. Some common themes in the novel include the complex choices people must make in life and the idea that some doors which seem closed may someday open again. Also, Park illustrates the wisdom and knowledge we will only truly gain with age.
As a young woman growing up in post-war Korea, Soo-Ja dreams of traveling to Seoul, the populated capital, to become a diplomat. Her loving but extremely traditional father squelches these aspirations and she decides to find her freedom another way. Beautiful Soo-Ja embarks on an unhappy and difficult marriage to Min Choi, a young man who has diligently pursued her for his own reasons.  In the interim, Soo-Ja is caught up in the activism of the young people of Korea and makes the acquaintance of Yul Kim, a young rebel and doctor whose true love will haunt her for decades. The novel follows the lives of the three characters beyond the 1960’s with the ever evolving Korea as the backdrop.  It also describes perhaps Soo-Ja’s greatest love, that of her daughter, Hana.  It is a maternal love that will propel her decisions and influence the events of the story.  Anyone who has been a parent or child will relate to the complexities of this most profound relationship.
The novel spans over twenty chapters but readers will be engrossed and involved in Park’s fascinating plot.  When I finished reading the novel, I was truly sad to say goodbye to Soo-Ja and a sequel or film of the novel are definitely hopes for this reader. Thank you Dr. Samuel Park for your hard work and time in writing such a complex and intriguing novel that I plan on recommending to all the voracious readers I know.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Room (2010); Emma Donoghue

Room, a fictional novel by Emma Donoghue, is unlike any book I have ever read. Perhaps inspired by recent current events about children held captive for years in isolation, the novel explores this tragic phenomenon from the perspective of a five year old protagonist. Young Jack has spent the first five years of his life inside the four walls of a small shed protected by his devoted mother from Old Nick, the captor who impregnated her. Surprisingly, Jack has led a relatively contented upbringing in this sheltered world due to the resilience of his brave, unnamed mother. As he reaches his fifth birthday and becomes more curious about the outside world, his mother realizes these circumstances cannot continue and the plot becomes more compelling. She creates a plan for escape that will leave readers captivated and unable to stop reading until they learn the outcome of the characters' final fate. Donoghue used her own son for inspiration and Jack is a very realistic storyteller who infuses the magical prose of a child. As a mother, I was awed by the description of the strength of maternal love even in such extreme circumstances. The book has won numerous awards and is nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Award.

As a reader, I had heard many favorable reviews but was reluctant to delve into such troubling subject matter. A fellow voracious reader and great friend told me she read it in one sitting and was unable to sleep until she finished this book. I began reading and also felt compelled to read it uninterupted. This novel became a wild ride and I have not been so engrossed in a book in quite some time. If you are a lover of fiction, you will not be disappointed by Room and Ms. Donoghue deserves her accolades for such an unusual and extremely unique piece of literary art. Please leave some comments - I would love to discuss this amazing book with other readers!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Q & A: Author and Professor, Robert Bausch

1. What inspired you to become a writer?

Mostly reading. And storytelling. My family was big into storytelling. IN fact, all of my brothers and sisters are wonderful storytellers. Our gatherings are a blast because we sit around and tell and re-tell funny stories. My father was the best storyteller I ever saw. He acted out all the parts, remembered whole conversations and just kept everybody laughing.

I wrote my first novel--one I never published--when I was 14. I was in the eighth grade. It was a novel about the Civil War. That's all I read about. I read no fiction at all to speak of. I remember the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, The Bobbsie Twins. I loved a book called The Wahoo Bobcat, and one about a cougar called "Yellow Eyes." I read "The Call of the Wild," and "White Fang." But mostly I read nonfiction: Douglas Southall Freeman's four volume biography R. E. Lee, Henry Steele Commager's History of the Civil War, Shelby Foote's The Civil War: a Narrative. I read all of Bruce Caton's books: Glory Road, Mr. Lincoln's Army, A Stillness at Appomatox. The list is longer than I can include in this e-mail. If it was about the Civil War, and it was published between 1957 and 1963, I read it. My grades went deeper and deeper into the alphabet, but my parents didn't overreact to that--as long as I was passionate about something, and devoting my time to it, they let me fail in school. Not failure that made it so I'd have to repeat a year or anything, but they didn't make a big fuss when I brought home 'D's instead of 'A's. In the 9th grade, my English teachers convinced me pretty quickly that I had nothing of any value whatever to say, and I didn't start writing again (except for a few long letters to my mother) until I was 26 years old and just out of the military. My English teachers meant well, but they did not respond to anything I had to say. They simply corrected what I wrote, graded it and gave it back. I'd get a 'C' because I didn't use commas' correctly (I still don't) or because I had one sentence paragraphs.


I thought that was tone of voice. I thought it was clever to say something that everybody believed, then have a one sentence paragraph that identified clearly how I felt about that idea, and then a new paragraph presenting an alternate idea. I remember my teacher telling me it was both a sentence fragment, and a one sentence paragraph and taking off twenty points. I had read enough by then--remember I loved reading and I'd read lots of histories and such--that I KNEW she was wrong, but I didn't argue with her. I just stopped listening. My grades, all the way through school were bad. I barely made it. I like to tell my students that my report card read like a guy who stutters trying to say Dog.

2. What is your process for beginning a new novel? Can you explain your writing habits?

I write, or try to, every day. When I begin a novel, I start with a character—somebody I have a vague notion about, and I put her or him in a situation and see what happens. Sometimes it develops nicely and I keep at it. Other times I go back and change the situation. Or tweak the character. Whatever happens in the book I am writing should happen because of something in my character’s make up—in who she is, or who he is. What kind of person have I created? I don’t want anything happening in the plot to serve the story or my attitudes or my spleen or any of my appetites. I want what happens to happen because of the character. If the writing isn’t going well, and I can’t think of the next thing I want to say, I’ll turn off the monitor and write blindly, looking at my reflection in the monitor. If I’m using a laptop, I’ll put a piece of cardboard between me and the screen. If I can’t SEE what I’m writing, I can’t judge it, or edit it, or in any way let the critical side of things interfere with creation. I have to let the creation take place first. I need that critical side though, because one of the worst things you can develop as a writer is allegiance to earlier drafts. You have to be willing to let go, to have the critic come back and with a savage pen, DO something with the dross produced in the creation. I believe ANY day I write, whether or not it goes well, is a GOOD day. And days when I DON’T write are anxious and frightful and not very much fun, unless I have planned and chosen a day off. I like those. I do not like any day I plan to write and don’t. It is always five o’clock on a damp November day in my soul when that happens.

3. How do you balance being a full-time college English professor with your writing career?

I don’t get a lot of sleep. I work on Saturdays, Sundays, Fridays—Monday afternoons, Wednesday mornings; almost never on Tuesday or Thursday because I teach all day, both days and Tuesday nights. I think I’m a better teacher of writing when I’m writing. I don’t often borrow from one to pay the other, but it has happened. I’ve had to stall things in a class because of where I am in a novel—near the end, comes to mind; or editing for publication. Those things can take away from the teaching, but I really do work hard not to let that happen. When I have grading to do, late in the semester, I almost never work on Wednesdays, Saturdays or Sundays. Those days are reserved for grading. Sometimes I’ll do both. I’m never, ever bored, or sitting around wondering what to do. I live every day as though sleep is the wrong thing to do; I never go to sleep until I can’t possibly stay awake any longer. I get up, usually, with the sun. I like mornings for the fresh coffee and the Washington Post. I am a champion napper. I can lay down on the couch, close my eyes and be sound asleep in seconds. Sleep for an hour or so and then I’m ready to go late into the night and early morning.

4. Can you discuss a few projects that you are currently working on?

I’m in the last stages of a novel called As Far as the Eye Can See. That is to say, I’m polishing the third draft and will read it one more time and tweak it one more time before I send it anywhere. Last summer I finished a novel called The Legend of Jesse Smoke. It is with my agent now, and he’s trying to place it with a publisher. I have another book I wrote two years ago called, The Strange Case of the Silent Girl. Or, In The Fall They Come Back. I haven’t made up my mind about its title. I have not been able to place it, so I’m waiting to sell one of the others so I can then perhaps get that book into print. Right now I’m in the worst place a writer can be: My last book, Out of Season, did not do well. In fact, it sold so poorly, they cancelled the paperback on it. Those numbers are what publishers look at. So, the reality is, I may have published my last novel while I’m alive. It is heartbreaking sometimes to think about it, but that’s where I am. The first thing a prospective publisher does these days is go on his computer banks and he can find out how many books I have sold; if they don’t like what they see, they don’t really care how good the book is. They won’t buy it. But I am going to keep writing them, by God. It’s who I am.

5. What would you consider to be your best work and why?

That’s really a hard question to answer. It’s like trying to decide who your favorite child is. I don’t really have a favorite child. I’m proud of all of them, and I guess I have to say I’m proud of all my books and stories. There’s not much I’d do differently, to tell the truth. What’s out there is out there, and has to stand on its own. I can tell you that A Hole in the Earth really surprised me for how well it did. And I think The Gypsy Man was perhaps the most intricately engineered work I’ve ever done. But as I said, I can’t pick a best work.

6. Explain how you create your characters. Are they mostly imagined or do they come from personal interactions?

I am proud to imagine and create characters. Perhaps they are composites of folks I have known, I don’t know; I’ve been as keen an observer of people as my limited insight and intelligence will allow. But mostly I like to invent. Create people from images and dreams and just thinking when I first see them, or when they first come into a work. I’ll change sometimes later in the drafting, but usually the characters I create remain who they are all the way through the work.

7. What is your most valuable piece of advice for someone about to embark on a writing career?

Read. Read as much and as often as possible. Read poetry, lots of poetry—it helps with descriptive metaphor, figurative language, economy, precision. Read history, biography; read the history of ideas; philosophy. Read the great novels, short stories and plays of the Russians, the French, the English, the Americans, the Latin Americans, the Spanish. You have to know the world; the more you know, the more you will have at your disposal when you’re trying to write. Read more than one book at a time. I read six or seven. Sometimes even more. I read IN each book, each day. Reading all those different voices will keep you from sounding like other writers; you’ll sound like yourself and only yourself. And it’s not hard to do—after all, we know many different people and if we see them everyday, we don’t have to be reminded about what is going on in their lives. It’s the same thing with reading several different books at once. If you do it every day, you have no trouble keeping up with what’s going on in each of them. If you want to be a writer, you have to read more than you write, more than you watch TV, more than you do almost anything. The more you see the language in print, the more you can navigate its extraordinary mixture of sounds and the beauty of its ideas in your own writing.

8. How do you get touch with your creative self?

I lower my standards and just produce a text. That’s what happens when I turn off the monitor or cover the screen. Other times, when it’s going well, I don’t need to do anything but show up at the keyboard, with a hot cup of coffee.

9. What was the inspiration behind a few of your novels?

Almighty Me was inspired by a conversation with my brother in law. We used to go to a fishing camp in Canada every year, and one night, sitting by the fire, smoking my pipe and drinking whiskey, I wondered out loud if Christ trimmed his beard. In all the likenesses of him his beard is perfectly quaffed. He was GOD. Certainly he knew about air conditioning, and plaque, and how to avoid ever having a tooth ache. In fact, couldn’t he insure that he would suffer none of the horrific inconveniences of the Middle East in 30 A. D.? My brother in law wrote a poem called “Christ Trims his Beard,” and I went home and started thinking about what would happen if a man got God’s power now—if we had another go at a Christ. Would HE trim his beard? I had a ball writing that book. It was originally titled Spanking the World. At first I had Christ himself coming back. He was terrified when he saw all the folks wearing crucifixes, the churches with crosses. He thought he’d come to a place that hated him completely—sort of like what it would do to Abraham Lincoln if he came back and everybody was wearing a small derringer around their necks, and churches had big pistols on top of them; or if John Kennedy came back and all the churches had high powered rifles on their roofs and folks wore little symbols of that around their necks. But eventually it worked out that it was a man, and automobile salesman no less, who is GIVEN god’s power.

My first novel, On the Way Home was inspired by a student of mine who had been captured by the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam War. They kept him underground and tortured him mercilessly. He asked me what he could possibly do with his hate. I wrote a short story about his experiences and when Harpers magazine rejected it, the editor there told me that I had not dealt with my “veteran’s pain” in the story. So I used that story as chapter one, put a piece of paper in the typewriter and began chapter two. That became my first novel and what it developed into was the problems my character has adjusting to new life with his mother and father in Florida. It becomes about love and not hate at all. It’s also about fear.

Most of my novels, though, have been inspired by, merely, the desire to produce another one. It’s like a new car. You like it for a while, but then, after some time, your admiration wanes. It doesn’t smell new anymore. The thrill of driving it is gone. It’s just your car. It may stay that way for years, but you always look forward to buying another new one. It’s the same with a novel. Eventually, you gotta have a new one.

10. Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

My brother Richard Bausch, George Garrett, Alan Wier, James Dickey, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Penn Warren, Anne Beattie, Howard Norman, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Maynard, Elinor Lippmann, Jane Hamilton, James Jones, William Maxwell, Ron Rash, Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Lee, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Tom McGuane, Kaye Gibbon, Alan Gurganis, Flannery O’connor, Richard Dillard, --oh, the list is endless. I love the work of all of these writers. I have left off as many as are on this list. I could write a brief essay about each one and why I love his or her work. And this is only the fiction list. I loved Shelby Foote, Henry Steele Commager, Bruce Catton, David Halberstam, Walter Isaacson, Nathaniel Philbrick.. it’s a long list. I love the philosophy of David Hume, and Voltaire; the work of John Paul Sartre.

I know this list is long, but truly, if I had to go to a desert island, I could not take any less than these guys and their books with me.

I hope all this hasn’t bored you too awful much.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Q & A with Susan Jane Gilman

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

Q & A: Susan Jane Gilman (UNDRESS Me in the Temple of Heaven)

1. What was your inspiration for writing a memoir on your trip to China and how long did it take to complete?

What gets me started on a new book is usually a sense of outrage. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven came about largely in reaction to what was going on in the world around me.

First, I’ll back up: In 1986, when I was fresh out of college, a classmate and I planned this epic journey around the globe based on a placemat at the International House of Pancakes.

Since we wanted to boldly go where no one we knew had gone before, we decided to kick off this trip in the People’s Republic of China. In 1986, China might as well have been North Korea: it was a nation in lockdown, removed from the world, with almost no tourist infrastructure. My friend and I spoke no Mandarin and knew nothing about Asia, but we figured Hey: we were bright, bold, and American – so how hard could it be?

Well, of course, we found out. As soon as we arrived in China, we quickly we began to unravel.

What began as an ambitious lark became a fairly harrowing, traumatic, and embarrassing story. I was reticent about ever writing it -- at least as nonfiction.

But then, 20 years later, things began happening in our culture that compelled me to react.

In 2003, I heard President Bush describe our impending invasion of Iraq as “a cakewalk,” I turned to my husband and said, “’Cakewalk’? Is he kidding? That sounds like something stupid I would’ve said as a 21-year-old at the IHOP.” As the war escalated, I also heard more and more about soldiers – 19, 20 years old – coming home with mental problems after being thrust into a completely alien environment.

At the very same time, a spate of bestselling books began coming out with plots along the lines of:

“After my heartbreak, I decided to heal myself by renovating a villa in the Mediterranean. To recuperate from my divorce, I thought, why not eat a lot of pasta, then go to an ashram?”

We Americans seemed to regard whole nations and cultures as little more than venues for personal makeovers or national enrichment.

And so, I felt compelled to debunk our romantic myths of swaggering Americans who simply tromp into a foreign country and prevail.

I felt a responsibility to tell the other side of travel. I knew first-hand that being a stranger in a strange land can be achingly lonely, unnerving, and ridiculously difficult. I wanted to write not about the soldiers, cowboys, and adventurers who triumph, but of the naïve, ignorant, freaked-out Westerners like me -- who bungle into a place, make a mess, offend people, have their egos handed to them on a platter, and are lucky to get out alive.

Although the book took about three years to write from start-to-finish, it was actually two decades in the making, seeing as it was a true story that happened to me back in 1986. It took a while for me to summon both the courage and the proper perspective to tell it. In order to recount the story, I not only used the journals I’d kept during my travels, but I returned to China 19 years after I had had to flee with my friend. There, I retraced my steps. I returned to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Guilin, and Yangshou.

I also tracked down several of the people who were also instrumental in saving our lives in China.

2. What was your writing process and schedule?

 The process was simple: stick my ass in the chair. Stay there. Then open a vein. I wrote from 10-6 p.m., five days a week. Before a draft was due, I’d rent an apartment in the mountains for a couple of weeks, hole up all alone – no Internet, no sweet husband, no phone – and work around the clock. I’d read the manuscript start-to-finish, then revise it methodically. I’d tend to get up at 8, be writing by 9, take a break at 3, continue writing 4-7 p.m, eat dinner, then work until 1-2 a.m. I need concentrated intensity for a project.

3. Can you share some details as to why you decided to pursue writing as a craft?

When I was eight years old, after my parents had tucked me in to bed, I’d hop up, run over to my window, and stare out at all the other housing developments in our neighborhood. I’d dream up stories about the other kids who lived in them. When I was ten, I started writing these stories down in “books.” I’d get these little notebooks from Woolworth’s and draw a line across the page. On the top half, I’d write stores, and on the bottom, I’d illustrate them. These tales were designed to rock the very foundations of modern American literature. They had titles like “Bunny House,” “The Picnic” and “The First Day of School.”

I loved to draw, too, and for a while I thought I’d be an artist. But by the time I reached junior high school, I’d grown wise and shrewd. I realized that I’d have an easier time making a living as a writer than an artist – though that’s not saying much.

Then in high school, I had an amazing Creative Writing teacher – and he really sealed my fate. He told me, “Miss Gilman, you’ve got a gift. Send your work to the Village Voice.” And so I did. And they published me! I was sixteen years old. I made $200 – more money than I’d make from a piece of my writing until I was 30. This teacher sent my poetry to national contests. I won prizes. I was off, I was running. My amazing teacher and I stayed friends for the rest of his days. Every time I had a success, I shared it with him. When I first made the New York Times’ Bestseller list, he was the first person I called. He was hugely instrumental in my becoming a writer. You might have heard of him. He had a bit of literary success himself later on (wink). His name was Frank McCourt.

4. On your journey to China, did you keep a detailed journal that helped you recall events and details?

Yes. That’s the beauty of knowing you want to be a writer early. You keep copious notes. Unfortunately, I was 21, 22 at the time that I traveled through China, so a ridiculous amount of ink was spent not on the country, but on obsessing about boys back home. Good God. Some of the entries go on for pages about some guy I’d slept with before I left – Oh, is he still thinking about me? Will he write? – and then, almost as an afterthought: by the way, I’m writing this by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Reading the journal now, I could bang my head against the wall. So much for epic literature. But that’s what preoccupied me then: sex, love, longing. It’s a wonder I managed to record anything insightful about China at all. But I did. Eventually I got around to it.

5. How did you decide on such a creative title for the book?

 The title was initially inspired by the sailor I had a brief fling with in China, who told me he’d like to take my clothes off in the Temple of Heaven (Note: the Temple of Heaven is China’s most famous, landmark temple – Beijing’s equivalent of Notre Dame.)

I liked the suggestiveness of “undressing in the Temple of Heaven.” On one hand, it promises a wild, rebellious fantasy,on the other, a dressing-down full of danger, nakedness, desecration, and vulnerability. This pretty much sums up the thematic conflict in my book:

My friend and I went to the People’s Republic on a romantic impulse, hoping to impress the world with our derring-do. Instead, we found ourselves in a foreign land, completely stripped of everything: language, cultural understanding, our status in the world, our physical health, our sense of self, our sense of direction, and even the most rudimentary ability to communicate. All our weakness were laid bare.

“Undressing in the Temple of Heaven” was good, but it didn’t roll off the tongue. I went out dinner with some editors, and one of them said, “I love your declarative titles. Make this one declarative, too.” So “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” it was

6. Are there any key scenes that you feel most contribute to the overall character of the memoir?

 I’m too close to it to tell, frankly. But readers write me all the time saying how moved they were by both our arrival in Hong Kong, and then by entire second half of the book, starting with our visit to Johnnie’s hometown in rural China. After that, they say, they couldn’t put the book down. Some have been terrified for us. Some have been angry at our naïve behavior. Some have felt enormous compassion. Many tell me that even at the book’s harrowing climax, they’ve laughed out loud. This is all good. I wanted to make China come alive for everybody and evoke emotional responses. If you have a laugh at my expense, so much the better.

7. What was the aftermath of the trip? Can you offer any advice to novice travelers looking for an adventure overseas?

I can’t tell you the aftermath of the trip because I don’t want to ruin the ending of the book for readers. But I will offer advice to travel virgins.

First: By all means, go! Travel the world! Barring war zones and places for which the State Department has issued serious travel warnings, figure out what your comfort zone is, then step outside of it a mile or two.

That said, do some homework beforehand. Read about the culture, history, and current political system of wherever you’re going. If you’re female, be aware of how women are treated and how women travelers may be regarded (Generally, it’s a good idea to leave the shorts at home and get some gauzy cotton blouses to throw over the tank tops).

Above all else, learn a few words of the local language. I’ve found “thank you” to be the single most important phrase to know, with “hello” and “please” running a tie for close second. Just by making an effort, you’ll be treated infinitely better as a foreigner anywhere.

You do not need to be fluent. I’m talking about absolute basics. Carrying a phrasebook is fine. You will not risk looking like an idiot (you already do) – you will look like you are trying to communicate, and this will be enormously appreciated. It is a sign of respect.

It is crucially important for anyone when traveling – but particularly us Americans – to be humble and polite when interacting with the locals. This sounds so simple and obvious, but so many Western travelers ignore it, it’s staggering. They don’t say “hello,” or “do you speak English?” or “please.” They either bark at people gruffly, or start pantomiming insultingly, and they get annoyed when the concessionary “hamburger” or “apple pie” on the tourist menu isn’t on par with those back home. They act boorish, then wonder why the locals treat them with contempt.

I’ve even seen “uber-cool” backpackers do this, and it’s hideous. Avoid ignorant arrogance at all costs. And if you want mostly hamburgers (or, conversely, to stick to your vegan diet) above all else, stay home.

Always remember that you are guest in someone else’s country, and that how you interact with them will likely color the way they view Americans in general. Be flexible and polite. Always err on the side of your most straitlaced, moral inner self. And don’t get freaked out if you feel freaked out and anxious. That’s par for the course. Travel is about relinquishing control. It’s much harder than it looks!

8. How did this event change you as a person?

 I am not naturally adventurous. As I write in the beginning of “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven,” my immediate impulse upon arriving in a foreign country is usually to freak out, curl up in a fetal position, and go home. But since I didn’t back then in Hong Kong, I’ve gotten more adept at overcoming my fears. I travel the world regularly now. I am still always anxious – but I override my own internal programming.

9. You are currently living abroad. Can you comment on your experience as an American living in a foreign country?

I write a blog, “A View from A Broad” in which I document all sorts of experiences, insights, cultural faux pas, and spectacularly humorous stupidities (on my part) as an American living and traveling overseas. I cover everything from offending the British to going to sex museums in Prague to trekking through Morocco to the glories of the American Weather Channel. Please check it out via or

10. What projects are you working on at this time and who are some of your favorite authors?

My three published books are nonfiction. Now, frankly, I think I’ve had it with reality. It’s time to try a novel. I’ve started sketching out two different stories, one comic, one serious. I oscillate between the two depending on my mood: it’s probably manic-depression-as-applied-to-literature. But neither will be titled “Bunny House” or “The First Day of School.”

As for favorite authors, there are too many to name. But the writers who initially inspired me as a teenager were the three John's: Cheever, Updike, and Steinbeck, along with Dorothy Parker, Toni Morrison, and Truman Capote. Those six were seminal. And Frank McCourt, of course.