TLC Book Tours: The Story of a Happy Marriage

This-is-the-Story-of-a-Happy-Marriage-198x300Long before Ann Patchett’s imaginative novels (Patron Saint of Liars, Bel Canto, State of Wonder) were bestsellers, she was making a living as a writer – but as a writer of nonfiction for magazines.  Patchett cut her writing teeth as a journalist/essayist in the 1970’s, beginning with a book review for Seventeen magazine (for which she was paid $250). She spent eight years writing almost exclusively for Seventeen, until she herself was thirty years old when she moved on to “grown up” publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and Gourmet.

While she was writing freelance articles, Patchett was honing her craft as a fiction writer, with short stories and eventually novels. She credits her training in journalism – the intense editing, the research, the deadlines – with teaching her the kind of skills and endurance necessary to persevere as a novelist. “All those years of writing articles…made me a workhouse, and that in turn was a skill I brought back to my novels.”

And while Patchett started writing nonfiction as a way to literally support her fiction writing (“The tricky thing about being a writer or any kind of artist is that in addition to marking art you also have to make a living”) she was surprised to find her work as a journalist supporting her fiction in other ways as well. When she was working on Bel Canto, her novel about an opera singer, the editors at Gourmet magazine sent her to Italy on assignment to write an article about famous opera houses. Later, they fronted a trip into the Peruvian jungle while she was working on State of Wonder, her book about scientists in the Amazon. In fact, there have been so many benefits to this “day job” of nonfiction writing that even when her novels were successful enough to provide a living wage, Patchett has continued to write nonfiction, just more selectively than when it was the mainstay of her livelihood.

This is the Story of  Happy Marriage collects a variety of Patchett’s essays and articles into one volume. It’s an interesting look at her life through essays that are well written and evocative of the writers time, place, and personality. We learn about her childhood, her love for her grandmother, her first marriage and divorce. We meet her dog Rosy as a puppy and then, 16 years later, as Patchett says goodbye to this beloved pet. We cheer her on when she writes about the success of her new bookstore in Nashville.

And we hear The Story of a Happy Marriage, with her husband Karl. “I  can tell you how I came to have a happy marriage,” Patchett writes in the title essay, “but I’m not so sure my results can be reproduced. I continue to think back to (my friend) Edra, standing in that swimming pool on a bright day in summer. ‘Does he make you a better person?’ was what she asked me, and I want to tell her, Yes, with the full force of his life, with the example of his kindness and vigilance, his good sense and equanimity, me makes me a better person. And that is what I aspire to be, better, and no, it really isn’t more complicated than that.”

This collection is an irresistible blend of memoir and journalism – the kind of writing I really love, probably because it’s the kind of writing toward which I have aspirations of my own. Whether you’re a fan of Patchett’s novels or not, these pieces form a portrait of a real life, lived with thoughtfulness, compassion, and love.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

The Sunday Salon: Having It All

sister-mother-husband-dog_Cover

To me, having it all – if one wants to define it at all – is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up. Like an eclipse. A perfect eclipse is when the moon is at its perigee, the Earth is farthest from the sun, and when the sun is observed near zenith. I have no idea what that means…but one thing is clear: It’s rare.

Personally, I believe having it all can last longer than that. It might be a fleeting moment – drinking a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning when the light is especially bright. It might be a few undisturbed hours with a novel I’m in love with, a three-hour lunch with my best friend, reading Goodnight Moon to a child, watching a Nadal-Federer match. Having it all definitely involves an ability to seize the moment. It’s when all your senses are engaged. It’s when you feel at peace with someone you love. Having it all are moments in life when you suspend judgment. It’s when I attain that elusive thing called peace of mind.

Not particularly American, unquantifiable, unidentifiable, different for everyone, but you know it when you have it.

 

Delia Ephron‘s  new collection of essays,  Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.), is a wise, warm, and witty exploration of what’s really important in this 21st century. In her own inimitable Eprhon-istic vernacular, she writes about Life, Love, Family, Dogs and Bakeries. Like her sister Nora, with whom she collaborated on everything from dinner parties to award winning screenplays, Ephron has a distinctive voice that rings in the readers ear.  Her writing style is so conversational that reading her words feels like chatting with her while drinking coffee and sharing slivers of  a perfect chocolate brownie from Spoon bakery.

I especially loved her take on “having it all,” because, like the Ephron sisters I was raised in that era of the 1970’s when that idea first arose in women’s heads. Marriage, children, and careers were not mutually exclusive entities, we were told.  After all, “we are strong, we are invincible, we are women!”

And we have Helen Reddy cheering us on, so what more could we possibly need?

“Our job as writers,” Ephron says, “is to figure out what we can do. Only do what you can do. It’s a rule I live by.”  What Ephron does so well is combine humor and poignancy to illuminate the human condition, define the family dynamic, and make us feel a little less alone as we navigate our life in general.

 

 

 

 

TLC Book Tour: The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

The Fountain of St. James CourtLooooong title, but it makes sense because this is actually two books for the price of one, two completely different novels taking turns with one another, but intertwined rather neatly into one thematic structure.

The book (or books) weave together the lives of two women, about 69 year old Kathryn Morgan, a contemporary writer who has just completed an historic novel about Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, a renowned portrait painter of the late 18th century France.  Morgan, who lives in St. James Court in historic Louisville, Kentucky, uses the fountain sculpture located in that district as a focal point and title-piece for the contemporary novel (Fountain), which is told in alternating sections with the historical novel (Portrait) she has supposedly just completed.

I’ll be honest – I initially had some doubts. The first chapters, particularly the Fountain portion, seemed almost too sprawling, too musing, too stream of consciousness. And then I realized I needed to read this as if I were reading Virginia Woolf, as if I were looking inside the characters mind as her thoughts tumbled about freely, read it noticing the really exquisite descriptions of place and person, read it not for plot or action, but for thought and sensation.

Once I made that tiny shift in perspective, I was in love.

I started to love this very personal glimpse into Kathryn’s life, loved the way she thought about life and art, loved the way she paid attention to her beautiful home, her friends, loved the way she examined her own past as she reflected on the artist’s life in her historical novel. And the story of Vigee-Le Brun was captivating from the beginning, as it traced this artist’s life from her earliest childhood until almost the moment of her death as an old woman.

Sena Jeter Naslund

Sena Naslund Jeter has written a very emotionally evocative look at an artist’s lifetime, using these two women from completely different times in history, but with very similar gifts and burdens. Both take great pride in their artistic expression and both have an unwavering love for their children. Both are willing to sacrifice much to complete their art.  Both are intriguing and sympathetic characters, whose reflections on a lifetime of artistic achievements make for compelling reading.

Sena Jeter Naslund has written eight previous works of fiction, and since I’ve not read any of them, I will definitely be looking up her backlist. She teaches at the University of Lousiville, and resides in St. James Court – with her own view of The Fountain.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the introduction to this author and the opportunity to read this lovely novel.

Connect with the author on Facebook.

Other stops on the TLC Tour.

Buy the book at Amazon.

TLC BOOK TOUR: EQUILIBRIUM

Balance.

equilibriumEvery woman seeks it, sometimes despairing of ever finding it. For some, this delicate balance between life, work, family, marriage, and relationships is more elusive than for others.  In Lorrie Thompson’s novel, Equilibrium, Laura Klein is struggling to get her life back on an even keel after her husband’s suicide.  It’s been a year since Jack’s death, but the effects of his mental illness linger. Their 15-year old daughter Darcy starts dating a boy who is older in every way. Their 13-year old son Troy is beginning to demonstrate subtle signs that he may have inherited his father’s bipolar disorder. And then, a new man enters Laura’s life, setting her even further off-kilter (but in a rather delightful way.)

Laura Klein has devoted the past 10 years to managing her husband’s illness and career.  A popular novelist, Jack Klein became his young wife’s project, almost from the moment they met when she was his writing student. Not only did she keep him shored up through his bouts of depression, she also helped him revise and rewrite his novels, to the point that the lines of demarcation about whose book it was began to blur. In doing so, Laura has put her own writing dreams aside. By novel’s end, she has begun to find her own creative footing, and explore her own unique writer’s voice.

The domestic drama  in Equilibrium keeps the reader interested, although not riveted. Of all the characters, I became the most attached to Darcy, a young woman reeling from her father’s loss and working very hard to put all the life lessons she’s learned together while balancing a new relationship and her own burgeoning sexuality. As she teeters on the brink of disaster, she manages to pull herself back together in an admirable way.

lorrie1Thompson portrays a family in crisis, working to get their lives back into some semblance of normal. Her novel touches on the way mental illness- specifically bipolar disorder – can devastate an entire family. Though the book is fiction, Thompson has very real experience dealing with mental illness. Her own son was diagnosed with schizophrenia during the time she was writing this book. But the Klein family demonstrates that there is hope if you’re willing to remain open to new possibilities.

I recommend this novel if you are interested in bipolar disorder; enjoy women’s fiction and family dramas; and especially if you’re a fan of happy endings.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

Slow Reading

As is often the case, I have two books on the go at once, and these particular books, more than any two I’ve read together in some time, are a dichotomy in subject, in writing style, and in thematic material.

The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit, is the kind of book that invites slow reading, practically begging the reader to stop and re-read a paragraph or a line, swirl it around in your mind like an oenophile would do with a sip of fine Burgundy. It invites reflection, it sets the mind racing in a kaleidoscope of directions. There are only a handful of writers who can do this, can pull the reader up short so they must stop, go back, say to themselves “Let me try that part again.”

And then there is the other book (which will remain unnamed at the moment because it is a book for eventual review), a novel with stock characters, choppy sentences, hackneyed descriptions – no slow reading here. On the contrary, I find myself reading this one as quickly as possible, speeding through the pages in the same way I drive on the expressway, barely noticing the surroundings just getting from one place to the other as fast as possible.

But there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? Sometimes we need a way to get from place to place quickly and efficiently, without a lot of moodling in between. Sometimes it’s the middle of the night and we need to be distracted from the myriad of heavy thoughts that have disrupted our sleep. Sometimes we’re just relaxing by the pool and want to be entertained by a story.  Other times, on a fresh new morning with our minds and bodies refreshed, we want to be stimulated, want to challenge our thoughts, want to meander along the back roads stopping at interesting little villages along the way.

In our Reading Life, just like Life in General, we need a variety of choices, a balance of experiences, to round us out and make us whole.

Here’s a passage from Solnit’s book that I read this morning. She’s talking about Mary Shelley, and Frankenstein

In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children, she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.

Entering into communion with a writer’s imagination is always a fascinating adventure, especially when a writer leads you – compels you, even – to take the slow road and savor the journey.