Next Book Buzz
Remember those good old childhood days of playing card games in a pretty old house while drinking hot chocolate and looking out the window at the limestone wall of a prison? Well, that might not be a typical childhood memory, but it gave local author Marlene Lee plenty of inspiration for her latest book, aptly titled “Limestone Wall.” The house that overlooked the prison, which happens to be the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, belonged to one of Lee’s father’s patients, and he would take her with him to visit the woman who lived there. In “Limestone Wall,” the main character, Evelyn Grant, moves into this very house in Jefferson City.
DBRL: Your most recent book, “Limestone Wall,” is about a recently widowed woman who goes to find her estranged mother, who is in jail for murdering twin babies. It seems like there are some pretty heavy themes in this book. Could you talk about your inspiration? I know that before becoming a full-time writer you worked as a court room reporter. Did that influence your work?
ML: I should make clear that my mother never killed anyone or went to prison! When I was a girl in Jefferson City, however, she died, and I’ve always wished I could see her again. This novel was a fictional way to think about what it is like to remember the past and to bring someone back to life and then to find firm footing between reality and wish-fulfillment.
My 30 years as a court reporter no doubt influenced the novel. The scene with Evelyn in the courtroom was easy to write because I’ve been in so many courtrooms. I also sat in that empty courtroom in the Cole County Courthouse so that I could describe it accurately and better imagine what it felt like for Evelyn to sit there, lost in thought about her mother’s trial.
DBRL: The excerpt from the book on your website describes a prison waiting room in vivid detail. Did you visit any prisons as research?
ML: The prison waiting room is not based on a real waiting room. I took a private tour of the Missouri State Prison with two people who are knowledgeable about the old penitentiary and life behind the walls. At the time it was being emptied out because the prison was moving to its new site; thus, the prison in “Limestone Wall” is nearly empty of inmates because that was its condition when I saw it. I’ve visited several other prisons in other locations. Once in the state of Washington I reported the deposition of a prisoner who was going through an appeal process. I don’t pretend to know very much about prisons. I used the setting of the Missouri State Penitentiary to help build my story rather than to inform readers about the prison.
DBRL: I heard that you’re a regular at Lakota Coffee. Do you have a favorite drink there?
ML: My drink at the Lakota is the same every morning: a single-shot, skim-milk latte. It never fails to satisfy!
DBRL: Have you read any good books recently which you would like to recommend to our readers?
ML: I love the writing of Edward St. Aubyn. His semi-autobiographical novels about the character Patrick Melrose are magnificent. He has mastered the ability to make the reader feel as if she or he is living the life of the main character, both in the small details and the large events. Patrick’s life is troubled, courageous, and he fights the good fight for self-control and self-knowledge. I love Marilynne Robinson‘s wise and compassionate novels. William Styron has always been a favorite of mine. All three of these writers have a sensitive, insightful writing style that I admire. There are too many wonderful writers to include in one short list!
Marlene Lee, along with other local authors, will be speaking on a panel at the Columbia Public Library on December 13th at 1 p.m. in the Friends Room. These authors (including David Collins, Ida Fogle, Elaine Stewart, Lori Younker, Nidhi Khosla, William A. Wolff and Wayne Anderson) will be talking about their contributions to the recently published anthology of fiction and non-fiction, “Uncertain Promise.” To check out Marlene’s other events and to keep up-to-date on her writing, please visit her website.
Yes, it’s the holiday season, but it is also awards season. Each fall we are treated to not only best-of-the-year book lists but also the Man Booker prize-winner and National Book Award titles, among others. If you have readers on your holiday shopping list, consider giving them one of these excellent books. (Book descriptions provided by their publishers.)
“Redeployment” by Phil Klay
Winner of the National Book Award for fiction
This collection of stories takes readers to the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos. These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier’s daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse and despair that can accompany a soldier’s homecoming.
“Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” by Evan Osnos
Winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction
From abroad, we often see China as a caricature: a nation of pragmatic plutocrats and ruthlessly dedicated students destined to rule the global economy – or an addled Goliath, riddled with corruption and on the edge of stagnation. What we don’t see is how both powerful and ordinary people are remaking their lives as their country dramatically changes. As the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, Evan Osnos was on the ground in China for years, witness to profound political, economic and cultural upheaval. In Age of Ambition, he describes the greatest collision taking place in that country: the clash between the rise of the individual and the Communist Party’s struggle to retain control.
“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin
LibraryReads favorite title of 2014
A.J. Fikry’s life is not what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is failing, and his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. He is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island and from Amelia, the Knightley Press sales rep who refuses to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore that gives A.J. the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world.
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction
A magisterial novel of love and war that traces the life of one man from World War II to the present. In 1943, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. His life, in a brutal Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, is a daily struggle to save the men under his command until he receives a letter that will change him forever. This is a savagely beautiful novel about the many forms of good and evil, of truth and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.
“Ordinary Grace” by William Krueger
Winner of the Edgar Award for best mystery fiction
Looking back at a tragic event that occurred during his thirteenth year, Frank Drum explores how a complicated web of secrets, adultery and betrayal shattered his Methodist family and their small 1961 Minnesota community.
For more inspiration, check out the awards lists in your library’s catalog!
I am excited to introduce a new series here at DBRL Next: Ask the Author. In these posts we will interview writers in our library community. Do you know of a local author from whom you’re dying to hear? E-mail us and we’ll see what we can do!
Our first interview is with author Eric Praschan. Praschan launched his writing career after suffering from a reoccurring illness that left him temporarily mute and unable to feel his extremities. In order to process this traumatic event, Praschan decided to turn this experience into research for his writing. Three years later, he self-published his first full-length novel, “Therapy for Ghosts,” which he later turned into a trilogy following protagonist Cindy James on her quest to uncover her past and reconcile with her family’s dark secrets. The author has now sold over 16,000 books. His latest book, “Blind Evil,” was published earlier this year.
DBRL: One of your first books, “Therapy for Ghosts,” was inspired by your battle with mute paralysis, as well as your experience with cognitive behavioral therapy. Your latest book, “Blind Evil,” is a psychological thriller about a police detective whose best friend is a primary subject in a double homicide. Can you talk about some of your inspirations for this book?
EP: Strangely enough, the initial idea for “Blind Evil“ came to me almost eight years ago on my honeymoon. My wife and I booked an inexpensive “beachside cottage” in Florida, but when we arrived at night, we discovered that the cottage was several miles into the woods surrounded by head-high grass. The cottage didn’t have window curtains and the cottages next door didn’t have curtains, either. There were cars parked nearby, but no lights were on, and no one was around. The moonlight trickled in through the trees, and it was dead silent. It was very creepy. My wife and I looked at each other and said, “I don’t think so.” We got out of there like our pants were on fire and drove back into town to stay in a resort. After we were safe in a room fully furnished with curtains and working lights, we laughed about it and said that that cottage was the kind of place from a horror movie “where people go to die.” Lesson learned – don’t go cheap on your honeymoon.
The image of that creepy cottage stayed with me, and over the years, the story started to emerge.
I could still envision that chilling moonlight, the eerie stillness and our skin crawling. Then the characters began to come to life. In terms of the psychological aspects of “Blind Evil,” the subject of psychology is fascinating to me – how the human mind works, how we react to each other and how we respond in difficult circumstances. I wanted to see what would happen if three close friends, whose lives had been entangled in a complicated manner while growing up, were placed in a psychological pressure cooker. John, a police detective, doesn’t know if he can trust his best friend, David, who is now the prime suspect in a double homicide. Emily, the woman they both have loved, is caught in the middle, and the tension rises. My motto for writing is: the more conflict, the better!
DBRL: All of your published books, with the exception of your short story “The Furrowed Brow,” are set in Missouri. As a local Columbia, Missourian, you understand the advantages and limitations of living in mid-Missouri. What are some things you like most about living here?
EP: I love the geography of Missouri. The forests, hills and rivers provide rich texture to the landscape, and I’ve always found great story inspiration from nature. There’s haunting allure and mystery hidden in the picturesque Missouri scenery. I enjoy the close proximity of rural and urban territories in Missouri. If you’re in a city, just drive 10 or 15 minutes in any direction and you’ll probably end up in the country surrounded by farms, fields and majestic horizon lines. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Columbia, Missouri is particularly inspiring for me because it is located near Rock Bridge Memorial State Park and other natural landmarks that can fuel the imagination. For my most recent novel, I actually hiked one of the trails and descended into the Devil’s Icebox cave at Rock Bridge State Park to do some research for a scene. The experience was thrilling, and I took pictures and notes in the darkness of the cave with only the light of my cell phone, all the while trying to keep my feet steady on the slippery, wet rocks. The people around me probably thought I was crazy, but I just smiled. Authors do crazy things for their stories, I suppose!
I also enjoy living in Columbia because it offers a great artistic community. There are so many wonderful writers I’ve had the opportunity to meet and become friends with, and it’s been invaluable to share stories, resources and experiences with them. Writing can often feel like a solitary journey, so it’s encouraging to have a writing family around you, and Columbia certainly provides that sort of environment.
DBRL: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers in our area? Are there local resources they should consider taking advantage of?
EP: The best piece of advice I have is simply this: don’t give up. Everyone has an idea for a book, but the difference between an idea and an actual book is the willingness to commit to your idea, to shut out distractions, to dedicate yourself to developing your craft and to sit in the chair and pound out the pages until the story is done. Discouragement, self-doubt, fear of failure, fear of rejection and fear of negative criticism will loom like a dark cloud threatening rain, but it’s your job to ignore the cloud and keep those words coming, even writing through the rain, if you must. The only person who can make you stop writing is you, so never give up and never stop growing as a writer.
For writers in Columbia, I would recommend taking advantage of several local resources:
- Daniel Boone Regional Library - they offer book readings and writing-related workshops throughout the year.
- Orr Street Studios Hearing Voices Seeing Visions: a monthly program combining literary and visual arts.
- Osher Book Talk Series: first Saturday of each month, 9:30-11:00 a.m., located at 1907 Hillcrest Drive
- Meet the Author Book Talks: third Saturday of each month, 10:00-11:30 a.m., located at the Boone County Historical Society.
- Quarry Heights Writers’ Workshop: writing workshop for fiction and creative non-fiction writing.
DBRL: Have you read any good books lately that you would like to recommend to our readers?
EP: Recently, I’ve read and would highly recommend Laura McHugh’s “The Weight of Blood,” which is set in the Ozark Mountains. With deeply developed characters, a rich atmospheric setting and a barn burner of a plot, it’s a literary thriller you won’t want to miss. I also recently finished Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone,” which is set in the Ozarks as well. Woodrell’s novel showcases the landscape of Missouri in an unforgettable manner, and his main character, Ree Dolly, is a heroine for the ages.
These days many people like to do more than one thing with their lives. The results are often generously deemed unspectacular. For every brilliant acting performance by political savant Arnold Schwarzenegger, there are three ill-advised folk or jazz albums by some actor who found the time to buy a guitar or piano and grow a beard on the downtime from his day job. For everybody that grimaces at the idea of Stephen King directing a movie, or Wolf Blitzer babysitting their kids, or catching a glimpse of Terry Bradshaw, there is understandable trepidation caused by a novel by an acclaimed rock and roller. But John Darnielle is not your typical song and dance man. His acclaim hasn’t been generated by facial paints or scandalous dance moves but by the quality of his songcraft. Indeed, the author bio on the back flap of the magnificent “Wolf in White Van” proclaims he’s “widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation.” Now granted, not everyone that can pen pretty lyrics can craft a decent novel. But consider this: Darnielle’s acumen for fiction is made evident by the fact that his band is called “The Mountain Goats” when in fact it is comprised often times by only a single human, Darnielle himself, and never by any non-human mammals. Also, a big hat tip to the interns here at the Next Blog for pointing out the band’s inability to scale the sheerest rock faces.
“Wolf in White Van” is a powerful book, dense with pretty sentences you can imagine Darnielle setting to music. Darnielle, in addition to shaming Sir Elton John’s tennis game, has written the sort of page-turner character study that most novelists don’t have in them. It’s a melancholy and sometimes grim look at the early life of a damaged man. While a teenager, the narrator survived a gunshot that left his face radically deformed. The novel flashes between Sean’s present and his past, eventually coming all the way back to the night when a bullet changed his future. To deal with living inside his head during his hospital stay, and with the loneliness that sticks with him indefinitely, Sean has created a mail-in role playing game. There are frequent asides from inside the post-apocalyptic world its players must navigate. Completing the game is impossible, which, given its subscription based nature, is just good business sense. This perhaps hints at a third talent Darnielle could unleash; I’m sure Pat Sajak is somewhere gritting his teeth right now.
John Darnielle will write and perform more songs. It seems likely he’ll write more novels. Here’s hoping he has plenty of time to do both and that fewer athletes open restaurants.
This time of year is a list-lovers dream. 2014 won’t be over for weeks, but lists naming the year’s best books are already cropping up, just like Christmas trees appearing in department stores well before Thanksgiving.
These lists have some sleepers and some surprises, but there is something here for every reader. Below are just a few books receiving rave reviews, along with their publishers’ descriptions.
“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James
A lyrical, masterfully written epic that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s. Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters – assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts – “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the ‘70s, to the crack wars in ‘80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the ‘90s.
“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee – their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue – in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party. When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.
“On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss
Upon becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear: fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what is in children’s food, mattresses, medicines and vaccines. Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding the conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. As she hears more and more fears about vaccines, Biss researches what they mean for her own child, her immediate community, America and the world.
“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse. One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time – from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains – this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
“Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright
A gripping day-by-day account of the 1978 Camp David conference, when President Jimmy Carter persuaded Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to sign the first peace treaty in the modern Middle East, one which endures to this day. With his hallmark insight into the forces at play in the Middle East and his acclaimed journalistic skill, Lawrence Wright illuminates the issues that have made the problems of the region so intractable, as well as exploring the scriptural narratives that continue to frame the conflict.
And if you are anti-best-of-book-lists, you might try some titles that appear on Kirkus Reviews’ list of most overlooked books (so far) of 2014.
There’s been a lot of controversy lately about adults reading young adult fiction (YA). Many argue that adults should be ashamed for reading books written for children, while others say it shouldn’t matter. If you enjoy reading YA, that’s all that’s important. I have to agree with the latter argument. Telling adults they should be ashamed to read YA is absurd, but then again, telling anyone they should be ashamed to read ANYTHING is absurd!
Sure, YA books are novels aimed at readers aged 12 to 19, but YA is more than that. Many books for teens are written in a style meant to keep these readers engaged, and thus much of YA is full of more direct language, faster pacing, action scenes and emotional turmoil. These features appeal to many people (not just teens!!) because of the other media they love with similar plots or pacing – movies, TV shows, Twitter and Instagram.
Enjoying this style of book isn’t just something teens can do. Everyone can.
Now, that being said, I don’t think the classics are dead, or adults should read only YA. That’s also crazy talk. Everything has its place and time. Everything is important to someone. But should an adult feel ashamed for not wanting to be bogged down with what they might see as superfluous language or ambiguous endings? Hardly. Everyone has their preferences.
If you have read YA fiction and thought it was immature, then maybe you haven’t read enough YA. Just like in any genre or category of books, there is the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. You can’t judge an entire type of book based on one work, or even two.
My series of YAFA posts will suggest YA books that will, I hope, appeal more to adult readers. And they won’t be books already enjoying big buzz like “The Hunger Games” or “The Fault in Our Stars.” Here is my first recommendation.
“Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers
“Grave Mercy” is a historical fantasy. It follows Ismae, a daughter of Death, as she trains to become an assassin. When the Duchess is killed, Ismae must pretend to be Gavriel Duval’s mistress and hope to find the truth behind what happened. Used to always having Death on her side, Ismae must question everything she’s learned and save the soon-to-be Duchess Anne’s life.
Full of political intrigue, historical references and a mature love interest, “Grave Mercy” has more adult elements than teen ones. Ismae sounds like a narrator above her years, and LaFevers’ language is beautifully balanced, descriptive yet direct. Longer than the average YA, “Grave Mercy” is the first in a trilogy. Each book follows a different daughter of Death. “Dark Triumph” is book two (also amazing!), and book three is yet to be released, titled “Mortal Heart.” (I have it on hold!)
No matter what anyone says, if you enjoy reading something, no matter what it is, be happy and READ!