Category Archives: Guest Posts

Flashlight Worthy’s Best Book Club Books for 2009

I am very honored to report that I was included on Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations' list of the Best Book Club Books for 2009! I love Flashlight Worthy's book lists, and I was thrilled when they asked me to submit a book for their list. [I will keep the book in suspense – you have to click through to the list to see what I recommended.]

There are a lot of books on the list that I'd like to read, such as Await Your Reply and The Help. Which have you read?

Guest Post: A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE by Anita Shreve

Thank you to guest-poster Nancy West for this review of A Change of Altitude by Anita Shreve.

Shreve On one level, A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve is a travelogue, depicting what it’s like to live as an American in Kenya in the late 1970’s. As seen through the eyes of young newlywed Margaret, Kenya is magnificent and yet terrifying, irresistible but also abominable, with its gorgeous scenery and mesmerizing wildlife but also corruption, poverty and crime. On another level, A Change in Altitude can be interpreted as an allegory for the first year of marriage, which is just what Margaret and her physician husband, Patrick, are undertaking simultaneous with their year in Kenya. Welcome to a strange new life, in which romance and excitement contrast with miscommunications, disappointments, domestic stress and in their case tragedy. Does that describe Kenya? Marriage? Or both?

I spent two weeks as a tourist in Kenya more than a decade ago, and I was fascinated, wondering what it would be like to live there. Through Margaret’s eyes, we find out: mostly it’s often really difficult. Robbery and other forms of crime are a constant threat, and like a lot of Americans and Europeans, Margaret suffers from guilt regarding Colonialism. Their servants work hard and loyally for them, only to be separated from their families for months on end or to go home to deplorably poor conditions, as Margaret discovers when she escorts a friend’s nanny to her home in the slums of Nairobi after the nanny survives a violent attack.

Patrick and Margaret’s real problems begin with a tragic event. They join another couple for a challenging hike up Mt. Kenya, and one of the friends meets with a disastrous end that Margaret may or may not be indirectly to blame for. From there, things only seem to get worse for the couple: they return home to suffer the guilt of the accident along with the ongoing stress of living in such a complicated place. Adultery tempts both husband and wife; even their professional lives encounter obstacles specific to Kenya.

With its ongoing themes of culpability, resilience, and how we decide whom to forgive and when and for what, we see in Margaret and Patrick’s story how both life in Kenya and marriage are obstacle-strewn landscapes not easily – and perhaps not happily – survived.

Guest Review: HOME SAFE by Elizabeth Berg

I am in a book lull right now. I am not enjoying the book I am reading… it’s not drawing me in, and I don’t look forward to reading it. I think I am going to set it aside, which is something I rarely do, and move on to something else.

I circled a book in BookPage a few weeks ago called Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Berg is one of those authors that I always see in bookstores, but I’ve never read anything by her. Home Safe looked good: a successful novelist tries to cope with the death of her husband while she learns some secrets about him and tries to make sense of them. BookPage calls Home Safe “a perceptive and sensitively written novel – a compassionate, illuminating narrative that examines the nature of love and the process of grieving.”

EDIWTB reader Nancy West wrote a guest review of Home Safe for the blog – here it is! Thanks, Nancy!

Berg I can’t think of a novel with a nicer protagonist than Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Helen Ames is simply one of the kindest, most well-meaning characters ever to serve as centerpiece of a work of fiction.  Here’s my favorite example out of many: struggling with a difficult relationship with her 27-year-old daughter, frustrated by writer’s block and heading into her first holiday season as a widow, Helen looks out a train window as she travels through the dark en route to her parents’ home for Christmas. “Every now and then, there is a house with a light on. She strains to see the people there, and across what seems a vast distance, she wishes them all well.” She wishes them all well? All the strangers whose houses are visible from the train tracks between Chicago and St. Paul? But yes, that’s just the kind of person Helen is. Blessed with personal happiness and creative success, she seems to have no greater priority than the general well-being of all of mankind.

A successful novelist living in the Chicago suburbs, Helen has enjoyed a wonderful marriage to a dear man who dies suddenly of a heart attack when Helen is 59. His loss reveals to her just how much she feels incompetent at managing, from personal finances to home repairs to effectively parenting the couple’s one child. And although it hasn’t been all that long – less than a year, when the novel begins – her friends and daughter are already expressing their concern that she isn’t bouncing back as quickly as she should. It doesn’t help that writer’s block is clouding a previously successful career or that none of the prompts that previously inspired her writing are working for her anymore. (The insider’s view of a novelist’s work life, including her rivalries with colleagues, her feelings about teaching, and how it feels to fail miserably at a speaking engagement, are an added attraction to the story.)

Though she doesn’t use the term, we can imagine Helen identifying herself as part of the sandwich generation, worrying about her 20-something daughter – a single magazine editor whom Helen would dearly like to see settled down with a husband – and her elderly parents, always a source of succor but gradually experiencing declines in their own health. What everyone except Helen seems to realize, though, is that the people Helen worries about are all managing their lives much better than she is; she would be better off tending to her own emotions than assuming they need her ministries.

Into the situation falls a bit of a mystery: Helen’s accountant calls to say that the retirement account that she believed held nearly a million dollars is nearly empty. Helen is bewildered as she contemplates all the possible ways her husband could have spent $850,000 before his death without telling her. Though she acknowledges all the tawdry possibilities – bigamy, blackmail, gambling – none of them seem likely to her. Soon enough, the mystery is solved for her, but it only serves to open up a new sphere of questions and decisions to ponder – even as the healing process gradually begins and Helen meets new friends, contemplates life changes and tries to return to her writing.

Guest Review: ONCE WAS LOST by Sara Zarr

When I was at BEA last spring, I picked up a few review copies of books that I ended up giving away to EDIWTB readers a few weeks later. One was a YA novel called Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr. Once Was Lost is coming out tomorrow, and Nancy West, who received my copy of the book, graciously wrote a review for EDIWTB. Here's her review:

Zarr

One or two pages into Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr, I suspected I’d read this book before. Not literally – I was holding an advance reading copy of this novel which is scheduled for publication in October – but rather that I’d read too many of the same thing recently. Opening as it does with its adolescent female protagonist moping around the house preoccupied by her parents’ financial situation, her mother’s dysfunction/addiction problems, and the stifling southern heat, I felt like I was back in three or four other books I’d recently read, including Tomato Girl by Jane Pupek, Mrs. Kimble by Jennnifer Haigh and a still unpublished memoir by a member of the writing seminar I attended in June. 

But just a few more pages in and I was reassured that this was new territory, or, if not new, then slightly familiar territory with some very interesting new landmarks. Zarr’s 16-year-old heroine, Samara, is the daughter of a popular and attractive local preacher; her pretty mom is in rehab for alcoholism following a recent car accident. And although the family seems to be experiencing immediate cash flow problems, this isn’t another tale of southern poverty: they live in what appears to be a comfortable middle-class suburb, and one of the big questions facing Sam the summer before her senior year in high school is not how to buy groceries but whether her parents can make the upcoming tuition payment at her private school.

And then something unexpected drops into what seems to be a tale of quotidian grinding discouragement. Near the end of the kind of Sunday that seems to typify this summer for Sam – morning at church, trying to dodge friends’ and parishioners’ probing questions about her mother’s whereabouts; afternoon thinking about how to make the house look nicer for her mother’s eventual return from rehab – the younger sister of Sam’s secret crush disappears, plucked off the street in what appears to be an unwitnessed act of abduction. By evening, the “Amber Alert” is out and the community has swung into a fever pitch of anxiety and suspicion.

As the next seven days unfold, the crisis hijacks the ordinary lives of nearly everyone in Sam’s world. Her father, as minister to the kidnapped girl’s family, becomes not only pastoral counselor but spokesperson to the media, and Sam cannot help but note the way he rises to the occasion almost as if this is what his career has been heading for all along. Townspeople and church members eye each other warily even as they unite in grief: with a nice touch of up-to-the-minute reality, Zarr acknowledges that many of the key players in this small-town universe, including the minister and the missing girl’s family members, are likely to be viewed as suspects, and she deals accordingly though not laboriously with the necessary measures taken toward that end.

This story felt very 2009 to me, in a thought-provoking way. Cell phones and text messages were ever-present, not in the sense of brand-name dropping but rather as a reference to the issue of helicopter parenting, which is something of a subtext in this novel. On the one hand, a 13-year-old has just apparently been abducted; if ever there was a time for parents to hover protectively over their teens, this must be it. On the other, how is the game changed when those very same parents who hover like helicopters can’t themselves be trusted? Sam has a cell phone, but her mother won’t return her calls. Sam is under strict orders from her father as far as where to be when and with whom, but what about when she spots her father’s car in the driveway even as he insists via cell phone that he’s at a conference out of town?

I don’t normally read books classified as YA (young adult) and don’t have much of a feel for the genre; I’m not sure I would have known that this was YA rather than a novel for adults about teens (like Prep or Testimony) except that the language was, for lack of a better description, light on the ear and the storyline fairly straightforward. It’s not a genre I’m particularly interested in, and not having experience with recent YA literature, I’m not sure how it compares in literary value to others of its ilk, but I think Sara Zarr’s third novel shows a nicely emerging voice with an original perspective. And yes, the mystery of the missing girl reaches a reasonably satisfying conclusion by the end. Even if in general I’d rather be reading something a little more exotic than another story about hot summer days with dysfunctional southern families and a little more complex in voice and style, I’m glad I took time for this one.

Guest Post: PETITE ANGLAISE by Catherine Sanderson

Thank you to EDIWTB reader Nancy West, who sent in a guest post for while I am on vacation. Her book choice was Petite Anglaise by Catherine Sanderson – a memoir about blogging. Here's the review:

Sandersob As her memoir opens, Catherine Sanderson has become an unhappy person. She loves her one-year-old daughter but finds motherhood demanding and frustrating. She is discontent in her relationship with her long-time partner. And even Paris, the city in which she’s dreamed of living since childhood, is losing its luster for her.

So she finds a new love, ripe to be showered with devotion and attention. Well, she also has an affair. But the real object of Catherine’s affection in the memoir Petite Anglaise is not “Jim from Rennes,” who becomes her new boyfriend, but rather her blog, also called Petite Anglaise. Indeed, on a dull afternoon when her various sources of malcontent seem insurmountable, Catherine opens a page on her computer and starts writing. And then hits “publish,” and a relationship is born.

This is the first memoir I’ve read about a girl and her blog. (The memoir “Julie and Julia” by Julie Powell stemmed from a blog, but the author makes only passing mention of it in the narrative, whereas for Sanderson it is a key player in her life.) At first, the blog is a creative outlet and an escape, but it gradually takes on the role of savior. Through her blog, she not only vents her feelings but also experiments a little bit. Like a lot of people, Catherine is a little more clever, a little sassier, a little more adventuresome in her writing than in her real life. Although she initially believes Petite Anglaise is merely a reflection of herself, she eventually comes to recognize that it is more, and as her life develops in new directions – she makes new friends through the blog, breaks up with her partner, and starts an affair with a reader – she gradually begins to question whether she is living through her character, whether her character is controlling her, or just what the relationship between the two — the real Catherine Sanderson and the blog persona – might be.

Artists have explored the relationships between themselves and their creations ever since the myth of Pygmalion, and the fact that Sanderson uses the state-of-the-art social media to do it doesn’t make this an entirely new story, but as blogging and other forms of social media such as Facebook become ubiquitous, it’s interesting to think about who we are in relation to our screen selves. Sanderson isn’t a fascinating or even always likable person, but she’s willing to admit that, both to her memoir readers and to readers of her blog. She struggles with her decisions, and for every time she second-guesses herself, most notably when she breaks up with her daughter’s father, she has dozens of blog readers chiming in with their own opinions in the “comments” section of her blog. The unexamined life may not be worth living, as Socrates said; the overexamined life, brought to us by Netscape, presents a whole other set of challenges.

Beyond the questions of blogging and self-reflection, Sanderson simply has an interesting story to tell about life as an ex-pat and young mother in Paris. She loves the city but struggles with its limitations – the daycare situation, the difficulty of finding a suitable apartment, even the dingy appearance of the city of light in late winter – and this memoir is enlightening for those aspects as well as the ones related to social media. Sanderson isn’t always a terrific writer, and her romantic scenes border on the Harlequin-esque, but possibly that’s the point, to some extent. She’s not a great writer but we like reading about her anyway, because she’s so candid and so real. And that may be the beauty of blogging.

Guest Post By Miriam Gershow, Author of THE LOCAL NEWS

Miriam Gershow, whose The Local News was discussed on Monday as EDIWTB's June book club, has written a guest post for EDIWTB today about why high school is a natural setting for her works. I was particularly excited to read this post, because of my own fascination with books set in high school. Thanks, Miriam!

Just like my narrator Lydia Pasternak in The Local News, this past August I had the opportunity to attend my high school reunion. In my case, it was a twenty year reunion, while Lydia faced her tenth.  In both of our cases, we met the idea with deep, deep ambivalence.

By all accounts, I’m a successful grown-up.  I wrote a novel.  I have a community of beloved friends.  I married a lovely man.  We have an extremely spoiled cat and a baby on the way.  I’m surrounded by all sorts of the adult accoutrements that signal having one’s life more or less together: a rotating spice rack, a semi-attached garage, a knife block, a mortgage.  So you would think the prospect of a high school reunion would fill me with glee or at least benign curiosity. 

But unlike Lydia, I skipped my reunion.  Just like I skipped the five year and the ten year reunions before that.  In fact, proverbial wild horses couldn’t have dragged me back to the crowded suburban Detroit bar where dozens upon dozens of my former classmates gathered.

Why?

Short answer: High school was hard. 

Longer answer:  It was achingly, crushingly hard.  I spent four years not knowing how to control my frizzy hair or my acne, nursing unbearable crushes on the most inopportune of boys, and walking the halls with slumped shoulders, hoping that no one would pay too much attention to my boobs (while secretly hoping everyone would pay attention to my boobs).  To say I didn’t fit in would be a radical understatement. I was brainy without being a star student, loud without being particularly charming. I had no business near either a curling iron or eye-shadow, both of which I abused regularly.  I was the girl who always had the visible line of foundation demarcating her jaw from her neck.  I was the girl who wore the off-brand imitations of fashionable clothing several seasons too late.  I was the girl who drank lots of wine coolers at parties because I thought being drunk made me at least ten times funnier and cuter.

And even as I approach 40, with above-mentioned career and friends and home and partner, I still can’t entirely shake that poor girl.  Some part of me remains convinced I’m still that gangly, ill-fitting, awkward teenager.  And that part of me runs wildly in the opposite direction when a reunion is mentioned. 

Interestingly, that part of me also regularly returns to those same–or roughly similar–high school hallways in my fiction writing.  The high school experience left such an indelible imprint on me, I now have an insatiable curiosity about the social jockeying, the thrumming insecurities, and the high drama that is so peculiar to those four years. 

The characters in my fiction are often teenagers.  I’ve never been a young adult writer, but I have returned again and again to young adult characters in my work.  One of my favorite early stories, Little Girl, looks at the burgeoning sexuality and the early stirrings of rebellion in a high school girl.  The Local News is rife with the shifting politics and strange insularity and group hysteria of high school life. 

On the most personal level, I return again and again to this setting to try to better understand and make peace with the gangly girl trapped inside of me.  On a more practical and writerly level, high school simply makes for great source material. 
The factors that make it so traumatic in reality–you’re trapped in a building with hundreds of other hormone-laden, erratic teenagers, you have no clear escape, you can’t imagine it ever ending–make it such a potent backdrop for fiction.  Teenagers are wonderful to write because they are so emotionally labile, but without all the sophisticated coping mechanisms that adults adopt to mask those emotions.  This makes for great drama.  The stakes are always high in high school.  The conflicts are ever-present.  You don’t even have to scratch the surface; the conflicts are the surface, whether those have to do with popularity, status, drugs, bullying, peer pressure or sex, just to name a few. 

I have real compassion toward my high school characters.  I developed great love for Lydia and all of her Franklin High classmates.  I vividly–maybe too vividly–remember what it was like to be 15, with little hope of things ever changing.  Over and over, I try to write my way back into that experience and out the other side of it.  Maybe I succeeded with The Local News because I’ve gotten the subject out of my system for now; my current project is a novel that has almost nothing to do with high school.  Maybe this means come my 25-year reunion, I’ll be ready to show my face.  I doubt it, but perhaps I’ll lock away the eye shadow and the curling iron just to be safe.

Guest Review: MS. HEMPEL CHRONICLES by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a book called Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, which was a recent finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. EDIWTB reader and frequent contributor Nancy West wrote a review of Ms. Hempel Chronicles, and shared it with me for the blog. Thanks, Nancy!

Bynum The most interesting thing for me about reading Ms. Hempel Chronicles was that it inspired me to think a lot about the fine balance an author must navigate in creating characters who are unusual enough not to be stereotypes but at the same time familiar enough not to be impenetrable. (Actually, the very most interesting thing for me about reading this book was halfway through when I suddenly realized that when author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum was in college, she used to babysit for my niece, and I met her at my niece’s second birthday party, but that has little to do with this review.) To be artfully crafted, characters need to be on the one hand wonderfully new and unique; while on the other, we should be able to easily imagine the things they do and the words they say. They are simultaneously original and familiar. A paradox? Yes, but that paradox is what makes for great writing. I’d offer any of Curtis Sittenfeld’s characters in Prep or American Wife as examples. We believe these people, because they seem familiar and real; on the other hand, they’re original enough that we’re always curious about what they are going to say or do next.

There are plenty of characters in contemporary popular fiction who fall into the stereotype category. (Almost any secondary characters created by Jodi Picoult, for example.) Sure, we can picture them, because we’ve run into them a hundred times before, but that doesn’t automatically make for good fiction; we don’t want to read about characters who never ever surprise us. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is Beatrice Hempel of Ms. Hempel Chronicles – I just don’t get her. I just can’t see her or hear her. She’s quirky and interesting, sure, but so uniquely drawn that she doesn’t remind me of anyone I know and I find her inexplicable enough that I don’t really care what she thinks or does.

That said, lots of reviewers love this book, and to once again give Bynum credit for eschewing stereotypes, Ms. Hempel (as she is referred to throughout most of the book) does not remind me of any other teacher protagonists. Her middle-school students really like her, though she doesn’t seem to understand why and as a result neither do I. She likes her profession, but again, I can’t tap into her thinking process. It’s true that Bynum has given us a snapshot of teaching life well beyond the cliché – Ms. Hempel and her peers dance at eclectic bars for Friday afternoon happy hour, take sabbaticals in Yemen, and have flings  – but for much of the time I was reading it, I was thinking about recent novels whose teacher protagonists were more interesting to me: Ruth in Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher; Alice (actually a school librarian) in the aforementioned American Wife, even Jack in John Updike’s frightening novel Terrorist.

The most engaging and believable scene for me in this novel was the one where Beatrice goes to her family home to celebrate her birthday, visit with her mother and help her much-younger sister write an application essay. Finally, there were actions I could understand and characters I found accessible. Further research into Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum proved to me that she’s getting plenty of acclaim as a young writer – she’s a contributor to the New Yorker, after all — and clearly I am in the minority in not celebrating this book. Thinking about characterization made it interesting for me, though. Where exactly is the fulcrum on which perfectly drawn characters balance between too quirky and too stereotypical?

I remember a reviewer writing about a “Sex in the City” episode several years ago who said about a particular scene, “We wait to see if Miranda will do the Miranda thing.” Frivolous as the example may sound, that sums up my point pretty well. We know what the Miranda thing would be: will she do it? Probably – that’s why it’s called “the Miranda thing” – but not definitely, and therein lies the intrigue. After finishing this book, I still couldn’t tell you what “the Ms. Hempel thing” to do would be.

Guest Review: OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Thank you to EDIWTB reader Nancy West for this guest review of Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I’ve not read this book yet, but I want to.

Olive Several years ago, my book group discussed Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love. At one point, someone brought up the title: presumably it was an adjectival construction referring to love that endures, but was it possibly a word play meant also to draw upon the present participle – as in “How do we go about enduring love?”

Probably not, we decided; it seemed unlikely that the author of such a complex character-driven novel intended to distract readers (or book groups) with a clever word play, and we moved on quickly to a discussion of the novel itself. It is a long literary leap from the unforgettable page-turner by the highly acclaimed British novelist to Strout’s collection of interconnected stories about hard-on-their-luck folks in a midsized, rundown town in coastal Maine, but I found myself thinking back often to that earlier discussion. Strout’s book could indeed be called Enduring Love, drawing upon both meanings – because although the stories are ostensibly linked by the fact that they either center around Olive Kittredge herself or people with some connection, however specious, to the title character, the theme that truly connects the stories is how any of them, or presumably how any of us, endure love, as it grows old and complicated and tedious and distractible and… and on and on. Husbands endure obnoxious wives; wives endure cheating husbands. A young woman attempts to endure in a promising relationship despite the inescapable memories of her childhood; another young woman’s endurance is tested by her own self-destructiveness. An adolescent wonders if she can endure the peculiarities of her parents, peculiarities that drive her beloved older sister out of the house. Olive and Henry Kittredge endure the emotional fallout of being random victims of a horrendous crime; another couple their age has less success with endurance after crime rips their domestic life apart – because in their case, their child is the perpetrator. In one of the most interesting plot threads, Olive’s enduring love for her son is tested and tested again, with uncertain results.

Some survive; some do not. Perhaps the most compelling example of endurance, though, is the reader’s enduring affection for Olive. Though many others in this Maine harbor town find her to be odious, omniscient viewpoint enables us to understand her as they cannot, and to appreciate her as few can. Ultimately, we find ourselves rooting for nearly every character in this collection, hoping against fairly high odds that they can all survive, and endure, and that the love around which their lives are centered can somehow endure along with them.

Thanks again for the post, Nancy!

Guest Review: THE WOMAN WHO CAN’T FORGET by Jill Price

Back in May, I wrote about a book that I had come across that looked pretty interesting: The Woman Who Can't Forget, by Jill Price. I found this book at Powell's bookstore last month and bought it, though I haven't read it yet. EDIWTB reader Nancy West has read it, though, and wrote this guest review for the blog. Thanks, Nancy!

Price “Time heals all wounds.” “This too shall pass.” “Give it time.” “Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh.” Our most fundamental beliefs about emotional healing are based on the idea that memories dull as time passes. Just as shards of broken glass can cut deeply when new but, if tossed in the surf, eventually become smooth and beautifully textured, our memories, as they age, become buffered. The kernel of the story may remain, but the glass-sharp edges of emotion associated with the event dull over time.

Which is a good thing, because imagine for a moment the mental chaos if they didn’t. Well, that’s the story of Jill Price, the real-life Woman Who Can’t Forget. With a memory so unusual in its form and function that the neurologists who documented her situation made up a new name for it, hyperthemestic syndrome, Jill Price remembers everything that has happened to her since childhood with the clarity of seeing it unfold on a movie screen. Day after day. All the time.

The memory center of Jill Price’s brain is wired differently from most of us, with aberrations that actually show up on brain scans. Her memory type is specific: she isn’t like Rain Man, remembering sequences of numbers or bits of trivia. What she remembers is events from her own life, or events of public importance inasmuch as they dovetailed with her own life. You probably remember exactly what you were doing the moment you heard that two planes had hit the World Trade Center or that a government building had exploded in Oklahoma City – or, depending on your age, that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded or that President Kennedy had been shot. Similarly, you probably have crystal clear recall of the moment you found out that one of your family members had a terminal illness, or that you were pregnant with twins, or that you had gotten accepted into your first-choice college. For Jill Price, every moment event is just as memorable as three or four of the most significant moments in our lives are to the rest of us.

The book is both a scientific exploration of the phenomenon and a memoir. Price quotes from the research papers written about her and explains the scientific theories that were formed based on her case, but she also talks extensively about what it’s like to live like this. Price’s life would make a fairly interesting memoir even without the hyperthemetic syndrome. Her father was a rising executive in the entertainment industry: the family lived first in Manhattan, then in suburban New Jersey, and then in California, where visiting Dad at work meant playing on the soundstage of The Waltons. Price was born one year before I was, so her cultural references are the same as mine, and it’s fun reading about iconic 1970s moments such as the time she turned a corner at her father’s agency and ran into David Cassidy.

Price has been making the talk show rounds; not being a talk show viewer, I’ve missed her appearances, and I have some questions that seeing the interviews might have answered. Some of her oddities, in my opinion, can’t quite be explained by the memory thing. For example, although she admits to having always had intense separation issues, that doesn’t quite go far enough to explain why at the age of 36 she still lived with her parents. As a child, she always hated moving – something that traumatized her in her childhood, first when the family left New York City for New Jersey and then when they headed out to Los Angeles – but it’s still a little strange when in her 30’s she gets frantic at the thought of her parents selling their house – because it’s where she still lives. She never really addresses the subject of whether anyone thinks maybe it’s time for the nearly middle-aged woman to find her own apartment. In fact, when her parents do sell their house and downsize, she moves with them – and eventually her husband and stepchildren end up moving in with her parents as well. There is more I’d like to know about this woman than how her memory works.

This is a thought-provoking book, and during the two weeks or so I was reading it (I’m a slow reader), I found my own generally sharp memory getting even more acute. For example, while falling asleep one night, I had an image of my grandmother reaching for a particular glass in her kitchen, and suddenly woke with a jolt, realizing neither the house nor my grandmother was still present in my life. For a few seconds, I missed that earlier time terribly. As I said, I’ve always had a good memory, but not like Jill Price. And having read her memoir, I’m convinced that’s a fortunate thing.

Thank you Nancy for another excellent review!

Guest Post: LADY OF THE SNAKES by Rachel Pastan

The following is a guest post from EDIWTB reader and contributor Nancy West. It’s a review of Rachel Pastan’s Lady of the Snakes (which I discussed on the blog here). Thanks for the review, Nancy!


Pastan Novels coalesce around subsets of society – and yet it always seems there are some subsets still to be covered. For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked at different groups –  families driving cross-country for a summer vacation; college graduates backpacking in southeast Asia; office workers playing office politics – and thought, “I want to read a novel that explains exactly what it’s like to be them.” And sometimes I find that novel, the one that explicates how a particular segment of society lives: for example, “The Beach” by Alex Garland in the case of the backpacking college students; or “Drop City” by T.C. Boyle in regard to commune dwellers – both great novels that I highly recommend. My sister is a tenured professor in the humanities, and ever since she was a graduate student, I’ve on occasion listened to her talk with her colleagues and thought “I don’t understand what it’s like to be them, but if there were a really good novel about their lives, maybe I would.”


Now there is just such a novel about academia: Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan. Its protagonist, Jane Levitsky, is a young mother earning her Ph.D and embarking upon a promising career as a professor of Russian literature; or maybe I should say Jane Levitsky is a scholar of Russian literature beginning her journey through motherhood. Jane is neither a mother nor a scholar first; the two run along separate but equal tracks in her life. Neither one ever seems to take the upper hand over the other, though Jane herself would probably hastily and self-consciously rank motherhood over scholarship if she had to choose. But we know better: she is both, and prioritizing them would be impossible for her.


Which is how academics are, and just as this character should be, based on my observations. At the end of an arduous labor, she thinks of a childbirth scene written by one of the Russian writers she has studied and then realizes too late that maybe she should have been admiring her newborn instead; when a personal crisis comes to a climax in her household, it happens at the exact same time as an equally calamitous crisis in her scholarly research. To Jane, the two sometimes seem like conflicting forces – like all working mothers, she struggles with the most basic issues concerning balance, such as how to find sufficient childcare so that she has enough time for her research – but to the reader, who doesn’t have to take Jane’s worries as personally as she does, the inextricability of the two are what make her story so compelling.


Yes, there are other books about working mothers and the impossibility of balancing family life and career: as Gayle said when blogging about “I Don’t Know How She Does it,” the subject in and of itself has already become tiresome to some of us. But Pastan makes it seem as if these struggles happen on a different level for academics, for whom it’s not that they don’t want to put their research aside but rather that they inhabit two parallel universes: their field of scholarship and their actual lives. I don’t mean to imply that the work of professors is more demanding or more absorbing than that of any other professionals – mothers who are law students, cancer researchers, actors, journalists or in any number of careers face the same conflicts. But by immersing her protagonist in the murky fictional world of Russian novels, Pastan has found a particularly evocative way to illustrate the conflict.


And on a completely separate topic, the fact that the novelist that Jane Levitsky is studying does not really exist and therefore Pastan wrote not only her own novel but all the fictional passages from nonexistent Russian authors excerpted within the novel is frankly mind-boggling. It’s a terrific read and a memorable and innovative portrayal of something we might have thought we’d all seen enough of: work/life balance and all its inevitable pitfalls.

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