Archive | August 2014

Library of Congress National Book Festival

2014-08-30 12.33.33Yesterday, the 14th Library of Congress National Book Festival was a blast! This year, it was moved from its traditional spot on the National Mall to the Washington Convention Center, a huge three-story building with plenty of room for all kinds of programs, and proved to be a perfect venue for such an extraordinary event. You could see hundreds (literally hundreds!) of book lovers of all ages strolling around the hallways, carrying big green bags filled with free brochures and posters, and the books they purchased. The rooms where authors, poets, and illustrators spoke about their work were filled with captivated audiences.

I was lucky to listen to several writers, but I was especially impressed by Claire Messud, Siri Hustvedt, and Lisa See. All three are incredible writers and speakers.



Claire Messud said that some books she’d read in high school had a fireworks effect on her. Clearly, that’s what she’s been strivingClaire Massud in her own writing—to affect her readers the same way. And that’s exactly how I felt while listening to the opening of her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, that she read to us. It sounded like a powerful free verse and yes, it sounded like fireworks!

The opening of this novel is a tirade of a 42-year-old elementary school teacher, a closet artist, who rants about her joyless, unappreciated, unsatisfying life, and she captivates your attention right away. But I’m not going to dwell on what the author said about this woman, because I’ll post my opinion of the book as soon as I read it (soon!). Yes, I bought it and had it autographed—yay! J  I’ll just say that Claire Messud loves ranters—disagreeable people, eccentric people, people with problems. She wants them to be heard, so she gives them a voice.

The Woman Upstairs is about someone who wants to be an artist and about someone who is an artist. In Claire Messud’s view, everybody is an artist, in a way, because every one of us has a creative artistic side—whether it’s cooking or building something or writing. But, unfortunately, “so much of our life never breaks the surface,” and that’s what she likes to explore in her novels—“the interior life” of a person. Intriguing? Yes!


2014-08-30 14.21.37Siri Hustvedt talked about her latest novel The Blazing World, which was nominated for the Booker Prize this year. In it she explores the problem of sexism in art, how a woman artist’s work is unappreciated and neglected mainly because of her gender. So when Siri Hustvedt leaned about the nomination for this prestigious award, her first thought was not about her own recognition, but the recognition of her protagonist—“Oh, Harriet will be so happy!”

Highly interested in philosophy, psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience, Siri Hustvedt brings these subjects into her work. “Where do we draw the line between ‘normal’ people and not so normal (with mental illness)?” is a question she keeps asking herself, and her answer is: “It’s all about how we manage in life.”

Her advice to aspiring writers: 1. No one can write well without reading. So read, read, read! 2. When you’re stuck, read a great piece by another author, and then do “automatic writing”—immediately! That’s how she overcame her writing block. After her first poem had been published in a magazine (1980’s), she wasn’t able to write anymore because she scrutinized every line she wrote, comparing it to “great literature.” Luckily, she took David Shapiro’s advice about “automatic writing” and she knocked off 30 pages at one setting!


Lisa See, whose two novels I reviewed in this blog, spoke about a person’s identity, the reason she writes about China, and her latest novel China Dolls.2014-08-30 15.05.19

“How do we identify ourselves?” Lisa See asks, and answers, “We identify ourselves by the people around us.” She has 400 relatives, many of them Chinese, many American, or mixed. So no wonder she’s influenced by her heritage.

“Art is the heartbeat of an artist.” And that’s what her writing and her books mean for her—they are her heartbeat.

Is it easy for her to write a book? No. Sometimes she spends long months in a “dark place,” trying to make it right. So it is hard. But she hopes that she’s improving with every book.

Her advice to aspiring writers: Writing is not a “one-night-stand” but “a long marriage.” There are too many distractions in your life that can prevent you from writing. So be passionate about it! Live in the clothes of your characters. Care. Write 4,000 words a day—every day! Or at least 500 words, but do not stop!

Well, what a better advice can you get?

I was absolutely thrilled by the festival. And I must say, it’s one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me.


Author Interview: Nora Ephron

Here’s the splendid and renowned author  Nora Ephron talking about her work as a screenwriter. She doesn’t take all the credit for the movies she has written scripts for. She considers herself lucky to have worked with wonderful directors and actors, praising their talent and contribution. She says that yes, she did write funny stuff for When Harry Met Sally, but it was Meg Ryan and Billy Cristal who made it look and sound funny.

Once again, this incredible humility of a talented person!


Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”

41pFZ0DhKUL[1]Heartburn, by Nora Ephron, the author of the acclaimed screenplays When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, is yet another story about marital infidelity.

Rachel Samstat, a cookbook writer, has found bliss with her second husband. But only for so long. Their son is just a toddler, and she’s seven-months pregnant, when her beloved hubby breaks the heartbreaking news that he’s in love with Thelma, Rachel’s close friend.

Rachel, understandably, goes through a whole range of emotions toward Mark and his lover—none good—but she still hopes to get him back. Which seems a pathetic wish. When his love is gone, what can she possibly do? The thing is, despite his betrayal, she still loves him. It takes two to fail at marriage, she reasons, so she’s trying to figure out what she has done wrong. Was she too irritable with him, too nagging, too petty, too uncaring? Did she express her love for him mostly with her splendid cooking? Should she leave Mark for good or should she “wait this thing out,” as her friend advises, and hope he’ll love her again?


This reminded me of the lyrics of the 1920’s song, in a fine rendition by a drag actor Taylor Mac, that I heard on NPR: “If your kisses can’t hold the man you love/Then your tears won’t bring him back…

Ain’t that the truth?

We learn about Rachel’s decision at the end.

Nora Ephron is full of humor, and her protagonist Rachel is hilarious as the narrator. Even when she laments her misfortune, the way she does it makes us snigger or laugh out loud. She always makes a joke of serious situations. Not that she herself considers her situation a joke. But how can we not laugh at her when she is facing a divorce, while being pregnant, yet she views every man she encounters as potential husband #3. She says, “I wondered why I was so hopelessly bourgeois that I couldn’t even have a fantasy about a man without moving on to marriage.” 68 And she thinks that “the most unfair thing about this whole business is that she can’t even date.”

Isn’t that hilarious?

Nora Ephron based Heartburn on personal marital crisis. When I read about Rachel’s need to tell her story, I imagined the author speaking of her own need to talk about it—through her character. Her reason? “Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. … Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.” 177

Great thinking. Because thanks to her decision, we now can read this fine story and have a good laugh and learn from it.

My favorite line: “And I had long ceased to believe in the existence of that mystical sisterly loyalty women are alleged to feel toward one another.” 151

Sadly, her case is not too uncommon, is it?

Interview with Kate Christensen

I’m quite impressed by Kate Christensen, the author of Trouble. She’s a talented, acclaimed, award-winning writer, yet, she’s not a show-off. In this interview, she tells us about the beginning of her writing career, how she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (a prestigious graduate-level creative writing program) where she wrote “crap” instead of something “great” that was expected of her, whereas other aspiring writers produced great pieces.

I’m always in awe of gifted people with high achievements who can be so humble and even self-deprecating.




Kate Christensen’s “Trouble”

trouble1[1]Kate Christensen chose a fine title for her novel about a middle-aged woman going through midlife crisis. Trouble, it’s called, and man, is it about trouble. Brooding trouble, boiling trouble, pending trouble…

The story opens with a scene at a party, where Josie, a 45-year-old psychiatrist, flirts with one of the guests (a hot, sharp-tongued guy), and she suddenly realizes that her marriage of fifteen years is over. Just like that!

How does it happen, though, so out of the blue? Well, during her chat with this hot guy, Josie happens to catch sight of her own reflection in a big mirror on the wall across the room and she is fascinated by that stylish, willowy woman. Surprisingly, being a shrink, it doesn’t occur to her to compare herself with the mythological Narcissus. What does occur to her is that, at forty-five, she’s still a very attractive woman. And it also occurs to her that her husband doesn’t acknowledge or even notice it. In fact, he hasn’t “noticed” her as a woman for quite a few years now, his main priorities being work and reading. Is his decision to stay at home with a book tonight, rather than join her at this party, not enough proof of his total indifference to her? So her decision will be to divorce him. She owes it to that woman in the mirror.

And now Josie faces a challenge to find herself, to find who she’s going to be from now on. So off she goes on a quest. She doesn’t wait till “tomorrow,” no. She launches into her adventure right after the party–by having sex with a stranger in a bar. (How’s that for a psychotherapist?)

Josie’s two best friends are her college friends—Indrani and Raquel—and they have also failed at personal happiness. Indrani, although with a successful teaching career at Columbia, was dumped by her cheating boyfriend and is now single and lonely. Raquel, a rock star, is being vilified by the media for sleeping with a much younger man. However, whereas Indrani criticizes Josie for quitting her marriage, Raquel fully supports Josie’s decision and invites her to Mexico where she’s hiding from bloodthirsty paparazzi and annoying fans. The two friends reunite and go on a romp, engaging in excessive eating, drinking, and partying.

Raquel confesses to Josie, “All my life, I’ve felt like I had it going on. Even in my worst junkie days, I was still young enough to make a fresh start; I knew I’d get through. I don’t know… I’m not feeling that way anymore. I feel like it’s over. I do. The game is over for me, and I lost.” 230

Well, Raquel is suicidal, so it’s understandable that she feels this way. But her sense of loss resonates with Josie’s failure—at least at this point. Will Josie turn her life around and find happiness? You’ll have to read the book and see.

Trouble is a sharp take on marriage and friendship, loyalty and love. It’s a quest for finding your own self that you used to be when young.

Kate Christensen is a gifted writer, whose description has a movielike quality. I, an animal lover, had to skip (which I never do) the bullfighting scene–it was so graphic.

Ann Leary’s “Outtakes from a Marriage”

Outtakes-cvr-thumb[1]If you want a light read with an exploration of serious problems, check out another book by Ann Leary, titled Outtakes from a Marriage. It’s about the pitfall of marriage—infidelity, which breeds vulnerability, bitterness, self-loathing, revenge, remorse, and so on. Leary describes a celebrity couple with this problem, but of course, we ordinary folks in mainstream culture are not immune to the same crisis.

Julia and Joe Ferraro tied the knot fifteen years ago, when she was an employed journalist and he was a wannabe actor. Through the years, Julia has been supporting Joe financially and morally on his way to the “top,” and now, when he has finally reached the status of a big movie star (nominated for a Golden Globe, no less), she has become a “nothing”—in her teenaged daughter’s opinion, anyway. But really, Julia seems to have turned into just that—a nothing. She doesn’t work anywhere, she doesn’t write anything, and she has relegated the tasks of cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries, and even taking her younger kid to school, to a babysitter/housekeeper. In short, she leads the leisurely life of a celebrity’s spouse.

When Julia hears a message on Joe’s voicemail, left by a “horny” young woman, she is shaken to the core. She becomes obsessed with searching for details of Joe’s affair, so she spends every spare minute listening to his voicemail and stalking her own husband on the net. Only now, when the crisis hits, does Julia start questioning everything. Her life, before and during marriage, springs to her mind in sudden flashes—at various moments. It suddenly hits her that as a forty-year-old woman with facial lines and sagging tits she can’t possibly compete with someone in her twenties. Or can she? Will hair extensions, Botox, and lip injections help? Probably. She goes for it all. The question is: Can her “improved” looks improve (or save) her marriage?

Ann Leary spins this tale with humor and know-how. Just like in her novel The Good House where she describes the experiences of an alcoholic drawn from her personal struggle with alcoholism, in Outtakes from a Marriage, she also depicts the life of a celebrity’s spouse drawn from personal knowledge. After all, she has been married for decades to actor and comedian Denis Leary, and she knows the celebrity culture inside out.

Yes, the novel explores serious subjects, such as marriage, raising children, family values, love and loyalty, and it keeps you in suspense, but it also makes you laugh—a lot! The family’s experience with dog sledding in Canada is so hilarious, I couldn’t stop laughing.

My favorite lines: “I walked across the springy gym floor, and the relative quiet of the space seemed to belie the tremendous amount of human effort and energy that was being put forth. In another time and place, this amount of collective human sweat would be accompanied by the crack of a whip and the groan of oars or the resounding clang of metal upon stone. Here, the only sounds were the quiet humming of the machines and the rhythmic breathing of Hollywood’s glistening movers and shakers.” 230

See, how wonderfully Ann Leary writes?! 🙂 Go check her books out, folks!

Interview with Ann Leary

In this interview, Ann Leary, the author of The Good House, talks about her passion for reading and her daily writing routine. She tells us how her characters “hijack” her books, taking over the narration, once she gets deep into a plot… I love that!

Ann Leary is not only a talented writer, but she’s a sharp, funny, and down-to-earth woman, and beautiful to boot.

Enjoy! 🙂