I took the opportunity to listen to The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff and I was captivated by this wonderful story of friendship, dedication and courage. Suspenseful, and fast moving, this historical fiction novel takes us to 1940s NYC. Grace, a young widow trying to get her life together, discovers some photos in an abandoned suitcase in Grand Central Terminal. After some digging, she finds they belong to Eleanor, a woman who had just been in an accident, and was previously the ring leader to a group of women who were spies in Europe during World War ll. Grace also learns that Marie, a brave mother who left her young daughter behind to assist with the war efforts and act as a radio operator, is missing, along with the rest of the women spies. Grace is determined to investigate the suspicious disappearances of these women and learn all she can about their contributions to the resistance.
Pam Jenoff does a remarkable job intertwining fact and fiction when it comes to history and women’s efforts as spies in the 40s. We hear from Grace, Eleanor and Marie as they navigate their lives and make difficult choices during wartime. I enjoyed the audible version – different voices were assigned to each character and it was easy to follow the alternating time periods. I love stories that have strong female characters, highlighting friendships, dedication and courage, and how they shaped our history. The Lost Girls of Paris does just that!
Pam is the author of several novels, including her most recent The Lost Girls of Paris and The Orphan’s Tale, both instant New York Times bestsellers. Pam was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.
Following her work at the Pentagon, Jenoff moved to the State Department. In 1996 she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Jenoff developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.
Having left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Jenoff practiced law at a large firm and in-house for several years. She now teaches law school at Rutgers.
Emotional, heartbreaking and hopeful, The Yellow Bird Sings touches the music of your soul. It is 1941 Poland; Roza and Shira, mother and daughter are Jews, hidden in a barn by farmers. Henryk, the husband, ensures their safety while violating Roza in the night, and his wife Krystyna, provides extra food for Shira; she believes all children deserve an equal chance. Roza and Shira, silenced and afraid, lay quietly in the barn’s hay for more than 15 months. After their family was violently taken from them, they have no choice but to go into hiding. They revisit their cherished memories, whisper stories, use their imagination, and create music in their heads to soothe themselves and pass the time.
When the Germans announce plans to use the farmer’s barn for storage, mother and daughter must find a new safe space right away. They are encouraged to separate so Shira can go to a convent to have lessons and be with other children, allowing her a better chance of surviving. Filled with sadness, regret and fear, Roza is on her own and heads to the forest.
The Yellow Bird Sings will rip your heart out as you feel the emotional and physical struggles of both mother and daughter; at first stifled, secluded and living in silence with the burden and horrific fear of the unknown, with only what is inside their minds and their hearts to comfort and sustain them as they live day by day in hiding. And then separated, longing to be together, doing everything possible to survive.
Author Jennifer Rosner tells an extraordinary story with beautiful use of language; her words and phrases are visual and powerful….
“Words to Zosia (Sofia) are like glass beads around her neck. If one were to break loose, they would all clatter to the floor and scatter, shatter the quiet that kept her and her mother alive, entwined beneath hay.”
When referring to understanding loss; “What is whole does not comprehend what is torn until it, too, is in shreds.”
When seeing other mothers with their children, “Something breaks loose inside Roza and skitters down the stairs of her heart.”
We follow Roza and Shira on their separate journeys, holding out hope that they will be reunited after the war. With a blanket from the past, a magic yellow bird, cherished memories in their minds and soulful music in their hearts, The Yellow Bird Sings delivers a powerful story of Roza and Shira’s incredible survival, their unbreakable connection, their will to be heard, and the celebration of music that, through the generations, links us to each other. Emotional, heartbreaking and hopeful, I could not put this book down and highly recommend it!
I loved your debut historical fiction novel, The Yellow Bird Sings. The story was powerful and your characters were filled with so much pain and love at the same time. The deep emotion it conveyed, the evocative, visual language you utilized and the heartfelt music that was described made me feel like I was experiencing the written word more fully and completely.
Thank you so much! This means a lot to me:)
Q: As a young child, Shira seems to have a special musical aptitude. What inspired you to use music in such a big way in your novel?
A: Music has had great connective power in my life; I sang as a child, and later trained to become an opera singer. My singing forged a rare connection between my mother and me; also, my father played violin daily, and his music connected us to each other, and also to Judaism.
In my novel, music is a connective tissue linking mother and daughter, together and apart, and expressing a bond that endures even in the most brutal of circumstances. Beauty, in music and in other forms, is a lifeline, conveying hope.
Q: Shira has a special relationship with her violin teacher. Who inspired this character?
A: Several mentors in my musical, academic, and writing life have been deeply supportive and generous. In developing the teacher’s character, and their relationship, it felt important for Shira to feel a profound connection to the person who coached her and supported her musical genius.
Q: Shira conjures a magic yellow bird, which she cups in her hands and also muffles to keep quiet. Shira’s mother then tells a nightly story of a girl and her bird, who avert threats and find safety. What is the significance of Shira’s bird?
A: While Shira must be silent, her yellow bird sings out the music she hears in her head and in other ways enacts the childhood she cannot. Her bird brings security as well as expression. The magic of Shira’s bird is that it admits her powerful imagination (and her mother’s) into their horror-filled situation. I believe that much survival occurred because people kept alive their imaginations (their artistry, their poetry, etc) and stayed aware of what beauty they could find in their circumstances.
Q: Can you share with us why you were interested in writing about a mom having to keep her child silent?
A: The seed for this story came years ago when I was at a book event for my memoir about deafness. (If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard) . My daughters were born deaf. With hearing technology (cochlear implants and hearing aids), they were learning to listen and talk and I was describing our efforts as we encouraged them to vocalize. After the book talk, a woman from the audience came up to me. She told me about her childhood experience, hiding in an attic with her mother during WW2. She had to stay entirely silent. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, and also her mother. While I so wanted our daughters to speak, this mother had to keep her young child from making any sound at all. From this seed, my novel grew.
Q: You do a beautiful job keeping the reader engaged, giving just enough in each chapter to motivate us to tackle the next. Once the story splits into two when Rosa and Shira go their separate ways, did you write the book in the order that we read it, or did you write one character’s story and then the other’s?
A: In later drafts, I wrote the chapters mostly in the order they appear. However, earlier in the process, I wrote out long swaths of each character’s story trajectory, to understand where they were going and how their stories might dovetail. There was a lot of cutting and reworking!
Q: What kind of research did you do for the book? How long did it take to write?
A: While I was writing the book, I interviewed several “hidden children”— adults who, as children during the war, were secreted in attics, barns, and the woods. I also traveled to the settings of my novel. In Poland I visited areas of countryside with barns much like the one I’ve written about; I visited a convent where Jewish children were hidden; and I went to a swath of deep forest where a Partisan/family camp was formed.
I consulted with experts on Holocaust history and convent life. I talked to a tracker to learn how my character could traverse the forest without leaving a trace. A Polish translator, also a mushroom forager, advised me on which mushrooms my character might find in the woods! And I consulted with a musicologist and a master class violinist, as I sought to discover how a prodigy like Shira would practice; how she would progress, what she would play. It took years to conceive of and to write this novel, and many many drafts.
Q: When Shira plays Kaddish on her violin, my thoughts went to the Mourner’s Kaddish and my heart breaks for her and the loss of her mother. Music invokes so much emotion, personal to each of us. How did you choose the musical pieces you refer to in the book?
A: Yes, Ravel’s Kaddish is haunting and evocative, and I chose it for Shira to play as a mourning piece for her mother.
Generally speaking, I listened to a LOT of music before choosing pieces; I waned to make sure each one contributed to the story, and that it would fit Shira’s circumstance and her level of play. As I mentioned, I consulted with musical experts.
Q: It amazed me how long Roza and others lasted living in the forest in Poland. We are always looking for a parking spot closest to where we are headed so we don’t have to walk an extra step, and these people walked miles and miles, with little food and shelter, and lived outside in the elements for weeks, months and years! How did you learn about the resistance camps and why did you choose to set your story in Poland?
A: I learned about the Jewish Partisans years ago from a friend who is a documentary filmmaker. (Julia Mintz is a producer/director/writer and her film is The Jewish Partisans.) When it came to researching my novel, I went to an area of Polish forest—in winter—to understand what it would be like for my character! I read innumerable accounts of people hiding in wooded camps, as families and as Partisans. We can’t overestimate the ingenuity, strength, and perseverance they brought to their survival.
Q: You have received praise for the cover of your book; can you tell us about it?
A: The brilliant art director at Flatiron developed the cover. He based it on a torn photograph, signaling that something is torn in the story. (The Picador UK cover, wildly different, is also wonderful; it suggest elements of an enchanted garden floating out from a barn window.)
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong — it is astonishing.
Other books I’ve recently read and loved:
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Q: Are you going on book tour and where can we expect to see you?
A: Yes, I will be scheduling events, starting with a book launch on my publication date, March 3, 2020. I will keep an events list running on my website (www.jennifer-rosner.com) and would be happy to receive invitations to read, to attend book clubs, etc!
Q: Are you working on a new book yet?
A: I have just begun a new novel – but it’s too preliminary to describe! Stay tuned.
Jennifer Rosner’s revelatory memoir explores family, silence, and what it means to be heard. When her daughters are born deaf, Rosner is stunned. Then, she discovers a hidden history of deafness in her family, going back generations to the Jewish enclaves of Eastern Europe. Traveling back in time, she imagines her silent relatives, who showed surprising creativity in dealing with a world that preferred to ignore them.
Rosner shares her journey into the modern world of deafness, and the controversial decisions she and her husband have made about hearing aids, cochlear implants and sign language. An imaginative odyssey, punctuated by memories of going unheard, Rosner’s story of her daughters’ deafness is at heart a story of whether she – a mother with perfect hearing – will hear her children.
If a Tree Falls is a poignant meditation on life’s most unpredictable moments, as well as the delights and triumphs hidden within them.
To order Jennifer Rosner’s novel, memoir and/or children’s book, click below.
Fellow Westporter, Sybil Steinberg, contributing editor and former book review section editor for Publishers Weekly, treats Westport Library patrons to a wonderful book event a few times a year. She recommends a long list of new books, fiction and nonfiction, and gives us a short summary of each and reasons why she loves each one. Here is her current list!
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
It’s time to stock up on some of the latest and greatest novels out this fall! From Africa to Argentina, England to Dominican Republic, Soviet Russia to New York, my fall reading list spans the globe and covers a variety of engrossing topics, including immigration, families, sex trafficking, abduction, slavery, spies and friendship.
Be sure not to miss the new books released from the authors of past favorites like Olive Kitteridge, The Girl With the Pearl Earring and Me Before You. And it is never too late to pick up the latest by Alice Hoffman, author of more than 30 works of fiction, many in the genre of magic realism, or Hank Phillippi Ryan, award winning investigative reporter, 36 time EMMY winner and author of 11 suspense novels.
As stated in Goodreads:“This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land.” So begins Petina Gappah’s powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone’s body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, a rigidly pious freed slave, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy at the core of the human heart—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.
As stated in Goodreads: Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child….Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.
As stated in Goodreads: In his boldly imagined first novel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the National Book Award–winning author of Between the World and Me, brings home the most intimate evil of enslavement: the cleaving and separation of families. This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
As stated in Goodreads:Prickly, wry, resistant to change yet ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic, Olive Kitteridge is “a compelling life force” (San Francisco Chronicle). TheNew Yorker has said that Elizabeth Strout “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” and she has never done so more clearly than in these pages, where the iconic Olive struggles to understand not only herself and her own life but the lives of those around her in the town of Crosby, Maine. Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire moments of transcendent grace.
As stated in Goodreads:The Dutch House is the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness, of how we want to see ourselves and of who we really are. Filled with suspense, you may read it quickly to find out what happens, but what happens to Danny and Maeve will stay with you for a very long time.
As stated in Goodreads: What does it mean to lose your mother? What makes a family? How is it possible to survive cruelty and continue to love? In a life that is as unreal as a fairytale, Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew takes us on a journey of loss and resistance, good and evil, the fantastical and the mortal, to a place where all roads lead past the angel of death and love is never-ending.
As stated in Goodreads: Law student Rachel North will tell you, without hesitation, what she knows to be true. She’s smart, she’s a hard worker, she does the right thing, she’s successfully married to a faithful and devoted husband, a lion of Boston’s defense bar, and her internship with the Boston DA’s office is her ticket to a successful future.
Problem is–she’s wrong. And in this cat and mouse game–the battle for justice becomes a battle for survival.
As stated in Goodreads: From the author of Jerusalem Maiden comes a remarkable story, inspired by little-known true events, about the thousands of young Jewish women who were trafficked into prostitution at the turn of the 20th century, and whose subjugation helped build Buenos Aires.
As stated in Goodreads:Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she has to say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.
As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, go dancing with Cesar, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.
As stated in Goodreads: A thrilling tale of secretaries turned spies, of love and duty, and of sacrifice—inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: Doctor Zhivago.
As stated in Goodreads: LATTICING one cherry pie after another, an Ohio housewife tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America. She worries about her children, her dead parents, African elephants, the bedroom rituals of “happy couples”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and how to hatch an abandoned wood pigeon egg. Is there some trick to surviving survivalists? School shootings? Medical debts? Franks ’n’ beans?
A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster, Ducks, Newburyport is a heresy, a wonder—and a revolution in the novel.
As stated in Goodreads: 1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.
Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.
As stated in Goodreads:Celestial Bodies is set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, where we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, Celestial Bodies is a coiled spring of a novel, telling of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.
As stated in Goodreads:Girl , Edna O’Brien’s hotly anticipated new novel, envisages the lives of the Boko Haram girls in a masterpiece of violence and tenderness. I was a girl once, but not anymore. So begins Girl, Edna O’Brien’s harrowing portrayal of the young women abducted by Boko Haram. Set in the deep countryside of northeast Nigeria, this is a brutal story of incarceration, horror, and hunger; a hair-raising escape into the manifold terrors of the forest; and a descent into the labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostility awaiting a victim who returns home with a child blighted by enemy blood. From one of the century’s greatest living authors, Girl is an unforgettable story of one victim’s astonishing survival, and her unflinching faith in the redemption of the human heart.
As stated in Goodreads:Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, the storytelling itself here is enthralling–the pages fly, and the book is unparalleled in its scope and its epic breadth. Funny, heartbreaking, and rewarding, it is a rich novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.
There are so many books to read, sometimes it can be overwhelming to decide what to choose. For money conscious bookclubs and for those who prefer an actual book over a kindle, it is nice to choose titles that are available in paperback – less expensive and lighter to carry.
Prepare for the fall and pick up a few great reads to have on your nightstand.
The McCarthy Era, NYC theater, and the Chelsea Hotel…Fiona Davis has treated us to another wonderful novel, The Chelsea Girls!
I love the historical setting of the Chelsea Hotel in NYC in the 1950s, with writers, actors and musicians in residence; what an interesting place to live during the McCarthy era when there was a threat of blacklisting.
Hazel is a playwright and upon her return from being on tour with the USO in Italy, and against her parents’ will, she moves out of her childhood home and into the Chelsea Hotel to work in theater. Soon after, she is reunited with Maxine, her actress pal from the tour, when she moves to NY and into the same hotel. Their friendship is strong and they end up working together on a play that is headed for Broadway just when the red scare casts a shadow over the theater industry. The hunt for communists becomes prevalent and causes fear and upheaval with the girls and their co-workers. These complicated times presented difficult challenges with friendships that threatened loyalties, and I was rooting for Hazel and Maxine to beat the odds. I found myself absorbed in each of the young women’s stories through the linear storytelling, and the deep dive into their friendship we learn through narration, conversation and diary entries. The Chelsea Girlswas compelling, interesting, educational and satisfying.
The history Fiona Davis shines a light on is enlightening and google-worthy in all of her novels and The Chelsea Girls is no exception. Many notable people have lived in the Chelsea Hotel over time…including Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Dennis Hopper, Jane Fonda, Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Bette Midler, and due to the many deaths that occurred there, The Chelsea Hotel is known for its’ famous ghosts that are present.
A wonderful story that includes history, NYC and friendship, I highly recommend The Chelsea Girls and all of Fiona’s other novels too (The Dollhouse – takes place at The Barbizon Hotel, The Address – takes place at the Dakota, and The Masterpiece – takes place at Grand Central Terminal)!
Q & A with Fiona Davis
Q: I love the setting of The Chelsea Hotel for your newest novel…how did you come across it and decide to use it as a backdrop for your book?
A: I knew I wanted to have the plot be about two women trying to mount a play on Broadway during the McCarthy era, and the hotel made the perfect location, as several of its residents were investigated by the FBI during that time, one was even imprisoned, and the place has been a political and artistic hotbed since it opened in 1884.
Q: The acting and theater challenges Maxine and Hazel faced were authentic and believable. How has your background impacted how you wrote about them?
A: I think maybe my background offered specificity when it comes to the details of putting a show up on Broadway, and I have no doubt that having read a lot of plays helped me when it came to writing dialogue. When I acted in a theater company when I first came to New York, we did everything behind the scenes – from costume design to selling tickets – so it was a crash course in how a play gets mounted as well as the many obstacles involved in producing.
Q: The age of McCarthy and the witch hunt for communists took a toll on the people in the entertainment business in the Chelsea Girls- can you tell me a little about what happened during that time period in real life?
A: One of the best books to read on the subject is Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time. She describes the initial reaction that the witch hunt as a joke. They figured since they were innocent of anything illegal, it would all disappear in time. Instead, the circus grew stranger and stranger and more threatening, and her account of testifying before Congress will send a shiver up your spine.
Q: I love the how the chapters alternate between the two main characters. Did you write them in the order they appear in the book? Why did you choose to have only Maxine keep a diary?
A: I wrote the book in order, going back and forth between Hazel’s perspective and Maxine’s. I liked the way that their perspectives offered up a different viewpoint as to what was going on, depending on their own opinions and backgrounds. I wanted to have only Maxine keep a diary so we could get deep into her head, and have a recorded account of the events.
Q: Hazel and Maxine had struggles and I enjoyed both of them so much! Even though there was deceit, their friendship was powerful and necessary in order to sustain composure during those times. Who do you identify with most?
A: I think I identify with Hazel most, as while I loved acting, it wasn’t suited to my more introspective nature. She feels the same way, and finds herself by writing plays just as I discovered so much joy in writing books.
Q: Do you see hints of McCarthy era parallels in reverse today with accusations toward our president of having Russian connections? Is it equally as damaging?
A: It’s amazing how history repeats itself, but I think the way that people are bandying about the term “McCarthyism” today requires a hard look at what really happened, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write about it in the first place. Back then, politicians were trying to find an “other” to demonize, a way to find a common enemy and thereby consolidate their power. My hope is by taking a close look at the past, we can avoid going down the same road again.
A: I’m hard at work on the next book, which is called The Lions of Fifth Avenue and set in the New York Public Library. It’s a big endeavor but I’m enjoying it immensely.
Q: What is on your nightstand to read next?
A: I have two books that are coming out next year to read: Red Letter Days by Sarah-Jane Stratford (which is also about the blacklist, I like to think I started a trend, although I’m sure she’s been working on it for years), and The Girls in White Gloves by Kerri Maher.
Fiona Davis is the nationally bestselling author of THE MASTERPIECE, THE DOLLHOUSE and THE ADDRESS. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theater. After getting a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School, she fell in love with writing, leapfrogging from editor to freelance journalist before finally settling down as an author of historical fiction. Visit her at www.fionadavis.net, facebook.com/FionaDavisAuthor/ and on Instagram and Twitter @fionajdavis.
So much to love in this fictional novel centered around interesting characters and the real Marina Abramovic and her Artist is Present Performance Art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 in NYC. Just as Abramovic explores the human longing for connection in her art, Heather Rose’s characters grow and change as a result of their observation and contemplation at the performance artist’s exhibit.
The Museum of Modern Love explores complicated relationships and the impact of performance art. Arky is a composer and at this time he is a lost man. His wife, Lydia is ill and she has requested he not see her. He is struggling with his music and is drawn to an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art featuring Marina Abramovic, a performance artist. He attends everyday, watching her sit and face other visitors as they look deep inside themselves. Arky meets Jane, an art teacher from Georgia who is mourning the loss of her husband and has abandoned her plans to visit art galleries in NYC to attend this intriguing MOMA exhibit. Captivated by Abramovic and the unique and powerful artistic expression, the two of them work through their thoughts on the importance and impact of art and contemplate their own personal loss and relationships. This wonderful book is worthy of research and discussion – so much to think about when it comes to love and commitment, and a lot to learn about the courageous and one of a kind artist, Marina Abramovic… all available online, including a very funny spoof video with Fred Armisen and Cate Blanchett, Waiting For the Artist.
My book group had the wonderful opportunity to FaceTime with Australian author of The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose – from Tasmania to Westport, CT. With a fourteen hour difference, we decided to do a practice run and lucky we did. At 5AM I awakened by a FaceTime call, but the rehearsal was meant for 7pm my time, not her time! Heather and I tried again her next day, later the same day for me…and ultimately we got it right for the book group meeting!
Heather told us she had been working on writing a book for many years. At the same time, and totally unrelated, she had come across something about performance artist Marina Abramovic and had been researching her, even though there was hardly any information available. Abramovic had put her life on the line for her art and self expression – something that intrigued Heather. Then, while on vacation, Heather was sitting at a restaurant alone at the hotel with an empty seat facing her. She had this idea that different people would come and sit across from her and it sparked an idea for her book – people who had passed would come to visit the character… so she went up to her room and wrote all night.
Shortly after, she heard that Marina Abramovic was going to be at The Museum of Modern Art in NYC in an exhibit called The Artist Is Present, where she would be sitting with an empty chair facing her and inviting people to sit across from her. Heather Rose went to NY and spent several weeks there. She sat in the chair across from Marina 4 times, talked with people waiting in line, and each experience was profound and different. With approval from Abramovic and her team, Heather rewrote her book with Marina Abramovic as the center piece of her fiction novel.
Heather Rose seemed to have some special connection with Marina Abramovic and heightened intuition and foresight which brought her to writing this novel. Her personal life greatly influenced the characters and their journeys as well – she has a chronic illness as mirrored in the character of Arky’s wife, and she and her husband divorced during the writing of this story. Our group was excited to hear she writes childrens books with a friend under the pen name, Angelica Banks, the Tuesday McGillyCuddy series, and knowing she enjoys spending time in NYC, we all hope to see her in person someday!
Heather Rose is the author of five novels with a further two due for publication in 2016. Heather writes for both adults and children. Her adult novels include The River Wife & The Butterfly Man.
Heather writes the acclaimed Tuesday McGillycuddy series for children under the pen name Angelica Banks with award-winning author Danielle Wood.
Heather’s first novel White Heart was published in 1999. It was followed by The Butterfly Man in 2005 – a story based on the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974. It was longlisted for the IMPAC Awards in Ireland, shortlisted for the Nita B Kibble Award and won the 2006 Davitt Award for the Crime Fiction Novel of the Year written by an Australian woman.
In 2007 Heather received the Eleanor Dark Fellowship and an Arts Tasmania Wilderness Residency for her novel The River Wife. The River Wife was published in 2009.
In 2010 Heather began collaborating with Danielle Wood and the Tuesday McGillycuddy series for primary age readers was born.
The series begins with Finding Serendipity published in Australia, Germany and the USA in 2013/14. The sequel A Week Without Tuesday has been published internationally in 2014/ 2015 and the third book in the series – Blueberry Pancakes Forever – will be published in 2016/17.
In 2016 Heather’s next novel – The Museum of Modern Love – will be published by Allen & Unwin. It is based on the life and work of the artist Marina Abramovic.
Heather’s work has appeared in journals and anthologies including: Dirty Words – A Literary Dictionary of Sex Terms – edited by Ellen Sussman (Bloomsbury, USA), Some Girls Do – edited by Jacinta Tynan (Allen & Unwin) and Mosaic – edited by Ros Bradley (ABC Books). Her stories and reviews been published in various editions of Island magazine.
Reading helps us to examine our world in new ways. It provides us with opportunities to become more educated on an infinite number of topics and allows us to look at issues ways we may never have before. Reading gives us insight into relationships and helps us understand people, teaches us empathy, and presents opportunities to ask questions.
Here are 4 benefits of reading, and 30 book suggestions for you to enjoy!
1. LEARN ABOUT INTERESTING TOPICS
Exploring places around the world and going back in time through reading gives us access to infinite knowledge.
Littleby Edward Carey is a story based on the imagined life of Madame Tussaud, Eleanor Roosevelt and her unconventional relationship is depicted in White Housesby Amy Bloom, and the life of the strong female poet, Forugh Farrokhzad is revealed in Song of a Captive Birdby Jasmin Darznik.
Strong Women That Were Wronged
These are devastating stories of women in the past who were not protected by the government, like the rabbits in The Lilac Girlsby Martha Hall Kelly, and the factory workers in The Radium Girlsby Kate Moore.
Grand Central Terminal History
Fictitious stories about the actual art school located above Grand Central Terminal are depicted in The Masterpieceby Fiona Davis.
2. EXAMINE COMPLEX RELATIONSHIPS
Reading can provide different prospectives, helping us see a story from all sides.
Loosely based on the author and Philip Roth, we read about a young girl in a relationship with an older male in Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday.
A look back on the memories of the narrator’s first love, there is a young male in a relationship with an older female in The Only Storyby Julian Barnes.
People are always saying reading encourages empathy and it is really true…When you are reading you are made more aware of other people’s feelings and given the opportunity to understand people that are different.
This wonderful debut novel, If You Leave Me, centers around five characters growing up during and after the Korean war. Haemi is a spirited, willful and independent 16 year old refugee who lives with and feels responsible for her widowed mother and her sickly younger brother, Hyunki. She and her lifelong friend, Kyungwan, are experiencing young love, but he wants to get an education and be a better man before he expresses his feelings. Kyungwan’s older, wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has no immediate family, and he also takes a liking to Haemi. Before he goes off to war he asks her to marry him, with the hope that when he returns he will have family waiting for him. Jisoo can ensure less struggling and provide food and medicine for Haemi and her family. Despite her connection with Kyungwan, her hope of having a life with him, and her desire for education, she ignores her emotions and accepts Jisoo’s proposal, knowing this union will provide stability and financial security for her aging mother and sick brother, and will allow all of them to continue living together. Understanding he cannot provide the security Haemi needs, Kyungwan leaves. Jisoo returns from war and he and Haemi have children, but she struggles with life and loss, and has a difficult time finding peace with her decisions. After 11 years, Kyungwan returns for a short visit…
If You Leave Me is a war story and a love story; life choices are influenced by the Korean war and the challenges of being a refugee. Crystal Hana Kim takes us through 16 years and we witness the struggles…what they do for love and what love does to them. This is a generational saga with multiple prospectives over time, and we see how the old and the young are influenced by western culture as it is integrated into Korean life. Families are torn apart during the civil war in Korea, and the people are desperately trying to repair their lives. If You Leave Me is about difficult decisions, the security found in new families, and the unforgettable ache of lost love. If you loved Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, you will love this one!
Crystal Hana Kim Book Talk
I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Crystal Hana Kim and as always, hearing from the author enhanced my understanding of where the story ideas came from and gave me a deeper appreciation for the creativity, effort and final product. I learned that Crystal’s Korean maternal grandmother came to New York to help raise her for a few years when she was a baby and then returned home to Korea where she goes to visit every year. Crystal remains close to her grandmother and they keep in touch through texts and selfies. Her parents are immigrants and throughout her childhood they spoke Korean, were influenced by the culture and ate Korean food at home. When Crystal went to school she felt people did not understand her or know who she was. When she told a boy she was Korean he said no, she must be either Chinese or Japanese. Shocked to realize Americans knew little about Korea she decided she would one day write about her culture and her family’s country.
Crystal’s grandmother often tells her stories about her youth and how she was a teenage refugee and had to flee her home during the Korean war. She talks to her about poverty and the restraints on women and how marriage gave her stability even though she wanted an education, likely influencing Haemi’s character development in If You Leave Me. (In order to fulfill her dream of education today, Crystal’s grandmother is taking harmonica lessons and is in a poetry class!)
Research for the novel started with Crystal’s knowledge of Korea and her own personal family experiences and traditions, and then expanded to a civilian focused effort, interviewing many of her Korean relatives. Her hope was to create a novel that was vivid, descriptive and portrayed family and cultural history with integrity, and I believe she was hugely successful. I loved If You Leave Me and highly recommend it.
Q & A with Crystal Hana Kim
Q: I enjoyed the multiple perspectives in If You Leave Me, and each character painted a vivid picture of their life and surroundings. I know you are a first generation American…have you been to Korea? How much of your story came from your experiences or people you know? Did your parents’ experiences influence your story?
A: I grew up going to Korea every summer because my mother’s side of the family all live there. She wanted to make sure that my sister and I spent as much time with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins so that we could maintain strong ties despite the physical distance. The stories in If You Leave Me are all fictitious; my favorite part of writing is creating characters, lives, and circumstances. My grandparents all survived the Korean War, and the tragedy of this war did inspire me to write about this particular time, but the characters are all my own.
Q: All your characters were flawed and realistic – and the war and political situation influenced their life choices and decisions. In addition, the western cultural influences had an impact and it seemed like traditional values were being challenged by new thinking. Do you think people who live through these type of unstable times and suffer terrible loss can recover from them and find happiness?
A: I’m an optimist, so yes, I believe in the resilience of humankind. However, I do think that the ways in which we cope with violence, civil war, hunger, and tragedy depends on the individual. There are so many factors that shape our individual selves, from our family relationships to cultural expectations to our access to class, privilege, and opportunity. In If You Leave Me, my goal was to create a complex, diverse group of characters who felt as real and human as possible.
Q: We never find out who received the yellow dress but are made to feel like Jisoo bought it for another woman. Why did you choose not to tell us who received it? Did it not matter? (It came up in the book discussion!)
A: Ah, the yellow dress! I prefer books that do not tie up every loose end, that instead allows room for the reader to make their own judgments. What the yellow dress represented—mistrust, disloyalty, and the fracturing in Haemi and Jisoo’s relationship—were more important and interesting to me than neatly concluding whether or not Jisoo bought a dress for another woman.
Q: Haemi loses everything over the course of her short life…her father dies, she spends her childhood caring for her widowed mother and ailing brother, she gives up her relationship with Kyunghwan so her family has financial stability, she sacrifices her will to be educated to become a wife to a man she doesn’t love and she loses her brother. She mentions several times how she has a hard time recovering after pregnancy. She also was so angry and seemed to recognize this and try to control it at times. Did Haemi have post partum depression or a mental illness?
A: Haemi had to sacrifice a lot for her family, and yet there were real moments of joy in her life as well. For example, even in her relationship to Jisoo, there is a form of love in the earlier years of their marriage. Even though she finds motherhood difficult and is not the perfect caretaker, she also deeply loves her children. I wanted her life to be complex and yet realistic to the time she grew up in.
I specifically depicted Haemi struggling after pregnancy because I wanted to write about a strong female character suffering from post partum depression. Haemi tries to articulate how she is feeling to those around her, but they cannot comprehend her illness and thus have no empathy for her. I wanted to showcase how frustrating this could feel for a mother of young children—in addition to suffering from post partum, she does not have the vocabulary to articulate her illness to others.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: In 2011, when I started my graduate studies in MFA at Columbia University, I began writing about Haemi and Solee. I was interested in their mother-daughter relationship and their circumstances. As I wrote scenes from their perspectives, the other characters began to take shape. At first, I thought I was working on an interconnected short story collection about a Korean family over three generations. In 2014, I realized that I could take part of that collection and turn it into a novel. At that point, the premise and scope of If You Leave Me was born, and it was published a few years later in 2018.
Q: Would you ever consider writing a book centered on one of the daughters as a continuation?
A: Yes, I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing a book about the daughters in their adult years! I think it would be interesting to explore the different trajectories these daughters’ lives would take as they grapple with their childhoods, their mother’s leaving, and Korea’s modernization. I also think this could be a way to explore immigration to the United States, which, as the daughter of Korean immigrants, I would love to write about.
Q: What 3 books have you read recently that you recommend?
A: There are so many books I’d recommend! Chemistry by Weike Wang was published in 2017, but I read it this year. Chemistry is a funny and moving story about an indecisive Chinese American Phd Chemistry candidate trying to understand what she wants out of life. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) is a slim, powerful, eerie, and odd conversation between a sick young woman in a rural hospital and a young boy. It’s an unsettling book that is difficult to describe but that will stay with you for a long time. The Return by Hisham Matar is a memoir about the author’s return to Libya to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his father decades before.
Q: What books are on your nightstand that you are looking forward to reading?
A: I am very excited to read Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, and American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson.
Crystal Hana Kim holds an MFA from Columbia University and is a contributing editor for Apogee Journal. She has received numerous awards, including PEN America’s Story Prize for Emerging Writers, along with fellowships and support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Born and raised in New York, she currently lives in Chicago.