Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a smart, humorous look at marriage and relationships.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

My Review:

Toby Fleishman is a short, Jewish liver doctor with a few hangups, but a seemingly sincere family man. Newly separated from his wife of 15 years, he unexpectedly finds solace in online dating apps. He is overwhelmed with the attention he is getting, basking in the never before received interest from the ladies.  Bombarded with sexy photos and texts, Toby tries to stay focused on his patients at work and being a good parent to his young daughter and son.

His ex-wife, Rachel, a successful talent agent, drops the kids off to him earlier than he expects one summer morning, based on their separation agreement, and after several days she is not returning messages.  After quite a while of not answering her phone, she now seems to have disappeared, and Toby is left with the question of where she is, and whether or not he truly understood his wife to begin with.  Fleishman Is In Trouble  is easy to follow and so enjoyable; a smart, humorous look at marriage and relationships.

Toby’s best friend Libby, a girl he met on a trip to Israel with his friend Seth when they were young and single, is back in touch after many years and is being a good friend to him, meeting him for lunch and trying to help solve his current problems without mentioning her own personal struggles.

Libby feels compassion and empathy for him, much like the reader is meant to, and we understand Toby’s marriage and divorce situation from his point of view.  Once we are completely absorbed in Toby and his troubles, Libby mentions to him that he is so busy with the dating apps, he hasn’t realized SHE could use a friend, and that she has some problems too.

This is when I realized I got so sucked in to feeling sorry for Toby, I may have been manipulated by the author to see only one side of the Fleishman marriage. And that is one of the many wonderful aspects of the author’s writing as she is able to bring her audience on the ride with her and ultimately sharing different perspectives.  With her story of Toby and Rachel, along with other sub-plots like the one with the patient that has Wilson’s Disease, Brodesser-Akner highlights the idea that we may be able to predict our future if we are observant and look hard enough.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is an acute observer and talented journalist, known for her profile pieces on famous people like Gwyneth Paltrow and Bradley Cooper.  She has an incredible talent for pulling the reader in to all she writes about, and then tells you something that causes a seismic shift in your thinking!  Speaking to the human condition, she allows you to empathize with each of her characters even though we can clearly see their flaws, not to mention her witty commentary that keeps you laughing out loud. Her sense of humor brings additional charm just when comic relief is needed and I experienced many moments of joy and delight while reading, all the while thinking this would make a great tv show!

The author has no problem getting into the head of a man and providing the male perspective of his relationship.  Toby didn’t really consider where Rachel was coming from or how she might feel – she didn’t clearly communicate it to him, but he had little intuition.  She was having a breakdown, her upbringing contributed to her style of mothering and she was struggling, yet nobody was there to help her get through it.  Because of Toby’s point of view, I disliked Rachel until, through Libby, I learned more about her.  Taffy Brodesser-Akner took over the power of my emotions with her vivid observations, guiding me to feel the way she intended.

I really loved this heartbreaking and hilarious story of marriage, with valuable insights into how men and women think and communicate.  The NYC upper east side references were pure joy, as my husband and I lived in the Wellesley on 72nd St. and ate at EJ”s in the early 1990s, so it was a welcomed walk down memory lane (or 3rd Avenue) for me!  Fleishman Is In Trouble is a smart, humorous and accurate look at marriage, midlife, dating and relationships and reminds us that paying attention now can help us to navigate in the future.

It is worth your time to check out the three links below!

Taffy Brodesser-Akner interviewed by Jake Tapper at Politics and Prose Bookstore

Gwyneth Paltrow NYTimes Article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner-Akner

Bradley Cooper NYTimes Article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Goodreads Summary

Taffy Brodesser-Akner

About the Author

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. Prior to that, her work appeared in GQ, ESPN the Magazine, Matter, Details, Texas Monthly, Outside, Self, Cosmopolitan and many other publications. Fleishman Is In Trouble is her first novel.

Everything In Its Place, by the brilliant Oliver Sacks, and discussion with author/photographer Bill Hayes

Everything In Its Place

My Review:

Oliver Sacks, the bestselling author and professor of neurology wrote many books about his patients, his own disorders and nature, including the notable, Awakenings.  In his final compilation of essays, Everything In Its Place, he talked about a myriad of topics, from his love of libraries, to how cold temperatures stop the growth of cancer, from dreams and near death experiences to medical case studies and a town where everyone has Tourette’s Syndrome.  He was a true, deep thinker and scientist who studied the past.

Oliver swam every day, was severely shy and suffered from prosopagnosia (was unable to recognize faces). He was celibate for 40 years and was private regarding his sexuality.  He passed away in 2015 at 82 years old from cancer.  Everything In Its Place consists of his essays that were configured into this book and released post mortem.

Sacks lived alone, focusing on his work most of his life, but in his seventies he fell in love and enjoyed a wonderful 8 years with author and photographer, Bill Hayes.  Bill wrote the must-read memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, along with 3 other non-fiction books, and a book of photography called How New York Breaks Your Heart.  My book club and I had the incredible opportunity to meet with Bill and we discussed his unsurpassable relationship with the brilliant neurologist and learned about their interests and the wonderful friendship and love they shared.

Oliver Sacks and Bill Hayes

Conversation with Bill Hayes:

Oliver grew up in a Jewish home and left England at 27 years old.  He lived at the hospital where Awakenings patients were being housed and he put all his efforts  into his job as a physician and neurologist.  Oliver had no romantic relationships for most of his life while he concentrated on his work.

Bill Hayes lived in San Francisco for 25 years.  He wrote a trilogy about medical history and the human body, and he studied anatomy at UCSF.  At 48 years old, in the spring of 2009, Bill moved to NYC to reinvent himself after the devastating loss of Steve, his long time partner of 17 years, passed away suddenly.  Previously, Bill had written to Oliver Sacks about one of his books, and coincidently, once in NYC, they ran into each other in the west village and they developed an intellectual and romantic kinship.

Oliver enjoyed the new found companionship with Bill, savoring the time they spent together making dinner and everyday chores like loading the dishwasher.  According to Bill, the two men had a deep connection despite their 30 year age difference.  They were kindred spirits, and both had been through a lot.  Bill says Oliver was “chronically quotable, hilarious, eccentric and philosophical”.

Oliver had prosopagnosia, and discussed it in his books, bringing this condition to the surface.  He was not able to easily recognize faces, something he deemed a “neurological hiccup”.  He studied how people adapt to different conditions including bipolar, Alzheimers, dementia, Tourette’s and autism, and wrote about them.

Bill told us Oliver mastered the art of writing.  It came easily and fluidly.  He wrote longhand with a fountain pen on yellow lined paper.  He used no technology, no wifi, and no computer.  He had two assistants in his office and they transcribed what he wrote.  He composed in his head and generally there were not a lot of revisions.

Oliver insisted Bill keep a journal and six months after he passed away, Bill felt free to write.  Using conversations he recorded in his journal, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, was released in 2015.  Today it is being made into a film.

Oliver published 16 books and Bill suggested we read Gratitude (4 essays about death that appeared in the NYTimes), and The Island of the Colorblind, which he described as most lyrical.

Oliver’s writing includes medical case histories,  essays on human behavior, nature, swimming, and other interests.  When compiling this collection, Bill fought hard to include the Why we Need Gardens essay in the book and it was added 6 weeks before Everything In Its Place went to press.

Bill’s memories with Oliver are joyful.  They shared so much laughter, even during his failing health in the last year of his life.  Bill says a lot had to do with Oliver; he was so clear when he learned he was terminal.  He wanted to live out his life with Bill, writing, reading, traveling and spending time with friends.  His old friend, Laura Snyder is currently in the process of writing a biography of Oliver Sacks.  She had written The Philosophical Breakfast Club, his favorite book.

Our book group was luck enough to see Oliver’s apartment via FaceTime and we asked Bill a few personal questions about himself. He told us he is currently single and dating, although the bar was set high once he met Oliver Sacks.  He also willingly shared the important significance of his five tattoos:  the end of one life and the beginning of another, I am my own anchor, a Joni Mitchell song, his five sisters and Oliver’s middle name, Wolf.

I highly recommend reading some of Oliver Sacks’ work, and Bill Hayes’ memoir, Insomniac City.  Both men are fascinating and a wealth of knowledge, compassion and creativity.

 

Goodreads Summary

Oliver Sacks

About the author:

Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, was a British neurologist residing in the United States, who has written popular books about his patients, the most famous of which is Awakenings, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

Fiona Davis takes us back to the McCarthy era, NYC theater and the Chelsea Hotel in her brand new novel, The Chelsea Girls. Author Q & A included!

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

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 Girls was 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)!

Jennifer Blankfein of Book Nation by Jen and author Fiona Davis

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.

Q:  After your book tour for The Chelsea Girls, What is up next for you?

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. 

Goodreads Summary

Fiona Davis author

About the author:

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.

Is There Still Sex in the City? Author Candace Bushnell says the answer is YES!

Is There Still Sex in the City? by Candace Bushnell

My Review:

Decades after Carrie Bradshaw, a young and hopeful writer for a NYC newspaper, and her girlfriends took on the challenges of sex and dating in the big city, author Candace Bushnell re-examines life in her new book, Is There Still Sex in the City? with a new group of female friends as they navigate the highs and lows of middle age today, along with the challenges of mating.

Twenty years ago, Candace Bushnell reshaped the landscape of pop culture, first as a reporter for the New York Observer and then with her book Sex and the City.  It became a huge tv hit and spawned two movies, developing a loyal, female following. She published nine books in total, including The Carrie Diaries, a prequel to Sex and the City, and Lipstick Jungle, about successful business women friends and their lives with challenges, perks and sacrifices, both of which were popular tv shows.

Is There Still Sex in the City? is inspired by real happenings, based on Bushnell’s and her friends’ escapades with men, their female friendships and the ups and downs of midlife.  A keen social observer, her stories are delivered with distinct style and humor.

I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Candace Bushnell on the eve of the release of her latest book, Is There Still Sex in the City? at the Westport Library in Westport CT in front of a crowd of more than 300 people and we learned how her new book came about and some of her findings when researching middle age dating trends!

Jennifer Blankfein of Book Nation by Jen

After her unexpected divorce, Candace left New York to take some time away and she retreated to CT where she had a house.  When Tina Brown asked her to come back to the city and write about middle aged dating she refused, but soon after she received an email from a young woman reporter begging her to help.  All of this young woman’s friends were on Tinder and they were unhappy – they needed Ms. Bushnell to jump in and find out what was going on.  And so she did.

Back and forth between NYC and the Hamptons, Candace and her middle aged friends were the source of information on how things go over 50.  Parents die, kids leave home, people get divorced, jobs are lost and opportunities for reinvention are created during the tumultuous time for women which Ms. Bushnell calls Middle Aged Madness.

She read a funny excerpt from the book about how she was peer pressured into going out on a date with a former Ivy League football star who said he was in his late 60s but turned out to be 75, closer to her dad’s age, and all he wanted was sex.

Author Candace Bushnell with Book Nation by Jen Blogger Jennifer Blankfein

We talked about technology and its impact on dating today, and Candace referenced her book when saying how there is a whole group of young men in their 20s and 30s who are interested in dating women 30 plus years their senior – this trend is called Cubbing and it can happen to the most unsuspecting of middle aged women!

In her book, she says, “Society colludes to tell men they’re a little bit better than they actually are while it tells women they’re a little bit worse.”  She agreed that the MeToo movement has allowed women to stand up for themselves more than before but believes men and women both feel the pressure to stay youthful.  There are special surgeries and luxurious creams available to keep women looking and feeling young, but ultimately everyone has to make choices on what they want to invest in based on their own personal comfort level.

We talked about how in the 1990s working for The New York Observer, she was asked to investigate Jeffrey Epstein due to some suspicions about a private plane and models, but was warned by someone close to him to stay away and stop asking questions.

Around the same time Charlie Rose asked her which was more important to her, writing or a relationship and back then her answer was writing.  Candace Bushnell’s priorities still stand, as she is passionate about her work and disciplined to accomplish her goals every day.  She enjoys spending time with her current boyfriend but they maintain their own residences and alternate time together and time apart.

Jennifer Blankfein of Book Nation by Jen with Candace Bushnell author

If you loved Sex and the City and the dating adventures of the iconic women friends in NYC, you will love Candace Bushnell’s new book that is a satirical tale based on her life after divorce and how she and her single, divorced and widowed friends tried to get back in the game in middle age.

Earlier this year the WSJ came out with an article about the new rules of middle age and Bushnell was quoted as saying “We are not going to do our 50s the way everyone is telling us we’re supposed to.”  She believes after our reproductive years we are reinventing ourselves, starting new ventures and taking chances and learning new things more than ever before.

Recently the NYT published an article about Bushnell’s Sunday routine which included snuggling with and walking her standard poodles, surfing the internet, writing, exercising and eating.  Maybe not what you expected from an ex-party girl, Candace admits to wearing the same pair of pants all the time and going out in NYC without makeup.

When asked which reality show is her favorite, she enthusiastically answered “Married at First Sight“.  She believes it is beneficial to have therapists meeting with the couples to give them tips on relationships and coaching throughout the early weeks of marriage.

Filled with heartbreaking and humorous anecdotes revealing adventures and challenges, Bushnell tells it like it is, sex and dating over 50 in all its glory and ugliness… she introduces us to labels she developed to categorize types of men, like the Hot Drop, Bicycle Boy and the Spouse-Child. And of course there are the well preserved Super Middles (middle aged people that are like they were before, only better)… and then everyone else. It’s not easy looking for love and Candace Bushnell keeps up chuckling through disappointments as she and her friends face the challenges of new hopeful romantic relationships and the settling for status quo companionships. Do the vibrant and experienced women over 50 today have strong relationships and good sex in their future?

When asked if there is still sex in the city, Candace says Yes, but probably a lot less.  And is the sex good?  She says it’s probably the same as it was before – if you enjoyed sex when you were younger you would feel the same over 50.

Hooray for us loyal fans… the fascinating conversation about women and dating over 50 will be played out on the big screen in the future – Paramount Television has picked up the rights to turn this one into a show!

It was a joy to learn more about Candace Bushnell, her life, career and new book, Is There Still Sex in the City?  Pick up a copy today for tips and insights about life, love and sex after 50, and enjoy some good laughs!

Goodreads Summary

Candace Bushnell

About the Author:

Candace Bushnell is the critically acclaimed, international best-selling author of Killing Monica, Sex and the City, Summer and the City, The Carrie Diaries, One Fifth Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and Four Blondes. Sex and the City, published in 1996, was the basis for the HBO hit series and two subsequent blockbuster movies. Lipstick Jungle became a popular television series on NBC, as did The Carrie Diaries on the CW.

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok is a must read…a wonderful immigrant story focused on family and secrets that is also an addictive and compelling mystery! Includes author Q & A…

Searching For Sylvie Lee By Jean Kwok

My Review:

A perfect combination of literary fiction and suspense, in Searching for Sylvie Lee, Jean Kwok lets us inside the minds of Chinese immigrant sisters Sylvie, Amy and their Ma.  Smart, pretty and accomplished, Sylvie is the golden child in the family.  Having grown up with her grandmother in the Netherlands, she felt compelled to return there when Grandma became ill.  Younger sister, Amy, is shy and insecure.  When Amy hears that Sylvie has mysteriously disappeared, she has to pull it together to be strong, and travel overseas to find out what happened to her beloved big sister.

Ma’s relationships with her daughters are complicated; she immigrated to NYC when she and Pa were young and she was pregnant.  They were very poor and worked many jobs to stay afloat.  Once Sylvie was born they sent her to the Netherlands to be cared for by Ma’s mother, as they thought it would be a better life for her. The  feeling of rejection had a huge impact on Sylvie and her other relationships.  She stayed in Amsterdam for more than 8 years, and when Ma and Pa had another daughter, Sylvie returned to NY, yet she felt she was called home to be a babysitter for her younger sister, Amy.

Communication barriers and lack of understanding add to the tension of this story and is often the case with immigrant families.  The relationship with children can be strained and sacrificed when coming to a new country as the parents have a hard time learning the ways of the new home yet the kids haven’t lived any other way.

Ma’s communication skills are limited because she only speaks broken English, but her thoughts in Chinese are clear and strong.  Sylvie spent her formative years in Dutch culture, feeling loved by her Grandma and cousin and on unsettled ground with her aunt and uncle, and Amy was from NY, had hard working, supportive parents but struggled with a stutter and had a hard time expressing herself.

Searching For Sylvie Lee is a story of love…the beauty and the pitfalls, the joy and the heartbreak.  An unexpected disappearance becomes a full on mystery, and pain, confusion and misunderstandings are the results of buried family secrets – unintentional hurt is inflicted all around, but does the truth come out too late?  

 A Chinese immigrant experience in NY and Amsterdam, Searching For Sylvie Lee is full of suspense and wonderful writing.  This is one of my favorite books of the year!

The idea to write about a missing person was inspired by author Jean Kwok’s brother.  Learn more about the devastating disappearance of Jean Kwok’s brother HERE

Q & A with Jean Kwok

 
Q:  What inspires you to write and how do you decide the format and genre?
 
A:  I always write about issues that mean a great deal to me personally. Searching for Sylvie Lee was inspired by the real-life disappearance of my beloved and brilliant brother. I changed the main character to a woman, Sylvie, to escape the gravitational force of the true story, and Sylvie, her younger sister Amy and Ma indeed took on their own lives. However, since I did want to write about a disappearance and the ways in which we are hidden from each other by language and culture, it was natural to shape this book as a mystery surrounding a suspenseful immigrant family drama. 
 
 
Q:  The backdrop for Searching For Sylvie Lee is an immigration story about a family.  How similar is your personal story?
 
A:  Like Sylvie, I’m a first generation Chinese American immigrant and my family was also very poor when we first came to this country. Although I wasn’t sent away to be raised by my grandmother the way Sylvie was, I saw firsthand what it was like for every able-bodied person in my family to work day and night just to make ends meet. Even though I did end up going to Harvard and Columbia, I was never considered the golden child in my family – that role was reserved for my brother, the one who disappeared. I was too bad at being a Chinese girl: terrible housekeeper and cook, too opinionated and independent. So when he vanished, I had the same feeling that Amy did, of needing to pull myself together to try to figure out what had happened to my beloved sibling. 
 
 
Q:  The Grandmother took responsibility for Sylvie as a baby and in the end Sylvie felt it was important to be with her when she was ill.  Typical family structure with traditional upbringing of the children by the parents was not the route this family took.  How did you come up with this scenario?  Can you tell us about your grandparents?
 
A:  I actually never met any of my own grandparents because they were left behind in China when we emigrated. However, as the youngest of seven children, I often felt like my parents were in some ways my grandparents too, since they were the age of my friends’ grandparents. I also know many people who either needed to send their children back to their grandparents to be raised because they couldn’t afford to keep them or were sent back themselves as children. So the loving relationship between Sylvie and Grandma is something I understand deeply, even though I didn’t know my own grandparents. I watched my own parents grow older and more frail.
 
 
Q:  I enjoyed all of the details that added to the richness of your story: the bike riding, the music lessons, the trip to Venice, the apple tart…where do you get your ideas?
 
A:  Actually, all of the instances of flirtatious Dutch men on bicycles actually happened to me, which is not as fun as it sounds because my biking skills are even worse than Amy’s. When a huge Dutch guy swung himself onto the baggage rack of my little bicycle as I rode by, I lost control and we almost dove into a canal, which was terrifying because like Sylvie, I can’t swim! I like to use incidents from real life in my books and I also enjoy interviewing people and adding slices of their lives. 
 
 
Q:  I love that each of your main characters, Sylvie, Amy and Ma express their points of view in alternating chapters and yet the reader is the only one that sees the full picture.  How did you decide to write it this way and what was your process?  Did you have to make an outline or organize in any way before you started?
 
A:  One of the questions that Searching for Sylvie Lee asks is, “How well do we truly know the people we love most?” In many immigrant families, the children adopt the dominant language of the country, English, while the parents still struggle with it, resulting in parents and children who no longer speak the same language fluently. I combined those two ideas by having the novel be told by three different narrators – Sylvie, Amy and Ma – all thinking in their own languages: Dutch, English and Chinese. Of course, the book’s written in English but since the inner dialogue is in each woman’s own mother tongue, we are able to get to know each of them in a way that the others can’t. So Ma thinking in Chinese is a much deeper, more complicated person than Amy, her own daughter, will ever know because Amy can only hear the Ma who speaks broken English.
 
I did outline the entire novel before I started writing. The release of information and clues is essential to the pacing of the book, so I had to figure out where to place the Facebook messages, newspaper articles, etc. to keep the reader turning the pages. Many details changed over the course of the novel but I was constantly backing up to check that the overall structure of the book was working well. 
 
 
Q:  Many of your characters have secrets and throughout the story you provide us with clues right up until we learn the truth.  Did the clues appear naturally or did you add them in after you wrote the book?  
 
A:  I planned everything from the very beginning and I did know exactly how the book would end. I personally need to know the ending in advance because the progression of the entire novel is shaped by the ending. I always hope that my work will be both entertaining and enlightening, so I want the reader to enjoy the ride. I’m anticipating the reader experience throughout so that the ending is hopefully both surprising and yet earned. 
 
 
Q:  Sylvie is smart and pretty and looked upon as a being successful…Amy is insecure and lacks direction, but deep down, it seems these sisters are more alike than different.   Can you give us some insight and tell us which one you relate to most?
 
A:  I definitely relate to both of the sisters. I have the same perfectionist drive as Sylvie but am sadly not as talented, so I can identify with Amy who always felt like she was in Sylvie’s shadow as well. In my family, I was never considered smart or successful – that was my brother, and yet, my brother and I loved each other so much. He always took care of me and when we were very poor, he was the person who gave me a blank diary and said, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.” That was the beginning of my life as a writer. So the love that binds the two sisters is very real to me as well. 
 
 
Q:  How long did it take to write this book and did you have to make any majors changes during the revision process?
 
A:  It took about three years to write this novel and it really seemed to flow seamlessly. I sketched out the story and started writing. There were minor revisions along the way but it almost seemed to write itself. I have a wonderful editor who helped me enhance the relationships, and she also let me know when the foreign languages needed to be pruned back a bit, that sort of thing, but basically, the book has remained unchanged from its initial conception. 
 
 
Q:  This book is a beautiful combination of compelling fiction with well developed characters, varied and descriptive background settings and an addictive mystery.  Do you recommend any other books that have a similar storytelling or other authors that have accomplished the same? 
 
A:  Thank you for your kind words. I think that Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is a wonderful novel that is similar in that it’s a page-turner wrapped around an immigrant family. This novel about a murder trial involving a Korean immigrant family after their medical facility explodes is a suspenseful, deep read. 
 
 
Q:  Can we expect another page turner that takes us on a journey from you?
A:  I’m working on a new novel right now and it’s about a young Chinese American immigrant woman who comes to the US to start a new life, but that fresh start is threatened when she gets involved with her white English teacher and he dies in a suspicious accident involving her. So indeed, I hope this will be another page turner that deals with deeper issues of immigration, culture, race and language. 
 

Watch Jean Kwok’s interview on the Today Show HERE

CLICK HERE for other great book club choices.

Goodreads Summary

Jean Kwok

About the Author:

Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling, award-winning author of Searching for Sylvie Lee, Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in eighteen countries and taught in universities, colleges, and high schools across the world. She has been selected for numerous honors, including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award international shortlist. She is trilingual, fluent in Dutch, Chinese, and English, and studied Latin for seven years. Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two boys and three cats.

Learn more about Jean here:
www.jeankwok.com
https://www.facebook.com/JeanKwokAuthor

 

Exploring Complicated Relationships and the Impact of Performance Art in The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

My Review:

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.

Additional Thoughts:

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!

I loved this book and highly recommend it!  If you enjoy art you may want to check out The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis and On Color by David Scott Kastan.

Jennifer Blankfein's book group

Jennifer Blankfein facetiming with Heather Rose

Goodreads Summary

Author Heather Rose

About the Author:

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.

An Undeniable Spark Between An Unlikely Twosome Creates Serious Heat In The Play, Burn This by Lanford Wilson

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My Review:

In anticipation of the Broadway production of Burn This starring Adam Driver and Keri Russell, I chose to familiarize myself with this emotional story of loss and love, and I am so glad I did!  In the late 1980s, in NYC, a female dancer, Anna, along with her gay roommate, Larry and her rich screenwriter boyfriend, Burton, are together mourning the loss of a friend, Robbie.  The deceased’s brother, Pale, shows up and looks to Anna to learn more about his younger sibling’s recent past, and amidst overwhelming emotions of grief, a physical relationship develops.  Anna ad Pale’s chemistry is undeniable and their relationship grows.  The connection is evident, but timing is not right and she denies them both the opportunity to continue by shutting him out.  To combat the pain of loss, Anna devotes herself to her work as a choreographer, developing a dance that represents this relationship she has turned her back on. 

Thank you to Lanford Wilson, the playwright, for giving Anna’s roommate, Larry, the understanding of the depth of her feelings for Pale…Larry sets them up to be alone in the apartment together without either of them knowing… and it was just what they both needed. I expect this play to be powerful and steamy.  The original cast in 1987 included Joan Allen and John Malkovich, and I think the current cast with Keri Russell and Adam Driver will have equal success.  I cannot wait to see the limited engagement, Broadway production at the Hudson Theatre in May!  

Interview with playwright Lanford Wilson about the writing of the play Burn This.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Playwright:

Lanford Wilson was born in Lebanon, Missouri on April 13, 1937 and died March 24, 2011.  He was an American playwright, considered one of the founders of the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, was elected in 2001 to the Theater Hall of Fame, and in 2004 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Can Dogs Help Us With Grief? In Sigrid Nunez’s Latest Novel, The Friend, You May Get Some Insight.

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Meeting the Author and My Review:

Fortunate to have had the opportunity to see her speak,  I have not come across many authors who are as impressive, authentic and old school as Sigrid Nunez.  A true, lifelong writer for writing’s sake, not caught up in the business of marketing her work or following her reviews, Nunez seems focused on her craft, and just expressing herself and getting her story out of her head and onto the paper.

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According to the author, her novel, The Friend just flowed and formed itself on its own without an outline or a plan. A while ago she had been asked to do a 10 minute reading so she wrote what turned out to be the beginning of The Friend.  Soon after, she was asked to do a 25 minute reading so she added on and she felt she had something of a novel developing so she just continued to the end.  She did not do much research for this book; most of the story was meditative as the reader is alway in the consciousness of the book’s narrator.  Nunez chose to keep to the tone of a “hushed, intimate voice of someone writing a love letter” but did not write in a letter format.  She enjoyed the freedom of going from thought to thought, and felt this form was liberating and easier to write than in any other way.

Nunez is a big reader, and could never envision herself living a happy life without it.  She likes to write in the morning, at home or in the school library where she is teaching, (currently she is at Syracuse University) and works on only one project at at a time.

A writer her entire life, she is pleased, I am sure to get recognized by The New York Times (they published an article with the headline, “With ‘The Friend’, Sigrid Nunez Becomes an Overnight Literary Sensation, 23 Years and Eight Books Later”).  She is the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 2018.

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The Friend is an unnamed woman’s story of grief after losing a lifelong friend to suicide and adopting his seemingly forlorn Great Dane, Apollo.  After meeting with her Friend’s 3rd wife who requested she adopt the pet, she agrees even though no dogs are allowed in her small apartment and she runs the risk of eviction.  The relationship with her Friend’s very large, aging companion becomes important to her and even though others believe she needs help to overcome her grief and back away from the unusual commitment to Apollo, she prefers to be with him rather than socialize with other people.  She assumes he misses his master and tries to understand what goes on in his head and his heart.

In the narrator’s voice, the author makes her own thoughts known regarding the writing community; she likens the publishing industry to a sinking ship, and mocks what could be a status builder, (the crazy but not altogether impossible idea of) a naked author calendar.  The narrator doesn’t believe people write for the right reason and interestingly enough, author Sigrid Nunez, through the voice of her narrator, has made her critical opinions known regarding the loss of integrity on the literary scene, and has unexpectedly received media attention with The Friend.

Throughout the story there is a lot to think about:

Philosophical questions and musings about reading and writing; “If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing takes some away.”

Publishing, and how literature has lost its quality;  “I recite your various gripes, which were not much different from those heard every day from other teachers: how even students from top schools didn’t know a good sentence from a bad one, how nobody in publishing seemed to care how anything was written anymore, how books were dying, literature was dying, and the prestige of the writer had sunk so low that the biggest mystery of all was why everyone and their grandmother was turning to authorship as just the ticket to glory.”

Dogs and their understanding; “What do dogs think when they see someone cry?”

The narrator talks about her Friend and his feelings about the benefit of walking as it contributes to creativity because it delivers a rhythm.  She tells stories of suicide, blindness, loss of speech, psychosomatic illness, sex trafficking and prostitution.

Does a good book have to deliver what the reader wants or is what makes it good the delivery of what the author wants to communicate?

I enjoyed The Friend and meeting Sigrid Nunez and hearing about her writing process and the inside scoop made me appreciate it even more!

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Sigrid Nunez has published seven novels, including A Feather on the Breath of God, The Last of Her Kind, Salvation City, and, most recently, The Friend. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Among the journals to which she has contributed are The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and The Believer. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including four Pushcart Prize volumes and four anthologies of Asian American literature.

Sigrid’s honors and awards include a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Berlin Prize Fellowship, and two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters: the Rosenthal Foundation Award and the Rome Prize in Literature. She has taught at Columbia, Princeton, Boston University, and the New School, and has been a visiting writer or writer in residence at Amherst, Smith, Baruch, Vassar, and the University of California, Irvine, among others. In spring, 2019, she will be visiting writer at Syracuse University. Sigrid has also been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and of several other writers’ conferences across the country. She lives in New York City.

Reading, Writing and Pretty Revenge with Author Emily Liebert: women’s fiction with a healthy dose of psychological suspense is sure to grab you!

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My Review:

You will surely be hooked from the get go when you dive in to Emily Liebert’s upcoming emotional thriller, Pretty Revenge!  Eighteen years ago, Kerrie’s life was turned upside down.  Hurt by the betrayal and disappointment she once felt, and having never fully recovered, she is stuck in a bad relationship with no job and feeling disappointed.   After coming across the person she blames for her sad life on tv, old memories rise to the surface and retaliation becomes her goal.  She takes a job and reestablishes her life in the city with the sole purpose of revenge.

Jordana is a sophisticated New Yorker who seems to have it all.  She is a sought after wedding expert with a handsome, wealthy, successful husband and a beautiful apartment in the best part of town.  With dark secrets, she is running from her past while keeping herself busy with wedding plans for her wealthy clients.  When the job demands become overwhelming, she hires a much needed assistant who is agreeable to everything she is asked to do and seems to be extremely competent.   Focused on the details of expensive weddings and client management, the two women seem to develop a solid working relationship; but are they truly who they say they are, and how well do they really know each other?

With women and secrets, lies and deceit, friendships and forgiveness, Pretty Revenge delivers a suspenseful dose of crazy you won’t want to miss!  From her bestselling women’s novels focused on complex female relationships to this psychologically thrilling suspense, where we see a slightly darker side of those relationships…Liebert’s new spin is a huge success!  Easy to read with humorous, witty language, the novel’s impending dread constantly builds as it brings us to the truth, and appealing to my pollyanna side, we are lead to believe everything will tie up in a bow after the last page – perfect for a weekend away!  A most enjoyable read – available July 2019 – preorder a copy so you can have your own Pretty Revenge this summer!

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Q and A with Emily Liebert

You have been greatly successful with your women’s fiction novels, what made you decide to try psychological suspense this time?

EL: Writing women’s fiction novels was fun and fulfilling, but—ultimately—I wanted something edgier to sink my teeth into. I started reading a lot of psychological suspense and became motivated to challenge myself to try something new and bigger. With that said, I think both PRETTY REVENGE and the novel I’m writing now still have a women’s fiction element to them. I’m not going too far to the dark side, at least not yet! I also moved publishing houses to Simon & Schuster for these next two books, which I hope will be a major relaunch for me.

Are your characters in Pretty Revenge based on anyone you know?  Do you think people you know have recreated themselves and are hiding big secrets?

EL: I rarely base my characters directly on people I know, but there are always circumstances and stories from my life or from my friends’ lives that meander their way in. I don’t believe I know anyone who’s hidden his/her past life and is pretending to be someone else. I do, however, believe that everyone has at least one secret, some bigger than others.

The cheating husband of the woman who appears to have it all is not a new idea…why do you think we love to read about those types?

EL: Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and I think people relate to them. They see their own lives reflected in the characters and plot. I always say, even if it’s not a revolutionary idea, there’s a fresh spin on it.

I was a fan of Kerrie’s from the get go but I felt compassion toward Jordana as her real life was revealed.  Who did you root for in Pretty Revenge, Jordana or Kerrie?

EL: As the author of the book and the creator of the characters, I have to say I was rooting for both of them in different ways. You think Kerrie is the underdog at first and you understand why she wants revenge. But then, my hope, is that people will realize how broken and vulnerable Jordana is too.

Your writing is very witty and fun to read.  Do you add descriptive phrases and detail afterward or does it just come out on the page as we see it?

EL: I love this question, and I get asked often about the humor in my writing. That is me! I’m funny (if I do say so myself). Also, I think you have to be able to laugh in life, even when it may not seem like the right moment. A big bucket list item for me would be to do standup comedy just once. I imagine it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m not sure I’d be able to go through with it, but stay tuned!

When you are starting a new book, do you develop your characters first, assigning them a past, present and future, or do you write the storyline and their details develop along with the plot?

EL: There’s always a nugget of an idea to begin with and maybe one character who I assign to that. Then, as I start fleshing out the idea, I’ll establish who the 2-3 main characters are and begin defining their personalities. After that, I’d say the storyline and the characters’ pasts/presents/futures unravel together.

What 3 books have you read lately that you recommend and what is on your nightstand right now?

EL: Three books I’ve loved recently are advanced copies of The Last Time I Saw You by Liv Constantine and The Night Before by Wendy Walker (both pub in May), and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. On my nightstand are an advanced copy of Jane Green’s The Friends We Keep and Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Emily Liebert is the USA TODAY Bestselling Author of five books.

PRETTY REVENGE, her forthcoming novel, will release on July 2, 2019.

Her first book Facebook Fairytales is available across the globe.

In 2012, Emily wrote her debut novel, You Knew Me When (Penguin), which published on September 3, 2013. Her second novel, When We Fall, published on September 2, 2014. Those Secrets We Keep, her third novel, released on June 2, 2015, and her fourth novel, Some Women, came out on April 5, 2016, all with Penguin Random House.

Emily is featured often in the press, by outlets such as: Today Show, The Rachael Ray Show, Anderson Cooper, FOX News, Good Day New York, The Couch, Oprah Radio, Martha Stewart Radio, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, InStyle, OK!, Nylon, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s World, WWD, Woman’s Day, The New York Post, The Washington Post, The New York Daily News, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, and The Huffington Post.

She has also served as a spokesperson for Microsoft, appearing on TV and radio stations nationwide.