Tag Archives: Algonquin Books

Pieces of April

Between Here and April: A Novel by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Algonquin Books; $13.95; 304 pages)

Deborah Copaken Kogan presents a heartrending story in her page-turning novel, Between Here and April.

Elizabeth Burns is determined to research and share the story of the disappearance of her childhood friend, April.   Following multiple blackout episodes, Elizabeth begins to recall the details of her friend and the rumors that followed her absence decades before.   However, as Elizabeth begins to question April’s family members and neighbors, the heart breaking trauma and the revelation of the outcome causes Elizabeth to reflect on her own life and past and reexamine her priorities.

The riveting storyline overlaps Elizabeth’s journey with the details of April’s disappearance and brings the characters to life, past and present.   The main character, Elizabeth, is challenged with balancing career and family with the probable consequences for indulging in reckless desires.   She must decide what portions of her life are worth mending to protect her own priorities.

She (Elizabeth’s daughter) slipped her mittened hand in mine and squeezed it tight, a gesture whose emotional pull is never diminished.   This is all there is, I thought to myself, self-consciously.   This is why we live.

Kogan examines the challenges of motherhood and how far some women will go to protect their children and preserve their cherished life and memories.   Yet, this is only one of the many overlapping controversial topics presented by Kogan throughout the novel, a few too many for my taste.   And although the story also presents some implausible circumstances (such as coming across actual dialogue of April’s mother presented to Elizabeth by a psychologist’s widow), Kogan keeps the reader intrigued through complex, interesting characters and clear, believable dialogue.

Recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “The perfect book club book.”   The Washington Post Book World

Deborah Copaken Kogan also wrote Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Between Here and April: A Novel by Deborah Copaken Kogan.

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God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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The Show Must Go On

Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen (Algonquin; $14.95; 448 pages)

Following a tragic accident, where Jacob Jankowski finds that not only has he lost both of his parents, but everything he owns, he is forced to immediately recreate his life.   Jacob walks out of his Ivy League veterinary medical exams and while wandering aimlessly decides to hop a train, a decision that alters his future.   The train, it turns out, belongs to the Benzini Brothers, a second-rate traveling circus act.   At the ripe young age of twenty-one, Jacob becomes the circus vet, an undesirable position working for a relentless boss.

To make matters worse, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, a star performer and the wife of an abusive paranoid schizophrenic, who is in charge of training the animals that Jacob cares for.

Told from the perspective of a ninety-something Jacob, now living in a nursing home, Gruen spares no details as she depicts the story of life with the circus.   Through descriptions of the grimy, disgusting living conditions, the filthy abused animals that eat unspeakable food, and the corrupt coworkers, we wait with bated breath to read what dangerous, life-threatening situation Jacob will be privy to next.

Sara Gruen has done her research and truly brings each circus act alive as you, the audience, watch Jacob’s life in the circus unfold.   The ending is surreal but quite lovely.   I look forward to seeing the film, which will be released this month.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Obla Di Obla Da

This isn’t the movies.   Everything doesn’t turn out all tied up in a neat bow the way you want.

Luck never has anything to do with love, she said…  Luck has everything to do with everything, he told her.   Especially love.

From Carolyn Leavitt’s Pictures of You

Somewhere between heartwarming and heart wrenching lies Carolyn Leavitt’s Pictures of You.

In this book, Charlie loses his wife, April, in a car accident on a foggy night as she is leaving him for another man.   Unbeknownst to April until well into her journey, Sam, their only son, a fragile asthmatic, has snuck into the car and nearly dies in the accident as well.   The driver of the other vehicle, Isabelle, who is fleeing her unfaithful spouse, is free from fault but haunted by the tragedy, nonetheless.   The survivors and innocent bystanders’ attempts to make sense of these events and move on with their lives is the crux of the story.

Nothing completely works out for any of the characters, which is perhaps the point of the novel.   Isabelle, a trusting, warm, caring, and somewhat naive person, seems to land on her feet to a certain degree, though whether or not this will be true for Sam is left open to question.   What likely will be troubling to some readers is that Charlie, who, though imperfect, is mostly admirable and noble, meanders through the later stages of his life with little or no resolution to anything.

Leavitt’s treatment of Charlie’s plight toward the end of the book essentially drives home all of the major themes of restlessness and longing that pervade throughout it.   While the characters frustrate, the reader is drawn to them and prone to root for them.

Leavitt’s concise prose is provocative, dense with meaning, and packs a greater punch than those whose excessive detail loses itself in translation.   However, there are a few things that are problematic.   As a child, Sam is given independence to roam and make decisions more common to someone in their early teens, and events occasionally jump from one to the next without adequate explanation.   All of a sudden another character appears, or two characters meet, or a major time shift occurs, and the reader – without enough to go on – must suspend belief or grapple with the inconclusive “what-for’s” and “why’s” of the situation.   Perhaps most troubling is Leavitt’s over-reliance on constructing the characters’ major thoughts or points she wants the reader to ponder in the form of questions.   The writing itself is mostly powerful, which could lead one to deem this technique unnecessary, yet it is instead common.

Leavitt trickles the story out initially and creates strong scenes, engaging passages, and well-constructed dialogue, moving the reader to a satisfying inconclusive conclusion.   She does an admirable job of exploring the complexity of human relationships, and none of the minor issues noted above interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of this rich tale.

Recommended.

This “second look” preview-review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   (A review copy was provided by the publisher.)   Pictures of You: A Novel will be released by Algonquin Books on January 25, 2011.

“Magically written, heartbreakingly honest…”   Jodi Picoult

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Missing Persons

Continuing a Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew

6.   What is the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about your grandmother?

I discovered that she’d had a love affair of some sort with a French brigadier who was in charge of a German POW camp a couple miles down the road from the little village where she and her fellow relief workers were headquartered after the war.   That really was a surprise.   When I developed those photographs from the packet of negatives, almost the first thing I noticed were several photographs of a handsome man in a French uniform – he looked like Clark Gable – and I thought, “Who is this?”   But it wasn’t until I started doing research in the Wellesley archive that I found out his name, then later I found letters from a nurse in Lucile’s unit that corroborated what I’d already begun to suspect.   My father loved finding out that his mother had had a romance.   That was perhaps the single most important discovery for him – it humanized her more than anything else I found out.

7.   Your story is in essence two stories – the biography of your grandmother, and the story of a daughter trying to provide a mother for her elderly father.   How did you meld these two stories together?

Mostly by trying to remember that one didn’t have much relevance for the reader without the other.   Also by recognizing that these are not only two stories, they are two impossible stories:  My grandmother has been dead for over 75 years and almost everything that once belonged to her was thrown away, so to try to “find” her I had to look past what I didn’t know into what could be or might be true.   My father lost his mother over 75 years ago.   I couldn’t “give” her back to him; but I could give him my efforts to reconstruct her life, and that brought the two of us much closer after many years of estrangement.

Yet always, always I had to keep my eye on what I couldn’t do, couldn’t know.   Which, oddly enough, is what gives this book tension and coherence, or that’s what I hope.

8.   You discover that the function of family history is “to explain what is essentially inexplicable – how we came to be ourselves.”   Do you feel that you, and your father, now have a better sense of who you are and how you became that way?

History is made up of people and what they do and what they fail to do, just as people are made up of all the history that has gone before them.   What I helped my father reclaim, I believe, is the feeling of being connected to something larger than himself.   Lucile was an intellectual, an early feminist, a business executive, a relief worker, a wife and mother.   She was a person of history, who was a product of her times, and also more than that, as we are all more than just “products” of our time.   Through his mother, my father was connected to tremendous world events, to commercial innovation, political change, seismic social shifts, war.   And so, I discovered, was I.

Of course, we are also very much products of a family history, shaped by certain traits and tendencies, either genetically inherited or passed along, as well as influenced by family losses and achievements.   Putting some of my own tendencies within some sort of ancestral context was liberating for me at least.   Or maybe it simply made me feel less alone with them.

9.   You are the author of three acclaimed novels.   How was the writing process for this nonfiction book different?

Well, frankly, I first tried to write a novel about Lucile, especially after I started learning about her experiences in France after the war.   I thought I could make her come alive after I started learning for my father even more palpably through fiction.   And she seemed like such a promising heroine for a novel!   The grocer’s daughter in ruined France.   But the fact of her kept getting in the way of the fiction I was trying to create – and the fact kept being more interesting.

So to answer your question, the process was not entirely different from what usually happens for me, which is that I have an idea for a novel and then I work away at that idea for years, and the result is nothing like what I first imagined.   In this case, I had an idea for a novel and then abandoned the idea of a novel and wrote a biography instead.

10.  What do you want readers to take away from Missing Lucile?

I’ve come to think that every family has a “missing person,” someone who died young, or disappeared, or was exiled from the family for some real or perceived crime.   Missing relatives are ghosts – real ghosts – and they haunt us by making us wonder how life might have been had they not vanished.   Maybe we would be kinder, or braver, or have made better decisions.   Maybe we wouldn’t have felt so at odds with the world.   Who knows?   I suppose I’d like readers to finish the book and realize that no one is really missing if you start looking for her.

Missing Lucile has been released by Algonquin ($23.95; 296 pages).   “Takes us deep into the lore of history as well as family.”   Sven Birkerts

 

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Talk Talk

A Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (Algonquin)

1.   What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile?

My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it.   His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact.   As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing.   In my case, the feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.

2.   You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life.   What were they?

A few years ago I discoverd an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandmother’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve.   A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith.   Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing.   But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives.   When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.   That packet was what really got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.

3.   Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time.   How much research did you do into that time period to write this book?

A lot – much of it haphazard.   To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research.   The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother.   But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I.   And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B. H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century.   And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the first World War.

I paged through photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newpapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.

4.   In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades.   What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?

I didn’t give him his life back – he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had.   What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a  person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own loses and chances, her own fierce desires.

5.   How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like?   How did you weave those two pieces together?

I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on.   For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them – though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.  

Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family.   So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book.   I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.

To be continued…

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A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Love and Marriage

A Reliable Wife: A Novel by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books)

I just finished a marathon reading of A Reliable Wife.   It was one of those books that I literally couldn’t put down.

A Reliable Wife is a beautifully written novel set in the harsh winter of Northern Wisconsin in 1907 (location: Fictional town of Truitt somewhere on the shores of Lake Superior).   Ralph Tuitt has lived a lonely past twenty years after a very tragic and mysterious married life.   He advertises for a mail-ordered “reliable wife.”   Catherine Land answers his advertisement and upon arrival is not the Plain Jane in the picture that she sent to Ralph.   She is beautiful, and has many secrets of her own to hide.   There is a roller coaster of events that I will leave off so as to not spoil the book.

The lyrical prose of this book was wonderful, starting with the first line, “It was a bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet.”   The setting of the novel in the cold, bitter winter in a land of depressed people was stark and perfect for the novel.   Ralph and Catherine are both troubled souls seeking redemption.   As the book progresses, it is interesting to see how two people who start off seeming so unalike are actually quite similar.   I enjoyed their characters and learning more about them.

The story was unpredictable and twisted and turned to an ending I certainly did not predict.   It kept me riveted.   I really wanted to read this book after seeing it compared to my favorite authors, Daphne Du Maurier and the Bronte sisters.   While it did have a gothic sinister darkness to the plot that was also driven with despair, it is really its own novel.   I did love it, but I wouldn’t rank it above Jane Eyre or Rebecca.    

With the setting of the novel in 1907, one would expect it to be staid and sexless, it is anything but.   At first I was put off by Ralph’s constant thoughts about sex as it just wasn’t something I was interested in reading.   But sex and the way different characters handle it or have issues with it is definitely a main part of this book and I grew accepting of that.  

One small complaint I had is that sometimes the setting did not seem accurate.   I lived for six years in Houghton, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, which is isolated and routinely receives 300 plus inches of snow in a year.   I now currently live in Northeast Wisconsin.   It seemed strange to me that the world would be so winter locked in the fall.   I could see that happening around Thanksgiving and especially in January or February, but not before.   I also wondered about the trips to Chicago without mention of Milwaukee or Minneapolis, both of which would be closer to Wisconsin or the Lake Superior shore.   Like I said, though, these were small items that seemed only out-of-place to me as I’ve lived in the area.   It just showed to me that the author had not, but he still wove a fantastic story.

Overall, it was a great riveting tale that will keep you guessing until the end.

This review was written by Laura Gerold of Laura’s Reviews.   You can read more of her fine reviews by going to:  http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .   A Reliable Wife was checked out of the Kewaunee Public Library.

 

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