Thoughts on reading, writing and social justice from the author Lynn Kanter. Join the conversation!
Darrell Laurant is a reader and a writer. (His books are The Kudzu Kid and Inspiration Street.) And he’s a book blogger who understands exactly what writers need: a moment of attention from potential readers overwhelmed by the rich abundance of books available to them. The title of his blog says it perfectly: Snowflakes in a Blizzard.
I’m delighted that Darrell has chosen to feature my novel Her Own Vietnam on his blog, among other wonderful books. If you’re a reader who spends more time online than in bookstores, Snowflakes in a Blizzard helps recreate that feeling of browsing among the stacks and stumbling upon a gem. As an author and a reader, I’m grateful to Darrell Laurant.
If you’re curious about Her Own Vietnam but haven’t checked it out yet (despite the many, many times I’ve mentioned it on this blog!), you can read the first chapter for free on the publisher’s website. Scroll about halfway down the page; you’ll see “Click here to read a sample chapter.”
Meanwhile in this hottest of summers, imagine a single snowflake, swirling fiercely in a blizzard yet finding its solitary way from sky to earth.
I’m enough of a book nerd that I enjoy re-reading beloved books and finding something new to appreciate and admire each time. I’m also excited when I learn that a favorite writer is coming out with a new book.
Yet nothing matches the thrill of discovering talented new novelists. That’s what I’ve been doing the past few weeks, and I’m delighted to share with you this trio of compelling new voices.
The Longest Night by Andria Williams
Rarely do I lose sleep worrying about the fate of fictional characters. But Andria Williams’ debut novel, The Longest Night, kept me up late and troubled my dreams.
It’s 1959, the height of the cold war. Nat, a spirited young woman from California who has never seen snow, finds herself facing winter in the small Idaho town where her Army husband has been stationed. She and Paul married impulsively after a brief courtship, and now have two young children.
Secrets and silence
Nat is proud of Paul’s job working on the Army’s nuclear reactor and eager to be his helpmate. His reserve had always made her cherish their intimacy, feeling “whatever strange majesty was in him was known to her alone.” But as his quietness grows into secrecy, so does her feeling of being trapped and isolated in a town where she knows no one yet is judged by everyone. Paul realizes his marriage is in trouble, but he has more urgent worries: something is dreadfully wrong with the nuclear reactor – and his superiors are doing everything they can to cover it up.
Based on the true history of a fatal nuclear accident, The Longest Night creates a tingling sense of foreboding on page one that only continues to build. With crisp descriptions and sharp, compelling dialogue, Williams brings to life a set of vivid characters, and the mood of a mid-century America on the cusp of the nuclear age.
Casualties by Elizabeth Marro
A troubled son who joins the Marines and returns from Iraq physically whole but psychologically ravaged. A loving mother who works for a military defense contractor and climbs to the top of the executive ladder at the cost of too much compromise. A moment in which everything goes terribly, irretrievably wrong.
I suppose Elizabeth Marro could have come up with a premise more certain to reel me in, but she would have had to name a character after me.
Ruth Nolan has worked hard to achieve a way of life no one in her family could even imagine – the house on the beach, the fancy car. Security. She single-handedly raised her son Robbie, a loving boy who grew into a surly youth and never quite got a grip on adult life.
Joining the Marines did indeed make a man of Robbie, but a man who couldn’t live with what he had seen and done, a man who shot himself to death as tidily as possible and left a note for his mother that said, “It wasn’t your fault.”
A gripping journey
It’s impossible for Ruth to believe that. On the last day of Robbie’s life she had noticed his eyes “shining with need,” but had still canceled their lunch together to deal with a serious work emergency. Shattered, she packs Robbie’s ashes into the fancy car and runs away from her life.
It’s here that the novel takes a surprising and ultimately rewarding turn, sending the reader on a gripping journey of grief, guilt and intimacy as Ruth careens across the country, chasing the faint glow of redemption. Casualties explores the personal and permanent costs of war, including the moral injuries suffered by those who wage war, those who love them, and – all too rarely – those who profit from it.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai
Poor Marty Wu. She finds herself in such distressing situations, and all I can do is laugh.
Marty lives in New York and has a job she hates, selling ads for a magazine she’ll never read, working for a boss who used to be her boyfriend and sometimes behaves like he still is. Despite all the self-help books Marty reads, bad things happen to her, and many are her own fault. She’s clumsy, earnest, immature and hilarious.
We get to know a lot about Marty’s inner life, because the novel is written as a series of journal entries she jots down on her way to a new, improved self. Marty has a dream to own a small costume shop that lets people shed their skins and become someone else for just a night. And she has a living nightmare in her formidable mother, who’s not only impossible to please but downright abusive.
A tightrope act
Marty’s daily life is a tightrope act so familiar to the children of immigrants, pulled between the culture of her family and the American reality she lives. When she loses her job and alienates her best friend in an escalating series of all-too-preventable stumbles, she flees to Taiwan with her mother. There Marty soaks in the support of her extended family and uncovers family secrets that force her to take a fresh look at her mother and herself.
With its light touch, Not a Self-Help Book treats serious issues with humor and humanity. It introduces us to a heroine for a new era, a wacky, wistful, hyped-up version of our own inner anxieties.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu will be published in May 2016. If you want to buy this book – and you should – pre-order it directly from the publisher, and you’ll get a 30% discount.
The novel is published by Shade Mountain Press, my own publisher. This makes Yi Shun Lai a sister of mine, although we’ve never met. Now that you know about this caveat, you should also know this: I am not a big fan of comic novels, but I recommend this one whole-heartedly.
My novel came out a little more than a year ago, and it’s still having adventures. Here are a few of them.
Authors’ Roundtable at Temple Sinai
Every year, the Women of Reform Judaism of Temple Sinai in Washington, DC hold an authors’ roundtable, which brings together some 200 book lovers for a panel discussion and then an opportunity to talk with individual authors over lunch. This year I was lucky enough to be part of the event, which included:
The discussion was expertly moderated by Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of DC’s preeminent independent bookstore, Politics and Prose. Muscatine had a long career as a journalist, and was a speechwriter and top advisor to Hillary Clinton from her years as First Lady through the 2008 election through her time as Secretary of State. Those of us on the book panel felt we could have had an entire discussion solely about Muscatine’s experiences.
There’s nothing better than talking about books and writing with people who love both. If you’re in the DC area, I suggest you check out next year’s roundtable at Temple Sinai. I’ll be there – in the audience.
I’ve been having a wonderful time meeting with book groups as they discuss Her Own Vietnam. It’s fascinating to hear readers’ responses, perspectives and insights about the novel.
Being with these book groups has reinforced something I’ve always known but can still find difficult to grasp: your novel is not a finished product. It is simply the raw material that each reader will use to create her own experience. And her experience can be something you intended, or something you never imagined, or even something you wish you’d thought of. In that way, each reader turns your book into her own.
Letters from readers
Every now and then a reader will take the time to send me a personal note about their experience with Her Own Vietnam. This one is from a man who was in one of the book groups I visited. He is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam. Everyone else in his class also deployed to Vietnam, many of them for multiple tours. Not all of them came home.
Here is his letter.
“I wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your book and even more enjoyed the opportunity to meet you in person and be a part of the [book group] discussion. I have read the book twice and have very much appreciated it as a thoughtful and compelling description of a piece of the world that my wife and I and others affected in one way or another by the war in Vietnam experienced in the late 60s and early 70s. Those experiences were very different depending on the specific time and role, but they left a mark on those who passed through them. We were young then but grew up quickly.
“I was never in an evac hospital and my friends who were have only fragmentary recollections of their time there, but those women and men who lived that experience for a year surely had experiences that haunted them ever after that. It’s a story that has not gotten much public discussion and your book captured well what they must have felt and experienced.
“So thanks very much. There is always some strain in revisiting those times but they are always there and I find that in one way or another I revisit them several times a week – not now as traumatic memories but as experiences that color the way I look at the world.”
Deborah Kalb is an accomplished journalist and the co-author of the influential nonfiction book Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama. Her co-author was none other than her father, Bernard Kalb, who covered the Vietnam War.
So I was thrilled when Deborah interviewed me for her book blog.
She reached out to me because I’m participating in the annual Temple Sinai Authors’ Roundtable on February 27th, along with three wonderful writers:
- Michelle Brafman, Washing the Dead
- Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures
- Sarah Wildman, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind
The panel discussion will be moderated by Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of DC’s venerable independent bookstore Politics and Prose.
So yes, it’s going to be book-lovers’ heaven here in Washington, DC next Saturday. If you’re in the area, please come join us.