Update from book world

indiefab-silver-imprintSparkling in silver

I’m thrilled to tell you that Her Own Vietnam has won the Silver in Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards in its category (war and military fiction). The award, which was selected by a panel of librarians and booksellers, was announced on June 26. This is the first literary award I’ve ever won, and the first (of many, no doubt) for my publisher, Shade Mountain Press.

Let’s get together

If you live in the Washington, DC area, please come to my reading and book talk about Her Own Vietnam on Tuesday, July 7th at 6:30 pm. The event will be at Busboys and Poets on 14th and V, hosted by Politics and Prose, which has a bookstore within the restaurant. The reading is free and you’ll meet cool people there.

Busboys and Poets

We’ve got winners!

As you may know, I’ve been giving away free books by women writers through this blog and through my newsletter, Being Bookish. Here are this month’s winners.

Congratulations to G.R. of Minneapolis, MN, who won a free copy of The Normal State of Mind by Susmita Bhattacharya.

And congratulations to H.F. of Louisville, KY, who won a free copy of Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr.

Want some free books? Check this blog, or you can sign up for the newsletter here if you’d like the free book opportunities to come to your inbox. July’s giveaway book is the fabulous novel The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman.

Angel of Losses


30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #23 Shelley Ettinger


Shelley Ettinger

Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger is a powerful family saga that spans continents and generations. You’ve probably read many novels that could be described that way. I’ll bet you’ve never read anything like Vera’s Will.

The book begins in Czarist Russia in 1903, where the Resnikoff family – Jewish and leftist – Is brutally attacked during a pogrom. We see the rampage mostly through the eyes of five-year-old Vitka, who understands less than we do about what the hate-crazed men – some of them neighbors and co-workers – are doing to her mother and father.

An outsider in so many ways

Ten years later, Vitka Resnikoff has become Vera Resnick, a modern American girl living in New Jersey, embarrassed by her parents’ immigrant ways. Vera is already an outsider: no longer Russian, not quite American. As if that’s not enough, she falls in love with another girl – the only two women in the world, they feel sure, to be so blessed and so cursed.

Years later, after her lover dies of influenza, Vera in her grief marries a punctilious man who moves her from working class Passaic, where everyone in her family is a leftist activist, to bourgeois Manhattan, where he speaks of nothing but his business. After years of loneliness, Vera falls for another woman. Vera’s husband, backed up by all the scientific experts of the day, declares that Vera is too sick to be allowed to raise their two sons.

Intertwined but alone

He takes the children away but Vera eventually finds them and follows them to suburban Detroit, where her sons grow into resentful adults. Vera nurses one of them through his WWII war injuries. He marries and has a daughter named, unwittingly, after Vera’s first, lost love. That daughter also grows up to be a lesbian, and the second storyline in the novel is hers.

Ettinger does a wonderful job of creating two crisp, lively narrators, each voice sharply distinct and suffused with character.The intertwined story of these two women, grandmother and granddaughter, who share so much but know so little about one another’s lives, create a moving and satisfying whole.

“Gals like you aren’t rare.”

They are engaged in their own struggles but also in the restless world around them. Through their eyes and their activism we see wars, McCarthyism, labor action, the civil rights movement, the rise of the women’s and lesbian/gay rights movements – a history of social change in America. When the granddaughter comes out to her brother in the 1970s, he musters the same tired scientific arguments that Vera’s husband once used. And yet, as Vera’s sister-in-law tells her in the 1940s, “Gals like you aren’t that rare. Did you think you were the only one who parts her hair on the other side?”

A surprising pleasure

Lately I’ve been reading some of the bright, brittle novels written by talented authors in their twenties and thirties. Most of these books I’ve enjoyed, and a few I’ve admired. But what a pleasure it is to read a book written by a novelist who brings a sense of history and her own lived wisdom to the task. Here’s an example:

This is more than grief, Vera knows. This is rage… This kind of fury. This kind of pain. When wrongs are done to you and yours. There is a righteous wrath that picks you up and sweeps you away. Sweeps you clean. And the anger is good, and the anger is true – but it takes you to a far country where no one can live all the time.

The world of Vera’s Will is a far but familiar country. I was sorry to leave it.

Get a FREE copy of Vera’s Will 

I’m giving away a free copy of Vera’s Will through my newsletter in April. For a chance to win it, sign up for my newsletter.

Vera's Will COVER jpeg

Art and outrage

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place 104 years ago this week. It inspired grief, outrage, the birth of a union, a host of labor laws and many books, including a brilliant novel called Triangle, by Katharine Weber.

I wrote about the novel a year ago, and thought I’d share the blog post with you again during this anniversary week.

From the archives

Triangle weaves together the stories of Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911; her scientist granddaughter; and a feminist researcher who asks Esther to share her memories and then listens a bit too carefully. The novel is riveting and challenging, with complex characters.

Who owns history?

Weber deftly builds both the mystery at the heart of the novel and the tense drama of the Triangle inferno. Small details that at first seem to provide only texture to the story later loom with horrifying impact.

The ending of the novel sent me racing back to the beginning with a new understanding – or at least new questions – about the plot. Triangle does not yield its insights easily, which makes it the best kind of book group selection, ripe for animated discussion.

Who owns history? The person whose story you believe.

 A tragedy and a legacy

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a predictable and preventable tragedy that killed 146 workers – mostly young immigrant women – at a clothing factory in New York.

Triangle fire w bodies

Dozens of the workers leaped to their deaths from the top floors of the blazing building, an image that anyone who lived through 9/11 can conjure all too easily. Even more people burned to death, many of them trapped behind locked doors in flaming workrooms. Others crawled onto rickety fire escapes that collapsed and sent them plunging to the sidewalk.

More than 350,000 people marched in the streets of New York to mourn the garment workers. Outraged by their needless and excruciating deaths, factory workers organized and won many of the workplace safety laws we take for granted today.

A story less known

A year before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, some 20,000 women who worked in garment factories had gone on strike to demand better wages, a shorter workweek (52 hours), and specific safety measures. These working class women, many of them Yiddish-speaking immigrants, drew the support of New York’s suffragists, some of whom were women from the city’s wealthiest families.

Photo: hbo.com

Photo: hbo.com

The suffragists raised funds for the workers, bailed them out of jail, and organized mass rallies to generate public solidarity. Across the city, factories conceded to the workers’ demands, acknowledged the unions, and improved workplace safety.

Photo:: UNCPressblog

Photo:: UNCPressblog

But not the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The two owners – Max Blanck and Isaac Harris – refused to unionize and refused to address safety concerns, including workers’ calls to leave factory doors unlocked and provide functional fire escapes.

A year later, these safety issues cost 146 people their lives. Yet they cost the factory owners nothing – in fact, the two men profited from the tragedy. While they settled lawsuits by paying family members $75 for each lost life, the owners received insurance settlements of $400 for each worker killed. The two men went on to run other factories, accumulating and ignoring citations for the very safety violations that had led to the carnage at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.


The lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – both learned and unlearned – continue to haunt us today. A powerful novel like Triangle takes you into that world, and part of you is likely to remain there for a long, long time.

Triangle book cover

My year in books – Part 3 of 3

Each year, I share a list with brief descriptions of the books I read that year. In 2014, the book I read and re-read the most was my novel Her Own Vietnam, as I prepared it for publication. But that still left time to read 45 other books – some of which might be just right for you.

Books are listed in alphabetical order by title. An asterisk (*) indicates a book I particularly enjoyed. I’ll post the list in three parts:

I hope you’ll find some good choices for your own reading in 2015. Feel free to share this list with other book-loving friends.


AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller

Enjoyable first-person account of a man who escapes the corporate cube farm and, with the support of his wife and children, strikes out to hike the full 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Although I would never undertake one, I am drawn to books about other people’s epic hikes. This one had all the standard elements: descriptions of the hike and its challenges; appreciation of nature and a life lived out of doors; colorful depictions of other hikers with their strange trail names (the author’s trail name is AWOL); a reflection years later on what the hike meant to him and his family – all well told, with solid, crisp writing.

*Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

A collection of smart, brave, incisive and pain-tinged essays about the flammable places where race, gender and popular culture meet. Like many essay collections, this powerful book is best digested in bite-sized pieces. It will stay with you.

*Home Fires by Don Katz

At first glance I thought: 640 pages that chronicle four decades in the life of a Jewish family in America? No thanks; I have a Jewish family of my own. But the book is riveting, and illuminated much about the decades of social and political upheaval everyone my age has lived through. An interesting note about the author (whom I know slightly): he is the founder of Audible.com. He had a distinguished career as a writer before he got the idea that people would buy audiobooks over the Internet.

*In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

Riveting account of an American ship that in 1879 sailed beyond the known world in search of the North Pole, and found disaster and revelation in an Arctic land few humans had ever seen. The author does a fantastic job of creating a propulsive narrative about conquest and survival by weaving in details from the crew’s journals, letters from their family members, newspaper stories, and academic theories about what lay beyond the map. He also illustrates with devastating clarity how swiftly the incursion of Americans and Europeans into indigenous Arctic communities destroyed their cultures and the environments they relied upon.

*Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

What does it mean to be poor and black, to be a man or a woman, in America? In this searing and thoughtful memoir, the author of the award-winning novel Salvage the Bones revisits her growing up amidst extended family in rural Mississippi. “You need to know how we’re living and dying here,” she wrote. In her young adulthood, five young men she loved died violently, including her younger brother. The book is about their deaths, but even more about their lives and the lives of the women who bore them, raised them, loved them and buried them – a whole community trying to eke out a life beneath the crushing weight of racism and poverty.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

A British literature professor takes long walks – weeks and weeks long – across the ancient paths that traverse England, with a few side trips to Spain and the Himalayas. In precise and poetic language, Macfarlane’s thoughts wander with his feet, weaving in history, literature and personal stories that range from folklore to his own grandfather. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, particularly his descriptions of England’s chalk downs. But I could not help thinking of the wife he left behind to take care of their small children and all the responsibilities of family life while he took off on his rambling adventures.

*The Passage of Power by Robert Caro

Fascinating chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s life during the tumultuous years 1958 through 1964, during which Johnson wielded enormous power in the Senate, reached for the Presidency with a baffling strategy guaranteed to fail, became Vice President, and gained the Presidency in a way he never expected. Oh, and he launched the War on Poverty and the most transformative civil rights policies since emancipation.

Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Carmen Oliveira

A strange hybrid of a book – part novel, part biography, part undigested chunks of research about the almost 20-year romantic partnership between a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet and the brilliant, intense Brazilian aristocrat. I knew nothing about either woman or their relationship before reading the book, and now feel well versed in their chaotic history.

*The Soil will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson

I come from generations of apartment dwellers, and I don’t care about the soil. (Although I do like to eat – and breathe). But Kristin Ohlson’s sparkling writing and clear, persuasive case compelled me to care – and made me understand both the promise and the stakes of what she called “our great green hope.” Full disclosure: Kristin is a friend of mine. But I read and loved her first book, Stalking the Divine, long before I met her.

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? By Jeanette Winterson

Winterson’s well-written, powerful memoir of growing up in a cruel, twisted family that loved Jesus but hated everything about Jeanette that was special.


 Any suggestions?

Any ideas for great books to read next year? Suggestions welcome!

TBR 7-14

My year in books – Part 2 of 3

Each year, I share a list with brief descriptions of the books I read that year. In 2014, the book I read and re-read the most was my novel Her Own Vietnam, as I prepared it for publication. But that still left time to read 45 other books – some of which might be just right for you.

Books are listed in alphabetical order by title. An asterisk (*) indicates a book I particularly enjoyed. I’ll post the list in three parts:

I hope you’ll find some good choices for your own reading in 2015. Feel free to share this list with other book-loving friends.


The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardarm

This is the second book in the “Old Filth” trilogy. (Filth is an acronym for “Failed In London; Try Hong Kong.”) The novel focuses on Elizabeth Feathers, an adventurous young Englishwoman who grew up in the East and spent much of WWII in a Japanese internment camp. She meets and marries Eddie Feathers, a rising attorney who is too conventional for bold Betty. They meet in Hong Kong and stay married for decades, finally retiring in old age to a Britain that feels alien to them. Betty Feathers is a vivid character, drawn with verve and wit by the author. A very enjoyable read.

*Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Every decade or so I reread this stunning novel, and each time I find something new to appreciate. The novel takes place in London, during a single June day in 1923. World War I is over, but its impact can be felt everywhere. Clarissa Dalloway, an upper class woman in her 50s, is preparing to throw a party. Peter Walsh, who once loved her and whom she rejected for the more predictable Richard Dalloway, has just returned to London after five years in India. A veteran is going mad in a way that makes perfect sense after the horrors of the war, and his immigrant wife is growing desperate. All of these people and more connect and intertwine and pull apart in unexpected ways as Clarissa Dalloway’s past and present collide.

Next Life Might be Kinder by Howard Norman

A sad and strange novel about a man whose wife has been murdered yet continues to hold long conversations with him almost nightly on a remote beach in Nova Scotia. Like the ocean, the novel is animated by undercurrents – the lure of the past, literary and cinematic allusions, therapy, “situational ethics” – that at different points both muddy and clarify this story of grief and determination.

*The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

In the years after the first World War, a young woman (Frances) and her mother are forced to rent rooms in their large house in suburban London to lodgers. They need the money and have room to spare: both of Frances’ brothers were killed in the war, and her father soon died, leaving them penniless. The married couple who move in are politely known as paying guests. Sharing a home is fraught enough, but then Frances and the wife fall in love. A domestic drama evolves into a murder and a trial at which not only a defendant but ideas of class, gender, loyalty and duty are under interrogation. The novel is gripping and suspenseful, and does a brilliant job of conveying in crisp human detail what it was like to live at that time, under those constraints. I particularly enjoyed the details about early 20th century housekeeping.

Redeployment by Phil Klay

These fine stories peel back the skin to show the pumping blood behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as experienced by combat soldiers, administrative staff, ministers, chaplains and more.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert could write like this? The sweeping novel follows the Whittaker family – particularly Alma, the brilliant and singular botanist – through centuries and continents as she seeks the coded messages God sent to humankind through the secrets of evolution. An enjoyable romp of a book, shot through with ideas and curiosity.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A middle-aged couple, devastated by their inability to have children, decides to move to Alaska. One night they build a snowman in the shape of a young girl, and the next day they see the girl running through the forest. I am weirdly drawn to stories that take place in cold locales, so I particularly enjoyed the details of what it’s like to work a farm in Alaska. The novel offers compelling characterizations of the couple and their neighbors.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The fact that sociopaths have become such stock figures in popular culture may be due in part to Patricia Highsmith. This brilliant novel is about a young man who has all the yearning, striving and desire of other men – everything but a conscience. He kills the man whose love he was trying to win, and begins to live the victim’s life. Written in flat, simple, ice-cold language, the novel brings you deeply inside the terrifying Mr. Ripley and compels you to understand his drives and motivations.

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

A moody, intimate novel about the bonds between two sisters and the childhood secret they’ve kept for decades – even from themselves.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

A brief, beautiful novel about Mary, the mother of Jesus, who looks back on her life in the months following her son’s death, as her own death approaches. She never believed he was divine; considered his followers “misfits” and “men who couldn’t look a woman in the eye;” and despite the apostles’ conviction that her son’s horrific death will change the world, Mary cannot believe the sacrifice could possibly be worth it. I found this simple, powerful book very moving.

*To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

This is one of my favorite novels, which I reread every so often just to appreciate the beauty and precision of the language. Woolf’s portrayal of the two main characters, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey – whose first names we never learn – and of the tidal sweep of their relationship amidst their eight children remains powerful. The novel also contains the most shocking parenthetical phrase of any book I’ve ever read. This time around, I listened to the novel as an audiobook. Juliet Stevenson is the perfect narrator for Virginia Woolf.

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol

Powerful short stories that explore how political events can scald human lives with the briefest touch, and what it’s like to search for or flee from a home on this turning planet.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce

A pleasant novel about a bland, repressed, middle-aged Englishman who strolls to the mailbox to drop a letter to a dying friend, but surprises himself and everyone else by instead walking across England to the friend’s bedside.

The Visionist by Rachel Urquahart

I’ve attended two high schools called Shaker High, one in Ohio and one in upstate New York, so I’ve always been curious about the Shakers. This novel pulls you inside their world during an era in the 19th century when girls were seized by visions of the divine. Another teenage girl with visions come to the Shaker village, left there by her mother as the family flees a traumatic event in their town. The newcomer is paired with a girl who grew up in the Shaker Village, and the two become close. But are the new girl’s visions glimpses of the divine or something else?

*We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Award-winning novel about what it means to be human, and to love those who are not. When the narrator was 5 years old, her twin sister was torn away from the family for reasons that may or may not have been her fault. The fact that her sister was a chimpanzee is both the point and beside the point of this excellent book.

*We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

Four tragic story lines narrated by four diverse characters converge into one moment of hope in a Las Vegas that tourists will never see. I particularly appreciated the sections written in the point of view of Bashkim, an 8-year-old boy. I often find child narrators annoying, either too cutesy or preternaturally wise and mature. Bashkim is unusually mature and responsible, but in the way that is typical of the children of immigrants, who must serve as their parents’ translators and protectors in their new world. The book brings the four main characters to life, with all their shortcomings and desperation, and the deep daily heroism of trying to do their best. Las Vegas, perhaps our country’s strangest city, also takes a star turn in this wonderful novel that is all about what is not visible on the surface.

Where’d you Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

A renowned architect experiences a trauma and moves from Los Angeles to Seattle, where she lives with her Microsoft-guru husband and her adored daughter in a deteriorating mansion. The architect, Bernadette, has grown agoraphobic and has hired an online assistant to take care of life’s chores. Things get tricky when the family is about to embark on a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette’s skewering of Seattle and its culture was perhaps the most entertaining part of the book. This is a quirky, satirical novel that hides its dark heart in a veneer of frothiness.

Coming Up 

Tomorrow: nonfiction.

In 2015: who knows? What books do you recommend?

Photo by David McSpadden

Photo by David McSpadden