I want to share with you two magnificent books I read recently. One I knew would be excellent, because I had read the author’s previous novel. The other was my first experience with the author, and her book’s power took me by surprise. Let’s start with the surprise. Continue reading
“I’m the kind of person who asks why things are the way they are,” says Susan Storer Clark. A writer herself (author of the novel The Monk Woman’s Daughter), Susan is also the kind of reader that writers love: thoughtful and insightful.
I’m grateful she interviewed me about Her Own Vietnam, and wove in her own sharp observations about war and its legacy. You can read it here.
For a long time I have followed Chalk the Sun, the wonderful blog by the writer Julie Christine Johnson. So when I learned she had a debut novel coming out, I knew I had to read it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. From its pre-publication description, In Another Life seemed to be an amalgam of genres: mystery, romance and historical fiction. I knew from following Johnson online that she is a beautiful, soulful writer, and I was eager to see how her talent and sensibility translated into book-length fiction. I wasn’t disappointed.
Death and history
Still devastated by the sudden death of her husband in a mysterious accident 18 months ago, Lia Carrer leaves the U.S. and returns to the Languedoc region of southwestern France. As much as anywhere in her untethered life, this rural area with its medieval ruins is home to Lia. Her family has roots in the region, and she has close friends there.
What’s more, she is on her way to completing a PhD in history focused on the ancient religious group called the Cathars, who flourished in the region until they were massacred into extinction by the Catholic Church in the early 13th century. Lia’s scholarly research examines the Cathars’ intriguing belief in reincarnation, and the unknown truth behind the murder of a cleric in the year 1208 that proved to be a pivot point in the downfall of the Cathars and ascendance of the Catholic Church during its most bloodthirsty era.
New love and ancient questions
Lia is thrilled when an old friend, a priest who comforted her after her husband’s death, tells her that a priceless archive of original materials about the Cathars has, somewhat mysteriously, become available. Still, her life in the village isn’t all solitude and study.
She meets a photographer and embarks on a project with him, a coffee table book about the region. Their relationship is mostly business, but with confusing glints of desire. Or is it menace? Then at a party she meets a wine maker, a man with whom she had recently shared a terrifying experience in what must have been a dream or hallucination. She finds herself falling in love with him, the first time such feelings have stirred since her husband’s death.
But Lia’s notions of what is real and what could not possibly be true begin to crumble as she realizes that these three men – the priest, the photographer and the wine maker – are in her life for a reason. And that reason shatters everything she thinks she knows about history, time, and death itself, including the death of her husband.
The first thing that must be said about In Another Life is that the writing is gorgeous. The descriptions are so lush and lovely that you can see, feel and inhale the aromas of the place, from the “dark and brooding” wines of today to the charred church timbers of the 13th century. And all this beauty is built on an edifice of rigorous erudition.
I knew little (OK, nothing) about the Cathars or the Languedoc region. I now have a much deeper sense of the area’s importance, and the dark and momentous events that took place there and shaped present-day Europe. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Johnson said that as part of her research into the region she “drank its wine and whispered its language,” a description I love.
More to come
If you read In Another Life and want more, there’s good news. Julie Christine Johnson has two more novels coming out in the next couple of years. No doubt many people will be eagerly awaiting her next book: her publisher had to reprint In Another Life only three days after it was published.
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.
White Light is a gorgeous novel about difficult subjects: loss, regret, and the craving of artists to create art. Veronica Gonzalez is a young artist in Miami, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She is barely scraping by when she is offered a gallery showing that could finally fling open the doors to the art world for her. Just as she begins to prepare for this show, her father dies suddenly, throwing her into grief and the chaos of their tumultuous and unresolved relationship.
The color of faraway places
The book is beautifully designed, from the front cover – a section of a painting by the author – to the chapter headings, many of which offer a scribble of color followed by a brief, often poetic, definition. Orange, for example, is “color of Florida and faraway places.” Silver is “a spiritual color. Color of the moon.” Indigo is “the color you see glinting off a non-recorded DVD.”
The book is filled with lyrical language, such as this description of a woman talking, “a slight Caribbean accent tracing her words like smoke.” The book gives the reader a dynamic view of the creative process from the inside, a glimpse of the full spectrum of love and loss, and a reason to look forward eagerly to future work from this multi-talented writer and artist.
Best books of 2015
White Light is the second novel produced by the feminist publisher Shade Mountain Press. The first was my own novel, Her Own Vietnam. While I may not be the most objective reviewer of this novel, I am far from alone in my admiration of it. Among many other accolades, White Light was named by NPR as one of the best books of 2015, under the category “Seriously Great Writing.”
Get a free copy
I’m please to have copy of White Light to give away. To participate in the giveaway, contact me and let me know you want a copy. I’ll randomly select a name. If it’s yours, I’ll mail you a free book. (Sorry, U.S. addresses only.)