Updates from Book World

A drought, an unwelcome surprise, and other bookish updates.

The book drought is over

Photo: Girla Obscura

I’ve been having trouble concentrating on reading since, oh, November 9th.  Anyone else have that problem? Happily, I’ve recently started reading – and listening to – books again.

The most stunning read was a nonfiction book called Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.  Continue reading

In Another Life – A novel by Julie Christine Johnson

In another life cover

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.

Gorgeous writing

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.

Julie Christine Johnson. Photo by Al Bergstein.

Julie Christine Johnson. Photo by Al Bergstein.

Update from Book World

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


Sinai book logo
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.

Book groups!

Books that Bind book group

Books that Bind book group

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

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

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.”

Haunting Legacy

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.

Sinai book logo

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #28 Natalie S. Hartnett

Natalie S. Harnett

The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett presents several views of hell. The hell of craving to be loved in ways your relatives cannot manage. The hell of struggling to get by economically as hopes and options dwindle to nothing. Most of all, the hell of living in a plundered landscape where mining companies have gouged the ground hollow and made the earth’s thin crust rage with sink holes, poison gases and underground fires that cannot be extinguished.

The novel’s narrator, Brigid Howley, is eleven years old, going on forty. In her matter-of-fact way, she tells us about her life and that of her family, a white Irish-American clan in the Pennsylvania coal country that she believes has been cursed for generations either by a priest’s malediction or by their own bad choices and worse luck.

Sinkholes and secrets

Brigid’s beloved father, a miner like all the men in his family, was injured years ago in a mysterious mining disaster that took the life of his brother. Brigid also has a beautiful, prickly mother and a baby brother. In 1961, the family is living with a great-aunt until a sinkhole sucks her under and turns her house uninhabitable.

The Howleys have to move in with Daddy’s mother and father in the even more bleak and ecologically devastated town of Barrendale. There Brigid makes a best friend and discovers the body of a murdered man, a crime that brings to light all the secrets, blame, guilt and longing that have roiled under the surface of her family for years.

Upending my expectations

The Hollow Ground upended all of my expectations. Before I opened the novel I had just finished a powerful book that still had me slightly under its spell, so I expected to read a good bit of The Hollow Ground before it fully won my interest. Nope. By the time I had read the prologue – less than a page long – I was utterly absorbed.

The prologue begins, “We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say,” and ends with this: “I’m just saying that sometimes what we seek is something we hope, with all our blood and bone, we’ll never find.” Who can resist such an opening?

I generally don’t like child narrators, and expected Brigid to be equally problematic, either too cute or preternaturally wise. She is neither. Brigid Howley is a unique character with an original narrative voice that is brushed with rough poetry. In fact, every character in the novel – from the members of the Howley family to the women who work in the mill with Brigid’s mother to the detective who investigates the murder – is clear-cut, full-bodied and memorable.

A monstrous crime

But the star of the novel is the earth, exploited and abused by the coal companies until it no longer resembles the planet we know. “Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter.” A character “would talk about which part of her basement was too hot to touch and how many tomatoes had ripened in what should have been the frostbitten ground in her garden.” To me, the murder mystery that creates one strand of the novel shrinks to insignificance in the face of the monstrous crime committed by the coal companies against the land and all the families who live on it.

Most striking was the way the characters and their entire communities take the devastation in stride. When they learn that an inspector needs to test the air in each house in the middle of every night so they don’t suffocate in their sleep, the local families simply leave the door unlocked for him. “They [the coal companies] don’t care how many houses and families they wreck,” Brigid’s grandmother declares, “as long as they get every last flake of coal down to the bedrock.”

Unforgettable

This is a novel that creates an unforgettable world teeming with full-bodied characters. Each page rewards the reader with some new insight, character revelation or bit of fresh, distinctive language. Once you read it, you won’t be surprised to learn that The Hollow Ground, published in 2014, won both the John Gardner Fiction Book Award and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award for Fiction.

Get a free copy of The Hollow Ground

The paperback edition of The Hollow Ground was just published in August. I’m happy to have a copy to give away. There are two ways to toss your name in the hat to win a copy.

You can contact me through this blog and let me know you’d like a copy.

Or better yet, you can sign up for my newsletter to be eligible to win this and other free books by women writers.  When you receive the newsletter, just hit reply and tell me which book you want.

I’ll choose a name from those who contact me. (Sorry, I can only ship to U.S. addresses.) I hope you will appreciate this new voice in literature and look forward, as I do, to future books by Natalie S. Harnett.

Hollow Ground cover