“When War Lasts a Lifetime” – Susan Storer Clark blogs about Her Own Vietnam

“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.

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