Tag Archives: literary fiction

Listen In! Jenny talks about HOME on Epic City

caroliviaRecently, I was honored to join author and talk show host Carolivia Herron on her weekly book program, Epic City, on the brand new Takoma Park radio station WOWD, broadcasting worldwide on takomaradio.org. Carolivia and I met through Upshur Street Books when I read there in July, and–among many other things–she is very interested in the underappreciated Battle of Fort Stevens. We discussed that in detail during the hour-long program, and I read from the chapter in Up the Hill to Home that’s all about the battle, “Jubal’s March”. We also talked about D.C. voting rights, the various characters in the book, and the surprising parallels between black and white family experiences in the then-segregated city.

You can listen to the discussion section of the program by visiting Epic City Broadcasts and scrolling down to the October 18th entry. The program is separated into four sections.

The music used in the program is not included here, but Carolivia introduced me to a haunting song written and sung by Bob Weir called “Lay My Lilly Down”, which she played during the broadcast. You can listen to it here.

Book Review: Commonwealth

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 22 September 2016.

COMMONWEALTH: A Novel, Ann Patchett, Harper, 336 pp.

In her fiction, Ann Patchett’s typical launch point is to take an odd collection of people, throw them together in unfamiliar territory, and see what happens. Readers of her autobiographical essays may understand the origin of that impulse given the circumstances of her early years, when she found herself thrown into just such a situation with the unexpected arrival of four stepsiblings, a step-parent, and a new home on the other side of the country.

On diving into Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, readers familiar with her backstory may feel a frisson of having been let in on a secret: This book is grounded in autobiography. Not knowing that will in no way diminish its joys, but understanding the parallels to Patchett’s own story lends an additional dimension, a layering of real and imagined that adds weight and depth to an already strong and lovely story.

The book starts with a significant understatement: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Bert Cousins of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office crashes the party that cop Fix Keating and his beautiful wife, Beverly, are throwing to celebrate the baptism of their younger daughter, Franny. Bert, who uses the party to escape a house containing his wife, Teresa, and their 3.5 children, decides in the moment he sees her that Beverly will be his. A kiss given and returned in the midst of the celebration changes all parties’ lives irrevocably.

(As an aside, the first chapter of Commonwealth should be required reading for writers who want to understand how to set up an entire novel in just a few pages.)

Franny, though not a writer, is Patchett’s alter ego: second daughter to a cop and his beautiful wife, dutiful Catholic schoolgirl, and daddy’s girl, who one day finds herself swept across the country with her sister, mother, and new stepfather, and possessed of a troop of stepsiblings who move in for three months every summer.

The experience is painful and bewildering for all the children. They are left to their own devices to wrestle through a situation thrust upon them by self-absorbed adults who are wholly unequal to dealing with the chaos they’ve created. We’ve already observed Bert’s avoidance-based approach to fatherhood. Beverly’s combined unwillingness and inability to rise to the occasion is a disappointment to everyone. The wronged parties left back in L.A., Teresa and Fix, are rendered impotent by distance and their own bewilderment.

Cal, Holly, Jeanette, Albie. Caroline, Franny. Kids wise enough not to hate each other, but still kids — which means partially socialized, lacking impulse control, and fuzzy on concepts of cause and effect — they are in no way ready to look out for their own or each other’s preservation. When tragedy finally strikes, what’s most amazing is that it doesn’t happen sooner.

Years on, a twentysomething Franny, whose future has been mapped out by everyone except her, meets Leo Posen, a washed-up alcoholic author whose transcendent works of fiction are behind him. Because he listens to her — truly listens in a way that no one else ever has — Franny tells him the full story of her family. After changing a few minor details, Posen appropriates it as his own and sells it as fiction, a novel called Commonwealth, which reanimates his mordant career.

Franny understands how she’s betrayed her siblings. “[S]he knew exactly what it was she’d done, how serious and wrong it was to have given away what didn’t belong to her.” Here’s where that meta-level kicks in: Knowing some of Patchett’s own history makes a reader realize that there’s another dimension to consider.

If the question is, “How far from truth must a writer go to get to fiction?” or “Whose story is it to tell?” one can only presume that the author has gotten family dispensation, or perhaps forgiveness, for writing Commonwealth.

Patchett takes an oblique approach to telling the story, starting from the almost-beginning and moving immediately to the almost-ending, and then circling in tighter, drawing ever closer to its heart. Her sharply observed narrative makes the novel laugh-out-loud funny at the same time that it is heartbreaking, maddening, and irresistible.

There is a decidedly different tone and feel to this novel compared to her earlier ones. Patchett is typically pretty tough on her characters; she does not coddle them, much like a grammar-school nun who won’t put up with nonsense and doesn’t want to hear a lot of whining. Here, Patchett is much more tender, as one might expect under the circumstances. These are, after all — after everything — people she loves dearly, and she has shown us why.

Historical Novels Review Summer 2016 Issue

The following reviews initially appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.


A brilliant, inventive debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings presents these two historical figures in intimate detail well beyond the historical record, and in ways sure to scandalize Jefferson worshippers. In his Author’s Note, O’Connor reminds us how little we actually know of Sally Hemings or of Jefferson’s true relationship with her. But because the author so seamlessly weaves the known historical record into this fully and believably imagined relationship, readers may be tempted to accept its story as an historical account.

For the most part, the novel offers a standard narrative that follows both Jefferson and Hemings from childhood through their long-standing intimate relationship and beyond. It wrestles with the question of Sally’s level of consensual participation, as well as the contradictions between Jefferson’s philosophy and practice. Throughout the main narrative, however, is a series of flight-of-imagination vignettes: Thomas Jefferson watches a Hollywood movie of his life; an interviewer tapes a Q&A with Sally Hemings and her brother James; Thomas Jefferson sees his former lover, Sally Hemings, from across a crowded and lurching subway car.

Some of these work better than others, but they allow O’Connor to explore concepts and perspectives in ways the main narrative could not. A disturbing exchange between a female guard and the male prisoner (Jefferson) she is tasked with torturing demands that we contemplate how it is that anyone who buys and sells human beings is not considered evil.

Most affecting is Sally’s “confession,” related in snippets, in which she reflects upon the ways that perhaps she was a collaborator in an evil system, turning a blind eye to others’ suffering while she benefited from her status. Her confession culminates in the horror of the auction of 130 Monticello slaves, held after Jefferson’s death to help pay his significant debts. Unfortunately, that is an historical fact.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 8.43.02 AMTHEY WERE LIKE FAMILY TO ME, Helen Maryles Shankman, Scribner

A compelling blend of folktales, magical realism, Nazi barbarity, and family history, They Were Like Family to Me offers a series of interconnected stories primarily set in 1942 in the small Polish town of Wlodawa (six kilometers from the Sobibór extermination camp), as the Nazis systematically empty it and the surrounding countryside of Jews.

What might otherwise have been an unbearable recounting of inhuman atrocities Shankman transforms through a prism that is by turns forthright and tender, oblique and intimate, brutal and ethereal. Woven through the stories are talking dogs and horses, humans transformed into avenging beasts, a modern-day Golem sent as protector. How else to explain the unexplainable of the few Jews to survive the systematic slaughter at Wlodawa, in which “in three days, ten thousand lives vanished into smoke, like a colossal magic trick”?

Though each story stands beautifully on its own, it is the completed tapestry of interwoven details that finally reveals the entire picture and provides the full emotional depth of the collected stories; the sum is unquestionably greater than the parts. The stories describe characters and events from different perspectives, and each tells a piece of the full story.

Two characters recur somewhere in every story: Willy Reinhart, Reich Regional Commissioner of Agricultural Products and Services, and Haskel Soroka, Wlodawa’s skilled saddlemaker (and Shankman’s maternal ancestor). Reinhart, undeniably flawed but fundamentally “a decent man,” is determined to use his position, his talents, his legendary smile – “the smile threw its arm around your shoulders and called you friend” – to protect as many Jews as possible. Soroka, generous and well-respected, becomes Reinhart’s conduit to the people of Wlodawa.

The author’s greatest accomplishment is in leaving the horror to speak for itself, and instead giving voice to the enchantment.

*Note: They Were Like Family to Me was originally published under the title In the Land of the Armadillos.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 9.12.14 AMREADER, I MARRIED HIM, edited by Tracy Chevalier, William Morrow

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with Charlotte Brontë knows, “Reader, I married him,” is the climactic sentence of Brontë’s book for the ages, Jane Eyre. Conceived of, edited by, and with a contribution from Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring), this collection of stories is out in time to celebrate Brontë’s 2016 bicentenary, and it features wonderful writing by a cast of strong female authors, each contributing one of these “stories inspired by Jane Eyre.”

Inspired, that is, by both the book and the titular character, who – for many girls who are now women of a certain age – was the first strong, independent-minded female character in literature we ever met. She made an impression.

These stories make an impression too; each one is thoroughly engaging beyond the frisson of discovering how each author uses the shared springboard. One of the most thought-provoking is Susan Hill’s title story, “Reader, I Married Him,” which gradually reveals the identity of the historical character who is narrating, and demands that the Reader rethink probably knee-jerk assessments she may have about one of modern history’s most notorious and reviled home-wreckers. Helen Dunmore gives us “Grace Poole Her Testimony,” offering a decidedly different take on the ever-stoic Grace and her true role at Thornfield, while Salley Vickers paints a not-so-happily-ever-after picture from Mr. Rochester himself in “Reader, She Married Me.” Finally, Elizabeth McCracken’s story is a fully modern take on the construct of marriage as two men take their young son on a day trip in “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark.”

Just know that after enjoying this story collection, you’ll be certain to pull out your old, yellowed copy of Jane Eyre (mine is a Signet Classic from 1960) and enjoy it one more time.

When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart

This blog posting originally appeared on Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2016.

I’m a frequent reviewer for both the daily Washington Independent Review of Books and the quarterly Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. As an author and avid reader, I find that reviewing offers a host of benefits for me. Not only do I end up reading books outside my normal genre preferences, which is good for me as a writer, reviewing also introduces me to wonderful debut authors about whom I get to spread the good word. Completely selfishly, it’s also pretty cool to have, say, Viking or FSG quote me in a tweet to their vast legions of followers.

But the cherry on top of the pie is the chance to review my favorite authors’ latest books. I didn’t really consider this perq until just such an opportunity popped up late last year. My A-List of favorite authors is literal — all their first names happen to start with A: Annie Proulx, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, and Anthony Marra. When Marra’s second book, a collection of interrelated stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno came out in the fall, I groveled to be the one to review it for WIRoB (attractive? hardly). Setting aside starry-eyed fandom long enough to read with a critical eye, I was not at all disappointed. It was easily equal to his awards-strewn debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. My review didn’t quite bestow the cachet of the glowing New York Times review the book also received, but I was glad to join the chorus of huzzahs.

I’ve just discovered the painful reality that it doesn’t always work out that way. When I learned that Annie Proulx had a new novel out after 14 years, I jockeyed to get the review assignment from HNS. While perhaps I hadn’t known her writing in the earliest days when she was E.A. Proulx, I certainly got there while she was still E. Annie. She is the first writer I discovered as an adult who made me yearn to have such command of voice, tone, and language; she’s been on my list the longest. To try to explain what it is I love about Proulx’s writing, I’ll quote from my own review, which will be out in August  (the major downside of a quarterly): “She creates characters and situations and then sits back with an ironic, god-like detachment to observe what happens next. The sense of dread draws her readers in, like witnesses to a car accident who can’t bear to look away.”

The next sentence in the review is: “Unfortunately, that voice is almost completely absent from Barkskins . . . ” I sensed trouble when I realized the novel was 700 pages long. (As an aside, HNS reviews so many books that reviews are capped at 300 words. Now, I’m no math major, but even I can grasp that the ratio of effort [700 pages] to output [300 words] is pretty lopsided.) After my initial enthusiasm gave way to confusion, then concern, and finally despair, I kept shouting in my head, “Where are you, Annie? Where are you?” There was another little voice weeping in the corner, too, uttering the eternal lament of the betrayed, “How could you do this to me?” I felt bereft having to write an unfavorable review of my favorite author’s work. It doesn’t matter that all the big reviews have already been out for ages—some of which were glowing—and that a brief review from an unknown reviewer will make no material difference. It still hurt.

It also made me consider more closely something else I’ve noticed as a reviewer: Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically “showed promise”, and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command. Unfortunately, it also seems that as writers get “bigger”—larger sales, name recognition, what passes for celebrity—people stop editing them. Later works have a tendency to be more bloated, more self-indulgent, less coherent.

It’s not even a matter of length. I’ll compare Barkskins with another novel I read for the HNS August review. Stephen O’Connor’s debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, weighs in at a girthy 600 pages, but what he does in those pages! (I’ll note here that those combined 1,300 pages were just two of nine books I reviewed for the upcoming issue. I use this as a convenient excuse for the sad progress of my own book.) O’Connor fully imagines the decades-long intimate relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, a relationship that left no documented evidence beyond DNA. He also examines a host of the moral, ethical, and philosophical issues surrounding the relationship using wildly different perspectives and scenarios that shatter the bounds of the conventional narrative, and, not incidentally, skewer the Jeffersonian myth. Not all of it worked—I think his editor could have cut a few of the scenarios to good effect—but I was enthralled through 600 pages.

What to do when your favorite author breaks your heart? That’s easy: find some new favorites. But you should also go back to the beginning, to remind yourself of what you fell in love with in the first place. Here I come, Postcards.

The Civil War in Washington: Two Perspectives


Join me and Jeff Richards at Upshur Street Books (827 Upshur Street, N.W.) on Tuesday, July 19 at 7:00 p.m., when we discuss our respective views on the Battle of Fort Stevens, in which Confederate General Jubal Early nearly marched into Washington, D.C.

Fort Stevens is located in what is now the Brightwood neighborhood of D.C., where most of my my novel Up the Hill to Home takes place, and the battle is described in the chapter “Jubal’s March”.  Jeff’s Civil War novel Open Country visits the aftermath of the battle, which includes an appearance by “Uncle Walt” Whitman, who was a fixture at army hospitals throughout D.C. during the war as he visited wounded soldiers.

Jeff and I will take turns reading from our novels, and we’ll discuss our approaches to writing about the war. We hope to see you there!

Historical Gold from INDIEFAB!

indiefab-gold-imprintOn June 25 at the American Library Association’s annual conference in Orlando, Foreword Reviews magazine announced the winners of the 2015 INDIEFAB Awards, which recognizes the best work in independent publishing. Up the Hill to Home, which was a finalist in both general and historical fiction, won the Gold in the historical fiction category.

“Foreword’s INDIEFAB judges are the key to our winners selection process, and, in our minds, the most foolproof way to choose award-winning books,” said Victoria Sutherland, publisher of Foreword Reviews. “We work with a librarian and bookseller in each category to provide us with an insider’s perspective on what would do well on consumer and library shelves. Using industry professionals confirms the trade quality of a book.”

Last May, the Foreword Reviews 2015 summer issue highlighted Up the Hill to Home in a feature article as one of eight debut novels to watch.

Join me for Kensington Day of the Book

thumbnail_autographThe DC/Baltimore area is blessed with a vibrant book scene, illustrated in part by the increasing number of independent book stores and popular local book festivals the region supports. One of those festivals is Kensington Day of the Book, which is celebrating its 11th year on Sunday, April 24, from 11-4 on Howard Avenue. I’ll be one of the participating authors this year, so I hope you’ll come out to wonderful little Kensington, Maryland to celebrate all things book-related, and enjoy mingling with a slate of local and nationally known authors to talk books. Fingers crossed for warm, sunny weather!

Finalist in Two INDIEFAB 2015 Book of the Year Categories


Foreword Reviews Magazine is dedicated to exploring, discussing, highlighting, and celebrating all that is best in independent book publishing. On March 7th, Foreword Reviews released the list of finalists in its 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards, and Up the Hill to Home is a finalist in both the General and Historical Fiction categories. Award winners will be announced at the American Libraries Association annual conference in June.

Book Review: The Loss of All Lost Things

This book review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on January 27, 2016.

Consider all the loss it is possible to endure: lost wages, lost opportunities, lost objects, lost youth, lost hope, lost minds, lost innocence, lost loves, lost loved ones, the loss of a child. Consider all the ways that we endure that loss, or don’t endure. That, very simply and eloquently, is what Amina Gautier does in her latest story collection, The Loss of All Lost Things.

This is Gautier’s third collection of short stories, after At-Risk and Now We Will Be Happy. Her first won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and her second won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. Clearly, her work speaks to readers, and now here is Loss, adding its haunting voice to the others, speaking quietly, powerfully, of the large and small losses in all of our lives.

The collection opens with what is perhaps the most searing of the stories, “Lost and Found,” which is told from the point of view of a young boy who has been kidnapped, snatched up off the street in the brief walk between the school-bus stop and home. The boy thinks of his captor only as “Thisman,” and we are spared all but the barest allusions to how Thisman uses him. What is perhaps more painful is seeing how easily Thisman is able to convince the boy that no one wanted him in the first place and that no one is looking for him. Still, the boy tries to think of himself as lost instead of taken. “Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found,” he thinks, and wishes, “If only he could find the Lost and Found and turn his own self in.”

This story is bookended by “The Loss of All Lost Things,” in which we experience this horror from the parents’ perspective. The boy’s sense that his parents were distractedly living above and around him is borne out here, his absence garnering their focus as his presence never could. Then, beyond the misery of helpless waiting and speculating comes the brutal realization that, eventually, life continues on for everyone else.

“Their friends, relatives, and loved ones who wanted them to remain hopeful now want them to admit the worst has come.” And though “they hate each other for their weakness, for the living that muscles through,” the husband and wife only have each other. No one else can possibly understand.

Unexpectedly, the two stories that focus on the parents of kidnapped children are perhaps the most hopeful in the whole collection. In “Cicero Waiting,” the husband and wife already know their 3-year-old daughter isn’t coming back after she disappears in an instant out of his gaze at Target. Though he is unwilling to be forgiven, his wife stubbornly refuses to blame him and continues to reach out to him.

“Could it be that simple?” he wonders. Yes, it could.

Many of the other stories are of more typical losses. For example, a more universal experience of losing a child — that is, of losing the wonderful, loving child you once knew to the ravages of adolescence — is the subject of both “What’s Best for You” and “What Matters Most,” in which a mother tells herself, “It is your fault that you raised a daughter whom you love with a desperation bordering on insanity but with whom you cannot have a civil conversation.” To say that Gautier’s subjects are common or typical, however, does not in any way diminish the power of her stories.

In a nod to writing what you know, Gautier, who teaches at the University of Miami, peoples her stories with professors and graduate students, denizens of the oh-so-insular university universe. She pokes self-aware fun at the world of grad students who “took themselves too seriously” and are trained to think of their world as the only one of any import. When, in “Directory Assistance,” Caroline drops out of that life and winds up training with the phone company, she and her mother celebrate that she finally has a “‘real’ job.”

There is only one story here that doesn’t belong. While the themes of “Disturbance” are squarely in keeping with the rest of the collection, its tone is not. Gautier puts us into another world, describing a group of people that has separated from the rest of society and formed its own small town, Togetherness. This would have been a fine story in a different collection, but here it is a jarring anomaly. Putting the readers’ focus on the unfamiliar mechanics of life in a small, closed community, with its parallels to Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Lottery,” takes us away from the simple details of normal daily living, which by themselves are painful enough.

One of her characters makes this point in “Resident Lover,” in considering his ex-wife’s “weird children poems…they were children meant to make one cry because the poetry could not.” Instead, he feels that “the common pain of childhood — of wanting to be older than you were sooner than you ever could be, of feeling vulnerable and dependent, of waiting for everything, of being devalued — any and all of this was enough, hard enough, good enough for a slew of poems.” It is this capturing of the pain and loss common to everyday living at which Gautier excels.

Book Review: A General Theory of Oblivion

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on January 5, 2016.

For American readers not already familiar with author José Eduardo Agualusa, and whose understanding of Portuguese colonialism is perhaps somewhat vague, A General Theory of Oblivion is a sneaky bit of a history lesson.

Portugal, which was comparable to England in the scope and length of its colonial reach, landed in what is now the southwest coastal African country of Angola in 1483 and didn’t cede control until 1975. Hence, it really shouldn’t be surprising that Agualusa is a white, native Angolan who writes in Portuguese.

That he writes with such an empathetic, race-neutral view of the struggle for Angolan independence won’t be surprising to those who have read some of his earlier works, such as The Book of Chameleons or Rainy Season.

At the center of Theory is Ludovica Fernandes Mano — Ludo — a native of Portugal with longstanding agoraphobia. “When still only a little girl, she was horrified by open spaces. She felt, upon leaving the house, fragile and vulnerable, like a turtle whose shell had been torn off.” An incident she thinks of simply as “The Accident” cements her unwillingness to venture outdoors.

After their parents die, she lives with her sister Odette. When Orlando, a visiting Angolan mining engineer, falls in love with Odette, he realizes it is a package deal. He brings both sisters with him to live in the Angolan capital of Luanda, in a huge luxury apartment with a private rooftop veranda and a vast library.

Normalcy begins to erode as the long-simmering conflict for Angolan independence comes to a boil. Odette wants to join the many well-off Angolans who decide that Brazil or Portugal is more to their liking, but the day that Orlando finally agrees, he and Odette never return home from a farewell party.

Three things happen in quick succession: armed fighting breaks out in the streets below; a phone caller demands “the stones” in return for her sister; and Ludo accidentally kills one young man in a group of scavengers about to break into the apartment. After that, she methodically builds a brick wall outside her door that cuts the apartment off from the rest of the building and Ludo from the rest of the world.

From the foreword and acknowledgements, we learn that Ludo was a real person who bricked herself into her apartment for 28 years, writing diaries in notebooks until she ran out of paper and began to write on the apartment walls.

The book’s title comes from something the fictional Ludo writes: “If I still had the space, charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion.” But the book might also have been named for one of the chapters, “The Subtle Architecture of Chance,” because at the heart of this story is the concept that chance choreographs so much of what our lives become.

Ludo peeks out at the world around and below her, watching incidents unfold that we see closer up and so make better sense of. Her world shrinks along with her food supply and eventually her vision. Survival comes to depend on burning books and furniture for cooking and heating, raising crops and collecting rainwater in the rooftop gardens, and learning to trap pigeons.

This last is made easier when Ludo finally finds the cache of diamonds hidden in the apartment and realizes the sparkle is just the thing to lure in the birds. Thus, in Ludo’s world, are pigeons worth far more than diamonds.

Interspersed with what sometimes feels like a fever dream of Ludo’s survival inside her castle walls are the swirling stories of the people and events in the streets and halls just outside. The tales may seem random and disconnected, but Agualusa is a master storyteller who doesn’t bother to introduce a character or mention an incident unless it has a larger role to play.

In one small instance, Ludo releases one of the captured pigeons, even though it has swallowed some of the diamonds, because it carries a love note in a cylinder on its leg. That act affects the lives of many of the characters we meet.

And those characters are never cardboard. For example, Jeremias Carrasco (which means executioner), a Portuguese mercenary with a taste for torture, squares off against Magno Mireira Monte, an intelligence officer of the communist MPLA faction who does his own share of inflicting pain, and yet each man eventually reveals a measure of humanity that lifts him out of simple villainy.

Agualusa originally wrote this story as a screenplay, and the novel retains that sense of immediacy. Certainly his economy of words heightens its impact. (The page count is deceptive: this is a tiny book with lots of white space, easily consumed in one long sitting.)

It’s a tribute to Agualusa’s storytelling that the bittersweet redemption found by his characters feels authentic; he and they have earned it.