{FOF Book Critic & Giveaway} Summer reads from Linda Wolfe


I’ve been trying to evade New York City’s heat wave (and an apartment full of chores) by holing up out East in Sag Harbor, with little to do – lucky me! – but relax, swim and read, read, read. Here are some of the books I’ve found particularly interesting this summer.

FOF award-winning author, Linda Wolfe, recently published her powerful book, MY DAUGHTER/MYSELF, in June.  She has published eleven books and has contributed to numerous publications including New York Magazine, The New York Times, and served the board of the National Book Critics Circle for many years.  Her latest reviews take you from the 1970s art world to a remote Afghani village; a gay artist during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to a Cherokee migrant worker in the 1930s.

Win one of these summer reads! To enter, comment below by answering the question: Which of Linda’s picks do you want to read?

theflamethrowersTHE FLAMETHROWERS. Rachel Kushner. Scribner. 383 pp.

Motorcycles! Lovers! The heady 1970s. The cool art scene in lower Manhattan. The sizzling urban guerilla scene in Italy. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is a coming of age story about Nevada-born Reno, a motorcycling enthusiast, who comes to New York, an innocent abroad, so to speak, makes friends among the art world’s cleverati – painters and filmmakers whose conversation is as abstract and difficult to fathom as their work – falls in love with painter Sandro de Valera, scion of a wealthy Italian family that manufactures motorcycles, gets betrayed by Sandro, and loses some of her previous befuddled naivete. Along the way she races a motorcycle on the Salt Flats of Utah, poses as a model for a New York company that produces film stock, goes to Italy, falls out with Sandro and in with members of Milan’s Red Brigades, and becomes an artist herself, a “land artist”– a practitioner of the art of creating patterns and designs on the earth’s surface.

Kushner is a gorgeous writer. The muse doesn’t just inspire her, it colonizes, inhabits her, making thoughts and images flow from her pen in a seemingly unstoppable flow. Some of the writing is exquisite. Of New York in winter, Kushner writes “Water jeweled itself to a clear, frozen dribble from the fire hydrant in front of my building.” Of Milan, she observes, “Neon was electric jewelry on the lithe body of the city;” Lake Como is “a spill of silver;” Utah’s Great Salt Lake has “white drifts [that] looked almost like snow but they moved like soap, quivering and weightless.”

But Kushner can also be wordy and imprecise. Here she is, stumbling toward describing how when we become adults, we still retain remnants of our girlhood selves: “It was not the case that one thing morphed into another, child into woman. You remained the person you were before things happened to you. The person you were when you thought a piece of cut string could determine the course of a year. You also became the person to whom certain things happened. Who passed into the realm where you no longer questioned the notion of being trapped in one form. You took on that form, that identity, hoped for its recognition from others, hoped someone would love it and you.”

Worse, Kushner can be insufferably boring because she enjoys making the reader realize how insufferably banal some of her characters are by reproducing lengthy passages of their pretentious conversation. She is also a devotee of the post-modernists’ distaste for chronology, starting her story with Reno’s motorcycle race, then taking the reader back in time to her meeting Sandro and his circle, then on to the motorcycle race again, then forward once more, to the trip to Italy. But she interrupts even this confusing structure with chapters about Sandro’s father, the founding of the Valera company, and oddments about domestic terrorists in sixties New York. Toward the end, this speed-obsessed book swerves and nearly crashes.

Still, Kushner has been highly touted by a multitude of critics, called the voice of her generation, and “one of the most brilliant writers of the new century.” Give the book a whirl, get into the conversation, and see what you think.

lovedishonormarrydieLOVE, DISHONOR, MARRY, DIE, CHERISH, PERISH by David Rakoff. Doubleday. 116 pp.

When’s the last time you read a novel in verse? I hate to admit it, but I think the last one for me was The Iliad, in my college days. So I was totally unprepared for the experience of reading this playful, highly original, laugh-out-loud funny, yet deeply moving first novel written in rhyme by David Rakoff, essayist and frequent presence on the radio show This American Life.

Rakoff, who died of cancer at the age of forty-seven worked intensively on Love, Dishonor for the last months of his life, writing between bouts of chemotherapy and surgery, and encountering ever-increasing weakness. Still, determined to finish the book, his first novel, finish it he did, about a week before he died.

The novel links the lives of seven characters who live in various American locales and in various decades. It starts with a child born to a superstitious, rejecting mother in turn-of-the-19th-century Chicago, and ends in present-day New York with a man whose wife, unfairly blaming him for the failure of their marriage, has left him and taken their children.

The infant, named Margaret,

had hair on her head
Thick and wild as a fire, and three times as red
The midwife, a brawny and capable whelper,
Gave one look and crossed herself, God above help her.

The abandoned husband is living in a tiny studio apartment:

It struck him as fitting, a concrete admission
Of guilt: one’s apartment as form of punition.
In such a bare space, he might do some soul-healing.
With room for the boxes, stacked from floor to ceiling.

There is also a woman, “neither widow nor wife,” with a husband whose stroke has left him helpless, an office worker, once a glowing Aphroditic beauty but now middle-aged, and single, in love with her married unresponsive boss, and – most touchingly – Clifford, a talented gay artist who contracts AIDS in epidemic-stricken 1980’s San Francisco. As his illness worsens, Clifford, the voice of the author:

thought of those two things in life that don’t vary
(Well, thought only glancingly: more was too scary).
Inevitable, why even bother to test it.
He’d paid all his taxes, so that left…you guessed it.

Clifford, like Rakoff, dies tragically young:

The inkwell tipped over and spread ‘cross his page.
Clifford was gone. Forty-five years of age.

The connection between the novel’s various characters is indirect but, once revealed, thrilling. The rhymes are witty, ingenious. And the poet proves to be a soulful chronicler of our human joys and sorrows

mountainsechoedAND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini. Riverhead. 404 pp.

If you haven’t already read Khaled Hosseini’s beguiling And the Mountains Echoed, you should. More complex than The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it nevertheless moves like the wind, sweeping the reader along through decades of Afghanistan’s troubled history. But the history here is not one of wars and invasions and political turmoil. “I need not rehash for you [our] dark days,” says a doctor who has come to Kabul to tend to people grievously wounded in the country’s chaos and serves in a major section of the book as the voice of the author. “I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been chronicled. And by pens far more learned and eloquent than mine.” Rather, the history in And the Mountains Echoed is that of ordinary people, Afghanis and visitors to Afghanistan whose lives flourish or fail in the dark days and intersect in oblique and fascinating ways.

Hosseini is enormously skilled. The book begins with the story of a ten-year-old Afghan boy, Abdullah, who has been looking after his sister, Pari, ever since their mother died in childbirth. As an example of the author’s skill, from the moment we meet the sister, he doesn’t have to tell us that Pari is a much younger child. Rather, he shows us the girl, unable yet to correctly pronounce her brother’s name, calling out “Abollah!” whenever she wants him.

Pari is, as it turns out, three, and when the children’s poverty-stricken father allows a childless upper class woman to adopt her, Pari’s cry of “Abollah! Abollah!” as she is torn from her brother, is heart-wrenching.

The separation of the children is prefigured by a folktale, one of many in the repertoire of the children’s father, about a long-ago time when a giant dwelled on the earth and could demand and carry off a poor family’s child. The stolen children are not, as their families fear, killed or, worse, consumed, by the giant, but allowed to grow up in luxurious circumstances, live like princes and princesses in a landscape of gardens and twinkling streams, surrounded by music and poetry and fed with delectable food. But the children forget their parents, and the father in the tale, who discovers the whereabouts of the kidnapped boys and girls, is given a glimpse of his own stolen child but then given, too, out of the kindness of the giant’s heart, a potion that will make him forget what he’s seen and indeed never remember his child at all.

This tale haunts the book, which is filled with stories of separation,
of partings caused by poverty, war, or ordinary human selfishness and self-absorption.

In the case of Pari and Abdullah, Pari is taken away to live in Paris by her adoptive mother, and grows up ignorant of her true parentage. Yet all her life she feels “the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence. Sometimes it was vague, like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled. Other times it felt so clear it made her heart lurch….I was like the patient who cannot explain to the doctor where it hurts, only that it does.” Abdullah eventually emigrates to the United States, where he opens a tiny California restaurant called Abe’s Kebab House and, although having some modest success, never feels altogether happy. Or rather, he always feels somehow incomplete, and all his life hides beneath his bed his fondest treasure, a box of bird feathers he had collected in his boyhood to give to his sister if he ever saw her again.

When Abdullah’s wife gives birth to a daughter, he gives the child the name of his beloved sister. Little Pari grows up believing, like many little girls, she has an imaginary friend, but hers is an aunt named Pari, with whom she shares her dreams and worries.

The first Pari and her brother never meet until they are elderly, when they are brought together by the younger Pari. By the this time the first Pari suffers from severe arthritis and Abdullah, like the father in the folktale, has Alzheimer’s and cannot recognize, or even remember, the sister whose removal from his care has soured his whole life.

You’ll cry at the story of this brother and sister. You may cry, too, at the story of Pari and Abdullah’s father, deprived by a warlord of his meager property, or at that of Nabi, their uncle, who flees village life to become a servant. Or at the story of the hidden homosexual who for the sake of convenience marries the woman who adopts Pari. Or that of Thalia, a Greek girl who cares for the mother of the home-evading altruistic doctor in Kabul. Hosseini is a master at tugging on a reader’s heart strings.

More, all his stories here circle around that ancient folktale of familial separation. Such separation is a major torment in today’s world for the many immigrants from poor nations who must leave their families behind to work in – and hopefully send money home from – industrialized countries.

marycoinMARY COIN by Marisa Silver. Blue Rider Press, 322 pp.

In the mid-nineteen-thirties a photograper working for the Federal Resettlement Administration snapped a haunting picture of a worn and desperate-looking woman surrounded by her young children, eyes staring worriedly into space at what she seemed to envision as a miserable future. You’ve seen the photo. It has become emblematic of the Great Depression and its millions of victims. Frequently exhibited in museums and galleries, copies of it are on posters and even on tee-shirts everywhere.

But who was the woman? And why was she so worried? The photographer’s name was Dorothea Lange. The subject of the photo was a woman called Florence Owens Thompson. But that tells us precious little. And it was the absence of information about the photo’s subject that inspired novelist and story writer Marisa Silver to write Mary Coin, her graceful and engrossing fictional exploration of the story behind the famous photo.

The story is told by three characters, Vera Dare, a photographer, Mary Coin, a migrant worker, and Walker Dodge, a professor of cultural history with a penchant for digging up the artifacts of everyday men and women. But it is Mary’s story that makes this novel so effective.

Silver’s Mary is born into a Cherokee family living on a farm in the Midwest. A daring and bright young girl, she dreams of a future that will get her away from the drudgery of farm life, a handsome prince who will carry her off and upward. She finds him in the son of wealthier neighbors, they fall in love, marry young, and migrate to California, arriving just when the depression strikes. They manage to land jobs picking fruit and vegetables on California estates, but they have children and are barely getting by when her husband succumbs to pneumonia and dies. From then on, Mary’s life goes from bad to worse.

She is now the sole support of her brood, and must take ever more demeaning and arduous picking jobs. These become more scarce as more and more migrant workers pour into California (think Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.) and Mary’s life is filled with almost unbearable poverty and misery – both of which she faces with an undauntable spirit. Mary also encounters Vera Dare, who like the woman her character is based upon, had polio as a girl, lived a bohemian life in San Francisco as a young woman, had numerous unhappy love affairs, and became a photographer, first of society figures but later, during the depression when clients became fewer and far between, a government -hired photographer of the poverty-stricken. Mary also has an affair – hers with the son of the owner of a ranch who may or may not be the grandfather of Walker Dodge, a secret that gives the novel momentum.

Did I say The Grapes of Wrath above? In fact Silver’s portrait of Mary Coin far exceeds anything in the Steinbeck novel, where the characters seem merely embodiments of propaganda. Mary, on the other hand, seems to live and breathe on the page. She makes this novel a powerful achievement.

Win one of these summer reads! To enter, comment below by answering the question: Which of Linda’s picks do you want to read?

1 FOF will win. (See official rules, here.) Contest closes August 1, 2013 at midnight E.S.T. Contest limited to residents of the continental U.S.

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{Gift Guide} 7 books to wrap up this holiday season

Can’t get a read on what your friends and family want for the holidays? Here’s the ultimate list of books to GIVE this holiday season brought to you by FOF book critic Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle.

Then comment below for a chance to RECEIVE one of Linda’s top picks–“Then Again,” Diane Keaton’s new memoir. (Three FOFs will win.)


“Then Again” by Diane Keaton.  Random House.  291 pages

Keaton’s memoir, “Then Again,” is not just her story, it’s her mother’s as well.  Dorothy Keaton Hall, who died at the age of eighty-six, left behind her eighty-five journals and scrapbooks that Keaton never bothered to read while her mother was alive.  But in 2008, after her mother’s death, she began ploughing through them, in the process discovering things about her mother she never knew – among them her mother’s thwarted ambitions and her early fear of memory loss.

Keaton uses Dorothy’s diaries as a scaffolding from which to explore and recount her own life: her girlhood insecurities and her adult strengths, her stunning career, her love affairs with Woody Allen, Al Pacino and Warren Beatty, and her late-in-life realization that despite the persona she’d cultivated as a woman who, like Garbo, preferred being alone, her life felt empty without children.  At the age of 50, she adopted two of them, and became as engaged a mother as her own had been.

The book is a bit scattered – as one might expect a book of Keaton’s to be – with hasty entries and more thoughtful ones, reflections that are to the point, and others that are vague and puzzling.  It’s really rather like a scrapbook itself, a collection of observations, reflections, and images, rather than a straightforward memoir.  But it’s charming, just like its author.   We learn that this famous beauty was so critical of her body that she became bulimic, stuffing herself with favorite foods only to void them right after consumption.  It’s also poignant.  We learn how sad it makes Keaton feel to consider the difference between her own life and that of her mother:  starting in her fifties, after her children grew up and left her with an empty nest,  Dorothy endured years of loneliness, whereas Keaton in her fifties has been able to come “out of isolation into a kind of family-of-man scenario, complete with an extended family, new friends and much needed ordinary activities.”
The book is an homage to her mother, a tribute to her own children, and an affirmation of woman’s ability to keep growing throughout life.


“Bossypants” by Tina Fey.  Little Brown, 277 pp.

Tina Fey, creator and star of TV’s “30 Rock” and former head writer and occasional star on “Saturday Night Live,” has written not a memoir, exactly, but a collection of chronological essays about important periods of her life – including the one where she gets her first period.  Her mother gives her a starter’s kit: some sanitary napkins, panty liners, and two pamphlets, one for a girl to read, the other for her mother to read and discuss with her.  That 10-year-old Fey’s mother hasn’t bothered to read her pamphlet but just turned it over to her daughter isn’t half the fun here; what’s funnier is that Fey remains totally unprepared for her first bleed, and doesn’t even recognize what is happening to her when her underthings turn red.  “I knew from commercials that one’s menstrual period was a blue liquid you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency,” she writes. This wasn’t blue, so…I ignored it for a few hours.”

If you don’t find this funny, you’d best stop reading.  Period. (Pun intended.)
The book contains Nora Ephron-like tips for women entering the male-controlled work world: “No pigtails.  No tube tops.”  And “You’re not in competition with other women; you’re in competition with everyone.”  Of interviewing for a job on “Saturday Night Live,” Fey writes, “Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”  Of going to college at the University of Virginia, “I spent four years attempting to charm the uninterested.”  Of turning forty, “I need to take my pants off as soon as I get home.  I didn’t used to have to do that. But now I do.”  Of doing a photo shoot, “The makeup artist will work methodically on your eyelids with a series of tickly little brushes for a hundred minutes,” and “at really fancy shoots, a celebrity fecalist will study your bowel movements and adjust your humours.”

If you don’t love Fey, I’d say you don’t have a sense of humor, let alone good bodily semifluids.



“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides. FSG, 406 pp.

Like a Jane Austen novel written for our own times, the plot of Eugenides’ engaging new book, “The Marriage Plot,” concerns a young woman, her suitors, and her quest for a lifelong partner.  But our world is a far more confusing one than the marriage-means-happy-ending society inhabited by Emma and Elizabeth and Austen’s other heroines. Finding one’s way in it is far from simple, and Eugenides’ heroine, Madeleine, as well as her two suitors, Leonard and Mitchell, are having a hard time when the book begins and the three of them, students at Brown in 1982, are about to graduate.

Madeleine, a  literature student who’s pretty, rich, and sexually-inquisitive, is desperately in love with Leonard, a brilliant but bipolar science student who initiates her into physical intimacy but can’t quite commit to their relationship.  And Mitchell, fascinated by religion and philosophy, is in love with Madeleine, who couldn’t care less.

After they graduate, Madeleine, unsure of what kind of career to pursue, flounders. Leonard learns that brilliance isn’t enough, and Mitchell, searching for life’s deeper meanings by working with Mother Teresa in India, loses his youthful idealism.  I won’t tell you who Madeleine ends up with, but, without giving away too much, I want to say that despite having known a few manic-depressives and read a great deal about that illness, the way Eugenides shows us the awful progression of the disease beats any rendition I’ve ever read in fiction. Equally special is his satirical take on the absurd literary theories in vogue in the eighties.

Witty and moving, this book about love, sex, and coming of age, gets being young in the eighties altogether right.  And I suspect it’s pretty accurate about the pleasures and problems of being young in any decade.


“State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett.  Harper/HarperCollins.  353 pages.

I reviewed this book at length earlier this year, so I’ll be brief and just say here that if I had to tell you my choice for the “Number One Best Book of 2011,” it’d be “Age of Wonder.”  With more than a touch of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” this book is a stirring evocation of a primitive world, a mystery tale, and a deft exploration of the character of two brilliant women.  In the depths of the Amazon, the heroine, self-effacing Dr. Marina Singh, must discover the secrets that the imposing Dr. Annick Swenson, a one-time mentor of hers, is hiding from the rest of the world. She also must learn how to live and even thrive in barbarous surroundings, and become psychologically strong enough to defy her teacher.

You’ll be with Marina, learning her thoughts as if inside her head and experiencing her alien surroundings with her distinctive eyes and ears, throughout this stunning tale.


11/22/63 by Stephen King. Scribner.  849 pp.

I’m not a fan of horror stories, don’t like reading about cars with minds of their own, killer viruses or crazed fans, so I rarely read King.  But this book is about horror of a different sort–and it’s terrific. The horror in “11/22/63” is time, an adversary that each of us must do battle with, and which always, whatever our circumstances, defeats us, taking away our abilities, our strengths, and all that we most prize.

A science fiction tale with that hoary old subject, time travel, “11/22/63” recounts the experiences of a Maine schoolteacher, Jake Epping, who goes back into the world of the late nineteen-fifties bent on a mission: to stop Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. King recreates that world with meticulous and delightful detail, from the vibrant preservative-free taste of root beer, to 19.9 cents-a-gallon gasoline, to music you could really dance to.  But the past has its drawbacks.  “It’s a time,” King points out, “for which a lot of people felt nostalgic.  Possibly because they had forgotten how bad the past smelled.”
Not only does the past smell bad, it’s rife with poverty and racial strife.  Yet the good-natured Epping begins to prefer the past, with all its unsavoriness, to his actual present.  He takes a job as teacher in a small Texas town, gets to know the Oswald family and–this will delight conspiracy theorists–tries to determine if Oswald was the only person responsible for Kennedy’s death.  He also falls passionately in love with the school librarian.

King has bigger fish to fry in this work than in most of his other novels.  The book has a gripping plot and a likeable hero in pursuit of an ominous killer, but the author is also in pursuit of the answers to the Big Questions:  Would today’s world be different if Kennedy had not been killed?  Is there any way to slow time’s indifference to human life?   Is love the only thing that makes life worth living?  And, is loss always our inevitable fate?



“Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie, Random House, 625 pages

Despite its heft, this doorstopper of a biography goes down as smooth as fine Beluga caviar.  It’s the story of Catherine the Great, an obscure German princess who deposed her ineffectual alcoholic husband, Czar Peter III,  in 1762, seized the throne of Russia, and ended up ruling that vast turbulent country for more than thirty years.

In Massie’s hands, the start of the story has all the elements of a fairy tale: a child scorned by her mother, plucked from obscurity by a kindly aunt (who just happened to be the daughter of the czar of Russia), decked out by that fairy godmother of a relative in furs and jewels, and married amid wild celebration to the future czar.  “An adolescent girl,” Massie tells us, “was launched on a great adventure.”

But of course, Catherine was no fairy tale princess.  And her story becomes ever more interesting as she learns to be a ruler, finding her way to gain and hold onto power despite constant threats.  A quick study, she had taught herself at an early age was always to appear courteous and humble, to be a good listener, and to mask her considerable brains.  But as she matured, her brilliance became evident to all who knew her, evoking respect even from such luminaries as Voltaire and Diderot.  “I would say about myself,” she wrote in “A Secret Confession,” a private account of her life and loves, “that I was a true gentleman with a mind more male than female.”

Catherine reformed and reorganized Russia, she encouraged the arts, education and medical care, put down powerful rebellions, survived innumerable political crises and–somewhat ruthlessly–accomplished several land grabs that greatly extended Russia’s territory.  But, aside from being an astute monarch, she was above all a woman, endlessly looking for the love she had been denied by her mother and lacked in her marriage–her husband had refused to make love to her during their nine years together. She said she was “Loath to be without love for even a single hour,” took numerous lovers, and wrote to one of them, “If you want to keep me forever, then show me as much friendship as love.”
Massie’s Catherine is not only a political genius, but a flesh-and-blood woman who at times sounds just like one’s BFF.


“1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” by Charles C. Mann. Knopf 535 pp.

Charles C. Mann’s best-selling “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” was a sweeping examination of life in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.  His “1493” takes up the story of what followed: the vast spread of plants and peoples that is known as the “Columbian Exchange.”  “After 1492,” Mann explains, “the world’s ecosystems collided and mixed as European vessels carried thousands of species to new homes across the oceans. The Columbian Exchange…is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Swtizerland, and chili peppers in Turkey and Thailand.  To ecologists [it] is arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs.”

Indeed, Mann tells us, it has created an altogether new ecological era, the “Homogenocene” or the Age of Homogeneity, the era in which we live, although most of us just call it “Globalization.”  Undeniably, we have become One World, where what happens in Greece affects our stock market, what happens in China  effects our manufacturing, what happens in Africa affects our hospitals.  But the process, so recent-seeming, started ‘way back then, immediately after Columbus’s history-altering discovery.

The Columbian Exchange has vastly benefited mankind, spreading foods that not only delighted, like those tomatoes and oranges, but foods that filled hungry bellies, like wheat and corn. Nevertheless, benefit and detriment are the two faces of the Exchange’s coin. Take the exchange of plants: along with its beneficence it brought pests never before known in the West and mighty difficult to eliminate. Or take the spread of peoples: the European settlers who descended on the ancient native populations destroyed them both actively and inadvertently–inadvertently because they brought with them diseases for which these populations had no resistance. Today, it is Western society that is threatened by diseases for which we have no resistance, viruses transferred from monkeys to man in Africa and then brought–by plane–to new shores.

Mann, an extremely lively writer, gives us fascinating portraits of some of the little known figures responsible for the spread of specific plants, animals, people and germs.  And he warns us about the most frightening consequences of the Columbian Exchange–not just the spread of diseases, but climate change and the destruction of ancient species.  “On the one hand,” he writes of our Age of Homgeneity, “people want the wash of goods and services that the worldwide market provides.”  But on the other hand, “Things feel changed and scary.”

You can say that again!

Enter to win Then Again, Diane Keaton’s new memoir by leaving a comment below.

Three FOFs will win.
(See all our past winners, here.)
(See official rules, here.)
Contest closes December 15, 2011 at midnight E.S.T.

{FOF Guru Book Review} Hotel Vendôme–will this book Steel your heart?

Every book that FOF Danielle Steel has ever written has been a New York Times bestseller, including her latest novel, Hotel Vendôme (Random House Publishing Group, November 2011). It follows an ambitious man as he transforms a shabby Manhattan inn into a luxurious, five-star hotel. His seemingly perfect life comes to a halt when his wife, Miriam, takes off with a rock star, leaving him to raise their 4-year-old daughter, Heloise. Is this Eloise for grown ups? Not quite… But, Kirkus Reviews says the novel will “appeal to the most dedicated of Steel’s fans,” although many readers say it falls flat. “It seems Steel has run out of story lines,” says one Amazon.com reviewer. “44 Charleston Street, about a single woman who opens her home to boarders, was disappointing as well. Now we have a hotel. What’s next, an apartment complex?”

Does FOF Book Guru Barbara Phelps agree? Did Hotel Vendôme make her want to check in or out?

Did you enjoy this book?
Three quarters of it. The description made me feel like I was owning and running a grand hotel. I could feel the passion of the owner and I was gripped by the things that he and his daughter experienced. However, the plot became a runaway carriage ride–rampant changes of scene, many emotions running high…I wanted to slow it down!

Was it a page-turner or did you have to push through it?
It was a page turner and really had me wound up in their lives and emotions.

What would you want to ask the author, now that you’re done reading?
I would ask Ms. Steel why she felt the need to try to cram so much into the last quarter of the book.

Would you recommend this to other FOFs?
I would recommend it to other FOFs–to both those who love Danielle Steel and those new to her. It was a bit different from her average plot lines.

If you had to classify this book would you call it a “must read” a “pass” or a “skim it” book?
A must-read. I did find it flying by as I read it and was excited to get back to it each day.

One FOF will win a copy of The Intolerable Gourmet cookbook to review. By entering this contest you are agreeing to read and submit a written review of this book to FabOverFifty and to send a photo of yourself to accompany the published story.

(Contest closes 12/1/2011 at midnight E.S.T. See all our past winners. See official rules. Our panel of editors will choose winners based on the quality of their written comments. We look for clear, concise writing; creativity; and thoughtfulness.)

Want to review books for FOF?


Calling all bibliophiles. The books are stacking up at the FOF offices and we are looking for smart, insightful FOFs to read and review them!

Here’s how it works: Apply to be an FOF book guru, here. If selected, we’ll contact you about what books we have in stock and send you books periodically. Write us a fabulous review within one month of receiving the book, and we’ll publish it and send you your next book!

{Writing} So you wanna…be published?

When you’re FOF, you’re in an ideal position to start writing a book–we’ve all got a lifetime of expertise in something and plenty of stories to share. But, where to begin? The jump from your computer screen to a bookstore shelf can feel insurmountable. Arielle Eckstut, literary agent and author of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, demystifies book publishing so you can turn your book into bucks, pronto!

Should I self-publish or use a publisher?
This depends on the access you have to your audience. You must assess your own abilities and resources to figure out the right match. I’ll give you two examples:

Let’s say you’re a realtor in Tennessee, writing a book about Tennessee real estate.  You know where your audience is, you know how to reach them, and most likely a national publisher is not going to publish your book. You could go to a regional publisher but you’d probably get paid a very low advance. In this case I’d recommend you self-publish. You will make more per book because you don’t have an intermediary who takes some of the cut.

Now, let’s say you’re a realtor who is writing about getting a great deal on a house in this down economy — a national idea. You may have a great local reputation, but you are not known outside of your area. As a self-publisher, you’d have a hard time reaching the audience you want and getting the kind of distribution you need. I’d recommend pursuing a publisher in this situation.

If you decide to self publish what are your options?
You can create an e-book that you put up yourself on Amazon — you don’t have to pay for printing. You can “print on demand” one book at a time so you don’t have to pay for a large print run. Or, you can do a print run and then try to get your book into bookstores or sell them through a website.

What about “author service companies”?
There’s a whole group of companies like these popping up to help authors with self-publishing such as CreateSpace on Amazon, Lulu.com and Author House. They can get an ISBN number for your book, edit it and put together a marketing plan. But, it really adds up. You can spend $20,000 for a book that may only sell 100 copies.

Do you know anyone who has had great success self-publishing their book?
Lisa Genova wrote a book called Still Alice, about a woman with Alzheimer’s. She sent the book out to many agents — some didn’t respond and those that did said the topic was too depressing. She decided to self-publish. She reached out to Alzheimer’s organizations about her book. She became a guest blogger for one, a speaker for another. Her book became a bestseller and she ended up getting an offer from Simon and Schuster for over a million dollars.

If you do decide to go the publishing house route…how many rejections should you expect?
You need to expect rejection, period. There are people who have received over a hundred rejections but gone on to great success.

Does having a successful blog or social media page increase the chances of being picked up by a major publisher?
One of the first thing an agent or a publisher is going to do when they get your manuscript or proposal is look at your social media activity. Whether it matters, depends on your audience. If your readers are primarily 70-year-old women, having a popular Twitter feed for your book might not be as important as a Facebook page. If you are writing a sci-fi novel and don’t have a Twitter feed, that’s going to concern a publisher.

Do you need a manuscript or can you sell an idea?
It depends what you are writing. If you are writing fiction, you need a complete manuscript. If you’ve written a memoir or narrative non-fiction, these days publishers expect a manuscript. If you are writing practical non-fiction you only need a book proposal.

Do you have to know someone “inside” to get a publisher to look at your work?
You can’t just send it blind. After 9/11 they don’t open packages unless they know who they are coming from. You either need to know someone at the publishing company or send it through an agent.

So…what’s the secret to getting picked up by a big publisher?
I think there are four principles to getting published:

Researching: Every day I get dozens of queries and 95% are for the type of books I don’t represent. Those go in the trash. Whether you are looking for an agent to find out who is appropriate, assessing your competition or what other authors are doing online that you could be doing too….you need to research!

Networking: If you know someone, it makes a huge difference. You never know who is going to be the person who can help. Lisa Genova had an acquaintance in a weird part of Simon and Schuster, she wrote them, told them she was selling all these books and having enormous success, and that’s how she got her deal.

Writing: Many people have great ideas but they don’t sit down and actually write them. Sometimes the thing you are writing isn’t what will actually get published. But, if you keep writing about the things you care about, you’ll have more of a chance. We have a friend, Tamim Ansary, who had been writing for years about his childhood in Afghanistan. His agent had no success getting a memoir published. Then, 9/11 happened — his agent said, “You know that stuff you’ve been writing all these years? Get me something right now and I’ll be able to sell it within two hours.” His book, West of Kabul, East of New York, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and he was on Oprah.

Perseverance: Every writer encounters rejection. Some people give up too quickly. Other people can last long but not long enough. The people that say “I’m going to do this no matter what,” are the ones who will have success. The one caveat is there’s “smart perseverance” and “stupid perseverance.” If you just send out the same thing over and over without changing it. Anytime you get any criticism about your work, you need to reassess it and change it up.

Arielle Eckstut
is a literary agent-at-large for Levine Greenberg, co-author of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and co-founder of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping writers with every step of the publishing process. She has helped hundreds of talented writers get their books published.

{Giveaway} Bestsellers and advance copies, just for FOFs!

Enter for a chance to win 1 of 60 copies, by answering this question in the comments below: Which one of Jeffrey Stepakoff’s books would you like to read first: an advance copy of The Orchard or Fireworks Over Toccoa, on sale March 15.

Thank you for entering. This contest is now closed.

We’ve partnered with St. Martin’s Press to offer sweepstakes winners a bestseller and advance copy of books. After you’ve read them, you can join live chats with authors and other FOFs! (Can you tell we’re excited?)

This week, we’re giving away 60 books by critically-acclaimed novelist, Jeffrey Stepakoff. “Move over Nicholas Sparks,” writes Karen White, author of Falling Home. Jeffrey is best known for his work on the Emmy award-winning television shows Dawson’s Creek and The Wonder Years, but has spent the past few years building a cult following for his deeply romantic novels.

Ten FOFs will win an advance copy of The Orchard, Jeffrey’s hotly anticipated new book about a taste-tester from the city who finds love in an unlikely setting. Fifty FOFs will receive Fireworks Over Toccoa, on sale March 15, his critically acclaimed bestseller about war-time love. All of the winners will receive an invite to a private online chat with the author.

60 FOFs will win!

Enter for a chance to win 1 of 60 copies, by answering this question on the comments below: Which one of Jeffrey Stepakoff’s books would you like to read first: an advance copy of The Orchard or Fireworks Over Toccoa (on sale March 15)?


NO PURCHASE NECESSARY.  Ends at 5pm ET on 3/15/2011.  Open to legal residents of 50 US and DC, 18 and older.  Void where prohibited.  For Official Rules, prize descriptions and odds disclosure, click here. To see our past winners, click here.

{Giveaway} Free bestsellers and advance copies just for FOFs!

To enter, answer this question in the comments below: Which one of Kristin Hannah’s books would you like to read first: Night Road or Winter Garden? Why?

Thank you for entering. This contest is now closed.

Welcome to the FOF Book Club!

We’ve partnered with St. Martin’s Press to offer you FREE bestsellers and advance copies of books. After you’ve read them, you can join live chats with authors and other FOFs! (Can you tell we’re excited?)

This week, we’re giving away 60 books by bestselling novelist, Kristin Hannah. Ten FOFs will win an advance copy of Night Road, Kristin’s hotly anticipated new book about motherhood and forgiveness. Fifty FOFs will receive Winter Garden, her critically acclaimed bestseller about two sisters who uncover their mother’s secret past. All of the winners will receive an invite to a private online chat with the author.

60 lucky FOFs will win! To enter, tell us: Which one of Kristin Hannah’s books would you like to read first: Night Road or Winter Garden? Why?

[click here to read an interview with FOF author Kristin Hannah]

(Contest closes February 5, 2011 at midnight E.S.T.)
See all our past winners, here. See complete rules here.

{Book Club Guide} French Fiction Fete

If you can’t book a trip to France, you can bring France to your book club. Impress your friends with these 6 tres bon tools for hosting the perfect Parisian Book Party.

1. My Life in France by Julia Child. The captivating story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her true calling.

2. Eiffel’s Tower:  And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count by Jill Jonnes.  The story of the world-famous monument and the extraordinary world’s fair that introduced it. “Despite their eccentricities, I found all of the characters in the book to be endearing,” says FOF Adrienne Whyte. “When I got to the end of the book I actually cried. I felt I had become friends with them.”

3. Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull. A delightful, fresh twist on the travel memoir, Almost French takes us on a tour that is fraught with culture clashes but rife with deadpan humor.

4. 2009 Domaine Renaud Mâcon-Charnay. “This wine is from France’s Burgundy region. It’s a White Burgundy, essentially what we would call Chardonnay in the States. It’s weighty and rich, with flavors of green apple, lemon or pear like a Chardonnay, but more crisp and refreshing, with mineraly notes,” says FOF Jill Silverman Hough author of “100 Perfect Pairings: Small Plates to Enjoy with Wines You Love.” It’s great with ham and brie baguettes, because the wine stands up to and cuts the richness of the cheese, readying your mouth for the next bite.”

5. Ham and Brie Baguettes. “On the streets of Paris, vendors sell ham and Brie sandwiches like they sell hot dogs on the streets of New York. This version is jazzed up a bit with arugula and a mustard-mayo dressing, but even still, it evokes a French picnic,” says FOF Jill Silverman Hough author of “100 Perfect Pairings: Small Plates to Enjoy with Wines You Love. “It’s also perfect for entertaining — you can make it in advance, cut it into appetizer-sized pieces and serve it at room temperature. Bon appétit!”

[click for recipe]

Ham and Brie Baguettes

From  “100 Perfect Pairings: Small Plates to Enjoy with Wines You Love” by Jill Silverman Hough (Wiley, 2010)

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 baguette
8 ounces thinly sliced ham
4 ounces Brie cheese, cut into 1/4-inch slices
4 cups loosely packed arugula (about 2 ounces)

1. In a small bowl, combine the mustard and mayonnaise. Set aside. (You can prepare the dressing up to 3 days in advance, storing it covered in the refrigerator.)

2. Trim the ends off the baguette. Cut crosswise into 4 lengths. Split each length horizontally, so it’ll open like a book. Gently fold each piece open.

3. Spread the mustard mixture on the bread, dividing it evenly. Arrange the ham, cheese, and arugula on top, dividing them evenly. (You can prepare the sandwiches up to 4 hours in advance, storing them covered in the refrigerator.

4. Press the bread tops down lightly, cut each sandwich in thirds, and serve.

Copyright Jill Silverman Hough. All rights reserved.

6. Parisian-inspired playlist

More Camille music on iLike

Plus! A few months ago, FOFs got a chance to chat with Eiffel’s Tower author Jill Jonnes at FabOverFifty’s own French-inspired book club meeting. Eiffel’s Tower chronicles the construction of the iconic tower and it’s introduction at the 1889 World’s Fair in Belle Epoque Paris. Watch the video below.

{Book Expert} Linda Wolfe: 7 Best Books of the Year

FOF Linda Wolfe, the award-winning author of 10 books and a 12-year veteran of the National Book Critics Circle, picks 2010’s most unforgettable titles. Warm up your Kindle, whip out your library card or just snuggle in bed with a good old-fashioned paper version of one of these works of art.

NEMESIS by Philip Roth
292 pp. Houghton Mifflin. $26.
In the sweltering summer of 1944, the year before World War II ended, a polio epidemic spread throughout Newark, New Jersey, [click to read more]

destroying the lives of many young people, some of whom died, some of whom went on to live as lifelong cripples. Roth, in his thirty-second novel, writes vigorously about the effects of the epidemic on one man, Bucky Cantor, a youthful playground director who is viewed as almost godlike by the boys he teaches to play ball, do exercises, throw the javelin. Due to poor eyesight, Bucky has been denied what he most desires: a chance to serve in the war. But when the epidemic strikes he determines to keep to his post in the playground and care for his charges no matter their – and his – fears about polio. His girlfriend implores him to join her in the presumably healthier air of a summer camp, but he refuses. “This was real war, too,” he thinks, “a war upon the children of Newark.”
What happens to Bucky and the children of Newark is brilliantly evoked by Roth. The book is a triumph of style and sensitivity which culminates in a searing inquiry into the nature of God. The last few pages are among the most breathtaking that Roth has ever written.

by John Le Carré
306 pp. Viking. $27.95
Le Carré, grandmaster of the spy thriller, has written his most suspenseful espionage story in years, [click to read more]

a book about the Russian mafia, international money laundering, stiff-upper-lip British intelligence agents, and two innocents abroad who get dragged–despite their better judgment–into dangerous cloak-and-dagger games. The innocents are Gail Perkins, a young barrister, and her boyfriend, Perry Makepiece, a literature professor and dynamite tennis player. On a much-anticipated Caribbean vacation, they’re approached by an enigmatic Russian bear of a man named Dimitri Krasnov–Dimi for short–who wants to play tennis with Perry. Turns out, he also wants Perry to contact the British government and arrange permanent residence for himself and his family in exchange “for certain informations very important, very urgent, very critical for Great Britain of Her Majesty.” It’s a roller coaster ride from there on in, a tale that will keep you or any of your book-loving friends biting your fingernails and sometimes – how does he do it? – tearing up at the same time.

MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins
390 pp. Scholastic Press. $17.99
This is the third and final novel in Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t
yet read the first two, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, you’ve been missing some of the most exciting fiction out there [click to read more]

– and even though the books are written for Young Adults, many of us older adults have been passionately devouring them. Not just to have a peek at what our teenagers are reading, but because the books are inventive, fast-paced, ethically provocative, and have an exceptionally charismatic heroine. She’s a moody, spirited sixteen-year-old, and although her adventures take place in a dystopian future society, she’s as true to life, as the girl next door – or in one’s own house. Mockingjay, for those who’ve read the first two books, is less tightly plotted than The Hunger Games, my favorite, but it’s equally compelling.

JUST KIDS by Patti Smith
279 pp. Ecco. $27.
She’s been called “the godmother of punk” and “punk rock’s poet laureate,” and it turns out she’s a terrific memoirist. [click to read more]

In Just Kids, Smith writes about being a pregnant nineteen-year-old “country mouse,” giving up her baby, and seeking a new life in the edgy bohemian world of sixties New York. Unsure of who or what she will become, she’s helped along her way by meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, the taboo-defying photographer who will become one of the most controversial artists of his time as well as Patti’s friend and lover. Her memoir is full of carefree moments and encounters with famous figures like Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol, but there’s a heartbreaking quality to the tale as, still “just kids,” Patti and Robert head toward the fame and fortune that will eventually strengthen one and destroy the other.

HALF A LIFE by Darin Strauss
205 pp. McSweeney’s. $22
A tiny, compact memoir, this book has all the thrust and power of a car crash, and indeed it’s about a crash [click to read more]

in his senior year of high school, novelist Darin Strauss accidentally ran over a girl on a bike. The girl, a schoolmate of his, died, and in a way, Straus died too. He would never be free from thinking about her, even when doing the most mundane things, like getting a can of soda: “Celine Zilke will never feel a can in her grip,” he’d think, and later, Celine would never go to college, get married, have a child. By the time he himself marries, he has come to feel he’s living for two. He changes from being a crass, book-averse teenager to an academic achiever and a writer of enormous talent. His story is a page-turner and a profound exploration of how we are shaped by, and must live with, the consequences of our actions.

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson.
622 pp. Random House. $30.
Starting in the early nineteen-hundreds, black people began leaving the Jim-Crow South in droves and settling down in the North and West. [click to read more]

These immigrants to a new world were not so different from those who fled oppression in Russia, Italy, and other European countries to make better lives for themselves in the freer atmosphere of America. Wilkerson gives us the story of the “epic migration” of blacks, focusing her account on the lives of three fascinating individuals she chose after interviewing more than a thousand people. You’ll learn things about America you never knew before. You’ll come to know her characters intimately (some of them may remind you of the characters in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help). Above all, you’ll be wowed by how readable and absorbing Wilkerson’s important work of history is.

369 pp. Crown. $26.
This is that rare thing – a book about science that is engrossing and understandable even to someone like me who got a “D” in biology. [click to read more]

Skloot, a science journalist, spent ten years tracking down the story of a woman who died of cancer in 1951 but whose cells, withdrawn from her cervix during a biopsy, became immortal by virtue of being the first ever reproduced successfully and in profusion in a lab. The woman was Henrietta Lacks, an illiterate mother of five, and the cells–dubbed “HeLa” from the first letters of her first and last names–have been flown to the moon and bought and sold around the world. They have helped with nearly every important advance in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization–you name it. But while every science student knows about HeLa cells, virtually no one knew anything much about Henrietta Lacks until Skloot undertook to find out who she was. She tells a whopping good tale about her nervewracking search, and writes with uncommon skill not just about Henrietta and her descendants, but about cell culturing, the interplay between race, poverty and science, the ethics of tissue collection, and the laws that are newly emerging to determine whether our cells belong to science or ourselves.