Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

Lily King's recipe for Writers & Lovers will entice all readersstart with raw, confessional honesty, add a passion for gourmet food, spice with good and bad sex, mix well with poor judgement, and finally roast all the characters at high heat. If you're looking for a fun escape from these dystopian times, here's your time machine to 1990's Harvard Square. 

A couple of years past thirty, Casey Peabody lives in a dingy room above a garage, working double shifts as a waitress to afford a few early hours to focus exclusively on her literary novel. Unpaid student loans and credit card bills are tossed directly into the garbage. She bikes to work, past squawking geese on the Charles River, her tears mixing with the incessant rain. Casey is mourning her mother's recent death, failed love affairs, and a traumatic childhood. She writes both to escape and to find herself. Her true name isn't even Casey.

"You don't realize how much effort you've put into covering things up until you try to dig them out."

I recommend reading Writers & Lovers slowly to savor the perfect sentences. This a writer's book, expertly crafted but still easy to read. The writing never distracts from the story-telling nor slows the pace. Humorous interludes, passionate moments, and sumptuous descriptions of food brighten the shadows of the backstory. The characters are equally enticing as flawed. It feels so real and familiar. This marvelous book captures, more than any other I've ever read, the hardships and rewards of the writer's life and gives me hope to keep working on my own novel. 

Writers Disclosure: I have a personal connection to Writers & Lovers. After moving from Cambridge, Massachusetts to coastal Maine, I met Lily at the school our children attended. She looked so familiar, but I couldn't place her until reading her latest book. My husband and I had celebrated anniversaries, special birthdays, and graduate school degrees in the gorgeous rooftop garden of the old Upstairs at the Pudding in Harvard Square. Lily had been the perfect waitress, remembering everything without writing it down...until now. Brava, Lily!

My author interview and review of Euphoria (Lily King's previous novel).

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran

In 1975 Phuc Tran was only a toddler when his family fled the chaos of Saigon for rural Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Although nearly all of the residents were white, Phuc refused to be defined by his ethnicity. Instead, he reinvented himself with the help of punk rock, skateboard tricks, and classic literature. His debut memoir, Sigh, Gone captures both the despair and exhilaration of being a misfit American teenager. 

Phuc struggled growing up with parents who could barely speak English and with neighbors who couldn't pronounce his name or see beyond the Vietnam War. Although driven by love, his father's demand for academic perfection frequently crossed the line into physical abuse. Searching for a sense of belonging, Phuc found a chosen family of skateboarding punks, who shared his passion for iconoclastic music and reckless pranks. They accepted him as he was and offered him the loyalty he deserved.

While working at the public library, Phuc found salvation in literary heroes. Reading through an obscure list of great books by dead white men, Phuc aimed to master them all to win a scholarship to a New York university. Every chapter of his memoir is labeled after a great book, and their themes reverberate in his tumultuous life. His confessional story will make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. 

Phuc Tran and his advisees at the Waynflete School
©Sarah Laurence

My family had been waiting eagerly for Phuc's memoir, and Sigh, Gone lived up to our high expectations. My daughter was lucky enough to have Phuc as her advisor in high school, where he taught Classics. Weekly "Awkward Lunch with Phuc" helped Gemma and many others survive those stressful but formative years. Phuc always put his students first and offered them the emotional support he wished he'd had in high school. 

I would highly recommend Sigh, Gone to anyone mature enough for uncensored teenaged boyhood. Although written for adults, I'm certain teens would enjoy its brutal honesty and ironic humor as well. If you want a preview, watch Phuc's Tedx talk, "Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive." 


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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Staycation reading: Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I usually try to match my vacation reading to the destination so being stuck at home this year was well timed. Twelve years ago, I'd devoured Olive Kitteridge by my part-time neighbor, Elizabeth Strout. Her eponymous protagonist was deeply flawed: judgemental, abrasive, and brutally honest. Olive was prejudiced toward rich and attractive urbanites and quick to blame the Jews, but she was also willing to put hate aside to help anyone in need and felt remorse for her mistakes. Olive was deliciously human and larger than life. How often is a retired middle school teacher the protagonist of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel?

Nine years ago at a small event for library volunteers, Liz Strout mentioned a few more Olive stories, a tenacious character who continued to haunt her as much as her fans. Olive, Again was finally published last fall, but I didn't want to read about home while traveling in Latin America. Due to the pandemic, we decided to rent a house on the water this summer, only ten miles from home. My son and his girlfriend joined us from Boston after Covid tests. Midcoast Maine was the perfect spot to read these stories, and made me appreciate our quaint hometown all the more. Crosby is a fictionalized blend of Brunswick and Harpswell. I know the bookshop keeper, have dined at the Dolphin, and often drive out to the point. 

Olive, Again brought me home to my staycation. Like its predecessor, the stories featuring Olive as the central character are stronger than the ones in which she only plays a cameo. They link together to form a chronological novel. Of the thirteen stories, only three were disappointing: "The Walk" was as trite as a Hallmark greeting card, and "The End of the Civil War Days" as edgy as an elderly relative cracking a sexually explicit joke. "Exiles" was a follow up to The Burgess Boys, not my favorite of her novels. However, the other ten stories were stunning: original, emotionally resonant, and perfectly crafted. "Arrested" picks up where Olive Kitteridge left off: what happened between Olive and Republican Jack? "Labor" is classic Olive with childbirth disasters. "Light" might be the best story I've ever read about supporting a loved one with terminal illness. "Friend" connects Olive to a character from an earlier novel and gives us a satisfying ending.

When I finished Olive, Again, I was so bereft that I immediately reread the last story in Olive Kitteridge, which my daughter had just finished herself. It was a joy to share Olive with my daughter, to sit side by side, reading on the deck, overlooking the mudflats. We may not be able to visit friends and extended family, but I'm grateful to have had this time close to home with my husband, our children, a dog, and dear old Olive. 

See you at low tide! 

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@Barrie Summy

Monday, August 3, 2020

I Give It to You by Valerie Martin

Who else is dreaming of traveling to Italy? I Give It to You is a most appropriately titled book for a virtual vacation. Even better for escapism, Valerie Martin's new novel is set in the past: the 1980s and World War II Tuscany. Like in her classic Property, Martin offers us an unreliable narrator, but this one is a novelist instead of a slave owner. The protagonist is both guest and parasite.

I Give it to You is a writer's novel that questions the boundary between author and subject. Is the story there to be plucked like a fruit or are there limits, especially when fictionalizing personal history? The protagonist, Jan, is a midlist author has been offered the dream fellowship to research a novel in Italy. She has rented the sunny limonaia at an old estate in rural Tuscany. The architecture is as well rendered as the characters: 

"Parallel to the gate, the charming limonaia stands with its back to the wall. Glass and verdigris copper doors glint beneath the shelter of the rafters, which extend over a small stone terrace. Artfully placed hip-high pots of rosemary and lemon trees create a cool and semiprivate sitting area."

From her sunny patio, Jan observes the aristocratic family in the main villa. The glamorous Beatrice shows her around the countryside, and as a friendship develops between the two middle aged professors, Beatrice shares the story of her family's struggles under Mussolini. Oddly enough, we learn nothing about Jan's past or family. This narrative approach succeeded in creating plot tension and mystery, but at the expense of the protagonist, who was the least developed and most unlikable character. Jan is prone to prejudices against psychiatry and offensive ethnic stereotypes. She judges others with impunity but is defensive when they judge her in turn.


The old villa is both a stage for family drama and a metaphor for decay of the aristocracy. As a reader, we grow to love Villa Chiara as much as Beatrice does. Even its rustic failings like bad plumbing become plot points to increase tension amongst the extended family. The chapters alternate between the 1980s and flashback chapters to Beatrice's childhood during the War and afterwards as a graduate student in Massachusetts. Sometimes the past and present chapters overlap so that the narrative becomes a bit repetitive. What brings the story to life are all the well-developed secondary characters who have hidden motives and agendas of their own.


Although the photos in this post are from my last trip to Tuscany nine summers ago, I Give it To You will be released in the USA tomorrow (8/4/20). I'd recommend it to anyone who craves a vacation in Italy and to writers who enjoy a well-crafted book. I wonder if our current pandemic will divide history as much as World War II did. Will there be a new genre of post-pandemic literature since the world has fundamentally changed?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, President Barack Obama wrote"So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both."

As a follow up to the BLM protests, hand The Voting Booth to your woke teen. Brandy Colbert's new YA novel educates young readers about the importance of voting, the obstacles facing first-time voters, and the racist policies and attitudes that undermine American democracy.

Colbert sweetens the lesson in civic responsibility with a cute romance. Straight-A Marva has been waiting her whole life for her first Election Day. She volunteered to register voters and arrived early to the polls before school. To honor his activist brother, Duke had also arrived early to vote, but the polling station doesn't have a record of his registration and his band is playing its first paid gig after school.

When Marva sees Duke turned away from the polls, she offers to help him make sure his vote gets counted. There are many obstacles: a runaway cat, driving while black, ballot shortages, a jealous boyfriend (Alex), truancy calls to parents. Marva and Duke team up to beat the odds and to find her Instagram-famous cat. 


Brandy Colbert, author photo by Jessie Weinberg

At times this topical novel reads a bit like a textbook:
Marva: "Well, it's June nineteenth. Enslaved people in Texas didn't find out until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation that they were free. Not until 1865. So black people celebrate it every year, and it's recognized by almost every state in the country, even though a lot of people don't know about it." 

Unlike a textbook, the white boyfriend's insensitive response shows why this lesson is important:
Alex: "Yeah, but what's the point of two separate holidays? I don't care if you're black, white, blue, or green - we're all American, right?"

When Marva flags his color-blind world view as ignorant and Alex argues with her instead of apologizing, his grandmother demonstrate how to be a good ally: "It would do you some good to listen instead of getting defensive next time."

Seeing political lessons played out in everyday life will help teens relate to these important issues. Most of the book is fast paced to keep even reluctant readers turning the pages. It's marvelous to have a diverse book with middle class black and biracial characters, who are not victims but empowered agents of change. If they make the effort to vote!

Mainers: remember to vote in our primary Tuesday July 14th
or drop off your absentee ballot at your town office tomorrow.
Maine allows you to register in person at the polls.
I've been volunteering for Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon
who is running for the Democratic nomination 
to challenge Senator Susan Collins in November.