Today is the birthday of the American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House on the Prairie saga captured the imagination of generations of children (and at least one TV producer).
Despite being a somewhat fictionalized version of her own life, the novels read like gospel truth to her fans—our reviewer Amy Scribner probably wasn't the only one to be shocked when she realized what section they were shelved in: "Did that mean that Laura Ingalls Wilder—whose braids and spunk I spent the better part of my childhood emulating—hadn’t really almost starved during the long winter, or fought with nasty Nellie Oleson, or fallen in love with Almanzo?"
That quote comes from our review of Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life, which chronicles McLure's obsessive quest to visit the settings of the series and the trappings of Laura's world—dirt houses, horehound candy, pig's bladder balloons and all. It was our nonfiction top pick back in April 2011—and the subject of a BookPage podcast. If you've read the book, you can listen to our discussion here! (Or right-click to download to your computer.) If you haven't read the book yet, you can find an excerpt here.
If you could follow in the footsteps of one author, who would it be?
The inimitable Grace Coddington, creative director of Vogue, visited Nashville this weekend to chat with model Karen Elson about her new memoir, Grace, at a sold-out event at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. You probably know Coddington from the film The September Issue (or as Coddington calls it in the opening lines of Grace, “the only reason anyone has ever heard of me.”) where she played the foil to the ice queen Anna Wintour.
It is this general waving-off of her brilliance and her monumental influence on the last half a century of fashion that sets Coddington apart from the rest of the fashion world. The same romantic humor and refreshing, familiar unpretentiousness that is found in Grace is, wonderfully, exactly how Coddington, with her shaved eyebrows and distinguishable head of red Welsh hair, seemed before an audience of Nashville’s most fashionable.
The first time Elson—Coddington’s self-declared doppelganger—introduced Coddington, it was at the 2009 British Fashion Awards, and a wrong step sent Elson “head over heels into the orchestra pit” and left her with a cracked rib. Elson’s sophomore attempt at hosting Coddington left everyone intact as they chatted lightly, trading mutual adoration, reminiscing on modeling, heralding the era of grunge and giggling over Coddington’s doodles of cats.
Although modeling and cats were the topics du jour, readers will be pleased to know that Grace only briefly covers Coddington’s modeling career, devoting more chapters to working with photographers and designers, her favorite Vogue spreads, boyfriends and, of course, cats. She imbues her writing with a sense of laa-dee-da that comes from a life of good-humored charm, and she seems only to lament the passing of time when discussing fashion’s transition into the digital age. A victorious doodle captioned “Eureka! I just opened my first email” makes light even of these monumental changes.
No matter the topic, Coddington’s message is one of perseverance. She commiserated with Elson on the criticism thrust upon models, particularly when Eileen Ford, “the American doyenne of all model agents,” announced that Coddington’s 18-inch waist was “Fat! Fat! Fat!” She became a model anyway, and so much more. It’s this attitude that makes Grace more than just a who’s-who of fashion greats, as she writes:
"For me, one of the most important aspects of my work is to give people something to dream about, just as I used to dream all those years ago as a child looking at beautiful photographs. I still weave dreams, finding inspiration wherever I can and looking for romance in the real, not the digital, world.”
I can't believe it's been a week since the Southern Festival of Books! Now that I've had a few days to reflect on the experience of having 200 authors in Nashville—and running around like a chicken with my head cut off to see as many of them as possible—I wanted to share my favorite moments from the book festival (in no particular order).
As a native Arkansan, it was surreal to see Damien Echols, one of the members of the West Memphis Three and the author of the memoir Life After Death, walking free on the stage of an auditorium at a book festival. It's hard to convey how important Echols' case was to many people in Arkansas (and later, around the world) when I was growing up; in high school, students routinely wore WM3 bracelets to express their support for the three convicted men. Echols spoke poignantly about how it's emotionally difficult for him to talk now about his time on death row and in prison, but he continues to travel and promote the book because you never know when an audience member might find themselves on the jury of a murder trial. Echols wants to educate people about the painful realities of our justice system.
I had the good fortune of interviewing Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift, and Inman Majors, author of Love's Winning Plays, on the Chapter 16 stage at the festival. (Okay, I know this is technically two "moments," but I'm grouping 'em together!) Both authors were gracious, articulate and fascinating to talk to. It was inspiring to hear how Benaron actually aspired to win Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize from the time she started writing her book—then went out and did it! Her love and respect for Rwanda, the setting of her novel, was palpable. Majors was just as funny in person as I hoped he'd be, and his philosophy of humor—he uses "high" language applied to "low" situations (a.k.a. toilet humor, as the case may be)—rang true.
On the final day of the festival, I hosted a panel called “Creating Our Own Realities: Young People Making Sense of Their World." The authors on the panel were Loretta Ellsworth and John Corey Whaley.
Even though the last day of the festival was terribly windy, a nice crowd turned out to ask questions of these two YA authors and listen to them read. I loved hearing both authors talk about writing the story they needed to write—but by far, my favorite part of the panel was when young people asked questions during the Q&A and approached the authors after the talk. (One kid wondered if Where Things Come Back was inspired by a video game.) It's fun to hear from the people for whom the books are intended.
On Saturday morning of the festival, Nina Cardona--a reporter on Nashville Public Radio and host of All Things Considered--interviewed four authors at the Women's National Book Association breakfast at the Nashville Public Library. There was a stellar line-up: Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), Christopher Tilghman (The Right-Hand Shore), Gail Tsukiyama (A Hundred Flowers) and Karen Thompson Walker (The Age of Miracles). Throughout the two-hour panel, Cardona (whose voice has accompanied much of my time in the car, as long I've lived in Nashville!) did a fabulous job distilling (and explaining) the four distinct stories and pulling out similarities. It was especially fascinating to hear the authors speak about getting to know their characters and taking on the beast of research.
The final session I went to at the festival, William Henry Chafe's talk about his book Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, reminded me that some of the best experiences at a book festival are the unplanned moments. I walked into this session on a whim when I was on my way home on Sunday, and it turned out that Chafe's flight was delayed. So, the poor moderator--not to be deterred!--went ahead and gave his introduction without the author present. Turned out he'd attended Yale Law School with the Clintons, and he was able to give some insight into their time as law students. The moderator had certainly not planned to take questions from the audience about a book he didn't write, but this introduction added an unexpected personal touch to the proceedings. Then, about 20 minutes late and straight from the airport, Chafe burst into the room and blew us all away with a spirited account of the Clintons' relationship--and how you have to understand their personal lives to make sense of their political decisions. The audience was obviously enthralled, and it was an exciting way to end the weekend.
This is really only the tip of the iceberg of the fun I had at the festival. Moral of the story: Go hear authors speak in person! Author talks are entertaining and you'll no doubt learn something, too.
Have you been to any great author events lately?
Gillian Flynn—the genius behind Gone Girl—spoke at the Southern Festival of Books on Saturday, October 13. I knew there would be a large crowd with a lot of questions at the talk, and I was not disappointed.
Here are a few fun facts from Flynn's presentation:
• Flynn's dad was a film professor, which explains the author's love of pop culture—and dark stories. (He took her to see Alien when she was seven.)
• She wrote her first novel, Sharp Objects, while she was a writer for Entertainment Weekly. To separate her two lives—writing the book in secret and writing for work—she neglected to include any pop culture references in the novel. She also wrote the novel all over the world while she was on location covering movies.
• Flynn's first story, written in third grade, was called "To the Outhouse." It was a riff on Little House on the Prairie—in which a girl gets up to go to an outhouse in the middle of the night, and is promptly surrounded by wolves!
• The author originally wanted to be a crime reporter, but she discovered that she was too shy for the interviews. Instead she turned to TV writing and criticism. Her work as a journalist taught her to be an observant person and disciplined enough to write every day—good training for a novelist.
• Flynn and her husband are "coming up on" their five-year wedding anniversary. (Gone Girl starts on a couple's fifth-year anniversary, which sets in motion the mystery at the heart of the novel. Let's hope the author's is less eventful!).
• When Flynn was drafting Gone Girl, main character Amy's family's business was originally a dating service. The oh-so-perfect "Amazing Amy" idea only came later.
• Flynn is currently in the process of writing the screenplay of the movie version of Gone Girl, which will be produced by Reese Witherspoon. Flynn confirmed that there will be voice over in the movie (think Election or Fight Club).
• No surprise here, but attendees of the Southern Festival of Books were eager to get their books signed and personalized by Flynn. The photo above is but a segment of the very long line at the signing colonnade.
Have you read Gone Girl? If so, I'd definitely recommend you try to catch the superstar author on book tour.
The Southern Festival of Books starts tomorrow in Nashville, and readers: If you live anywhere near our city, I recommend you come for a visit because this year's festival is going to be truly awesome. There will be more than 200 authors present, and the lineup is so impressive I can't quite believe our good fortune.
First order of business: I will be talking to three authors as part of a BookPage live interview series. These interviews take place on the Chapter 16 Stage, which is close to the entrance of the Legislative Plaza and the book sales tent. I would love to meet any BookPage readers in person, and I know you'll enjoy hearing from these three talented authors. (There will be time for questions from the audience, too—it won't just be me yammering away the whole time!)
Friday, October 12, 3-4 PM
I'll be talking to Bellwether Prize-winner Naomi Benaron about Running the Rift, a gorgeously written and heartbreaking coming-of-age story about an aspiring Olympic runner, set during the Rwandan Genocide. (Hint: The paperback of this novel comes out next week and it would be a great pick for book clubs.)
Saturday, October 13, 1-2 PM
Come hear me talk to Inman Majors, the author of the makes-you-want-to-cry-it's-so-funny Love's Winning Plays, a satire about SEC football. (If you're football-shy, never fear: This is really a story about an unlikely friendship. Football lingo and scenes are minimal. And really, football fanatics and people who roll their eyes at the sport will find plenty to appreciate in this book.)
Sunday, October 14, 2-2:30 PM
I can't wait to chat with local thriller author J.T. Ellison, whose first book in a series starring Tennessee Medical Examiner Samantha Owens—A Deeper Darkness—kept me up until 2 a.m. on a work night. Book #2 comes out in November, so jump on board with the series as it's being written. (Scarpetta fans will love it.)
I'm also moderating a YA panel on Sunday:
Sunday, October 14, 12-1 PM
The theme of the panel is "Creating Our Own Realities: Young People Making Sense of Their World" and the authors are John Corey Whaley and Loretta Ellsworth.
Whaley's Where Things Come Back might just be the most acclaimed YA novel that was published in 2011: It won the 2012 Printz Award, the 2012 William C. Morris Debut Fiction Award and Whaley was the first-ever YA author to be selected as a "Top 5 Under 35 Author" by the National Book Foundation. I loved this book. It's a story about growing up in a small town, hope, an obsession with a bird (!) and so much more.
Ellsworth's novel, Unforgettable, is fascinating—it's definitely one of those "what if" kinds of stories that makes you think. The main character, Baxter, has a photographic memory and suffers from synesthesia. He also testified against his mother's ex-boyfriend who is now out of jail, so there is an element of suspense that keeps you turning pages.
Frankly, there are far too many must-see authors speaking at the festival to highlight everybody, but here are a few that we're especially excited about:
• You know Junot Díaz? That guy who just won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant and is a National Book Award Finalist and is a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize? Well, he's speaking on Saturday at 4 P.M. at War Memorial Auditorium.
• Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is the breakaway hit of 2012. Everybody I know is reading it—people who devour suspense, people who typically don't read "genre" novels, people who aren't usually aware of contemporary fiction. I adored this chilling, completely unpredictable story of a marriage and a police investigation. Flynn is speaking on Saturday at 11 A.M. at War Memorial Auditorium.
• I've heard Ron Rash speak twice at past Southern Festivals, and he is wonderful—funny, interesting, entertaining. Go hear him speak on Saturday at 10 A.M. in Room 12 of the Legislative Plaza.
• As a reader of his own work, Adam Ross gives the best performances I've ever heard from an author (seriously). Claire Vaye Watkins' collection Battleborn is one of the most haunting and exciting debuts of the year. Adam Prince has recently been named one of the 20 best new writers by Narrative magazine. Hear all three of them together on Saturday at 3 P.M. in the Nashville Public Library Auditorium.
• Damien Echols, one of the "West Memphis Three" who served 18 years on death row (for murders he did not commit), will speak about his memoir, Life After Death, on Sunday at 1 P.M. in War Memorial Auditorium.
And friends: That is only the tip of the iceberg.
Other authors you can see live and in person: Chris Pavone, author of The Expats; Padgett Powell, author of You & Me; Jay Jennings, editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany; Amy Franklin-Willis, author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee; Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia; Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy; Katherine Paterson, the former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature who is beloved for her novel Bridge to Terabithia; David Maraniss, author of Barack Obama: The Story; Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake: Stories; Alice Randall, author of Ada's Rules: A Sexy, Skinny Novel; Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and the Unlikely Road to Manhood (and a contributor to The Atlantic); Sharon Creech, author of The Great Unexpected (and Walk Two Moons!); Courtney Miller Santo, author of The Roots of the Olive Tree; R.L Stine, author of GOOSEBUMPS(!!); Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles . . . and more!
Can you see why we're so excited?
Browse the Southern Festival of Books schedule; make a game plan for which sessions you're going to attend; and come prepared to ask questions and buy books. Visit the festival's mobile website to plan on the go.
Which events are you planning to attend? See you this weekend! (I'll be the dork carrying a stack of 15 autographed books.)
Banned Books Week is one of my favorite celebrations of the year—an important reminder that we shouldn't take our freedom to read for granted. This year marks the 30th celebration of the week.
According to the American Library Association, "Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community . . . in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."
Check out this list to see the "most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century." It's fascinating to look at these graphs detailing the specifics of challenged books. For example, from the years 1990-2010, the most number of challenges were in 1995. During that time frame the most common reason for challenges was "sexually explicit content," followed by "offensive language." Most challenges were by parents.
One of my favorite features of my local library growing up (CALS, represent!) was the library-distributed bookmark listing names of banned books. Of course, the fact that the books had been banned at one point only increased my interest in reading these subversive titles. And I appreciated that I could get them for free at the library.
Here's another thought for you to consider during Banned Books Week. Reading is educational and fun, and it can be hard to understand why anybody would want to limit our access to good books. But as Barbara Kingsolver says, fiction is political. Here's an explanation in her own words, which I love:
Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view. It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction. What could be more political than that?
To enter to win 30 banned books (in eBook form), visit Open Road Media's Banned Books Week website. Also, enjoy this video of authors talking about censured books:
Why do you think it's important to celebrate Banned Books Week?
Readers, I know what I'm doing today! I'll give you a hint:
Yep, today I am reading The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults. If this week's Monday Contest is any indication, I'd bet that many of you are doing the same thing. So far, more than 25% of commenters on the contest have listed The Casual Vacancy on their own personal Top 10 lists for fall reading.
A few reviews have already come in for The Casual Vacancy, but I'm avoiding them so my own review for BookPage will be only my opinion, free of influence.
However, I did head to Parnassus Books in Nashville this morning to purchase a hardcover of the novel (even though I started reading in the middle of the night when the book was delivered on my Kindle!). I spent a few minutes chatting with store owner Ann Patchett, who confessed that she loved the book. Ann was one of the few people in the world who got to read the novel early (a copy was hand-delivered to her here in Nashville by a Little Brown representative). Ann will be interviewing Rowling on stage on October 16 at Lincoln Center—it's the only event Rowling will do in the United States. If you weren't able to get tickets, get in touch with your local bookstore; they may livestream the interview, as Parnassus is planning to do.
Though I don't want to post any spoilers of what I've read so far, I will say that we are very clearly not in Hogwarts. This is no surprise if you read this week's profile of Rowling in the New Yorker, which revealed the profanity and other adult content that readers can expect in this novel.
What I will say is that so far the book has made me chuckle. It's also made me whip out a pen and paper to keep track of names, as the early chapters are packed with introductions of characters.
Also present in the opening pages: crushes, a hint of domestic abuse, town gossip and the seed of political turmoil in a small English village.
Okay, enough chatting--time to get back to reading! Who else is diving into The Casual Vacancy today? What are your thoughts so far?
What can you give the woman whose work has only been outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare for her birthday?
The answer to that question is a mystery to me (ha), but since tomorrow is Agatha Christie's birthday, readers might like to celebrate by learning more about her life. We recommend An Autobiography, last year's new edition of her 1977 autobiography that's now available in paperback. The book, with a new introduction by Christie's grandson, also includes a special code to download excerpts read by Christie herself. It was our top pick in nonfiction when it was released last December.
"Christie’s enjoyment of the “indulgence” of memoir writing is apparent on every page of this lovely book, giving it a cheerful tone, as if she’s just turned to face you across the tea table to tell you a story," said BookPage reviewer Catherine Hollis.
p.s. If Agatha Christie isn't your type, but you're a mystery lover—don't miss our recommendations for new mystery series based on classic bestsellers.
We're just a month out from the publication of J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, on September 27. Little, Brown has been keeping details about the novel, other than the official description, top secret—sources say that only a select few have had time with the embargoed manuscript, and all cell phones and recording devices must be left outside the door.
That's not unusual for a big title (although it's less common for fiction), but the lack of pre-pub hype from the publisher is. As USA Today reports, there's been little to no push on this one—no promo materials, no midnight release parties—and stores are having a hard time figuring out how to get the word out, or what to tell their customers when asked about the book. The head buyer at R.J. Julia Booksellers is quoted as saying, "We had no posters … It hasn't been easy. People are curious, but they don't know what to expect."
The article goes on to say that the lack of a dramatic publicity onslaught is likely due to Rowling's own wishes, since rumor has it the world's best-selling author would prefer that her first adult novel stand on its own merit and not on her reputation. But a successful transition to adult fiction after becoming known as a YA author is a tricky one. Other YA authors who've made the jump in the last few years include Sara Shepard (Pretty Little Liars series), who released her first adult novel last year to little fanfare, and Ann Brashares, whose 2010 adult time-travel romance was the first in what looks like a stillborn series.
But perhaps the best comparison for a writer like Rowling is Stephenie Meyer, who moved to adult fiction after publishing the Twilight series. Her sci-fi novel The Host wasn't a big jump from the teen fantasy she is known for, yet it still sold just 2 million copies in hardcover (yes, an impressive figure, but the fourth Twilight novel, by comparison, sold 1.3 million copies on its first day of sale!). She has yet to publish the promised sequel, although perhaps that will be announced when the film version of The Host is released in March 2013.
The Casual Vacancy couldn't sound more different from the Harry Potter series, and although some people are sure to buy based on the Rowling name, its level of success will depend on the word-of-mouth response from readers. Stay tuned for our review on September 28!
Do you plan to read The Casual Vacancy?
It was a bittersweet show, as it was both a farewell performance to Rock Bottom fans and a goodbye to their founding member, our beloved Author Enabler Kathi Kamen Goldmark, who recently lost her battle with cancer.
Kathi would have been proud—the show was characteristically wild to the point of ridiculous. Well, the band was wild. The audience, consisting entirely of sweet librarians, listened quietly from their seats, maybe clapping along from time to time. (Except, of course, for the five women doing the Electric Slide.)
The band included big-name authors, all of whom evidently have no shame:
The authors' talents lie more in enthusiasm than anything else, so even though Amy Tan was half a beat behind and Stephen King barely touched his guitar, it was still an unforgettable show. They played a number of rock favorites, but their "lit-rock" songs ("I'm a big bestseller, baby" and "I'm in love with a proofreading woman") were by far their best. No one really cared that they botched "Wild Thing" or that Matt Groening did nothing except bop back and forth in his Marge Simpson mask.
The band honored Kathi's memory with several songs at the end, including the Irish folk song they sang to her over the phone when she was in the hospital and Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart." All eyes were on her leopard guitar at the front of the stage.
All in all, a touching goodbye to a wonderful woman and the hilarious band she inspired. We'll miss the Rock Bottom Remainders!