HEMINGWAY’S GIRL by Erika Robuck

My introduction to Erika Robuck came through Amy Sue Nathan’s blog Women’s Fiction Writers in 2012, when Robuck shared her journey to publication. It’s an inspiring interview, which I saved and reference from time to time.

For the booklovers who frequent my Bookshelf, you know that I like to zero in on what works and what doesn’t work for me—an ingrained curse of a writer struggling with a debut novel. I’m delighted and surprised to say Erika Robuck nudged me out of habit. When I finished the novel my son asked how I liked it.

“It was good,” I said. 

“So, you didn’t really like it?”


“No,” I said. “You’ve completely misunderstood. I loved it. I was swept away, hardly took any notes. In fact, Erika Robuck made me forget I was a writer.”

A theory exists to help readers choose books. I came across it on The Kill Zone with a blog post titled The Page 69-Bomb. Select a book and turn to page 69. If you like that page you’ll probably like the book. If you’re unable to get a sense of the book’s heart by then, best to leave the book on the shelf. How did Hemingway’s Girl stand up? I didn’t test the book ahead of time, but I can say, without hesitation, my allegiance and investment in heroine Mariella Bennet was complete after the first four pages. By page 43 I had to force myself to stop reading in order to get anything else done during the day. Now that’s happiness.

Before the novel begins Robuck writes to the reader:

After reading all [of Hemingway’s] novels and eventually ending up in his home in Key West, I had a strong desire to tell a piece of his story and inspire others to read his work. 

I’m thrilled to say Robuck’s wish came true for me. Although I’ve read The Old Man and The Sea four times, A Moveable Feast and a few short stories, Hemingway’s other novels have remained a mystery—until now. I’m currently in the midst of A Farewell to Arms thanks to Hemingway’s Girl. And I have a growing interest in reading about the women in Hemingway’s life.

I can’t imagine writing a historical novel. The research alone would intimidate me. Luckily for us, Erika Robuck did not let fear get the best of her. What she learned about Key West, the Veterans of WWI, Hemingway and the Depression enriches, but never overpowers the page. The truth of 1935 and the characters she writes about seep under our skins until we feel like active participants in the action.

Another strength is Robuck’s understanding of the mind/body connection that is essential to creating fully formed characters.

Pauline regarded Mariella for a moment. Mariella could feel the woman testing her, wondering whether she could fight, cry and live in front of Mariella without actually having to think about her. Mariella relaxed her posture so she wouldn’t appear aggressive and folded her hands in her lap. 

These kinds of nuances are woven into each character and illuminate their humanity and inner turmoil, which keeps us glued to the page.

In the Reader’s Guide Robuck admits to being intimidated about putting words into Hemingway’s mouth, which was one of the reasons she left him out as a point-of-view character. Be that as it may, her portrayal of this legendary writer rings true—as Hemingway would say—and shows a total empathy for the character that may have been lost in the hands of another writer. Papa’s gusto, from his need to party into the night to his passion for hunting and fishing at the expense of his family is drawn beautifully from the moment we meet him on the page. But what Robuck does with greater delicacy and balance is show Hemingway’s vulnerability, which shines in an early fishing scene between Papa and Mariella, where they discuss Hemingway’s father’s suicide. The tenderness of this moment allows readers to tolerate the character’s future brutishness, while hoping to see more of his underbelly.

But my favorite part of Hemingway’s Girl is the love story. The triangle of tension between WWI Veteran Gavin, Mariella and Hemingway was a fantasy come true for me. What I found unique about this particular love story was Robuck’s ability to keep me guessing. I was never 100% sure who Mariella was going to end up with. And the twists and turns in the story, especially near the end are so surprising I was disappointed and pleased by how everything resolved. My desire to root so passionately for a particular ending is a testament to Erika Robuck’s talent for whipping a reader up into the undertow of the story and carrying them effortlessly through to the end.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to A Farewell to Arms, while dreaming of Erika Robuck’s next adventure with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.

Turn back to 1935 and meet Hemingway’s Girl.

SLOW MOTION: A Memoir of Life Rescued by Tragedy by Dani Shapiro

I encountered Dani Shapiro by leafing through a Kirpalu magazine. She wrote an article about the risks of the writing life.

There is only one reason to [write]: because you have to. Because a still, small voice inside of you is insisting that you have a story to tell. If you heed that voice, it will lead you to scary places, and to beautiful ones. It will show you yourself, and what matters to you. It will be your beacon and your mirror, your torture and your salvation. It owes you nothing, but it will teach you everything. 

I fell in lust with her for this. I’ve heard similar thoughts from Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron, but something in Shapiro’s voice resonated in a deeper way. Possibly because I’ve been on this writing journey for what feels like an eternity, and only at this moment, do I sense enough courage rising to jump into a ring of fire—one that will either purify and expose my true nature on the page, or snuff out the embers for the rest of my life.

The article in Kirpalu sent me to Dani Shapiro’s blog. Her posts are raw and insightful. I treasure them, like a child savors Halloween candy, reading only one entry a day. I’ve been doing so for over a month now. Soon I’ll come to the end of her archives, but I won’t experience sadness for I can reread. Her posts are so layered with truth and nuance, like Shakespeare, they will provide fuel for years to come. Whether she’s specifically examining writing or a moment in time, what she shares soothes my own frazzled nerve endings that cry for expression. She’s my means where by I reconnect with the page.

Her blog stimulated my itchy book-buying-finger. I placed all her books on my wish list, except for her first memoir: Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy arrived in the mail last week.

What is Voice? How does a writer find it? Develop it? If a writer’s voice is elusive to them and unrecognizable to others is there any point in writing on? These are the questions I’ve wrangled with over the last few years. They’ve ignited a nightmare that haunts every rewrite, and makes it impossible for me to quit. Dani Shapiro speaks of her own doubts and fears, but I’ll go to the mattresses with her if she says she ever struggled with voice.

Reading Slow Motion is like a child falling into a conversation with an imaginary friend—the transition is so effortless you can’t imagine living your life without her. Her writing is so personal, with every nugget of emotional and physical pain laid out on display, I want to crawl inside her body and wrap myself around her heart.

When I think of anything that’s ever harmed me—cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, Lenny—they’ve all had one thing in common: revulsion, the nausea that I’ve had to fight past before I could take them in.

Shapiro’s willingness to expose the inner workings of her heart and mind make me realize what my own novel writing is missing—me!

Slow Motion centers around the family tragedy that forced Shapiro to shift her trajectory and become the writer she is today. But her story is much more, it’s a poem for life. Her words flow with tenderness and ebb with jagged reality. Her realizations and choices prompt us to place a magnifying glass up to ourselves and ask, Is this, in fact, how we want to live our lives? Is this not the mark of a powerful poet—someone who places the focus on what we have missed and urges us to stay present.

It was clear that I needed to wrestle my past to the ground. I needed to pin it in time, to capture it as if it were a wild animal that I could domesticate—or at least put behind bars.

Dani Shapiro wrote these words for an essay in the Los Angeles Times after her memoir came out. This passage reflects the action of the book better than I ever could. Each page shows a small conquest or defeat along her journey. The courage it took to endure what she did and share it with us is a testament to Shapiro’s devotion to her career as a writer, and an inspiration for all of us in the trenches.

Slow Motion: A Memoir of Life Rescued by Tragedy.

LIVE WIRE by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is the Spencer Tracy of Fiction. Katharine Hepburn said Tracy was like a baked potato, simple and honest. I don’t know any better way to describe Coben’s writing. And here’s the payoff: his characters are so grounded and their connections to each other are so real, as they continue to interact the tension escalates faster than wind whips across the plains. Coben’s interplay with the elements of fiction is so simple it feels complex.

His clarity in storytelling was amplified for me in Live Wire because it was my first encounter with the sports agent sleuth, Myron Bolitar, whose series began in 1995. I anticipated spending the first third of the book playing catch-up. I was wrong. Live Wire was the perfect story to become acclimated to Myron thanks to Coben’s ability to drop in background information without interrupting the flow of action.

If you’re a writer and can inhibit yourself from falling under Coben’s page-turning spell long enough to study his scene work, you’ll discover each chapter has a simple formula: establish the characters, their relationship, the conflict and get out. In addition, all dialogue reveals new information, raises questions and adds complications—all the essentials needed to advance the plot.

Coben’s writing is simple, but far from barebones. His characters are drawn with such specificity they jump off the page.

His skin was too oily, too shiny, so that he looked a bit like something Madame Tussaud created on an off day. The neck gave him away. It was scrawny and baggy, hanging loosely like an old man’s scrotum.

What I admire most about the storytelling of Harlan Coben is his ability to make us forget what we know. The entire gist of Live Wire is on the jacket flap. But Coben coaxes us so far into Myron Bolitar’s world, as the story unfolds, we only know what Myron knows. So, when events happen we’re as surprised as he is. How is this possible? I believe it stems from how Coben uses what if—the two-word root of every memorable story.

The harm that has fallen upon Myron’s friends and family stirs up past regrets and leads everyone to wonder what if they had acted differently. And as the characters run from poor choices, or attempt to undo the damage they’ve caused, the reader also begins to play the what if game. Our investment keeps us turning pages, but Coben’s characters are always twisting or unknotting the facts a fraction of a second faster than we can make sense of them. And that’s why his novels pack a wallop.

Live Wire made me fall for Myron Bolitar and his entourage. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to hear that the Bolitar series may have come to an end. Fortunately for me, I still have an entire series to catch up on. Or, I can get my fill of Myron by reading Coben’s New YA series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey. That’s Harlan Coben, simple, honest and a dependable baked potato.

Dig in to Live Wire.


Word usage is constantly changing. In my lifetime, swell was replaced by cool, which transmuted into far-out, then rad, awesome, hot and the shift goes on and on. I don’t mind the changes. They’re a kick. Do people use kick anymore? As words come into fashion others get lost. One word that has fallen away, but never fails to tickle me is druthers. I often find myself wishing to use it, only to choke it back for fear people will not understand me. No more. Thanks to Harper Lee, I plan to use it the rest of my life just like Atticus Finch.

Jem, she’s old and ill. You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does. Of course, I’d rather she’d have said it to me than to either of you, but we can’t always have our ’druthers.

Atticus Finch is a man to admire and emulate. He isn’t fearless, but he isn’t afraid to follow his heart.

This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man. 

Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong… 

They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

I had just entered my teens when I first read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but the impact of her story was lost on me. During that same period of time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son. Those books were much more to my liking then. The combination of my raging hormones and the melodramatic flare Stowe and Wright brought to their stories overshadowed To Kill a Mockingbird. Although in reality I was Scout, I desperately wanted to be Eva. Such is the way of teens and literature, which is one of the reasons to reread the classics.

One of the reasons to love Lee’s novel, which escaped me as a teen, is her simplicity. From the accurate description of kids being kids, to the way she conveys the south, she plops the reader into the story and we have no other choice than to connect with the situation—like when Jem and Dill decided to peek in on Boo Radley late one night.

Because nobody could see them at night, because Atticus would be so deep in a book he wouldn’t hear the Kingdom coming, because if Boo Radley killed them they’d miss school instead of vacation, and because it was easier to see inside a dark house in the dark than in the daytime, did I understand?

Of course, we understand. The thought process makes perfect sense. The beauty and simplicity of a child’s point of view is another way Lee is able to drive the injustice of racism home. Once the reader is in the shoes of a child, it’s hard to stomach the complex excuses and narrow-mindedness that adults learn to accept. I found myself so tuned into Scout and Jem’s way of processing the world, even though I knew the story and had seen the movie almost a dozen times, I was as shocked as Jem when the Tom Robinson’s verdict came in.

Another point of admiration comes from Lee’s execution of Scout’s character. Scout shares the events of the 1930’s as an adult looking back, but there is no structural effort as she moves from adult narrator to Scout as a child; no technical means, such as space breaks or use of past perfect to signal the reader of the switch. Lee simply moves from one world to the next by allowing herself to be fully present in the telling of the tale.

When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house two doors to the north of us and the Radley Place three doors to the south…That was the summer Dill came to us. Early one morning as we were beginning our day’s play in the back yard, Jem and I heard something next door to Miss Rachel Haverford’s collard patch. We went to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy—Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting—instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke: “Hey.” 

The story unfolds through Scout’s eyes alone. She is a curious, observant child eager to understand the complexities within which the adults of her world exist. Her desire to understand gives her a boldness many people only dream about. In some ways she reminds me of David up against Goliath, especially when she barrels through the gang of men, who want to take care of Tom Robinson in their own way, to reach Atticus.

They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one. 

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”…

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?…I go to school with Walter…He’s in my grade, and he does right well. He’s a good boy, a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” 

In a matter of seconds, Mr. Cunningham orders the men to leave. No arguments, no resistance, the men just shuffle away because a child’s openness disarms them. Lee’s choice to use Scout to end what could have been a horrific event helps underscore the rigid and uncompromising nature of the adults in Maycomb. It also helps raise the reader’s dander throughout the trial. If a child, who only speaks the truth, can soften adult hearts, why can’t the truth from their peers soften their minds? Children are a universal constant of tenderness and forgiveness, and makes Scout the perfect narrator for this story because she naturally shines a spotlight on what is ugly.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s story is, unfortunately, a timeless one. I’d wager it would garner the same success if it were published today rather than in 1960. And yet, I wonder how it would fair with editors. In a time when readers like writers to cut to the chase, I suspect Lee, as a debut novelist, might’ve been asked to trim some of the Maycomb lineage, or start the story later—perhaps with Chapter 9:

“You can just take that back, boy!”

This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly. Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more: I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot.

I’d like to think not. I’d like to believe the readers of this world still yearn for books of simple truth that unfold in the same gentle way a flower blooms. Harper Lee captured the South with all its idiosyncrasies. Her story seeps into our souls just like the humidity that hangs and presses against us on the dog days of summer. It is an uncomfortable and necessary experience that wakes us up and begs us to reexamine the way we live with others.

To Kill a Mockingbirda book to read and reread.

TIME FLIES by Claire Cook

Dark and introspective tales that claw through my intestines and torque my heart tend to shuffle to the top of my TBR pile. But I get as excited about Stephen King as Virginia Woolf. I quiver over a tight mystery—thank you, Sara J. Henry—and Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown have satisfied my romance cravings on more than one occasion. Mixing it up is part of the fun. I had just finished Doctor Sleep and 1 Dead in Attic and needed a story with humor, so I reached for Claire Cook’s Time Flies.

Since I have never had the slightest desire to attend any of my high school reunions, the premise intrigued me. Melanie, also a woman of a certain age, is nudged into attending her HS reunion by her best friend BJ and an old flame, Finn, she doesn’t quite remember. My friends have coaxed me to do some zany things, and there are plenty of people I don’t remember from high school who have remembered me over the years. Melanie also has a driving phobia that may keep her from following through on what could be not only an adventure, but also a turning point in her life. I experienced a short-lived driving phobia when I was pregnant with my third son. So I was all in when I cracked the spine of Time Flies.

Cook presents her heroine as a woman of a certain age with the worries and energy of a twenty or thirty-something. Thank you. Thank you. I’m far closer to AARP than twenty-one, but inside I don’t feel any different than I did in my late twenties. Women are girlish and womanly all at once, all through their lives. Cook gets that. I saw Melanie as the silly me I often wished I was in high school. That said, I found it difficult to believe the sexual overtones Melanie encouraged accidentally, on-purpose with Finn. And I can’t remember the last time I flirted. But I often imagine how much fun it would be to fall in love all over again.

Perhaps there was even an air of mystery about me. I liked that.

I liked Melanie, and related to her desire for change. She’s independent and confident in her career, while behaving as a social misfit in her personal life. She is real. A woman we can recognize. And if writers ever question what it means for a character to see the world through their specific point of view, Claire Cook can show you the way. Melanie sees everything in the world through her eyes as a metal sculptor. Here’s a moment after she cuts up her marriage mattress with a chain saw.

Even before I worked the first steel spring free from the mattress foundation, I knew it would be a skirt. A great big Southern hoop skirt that twirled around and around and around. Next would come a parasol with a handle made of steel rebar, or even a splurge of copper pipe. 

I enjoyed all the above, but my women’s fiction craving wasn’t satisfied. Halfway through the novel I was still waiting for the action. As quirky as some of Melanie and BJ’s antics were, the chapters on the road came across as an extended set up rather than advancing the plot.

As much as I liked Melanie, I disliked BJ. Her self-centered, desperate-to-be-the-life-of-the-party attitude combined with her denial about how important she was in high school, and how important high school is in the grand scheme of life annoyed me. The way BJ and Melanie treated their friends Jan and Veronica irked me. The interactions with Jan and Veronica turn out to be key moments for Melanie’s transformation in the end. And BJ also has a bit of an awakening. However, even though the pay off came, I wondered about the delivery. Could there have been a stronger way to tighten the action and enhance the conflict within the scenes that eventually bring about change? There are plenty of external complications, but I wanted more inner turmoil or conscious struggle in those moments.

I think part of me was disappointed with Time Flies because I so enjoyed Must Love Dogs. I was also disappointed in my disappointment. Than a couple days after I finished Cook’s novel I understood why. Throughout Melanie and BJ’s journey they often refer to either Thelma and Louisea screenplay I enjoyed with characters I could connect with completely—and Romy and Michele, characters I knew nothing about until I caught Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion on cable. As I watched the film I realized why I didn’t fully connect with Cook’s characters: I’m not her target audience. I wasn’t even slightly amused by Romy and Michele, and I like both Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino. A lot of the humor in Time Flies is in the same vein and that funny flow is not what floats my particular canoe. So it’s not so much Cook’s novel as me.

In the end, I have to say Time Flies is the sherbet of Women’s Fiction. It’s not for everyone, but it’s as important as an actual dish of sherbet served to cleanse the palette between the meat and fish courses, and provides much needed variety.

Time Flies is a trip down memory lane for many woman of a certain age or younger. It will lighten your mood while dishing up lessons of storytelling every writer needs to know.


When 9/11 happened people were devastated, shocked, broken physically and emotionally from the loss of loved ones and jobs. But the general sentiment all around me was akin to Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. The consensus was that New Yorkers would move through the tragedy and come out stronger because Americans do not accept defeat.

After Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, people were devastated, shocked, broken physically and emotionally from the loss of loved ones, homes and jobs. As with 9/11, many people around the country and the world stepped up and leant a helping hand to New Orleans. But I was taken aback by the sentiment around me concerning this tragedy. Henry V must have been on vacation. Rallying the troops was replaced by skepticism, judgment, and lack of empathy. Here is what I heard: New Orleans will never bounce back. The destruction was too massive. What a stupid place to build a city—under sea level. Why go back when this sort of thing could happen again and again?

I wasn’t born in New Orleans, but I lived there for six years. It’s the city I call home. When I heard people putting New Orleans down, my gut reaction was to slap them upside the head until compassion and reason returned. Instead, I continued to work on my novel, set in New Orleans, with the hope of communicating the love I have for a city that is like no other. Many residents of New Orleans have written memoirs and documented the catastrophe that occurred on August 29, 2005, but I don’t believe anyone has done it better than Chris Rose.

 You’d have to be crazy to want to live here. You’d have to be plumb out of reasonable options elsewhere.Then again, I’ve discovered that the only thing worse than being in New Orleans these days is not being in New Orleans.

The love New Orleans residents have for their home, in my humble opinion, is greater than anywhere else in the States. I believe this to be true because how a person connects with New Orleans has nothing to do with reason. You Get the city on a visceral level. And Rose shares the Get factor with perfection.

1 Dead in Attic is a collection of the columns written by Rose for The Times-Picayune—the good the bad, the ugly, the anger and the hope that permeated the city—throughout the first sixteen months after the Storm.

The people you see here—and there are many that stayed behind—they never speak her name. She is the woman that done us wrong.

For those of you who didn’t live through The Thing, the book is a tell all that reads like a memoir. Rose’s observations of what transpired, politically, culturally and personally are acute with a black humor edge.

You know how you can feel around here, walking the afternoon streets in the thick of the summer—you feel like the walking dead, only the walking dead don’t have any worries and aren’t waiting for a call back from Entergy, Allstate and FEMA.

Chris Rose is a jazz cowboy determined to lasso readers—from The Great Elsewhere—and hold them hostage until they get with the program and understand that New Orleans is an essential ingredient for the wellbeing of the world.

 We are the music. We are the food. We are the dance. We are the tolerance. We are the spirit. And one day they’ll get it. As a woman named Judy Deck emailed…If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom. 

Other than Hell or High Water by Joy Castro, no other book as ever made me so homesick. Rose places his heart and conscience on every page. His honesty about the shattered mess the city was left in, the anger and violence that rose out of it, while little things like a working traffic light infused hope, and his own spiral into depression shake the roots of the readers souls until we want to cheer for everyone who stayed and came back to the community that for a long time was…

…held together with duct tape and delusion. 

There is no soft-spin on any topic. Rose exposes the crispy edges, the fear and the sorrow. But in the end he is the voice of hope, which is the true spirit of New Orleans.

We’re Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain. We’re trapped in an Escher print, walking down steps that actually lead up, down straight paths that lead us full circle…

But don’t pity us. We’re gonna make it. We’re resilient. After all we’ve been rooting for the Saints for thirty-five years. That’s got to count for something. 

1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina will make you cry, laugh and book a ticket to New Orleans. Thank you, Chris Rose.

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have yet to read Fitzgerald’s third novel without pausing to covet the following passage.

A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

This one sentence enlivens my senses and harnesses my soul for the duration of the novel. How does a writer achieve such mastery of rhythm and imagery? I’d like to believe it’s a talent cultivated over time and accessible to anyone willing to devote themselves to the task. Another part of me whispers what I fear; a special kind of inner sight is required and is out of my reach.

The awe I have for Fitzgerald’s descriptions draws me back again and again and each journey reveals more about the magic of writing.

Much like Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nick Carraway is The Great Gatsby’s witness. But unlike Chief whose mental and emotional fog infiltrates the reader, Nick reports the action as a true eyewitness. 

I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me… 

Nick’s distance allows the reader to connect more quickly on a personal level with the characters within the drama. We make up our own minds about Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Gatsby rather than accept the filter of the narrator. Readers may argue that Nick is not objective because he presents each character as if through a kaleidoscope of color.

Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget…

Tom Buchanan compelled me through the room as though he were moving a checker to another square. 

But I say Nick’s descriptions are no different than someone describing the difference between a painting by Turner or Rockwell. Nick bares the essence of each character so the reader may slip them on and see how they feel.

Fitzgerald’s novel is said to capture the Jazz Age like no other. The excessive gaiety of the times wrapped in an endless flow of gin and sex is present in the lives of Daisy and Gatsby, and so is the loneliness. The need to escape into a relationship that provides more intimacy.

And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy. 

Perhaps my presence made them feel more satisfactorily alone.

Their eyes met and they stared together at each other, alone in space. 

Or the fear of never finding someone to truly share your heart is an aching pulse throughout the novel.

Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness…

The Great Gatsby exemplifies the power of What If, for this phrase is the driving force behind Jay Gatsby’s very existence. Every action within the novel is woven out of Gatsby’s desire to recover the moment in time when he was the most spiritually and emotionally alive—the time before the war, with Daisy. The romantic what if meets disillusion, a universal phenomenon, and the backbone of every great story.

Fitzgerald’s novel is a simple story made complex by the regrets, longings and flaws that make us human. And although Casablanca and Gone with the Wind may have the most famous closing lines on film, there has never been a more beautiful, haunting close to a book than the one from The Great Gatsby. 

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Wrap yourself in the magic of The Great Gatsby.

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King

I never considered myself an author fan until I encountered Stephen King. His scare tactics are an adrenalin high, but what keeps me coming back is his dependable unpredictability. Each novel makes me wonder, what will he offer up this time?

Doctor Sleep is a sequel written thirty-six years after the original story involving Dan Torrence. It’s a stand-alone that coaxes you to read The Shining either for the first or second time. If I didn’t have 5 TBR piles I’d happily experience the fright for a third. The Shining was my first SK novel and the one that scared me the most. I never wanted to put it down, but the doings at The Overlook Hotel freaked me out so much I couldn’t even look at the book’s cover once the sun started to set.

Doctor Sleep didn’t paralyze me with fear, but I was equally spooked and riveted, reading it in less than a week. And like each of the books in King’s The Dark Tower series, the sequel to The Shining was worth the wait.

FEAR stands for Fuck Everything And Run.

                                                —old AA saying

AA true-isms are woven throughout Doctor Sleep. The saying above is one of three that kick off the novel. In just seven words King sets the mood, the pace of the novel and keys us into Dan Torrence’s emotional state at the starting block. Unrest is a common denominator for all of King’s main characters. Their unsettled nature keeps our interest peaked.

There came a time when you realized that moving on was pointless. That you took yourself with you wherever you went.

No matter how scared or perplexed his characters, there isn’t a coward among them. They are sharp individuals, aware of risks—death, primary among them—and they’re still willing to engage in battle because, in addition to their bravery, King’s characters are desperate to protect the people they love and fortify the presence of Good in the world.

Dan Torrence, Abra Stone and the True Knot are generations apart, living in different areas of the country. They have their own issues and obstacles to sort through. Their paths don’t need to cross, but we know they will. What we don’t know is how. This is the secret behind King’s yarn-spinning genius. He sets us up, leads us along a path and for a glittering moment we think we know where he’s going, then he slam dunks us somewhere else, in the midst of another fix. His unpredictability keeps us tearing through the pages and makes Doctor Sleep a slump free novel you won’t want to miss.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S: A Novel & Three Stories by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany’s won my heart at the age of eight when I saw the film starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. I coveted Holly Golightly’s free spirit and was oblivious to her occupation as a fille de joie. Even once I did comprehend, the romantic power of a woman transforming herself for a better life, intertwined with the film’s actual romance negated any morality I might have objected to.

Years later when I read the novella, I was surprised to find the story wasn’t written as a romance. The romantic optimist in me was disappointed, but I believe I grew to love Holly Golightly more without the red ribbon ending. She possesses gumption and spirit, and a deep self-respect that ensures her survival and happiness.

Have you noticed I’m discussing Miss Holiday Golightly as if she is a real person? The result of great writing.

Recently, a dear friend gifted me a first addition copy of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s: A Short Novel and Three Stories. My response, “Joy. Rapture. You have no idea how much this means to me.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of two stories (the other by Paul Gallico) that connect me to my artistic roots.

But Capote’s work offers more than sentimental memories for me. His writing inspires and challenges the writer in me to reach higher and never settle for good enough. I haven’t read all of his books, but I don’t believe his material can be categorized by genre such as mystery, thriller, suspense or romance. Yet every one of these elements is present in his short stories. He doesn’t have high stakes tension on every page, although there is an uneasiness regarding the unknown that dares the readers to figure out how the stories will end—I don’t possess that ability. Even what appears to be the simplest tale, A Christmas Memory holds an intrigue that leaves us wondering and pondering.

This factor of the unknown is delivered with a slight of hand because Capote is a master of conversation. His stories capture the essence of a time long gone, when families gathered together in the evenings to hear Grandpa tell a tall tale, or listen to stories on the radio, or hear the next installment of Dicken’s in the evening newspaper.

Truman Capote is a true storyteller, who reels us in with tiny turns of phrase and uncanny descriptions, then holds us captive until the story ends, and when it does, like Oliver Twist, we want some more.

Grab a cup of coffee or tea and settle down with Breakfast at Tiffany’s.


Get ready to expand your horizons. Claire Messud has exposed the underbelly of her female protagonist, and the complexity of Nora Eldridge is going to launch a new standard of truth for women in literature.

…every one of us is capable of rage

So says Nora Eldridge in the opening pages. And we get her because she embodies what we, the readers, hide from the world.

It doesn’t even occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable. 

Messud is a kind of clairvoyant—one with a knife— who exposes what remains of the character’s grit after the bowels have been scraped. Is that horrifying? So was adolescence and yet, we survived, or did we?

The Woman Upstairs seems to say, no. Nora’s battle with loneliness, rejection, feelings of inadequacy as a woman and an artist, her longing to attain a dream she is uncertain how to fulfill—given her present circumstances—are no different than the struggles of every teen. Yet, society pushes us forward and we pretend to move beyond the angst because we want so desperately for it to go away. But the truth is those unresolved issues don’t always disappear. They often linger, ferment, and continue to hold us back from achieving what, deep in our gut, we know is possible and probable, provided we get out of our own way.

…a lifetime ago in my artist phase, when I’d thought I might yet turn out to be the person that I wanted to be—whoever that person might have been… 

Our dreams are bold and hungry. If we feed them with faith and kindness and give them room to breathe, when we arrive at the critical moment we soar like Nora’s studio partner Sirena. But sometimes at the precipice, a claw of fear gnarls our back and we choke, and like Nora, our dreams shrink. We watch the world thrive while our wings beat against the walls of the cubicle we exist in.

Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying—valiantly, fruitlessly—to eradicate. 

A less seasoned author might’ve run with the sorrow until every character and the reader were buried by it. Messud, a literary artist, understands life is never a dead end. Stories that awaken our senses, like true stories that inspire, spin forward from an opportunity for change. Reza, Sirena and Skandar Shahid are Nora’s gateway. Her willingness to embrace their presence and surrender to the unknown and the possible unravels her fear and unleashes a stream of personal discoveries that change her life.

The Woman Upstairs is drenched in anger and sorrow and driven by passion and hope. No female protagonist has been so blatantly wounded, or so determined to uncover the means to heal without a man in sight. Claire Messud pricks up our consciousness. Our view of women, artists and what it means to be whole and alive will never be the same.

Meet The Woman Upstairs.

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