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.


…people love this story or hate it.

—Chuck Palahniuk

My husband—a huge Kesey fan—has been shoving this book at me for years. We have three copies in our house. Yet, all I’ve managed to do over twenty-five years of marriage is move them from one bookshelf or end table to the next. My disinterest may have been the result of seeing the movie so many times, but I can no longer claim such a neutral stance. For I have become part of the group of people Chuck Palahniuk talks about in his Foreword to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I loved and hated it.

Let’s talk about hate. I struggled in the first half of the book, could only read in short spurts. Kesey’s debut is touted as one of the books that changed the shape and energy of the modern novel. The story smacks right into the reader’s face, so much to digest, to question, so much sadness around each sentence. I believed the novel was too intelligent for me to grasp. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get a handle on the fog? Does it really exist? Does Big Nurse have it pumped into the ward, or is it the result of the meds the patients are given?

The faces blow past in the fog like confetti. 

I’m further off than I’ve ever been. This is what it’s like to be dead. I guess this is what it’s like to be a Vegetable; you lose yourself in the fog. You don’t move.

I was confused and frustrated, but the thread of tension throughout made me itch, like watching a master chess player setting up the board to kill the Queen and capture the King.

A lot can be learned about a character through dialogue. Elmore Leonard chose dialogue over description to express the essence of character. But Kesey’s descriptions of Big Nurse are so pin-point precise dialogue is unnecessary. In fact, Big Nurse says very little at all, yet her very presence petrifies us.

She can’t have them see her face like this, white and warped with fury. She uses all the power of control that’s in her. Gradually the lips gather together again under the little white nose, run together, like the red-hot wire had got hot enough to melt, shimmer a second, then click solid as the molten metal sets, growing cold and strangely dull.

I was awestruck by the writing. But once McMurphy realized Big Nurse could keep him longer than his initial sentence and a patient died, an overwhelming sense of hopelessness made me close the book.

Three weeks later I went back in, backtracked a bit and I woke up just like Chief.

I woke and the dorm was clean and silent; except for the soft breathing of the men and the stuff rattling around loose under the brittle ribs of the two old Vegetables, it was dead quiet. A window was up, and the air in the dorm was clear and had a taste to it made me feel kind of giddy and drunk, gave me a sudden yen to get up out of bed and do something.

The more Chief became an active participant the more engaged I was as a reader. This is when hate turned to love and I realized the magical power of Ken Kesey’s writing.

I’ve experienced twin-like empathy for many a character in literature. These are the books I’ve read over and over again. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest connected me with character in a different way. I became possessed. I was sucked into Chief’s fog, and became detached and uninterested, hoping to be left alone in my own misery. But McMurphy refuses to let the machine win. He prods and wedges open the bars of the hospital long enough for the all of the Acutes, including me, to be lured into believing we have a power of our own.

The wave of awakening was joyful and the book took off, an odd adventure with the strangest bedfellows. It’s a story of hope anchored in the cement of despair. It’s the kind of hope that can be won by those willing to become a witness long enough to chose the option never offered.

It’s easy to hate Kesey’s novel. Stories that force us to examine our lives and choices are hard to digest. Most often we reach for books to escape the grind of our daily existence. To meet our inadequacies head on is no picnic. But it’s the only way to unleash the confidence we need to ride through the life we were meant to live. A book everyone needs to read once.

Dip into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn knows which buttons to push to keep us glued to the page. To start, she never minces words and gets straight to the horrible parts…

My brother slaughtered my family when I was seven. My mom, two sisters, gone: bang bang, chop chop, choke choke.

And because we can depend on her direct aim we know more terror is on its way.

Flynn’s books have an attitude like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, “I’m not going to be ignored.” This sums up the essence of Dark Places’s protagonist Libby Day. Libby is the car wreck that creates the gapers block. And even though we’re self-conscious and embarrassed about looking at the damage and the wounded, we must.

Reading a novel by Gillian Flynn is a master class in writing. Lesson 1-Never hold back. By telling the truth upfront a writer makes room for more twists and obstacles on the backend. 2-Characters don’t have to be likable, but readers need to feel empathy.

I was not a loveable child, and I’ve grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.

If that statement doesn’t reel in your heart or raise your curiosity, maybe you have meanness “as real as an organ” just like Libby Day.

All of these gripping moments that happen in the first five pages (don’t worry there is plenty more) bring us to another writing gem—Skip the boring parts. Readers may refer to Dark Places in a lot of different ways, but no one will call it boring. This is a slump free novel. Each chapter is a tight story of its own and together they comprise Libby’s life, a character impossible to forget. Isn’t that what every writer strives for—memorable characters in extraordinary circumstances?

Dark Places is more than a blueprint for how to craft a bestseller. Gillian Flynn has a gift for uncovering the nasty underbelly of life and exposing every cockroach in the goo. Her stories and characters make us question our own motives, baggage, and the lies we live with.

Find out if you’re afraid of Dark Places.

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea is a little story with Zen-like power. I’ve read the novel four times and have never skimmed or skipped a word. I often reread phrases, sentences and paragraphs in awe of the simplicity and accuracy of the moment portrayed.

He was shivering with the morning cold. But he knew he would shiver himself warm and that soon he would be rowing.

The first time I returned to this story, I did so because I longed for the relationship between Santiago—the old man, and Manolin—the boy. The old man and the boy have only three scenes in the book, but Santiago reinforces the closeness of their bond throughout with fourteen one-line references.

If the boy was here he would wet the coils of line, he thought. Yes. If the boy were here. If the boy were here.

The lines yield little detail. But the appreciation and love the old man has for the boy is unmistakable and is amplified in our own hearts with each refrain.

Relationships tell us a lot about a protagonist. Hemingway’s old man may have the biggest heart in literature, for he doesn’t only care for the boy he also cares for the giant marlin he hunts.

I had better keep the fish quiet now and not disturb him too much at sunset. The setting of the sun is a difficult time for all fish.

The old man risks his life to break his eighty-four days of bad luck and when he’s on the verge, when hunger, thirst and injury could push him towards cruelty his overriding thoughts are of kindness—kindness and the great DiMaggio.

Everyone idolizes someone. And the old man’s fascination with baseball and the great DiMaggio, whose father was also a fisherman, is one way Hemingway universalizes the story for us. And he does so with simple brush strokes.

Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one?

Much has been written about the lack of flash and flurry in Hemingway’s style and The Old Man And The Sea illustrates this point best. It is the reason I return to the story again and again. Each sentence allows a true connection to form between character and reader because the writer had the courage to get out of the way.

Catch the Pulitzer Prize of 1953 The Old Man And The Sea.

THE GLASS WIVES by Amy Sue Nathan

Women’s Fiction meets The Godfather.

The statement is odd and the farthest thing from what I expected to write, but the more I thought about Amy Sue Nathan’s debut novel the more the comparison made sense.

The novel opens during the shiva for Richard Glass. Richard’s death brings his ex-wife Evie and his second wife Nicole together. Death and family are the backbone of Mario Puzo’s novel and screenplays. A lot of books also share these elements, but it’s the way Nathan takes these simple ingredients and intertwines them around the characters that allow Puzo’s lessons to resonate in a fresh way.

I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Every novel needs a situation that forces the protagonist to act. The more her actions run outside of her comfort zone, the more conflicted the character and readers are riveted. Nathan wastes no time in placing Evie in such a predicament. Richard’s death leaves her children emotionally lost, which is enough stress for any mother. Couple that with the loss of child support and our protagonist is in a pickle. If Evie doesn’t find a way to make ends meet, she’ll be forced to move and her children’s world will be shattered a third time. Enter Nicole with baby Luca; she wants a family, Evie needs money. Nicole’s offer to pay room and board is an offer Evie can’t refuse. Living with the other woman leads us to another lesson from The Godfather. 

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.

Nathan’s choice to thrust enemies into a shared living arrangement is brilliant. It’s true that Evie and her friend Laney often jump to stereotypical assumptions about Nicole, a natural defense when people are vulnerable and want to feel safe. But the close proximity of Evie and Nicole with baby Luca allows Evie to examine a different side of Nicole, a kinder side—the side her friend Beth insists on promoting.

And here comes part two of enemies and friends. Nicole’s presence throws a wrench into Evie’s longstanding friendship with Laney and Beth. Sides are drawn, loyalties are questioned and more vulnerability and inner conflict rise. Take what the character holds dear and rip it away. Nathan uses this technique so seamlessly, though we’re rooting for Evie, it’s impossible not to feel for the characters that have harmed her. This is richness. These are flesh and blood characters.

The biggest question throughout The Glass Wives is what makes a family, which brings us to our third Godfather lesson.

Do you spend time with your family? Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.

One of the most lovable qualities about Evie is her devotion to her children. Sophie and Sam are her priority and the depth to which Nathan explores this relationship will soften every reader’s heart. But Evie isn’t the only character that values family. The major reason Nicole wants to move in is to secure a family for her son Luca. Laney and husband Herb delve into the nature of their marriage. And Beth and Alan, who appear perfectly solid, didn’t get there without a history of emotional turmoil. True family extends much further than blood and Nathan covers every aspect of family dynamics thanks to the physical arrangement she forced the Glass families to live in.

The intention of Evie and Nicole to hold their families together separately is what ultimately leads them to form a new kind of bond, one based on mutual respect and love for the people they cherish the most. How we treat our friends and family is a reflection of who we are.

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

Let me be clear. There are no guns or violence in The Glass Wives. But there is a lot of forgiveness. And even though the two lines above come after a murder in The Godfather, if you think about them outside of the film, it’s all about letting go, moving on and forgiveness. If Evie said no to Nicole, Nathan would’ve had a completely different novel. Life is about choices. We can fight against what life offers us, or we can flow with the ups and downs and see where the tide carries us.

You may come to The Glass Wives thinking it’s going to be a warmhearted beach read, and it is. And it’s so much more. Evie’s determination to move forward while protecting her family shows a strength of character equal to anything Michael Corleone threw around to protect his and she does it without violence. Now that is a character to admire. And Amy Sue Nathan is an author to follow.

Test your definition of family with The Glass Wives.

HAPPY YOGA: 7 Reasons Why There’s Nothing To Worry About by Steve Ross

I woke up with Steve Ross for years. Inhale Yoga with Steve Ross was on the Oxygen network at six a.m. from 2000 to 2010. Because I needed to leave for work at seven, I taped the show and did my workout from five until six in the morning. I have since worn out the tapes and fried my VHS player. I was addicted to Inhale Yoga for many reasons: Steve’s effortless smile, humor, the rocking beat of the music he played and the happiness I walked away with at the end of each session. One day I might venture out to the west coast and experience his effervescence in person at Maha Yoga, in the meantime I have Happy Yoga.

There is no need to have a background in yoga to reap the benefits from Ross’s book. But my guess is by the time you finish reading you’ll be searching for a yoga class. That said, although each chapter ends with a few asanas that reinforce the material, this is not a detailed instructional book on yoga poses. Happy Yoga sheds light on the aspects of yoga often overlooked in Western classes, where the focus is often on toning and dropping pounds.

From intriguing chapter titles like You’re Not Fat (And Neither Am I) to the offering of sage advice:

Your trials did not come to punish you, but to awaken you—to make you realize that you are part of Spirit and that just behind the spark of life is the flame of infinity.

—Paramahansa Yogananda

Ross invites readers to consider the possibility of change in their lives through Inner Yoga exercises. Without pressure, dares or guilt Happy Yoga shines light in the shadows of your life and simply asks, “Is this the way you want to live?” And if you’d like to change each chapter presents suggestions on how you may transform into a happier you.

Real yoga is about transcending the serious and allowing joy into your life, your body, your mind and hopefully your practice itself. It’s about lightening up.

Whether you’ve been studying yoga for years or haven’t quite managed to step onto a mat, Ross’s book will inspire and guide you to a deeper level of understanding through his clarity, humor and love for this ancient Eastern philosophy.

Worry less, breathe more and wake up your life with Happy Yoga.

CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

My admiration for Kathryn Stockett’s The Help made me hesitant about Calling Me Home until I read an interview with Julie Kibler on Women’s Fiction Writers. The material Julie shared peaked my curiosity as a reader and writer. I ordered the book, but when it arrived I shelved it.

Four months later I tossed it into a book bag with a few other novels and brought it to my aunt’s apartment for our weekly Story Time. My aunt loves non-fiction and biographies and has little tolerance for genre fiction. When her eyes started to go and she was forced to read large print books she was incensed. “Why do publishers think old people are only interested in mysteries and romance? We may forget what we had for breakfast, but we haven’t misplaced our intelligence.”

Imagine my surprise when Calling Me Home, a novel categorized as Women’s Fiction, earned this response from my aunt after I read the book flap. “That’s the one. I’m already hooked.” Once I started reading I knew the reason for her infatuation. My aunt is a ringer for Isabelle: eighty-nine, loves crossword puzzles, a bit cantankerous and although she didn’t marry a black boy, she eloped at sixteen to get out from under a repressive household and community.

If I read Calling Me Home on my own, I would’ve zipped through the pages. Reading aloud to my aunt allowed me to appreciate Kibler’s strength for characterization. Whether they were in the past or present, I never had to think about how to portray either Isabelle or Dorrie. Their vocal qualities shifted inside me as easily as a breath moves in and out.

Another area of effortlessness is Kibler’s ability to show Isabelle’s naivetés about the world and love. Seventeen-year old Isabelle’s thought process or lack of thought and prominence of emotions is so accurate it’s funny, and sad, given the complex situation she has thrust herself into.

But in spite of the heartfelt rendition of Dorrie’s and Isabelle’s stories, I kept the women at a distance until page 194 when Isabelle’s dreams were torn from her. During that scene my past rushed forward and all of my reluctance to read and embrace the novel became clear; Calling Me Home was too close to home. Isabelle’s story reminded me of how sweet I was on Jerome Blakemore when I was sixteen and how my father’s bigotry crushed what might’ve been a lasting relationship, just like Isabelle’s brothers and mother came between her and Robert Prewitt.

Once my catharsis ran its course I was all in. Throughout the rest of our time with Dorrie and Isabelle, my aunt and I cried, laughed and yelled at the characters for the decisions they made and the things they didn’t say. Is there any higher praise for an author than for readers to talk to their characters as if they are real? Bravo, Julie.

Calling Me Home is a story to read, share and talk about with all generations; a personal story with universal ripples.


Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella is surprisingly suspenseful and laugh-out-loud funny. I never expected to write such a statement when I first decided to read A River Runs Through It.

The film is one of my favorites. I’ve seen it so many times the DVD is worn out. Because I was aware of the humor and tragedy of life that lay within the pages of the novel before I started to read, suspense was the last element of storytelling I expected to encounter. The suspense is driven by Maclean’s brazen humor and the combination allows A River Runs Through It to flow in soul-wrenching harmony.

Riveting storytelling is grounded in details and Maclean’s selection and communication is masterful. His descriptions are often ethereal and transport you to a meditative state in one line, then slam you into reality in the next.

If you have never seen a bear going over the mountain, you have not seen the deed
reduced to its essentials. A bear leaves the earth like a bolt of lightening retrieving
itself and making its thunder backwards.

A River Runs Through It shows us a family of distinctly different people who respect each other’s space enough to agree to disagree and love each other regardless.

You can love completely without complete understanding.

This may sound like an easy task, but if you have ever attempted to write a novel or short story you know delivering the goods is no ice cream social. All character actions must link to intention and every intention needs motivation with resonance, otherwise the reader doesn’t care. Craft books often suggest a light touch when revealing intention, motivation and theme. Maclean is not subtle. His younger self, who narrates the novella, is blatant about what he wants and what he fails to accomplish. His ability to expose his regrets endears us to him. His journey to unravel the mystery of his brother’s life becomes our own, along with the lessons learned.

The underlying power of A River Runs Through It is wrapped up in Maclean’s wisdom about living. I don’t know whether his insight is due to the fact that he didn’t write this novella until he was in his seventies, or because the rhythm and wonders of life were second nature to him as a result of learning to fly fish before he was old enough to master cursive writing, or because his father was a Presbyterian minister. But the why doesn’t matter.

As in all great storytelling what reverberates are the zingers of truth; the sentences we return to again and again for their beauty and enlightenment. A River Runs Through It is packed with such gems. It is more than a novella it is a reference for life.

Step into the rapids of life with A River Runs Through It.

MORE ROOM IN A BROKEN HEART: The True Adventures of Carly Simon by Stephen Davis

My life as an actress allowed me to sing in a number of shows, but I would never label myself a singer. I was raised on The Grand Ole Opry and coveted Patsy Kline’s vocals until I heard Stevie Nicks and Carly Simon. But I’m not a factoid junkie. I never followed or sought out what the press wrote about any of the singers I loved. How their music affected me emotionally was all that mattered; their songs were my poetry. So my mind was an open canvas for Stephen Davis’s biography of Carly Simon.

Music’s accessibility is greater than ever. We buy, stream and watch our favorite music videos on Youtube. The ease with which we connect with our favorite musicians may lead us to believe the process that takes them from unknown to star is no big deal—a total misconception. The competition is stiff. The detours and roadblocks presented on Carly Simon’s journey to popularity shocked me, especially after I discovered she came from a family with “connections”. Simon’s biography proves that patience and persistence are the backbone to success. Her journey also chronicles the fickle reality of fame, and shows the only way to endure the highs and lows in any career is to stay true and connected to your heart.

If you make a record that’s true to yourself, and you love the work, it can’t be a flop. It can only sell poorly.

The biography is titled, More Room in a Broken Heart, but heart is exactly what is missing within its pages. Once Carly’s career takes off each chapter is more of the same, a detailed account of the songs, producers and musicians that were associated with each album with a bit about her personal life thrown in. The research required to present such a thorough accounting is impressive, but I found much of the material skim-able.

I thought my unrest with the material had to do with my preference for autobiographies or memoirs because the information is coming straight from the source. I also considered my frustration might be related to the fact that Carly Simon is a musician and not an actress or a writer, two professions close to home. But one of my favorite memoirs is The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, which is all about chess and Tai Chi Chuan.

My favorite parts of Stephen Davis’s book were the chapters that delved into the personal lives of Carly Simon and James Taylor. I found their personal struggles and fears that collided and irritated fascinating and I wanted more. When Davis showed how these two individuals conflicts and personal growth lead to the music I was enthralled. Unfortunately, the bulk of the book is written the other way around—these are the songs, the albums, and oh yeah, this is what was going on in Carly’s life.

Personal preference aside, More Room in a Broken Heart is a wonderful reference for any Carly Simon and James Taylor fan, or anyone intrigued by the mystery man behind You’re So Vain. An eye opening read.

Treat yourself to More Room in a Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon.

FIVE DAYS by Douglas Kennedy


Five Days is one of the most intimate novels I have ever read. My word choice has nothing to do with the love affair contained within.

Like Woolf, Bannville and Cunningham, Douglas Kennedy pries open the lockbox that holds the protagonist’s deepest secrets, and in so doing, forces us to confront our own.

…what happens when, over the years, you’ve forced yourself to play a role that you privately know runs contrary to your true nature; when the mask you’ve worn for so long no longer fits and begins to hang lopsidedly, and you fear people are going to finally glimpse the scared part of you that you have so assiduously kept out of view?

Thus begins Laura’s journey.

I was instantly captivated and yet, frustrated with the lack of action. I shrugged it off as a natural response after just coming off of NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. But Laura’s unrest irritated like the itch of chicken pox and when I couldn’t set the book down, I had to ask why?

Kennedy’s rendition of Laura is equivalent to a portrait by Rembrandt. His selection of light and dark, the execution of detail, the juxtaposition of desire and obligation demands our attention.

Yes, Laura is at the bottom of unhappiness and she bemoans her situation, but her sadness doesn’t define her. She is compassionate and tolerant of other people’s weaknesses, even when she has no patience with herself. In order to salvage a marriage, which was a mistake from the start, she transformed herself into the family lifeguard, the one person who is never able to enjoy the water.

And there it is—the intimacy. As Laura separates herself from the cement of her life and explores the probability of change, Kennedy captures the loneliness and sense of failure that has crept into our society, even though we rail about how everyone knows everyone else’s business.

Loneliness is an aspect of ourselves no one wants to talk about—the cancer of our time—something so personal it’s impossible to face without fingering our own culpability. Fortunately, Douglas Kennedy has drawn a heroine with courage enough to face the truth and move through it.

Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club says, Five Days is “A brilliant meditation on regret, fidelity, family, and second chances.”  No finer blurb could’ve been written.

Delve into the intimacy of Five Days.

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