Two memoirs hit the library shelves recently. One is tender, the other brash, but each author writes with much love. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Virginia author Carol Wall is a poignant account of her friendship with Giles Owita, a Kenyan immigrant. Celebrity gossip blogger Elaine Lui writes about her Chinese mother in the blunt and brassy Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of).
Carol Wall looks at her Roanoke neighbors’ verdant gardens and lawns and knows her shabby yard needs help. Wall hires a friend’s gardener, Mr. Owita, and hands him a list of her gardening desires which Owita politely ignores. Wall and Owita cross racial and cultural boundaries as their relationship morphs from one of employer and gardener to student and teacher and eventually, dear friends. Wall is frank about her emotional struggles as a breast cancer survivor, and the support provided by Owita as both a gardening mentor and fellow traveler becomes increasingly important to her. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a lovely and spiritual homage to Giles Owita, whose guidance and example allow Wall to see the beauty in life despite its fleeting nature.
Elaine Lui opens Listen to the Squawking Chicken with a description of her petite mother as a “China Woman Elvis” dressed in a rhinestone-studded, denim popped-collar pantsuit, massive visor and sunglasses. Ma’s Cantonese nickname is Tsiahng Gai, meaning Squawking Chicken, and when she speaks, her daughter compares her voice to a siren. Ma is loud, pushy and controlling, and embraces the use of guilt and threats as parenting tools. Lui ‘s recollections often portray her mother as harsh and judgmental, holding cruel court in her mahjong rooms, but a different picture emerges as Lui shares stories of the atrocious deprivation and brutality of Ma’s childhood. Ma’s methods may be unorthodox, but Lui recognizes her mothering is done out of love and the desire to protect her daughter from the horrors which shaped her. Lui talks about her book and posted an absolutely adorable picture of Ma on her website.
Ah, romance. It is a funny thing. What do you do when your life is nothing like the romance novels you read and edit? Patience Bloom (love the name) has written a charming memoir about her own life navigating the trials and errors of love, relationships and simply growing up in the publishing industry. Her new book Romance Is My Day Job will resonate with those who read romance novels and those who don’t.
A senior editor for Harlequin, Bloom’s road to love and happiness was a far cry from the heroines in the books she loves. She begins her story in the cushy Connecticut boarding school, where she, the daughter of two historians, attended as a scholarship student. Her cutesy chapter headings like "Tragic Heroes Are Romantic on the Page but Sad in Real Life,” and "When in Crisis, Go Party in Paris," give the reader the impression Bloom doesn’t take herself too seriously. Indeed, there are plenty of crushes, disappointments and messy situations along the way, some more serious than others, including an incident of violence. There are high school and college teaching jobs, a master’s degree and eventually a job reading historical romance manuscripts for the biggest romance publisher of “those cute books you can hide in your purse.” She wrings her hands over the fact that middle age is fast approaching and she’s still alone. “I should have this part of my life figured out," she says. Love is her business, after all.
A quick read with interesting tidbits about the publishing industry make this a fun escape for lovers of romance genre and others, too, whose interest may be piqued by the irony of the author’s experience. Bloom’s spunky voice, breathy Harlequin-esque descriptions and romantic novel archetypes are sure to bring a smile to anyone whose life doesn’t quite arc the way they intended.
Spanning the 20th century, Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is a rags-to-riches story about Lillian Dunkle, an indomitable Russian Jewish immigrant who builds an empire and becomes America's “Ice Cream Queen.” The story is narrated by Lillian, whose sharp wit and acerbic sense of humor are a stark contrast to her public image as kindly grandmother. Her personality is the heart of this character-driven story about the pursuit of the American dream.
Gilman recently answered some questions about her novel for Between the Covers readers. Grab a double scoop of your favorite ice cream, and read on to get to know Gilman and what inspired this fascinating new novel.
The ice cream business is an unusual starting point for a novel. What was it about that industry that caught your attention?
First of all, I love ice cream. And if you’re going to write a book, it better be about a topic that can sustain your passion and interest for years.
I initially got the idea for The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street when a friend and I were reminiscing about a local ice cream chain called Carvel. The owner, Tom Carvel, did his own tv commercials, in which he would rasp, “Please, buy my Carvel ice cream?” They were so hokey and homespun, they were sort of fabulous.
Googling “Tom Carvel” on a whim, I learned that he was a Greek immigrant, Tom Carvelas, who arrived in America penniless, only to build an enormous empire of ice cream franchises. Then I discovered that the Mattuses, the founders of Haagen-Daz, were two first-generation Jews who came from the tenements in the Bronx. These ice cream makers’ stories were classic American-immigrant-rags-to-riches sagas. This struck me as a wonderful basis for a novel.
You did an enormous amount of research while working on this novel. Did it included any taste-testing? (We hope so!) What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
By all means, I did taste-testing! As the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies, why, it was imperative! I even contacted my inspiration – the Carvel Ice Cream Company itself – and arranged to work at a Carvel ice cream franchise out in Massapequa, Long Island. For two days, the owner let me go behind the scenes, learn the ropes and work as an ice cream maker serving customers. I loved every minute of it – except the owner was no dummy. He wouldn’t let me near that soft ice cream machine unsupervised. He must have known that, given the chance, I’d place my head directly beneath the server and just let the ice cream pour directly into my mouth.
There is also the Carpigiani Gelato University located just outside of Italy. I live about five hours away, in Geneva, Switzerland, so of course I had to go there as well, tour its Gelato Museum and take a Gelato Masterclass. I learned the science and mathematics behind gelato-making, made my own batch of gelato, and then of course, tasted my own concoction. I was in such heaven, I thought the top of my head would explode.
As for my favorite flavor, if there’s no decent mint-chip to be had, I am always happy with chocolate.
Lillian is a force to be reckoned with in the novel, and she has a very distinct voice from the first page. Did you have any real life inspiration for this formidable character?
I have to say, Lillian’s voice came to me in the proverbial flash. As I sat down to write the beginning, I heard her speaking, and that was it – I just had her. There are parts of her way of speaking that are reminiscent of my paternal grandmother — particularly her word choices — but the voice was unique to me. I felt as if I channeled it. In terms of her overall character, there’s a dash of Scarlett O’Hara and Leona Helmsley, I suppose, but really, I saw her as far more than simply mean and imperious, or a caricature talking ethnic schtick, or a punchline. I wanted her to be phenomenally complex and contradictory and compelling — the way all of us really are.
This is your first novel. What made you want to take on this new challenge? How did the process differ from writing nonfiction?
Ever since I was 8 years old, when I fell in love with reading and started to write my own short stories in little notebooks, I dreamed of writing a novel. I always assumed that one day, I’d become the author of some sort of wonderful, fictional opus. Yet as I grew up, I kept getting sidetracked. Although I got an MFA in Creative Writing and published short stories and even won literary prizes, things in our culture kept pissing me off so much that I felt compelled to respond with books. Kiss My Tiara was in reaction to a dating guide that urged women to trick men into marrying them. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress was conceived as a smart, funny counter-point to women’s memoirs that focused on either miserable childhoods, or being single and going shopping. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, the true story of a disastrous trip to China, was an antidote to several popular books in which women got over divorces by going to ashrams or renovating villas in Tuscany. I suppose I had to get three nonfiction books off my chest before I could finally get around to writing that novel.
I never expected to be a nonfiction author at all. It was an accident! The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street may seem like a new direction, but it doesn’t feel like one to me at all. Finally, I’ve returned to my first love, to what I intended to do all along.
What is the best book you have read recently?
Let me give you three completely different ones: I loved Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son; it was epic, disturbing, rich and unlike anything I’ve ever read, particularly given its setting. On a recent vacation, I read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette; the first half made me laugh out loud from its smart, wicked wit. I was also profoundly moved by The Bosnia List, a new memoir co-written by Kenan Trebincevic and my friend Susan Shapiro. The story blew me away, and really enhanced my understanding of the Balkan conflict in an intimate way. I want everything when I read: humor, pain, transcendence, pleasure, education, enlightenment. Always, I want them to be intelligent. But I can never pick one favorite.
Don’t know what to read? Our librarians have been devouring books at rapid rates to answer this very question. Want to know what’s the newest, steamiest romance? The next literary breakout novel? There’s a post for that.
Since the blog’s conception, readers have been discovering great titles by learning from experts who write daily about the books they love for a variety of tastes. Not only are readers using posts to find up-and-coming titles, they are stumbling upon past gems they may have missed. To celebrate this milestone, we wanted to know what the most popular titles were out of our hundreds of posts. The results? The top three were Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Along the way to this 1,000th post, we’ve expanded the ways we can satisfy you hungry readers. Now you can add your insights and observations in comments, get the story behind the story with exclusive author interviews and chat up The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion with us during our Facebook Book Club Chat on June 11 at 7 p.m.
As always, keep checking in with Between the Covers to keep your finger on the pulse…
Enter the world of professional ballet in Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. In 1975, a young dancer named Joan is completely taken with the celebrated Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov, so much so that when Arslan contacts Joan to help him defect from his native country, Joan is happy to oblige. Although Joan longs to eventually dance with Arslan, she quickly realizes she is not in his league and will spend her career regulated to the corps de ballet in an American company. Joan finally decides to leave the company to settle down with Jacob, a scholarly boy who has adored her since high school and together they raise their son Harry. Joan eventually teaches dance in California, and soon garners the attention of a young dancer named Chloe, who will become her protégé. Harry also acquires an interest in dance, and Joan and Jacob realize that they have turned Harry into the next great dancer. This will have lasting effects on the future of their family.
Shipstead is gifted at creating compelling characters who will suffer longing and loss throughout the course of the novel. The situations are realistic and detailed, and the reader will get to know the lives of Jacob, Joan and Harry intimately throughout the course of the novel. There is enough information about professional ballet to keep the reader interested, but it is not overwhelming, and a novice to the world of dance will still be entertained. Shipstead won the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize for her debut novel Seating Arrangements. The audio version of the title is read by actress Rebecca Lowman who gives life to the characters with a delightful reading. Astonish Me will appeal to Shipstead’s current fans as well as attract new readers who are looking for an interesting character-driven novel.
Kick off your summer reading with one of these hot new thrillers! Members of the International Thriller Writers have joined forces to create Faceoff, an exciting new anthology of short fiction with a fun twist. Your favorite characters’ worlds are colliding in this collection of 11 brand new stories written by 23 of the hottest writers in the genre today. These stories pair popular characters like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher with Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller, M.J. Rose’s Malachai Samuels with Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren and Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme with John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport. Baldacci says, “This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for readers. It’s only through ITW that we were able to bring these literary legends toe to toe.” Faceoff should be at the top of your must-read list this summer.
Chevy Stevens has won over many readers with her three previous thrillers, but with her new novel That Night, she is poised to be a breakout star. Toni spent 15 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of her younger sister Nicole’s murder. Now, she is on parole and back home on Vancouver Island. Toni is determined to rebuild her life, which includes avoiding contact with Ryan, who was convicted for the same crime and is determined to prove their innocence. Toni knows that in order to move forward, she must eventually uncover what happened on that long-ago summer night. Skillfully moving between past and present, Stevens reveals the shocking truth about Nicole’s death in this riveting novel.
Already a bestseller in France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair will be published in the U.S. this summer. When he is faced with writer’s block while writing his second novel, Marcus Goldman visits his mentor Harry Quebert in Somerset, New Hampshire. During Marcus’s visit, the remains of Nola Kellergan, the 15-year-old with whom Harry had an affair before she disappeared in August 1975, are found on Harry’s property, and Harry is the chief suspect in her murder. Marcus decides to exonerate Harry and write a book about it. The pages fly by as the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into this book within a book. With a colorful cast of characters, Dicker’s convoluted whodunit deserves a place on your summer reading list.
Up-and-coming novelist Nickolas Butler brings us Shotgun Lovesongs, an all-American tale of male friendship in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Although Hank, Ronny, Lee and Kip grew up together in the small rural town, they have grown into their own complex lives in strikingly different ways.
Hank stayed in the town to have a family and run his father’s farm, where it’s getting harder and harder to make ends meet. Ronny became a battered rodeo star who lost his career to crippling alcoholism. Singer-songwriter Lee took his show on the road and is now a famous yet humble millionaire rock star. Lastly, there’s Kip, the Bluetooth-wearing stock-market trader, who has come home to revitalize the tallest structure in town, the beloved old feed mill. The four friends are drawn together again by Kip’s impending wedding.
Told in alternating perspectives, the novel achieves its tension and ultimate heart from the honest portrayal of conflict and comradery between these soul-searching men. Various masculine takes on marriage, love, loyalty and healing are all examined in this surprisingly rustic landscape. Readers who enjoy character-driven plots and fulfilling endings will find themselves satisfied with and surprised by this debut novel.
Also, keep an eye out for Nickolas Butler’s highly anticipated forthcoming short story collection, The Chainsaw Soiree.
How does a young mathematician on the cusp of a Yale doctorate end up as a journalist in one of the world's bleakest places? For Anjan Sundaram, it was a desire to experience firsthand the sights, sounds and emotions of a tormented and misunderstood country he only knew from passing news briefs. His story, recounted in his new memoir, Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo, calls attention to a region of the central African continent often on the world's radar for the wrong reasons.
Sundaram times his arrival well. It’s 2006, and there is cautious interest in the country's historic elections. Settling into the home of a friend's family in the lower class section of Kinshasa, he soon lands a job as a stringer for the Associated Press. Through his experiences, he conveys the turbulent, repressive history of this beautiful, yet troubled land beset by sexual violence, killings and mutilations. Despoiled by corrupt companies and governments, its abundance of natural resources has also cost the Congolese dearly. It is a place where death, as a rule, makes news only if it involves villages and armies or the U.N. Sundaram raises inexplicable contradictions as well, like a boy who dies of typhoid because his family had no money for treatment but whose elaborate, expensive funeral draws hundreds.
For a reporter with no previous journalism training, Sundaram tells a good story with his sharp first-hand narrative and careful observations, especially of children. He acknowledges missteps along the way, and his vulnerabilities become part of the journey. The author, who currently lives in Rwanda, turned down a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs to tell us about this downtrodden African nation, long gripped by civil war. For readers interested in world politics and humanitarian crises here is a rare look by someone determined to tell the story.
For local writer Deborah Rudacille, writing her latest book was a personal odyssey. The daughter of a Bethlehem steelworker knows the heart and soul of the Dundalk community she called home for many years. It's fitting that Rudacille will kick off the North Point Branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs,” the new adult speaker series that takes place this summer. Rudacille will discuss her latest book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town that chronicles the rise and fall of the Sparrows Point steel mill and the neighborhoods in its wake. The program, which includes a book talk and signing, will be held Tuesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. Rudacille recently answered questions for Between the Covers about the genesis for her story and her personal connection to Dundalk.
Between the Covers: Your book, "Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town", conveys a powerful message about what happens when the American dream fails right in our own backyards. What drove you to tell this story of the former Bethlehem Steel plant and the local community it shaped?
Deborah Rudacille: I grew up in Eastfield, and my family, like many of our neighbors, owed their homes and their livelihoods to Bethlehem Steel. When my parents bought their house on Harold Road my dad worked in the tandem mill at Sparrows Point and my mother worked as a secretary for United Steelworkers Local 2610. Most of the men in my family worked at Sparrows Point. So the rise and fall of the American steel industry wasn’t just theory for me — it’s the story of my own family and community.
BTC: You present an objective look at an industry in decline. Did the fact that the story was so close to home make it difficult to write at times?
DR: Yes. The reporting was easy and fun because I got to hang out with people who were much like the folks I had known growing up and to listen to their stories. But the writing was more challenging because I had to figure out a way to weave together their stories with those of workers who had very different experiences in a way that didn’t skirt the less savory aspects of the narrative — the systemic racism at the Point, for one — and situate them in the broader history of the American steel industry.
BTC: You use personal narrative along with workers’ interviews. Can you talk a little bit about how you conducted your research for this project? Were people open to talking about their experiences?
DR: Absolutely! Sparrows Point was more than just a job for most of these folks so they loved reminiscing about their experiences there. I started with family members and then worked outward, attending monthly retiree meetings at the union hall and luncheons at various senior centers and churches around town. I like to say that you can’t throw a stone in Baltimore without hitting someone with a Sparrows Point connection, which made it very easy to find folks to tell their stories — not just workers themselves but also family members, and of course people who had been raised in the company town. I also did quite a bit of archival research at the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society, Baltimore County Historical Library, Museum of Industry and other archives.
BTC: There are so many threads running through your book — the danger of the mill work itself, the labor unions, racial tensions, safety and environmental issues, the “company town” concept to name a few. How did you go about framing your narrative?
DR: Well, as I said, that was the greatest challenge in writing the book. There were all these disparate threads and themes, and I knew that I had to include all of them to provide an honest and objective look at life on the Point. Ultimately, I decided to tell the story chronologically but focus each chapter on a different issue using the voices of my sources to carry the narrative forward. Once I settled on that structure, the writing of the book became much easier.
BTC: Roots of Steel, published in 2010, was your third book. Your previous books were science-focused. Can you tell us what is next for you as a writer? What else are you doing professionally?
DR: I’ve been working as professor of the practice at UMBC for the past couple of years, teaching journalism and science writing. I’ve also done some preliminary reporting for my next project, a kind of Catholic “Roots of Steel” which tells the story of the post-Vatican II church from the perspective of lay Catholics. I’ll be talking with people who have left the church as well as people who remain about their feelings on the sex abuse scandal, the status and role of women in the church and the struggle of LGBT Catholics and divorced and remarried Catholics to remain part of an institution that (officially at least) does not consider them worthy to receive the sacraments. As with Roots of Steel, it will tell a big story through the lens of individual experience.
Ephram Jennings has spent his life loving Ruby Bell. He’s loved her since the first time he saw her as a wild red haired child who was “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at.” After his beloved mother is committed to a mental institution and his heavy-handed father’s death, Ephram is raised solely by his devout sister, Celia, whom he calls “Mama.” Ruby grows up in the shadow of ancestors accused of witchcraft, with violence swirling around her until she finally packs up and leaves Liberty Township for New York City.
When Ruby returns, the town takes notice. Ruby’s red lipstick, fine clothes and perfume draw the attention of all the wrong kind. Over a decade later, the lipstick and heels gone, Ruby lives like a ghost, walking through the town in rags and caked in dirt. No one speaks to her, no one sees her. No one except Ephram. Under the filth, Ephram still sees Ruby for who she really is and longs for her fiercely. Having spent the whole of his life under the thumb of his Mama Celia and the discerning eye of the town and church, Ephram lacks the courage to speak his mind. He suffers from crippling headaches and finds himself vulnerable to the manipulation of others. The day comes when Ephram decides enough is enough and sets out to save Ruby Bell from the town and herself. He is unprepared for the reality of who Ruby has become and what she has succumbed to in her isolation.
In Ruby, a novel rife with heartache, tragedy, love and a touch of mystery, author Cynthia Bond weaves a story so thick and heavy it could pass for the southern grits served at the church picnics in Liberty Township. The story of Ephram and Ruby reverberates with the enduring power of love and explores the depths of the soul through Bond’s powerful words. Readers of Toni Morrison will appreciate the carefully crafted prose Bond presents.