A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
She’s in college, but so what? She’ll always be my baby.
I never meant to be this way. I raised her to be independent. When she was able to walk, I gave her her own snack cabinet and the lowest shelf in the fridge. We negotiated her curfew on a case-by-case basis. I gave her my brand new car to drive around town, told her not to drink and drive, and didn’t worry. I trusted her to make good choices. I knew she’d make mistakes, but told her I’d be here if she needed me — and I was. Drive 45 minutes to pick her up from the party she’s stuck at? Absolutely. Every time, and cheerfully.
Has distance made me clingy?
I hardly talk to my mother. It is a conscious choice, for reasons of my own, for the time being. My daughter’s experience with me is not the same as mine with my mother — or so I think. Am I more like Mom than I realize? The day my girl was born, I looked at her and saw my profile. “This is my chance to get it right,” I said, then forbade myself to ever think that again. Also, “I’ll never be lonely again.”
And then, “Don’t be an idiot.”
She can take care of herself.
My girl has demonstrated this many times. Now that she’s gone 350.9 miles away, though, I find myself worrying about her far more than I did when she lived with me. I suppose this is normal; I can’t be her safety net so far away. But I wonder: Is my guilt over withdrawing from my mother causing these anxieties in me? I worry that she’ll shut me out from her life, too. I told her that, and she said we have a connection that can never be broken. I know this, of course, and I also know something else.
She loves me, but she doesn’t need me.
She is secure in herself in ways I have never been. She needs me to step back now and trust in everything I’ve taught her and let her learn, and, even more, to trust in her. But, even though she’s a 5.5-hour drive away, it’s only an hour by plane. She won’t need me to pick her from that party — she’s not a girl anymore, and knows how to call a cab. But the things an adult daughter needs her mother for, I’m there. Every time, and cheerfully.
In these times when anyone can publish a book with the click of a mouse, finding a literary agent is too often an afterthought, or no thought at all. Just as most of us wouldn’t go to court without a lawyer, however, we shouldn’t enter into publishing without an agent. Because, in an industry where writers are “content providers” making money for others , an agent is still, too often, an author’s only advocate.
That’s what four other authors and I told our audience recently at the Romance Writers of America Conference in Atlanta. In “My Agent Saved My Life: What a Good Literary Agent Can Do for You,” romance authors Mia Marlowe, Mary Connealy, Zuri Day, Vanessa Miller and I talked about five ways our agent, Natasha Kern, went to bat for us and got us out of some very dire — even nightmarish — situations.
Indeed, we might have titled the panel, “My Literary Agent Saved My Ass.” 😉
Here, inspired by Kern’s own blog post for Seekerville, are five things a good literary agent can do for authors:
1. Negotiate your contract. The publisher’s job — via an editor, or directly — is to get the very best deal for the company, be it Amazon, a small indie, or a big publishing house. Make no mistake: if they could pay you no royalties at all, or keep the rights to your books forever, they would do so. Some even try: Connealy told of a contract she’d signed under a different literary agent — one that, unbeknown to her, gave her publisher perpetual rights to all her future books. These kinds of stories are all too common. Kern stepped in and negotiated hard with the publisher to change the terms which, she said, were illegal. That’s what a good agent will do.
2. Manage your career. How many lists have I sent my agent of historical fiction book ideas? She reads them and tells me which ones sound like great ideas, which ones are just so-s0, and which ones I should NOT write.
To some authors, an agent’s giving advice on what editors will want sounds like a suppression of creative expression. For authors wanting to make a career out of writing novels, however, it’s so helpful to have an agent to offer an informed opinion about what works in the market at any given time, and what does not.
An agent can also help an author to switch to another genre, as Kern did for Zuri Day. She’d written several contemporary novels before her editor asked her to try romance. She sent her first romance to Kern, then sat back and waited for the accolades. Instead, Kern told her she’d gotten it all wrong.
“This is not a romance,” Kern said. “What you have is another contemporary novel.” A good literary agent has the courage to tell an author the truth about her work.
3. Plan for the termination of rights.
The publishing industry has never been more volatile than it is now, with big houses gobbling up other big houses — Random House acquiring Penguin, for instance — and smaller houses closing their doors, as Dorchester did in 2012, leaving Mia Marlowe with a backlist of titles owned by a company that could not longer publish them. Kern got her those rights back and helped her self-publish those books.
A good agent will also make sure an author’s contract has a termination clause, reverting publishing rights to the author after a certain amount of time. What if your publisher buys all rights, but doesn’t use them, as Beaufort Books did with THE JEWEL OF MEDINA and THE SWORD OF MEDINA? Published in 2008 and 2009, they’re out in hardback and ebook only — no paperback and no audiobooks. Kern has asked Beaufort’s publisher to revert those rights to me but he declined, not because he plans to use them but because, as he told me, he’s hoping someone will buy them from him. He even offered to sell them to me! Because I have a great agent, though, all rights automatically revert to me seven years after publication, at which point I’ll either find a new publisher to bring them out properly or do it myself.
4. Plan for career growth and development.
Already a successful romance author, Vanessa Miller wanted to write Christian romance, but publishers weren’t buying hers. Kern, however, dogged them until someone took on her Christian-themed books, getting her a three-book deal with a six-figure advance. Today, she’s the winner of several writing awards and an established author in her chosen genre. Helping an author to live her dreams is what a good literary agent can do.
Want to hire a publicist? An agent can help you find a good one. Looking for a great website designer, or book cover designer? Ditto. Want to see your book published in foreign countries? My agent has landed me book deals in 19 languages.
5. Stand by the author.
When Ballantine Books decided to “indefinitely postpone” publication of THE JEWEL OF MEDINA and THE SWORD OF MEDINA, Kern supported my decision to terminate our contract. She negotiated an agreement that got the rest of the advance Ballantine owed me (thanks to some brilliant language she’d written into my contract with them) as well as the publication rights to my books.
Then, when the media got the story and ran with it, my agent helped me do interviews. That’s right: I was so overwhelmed that she actually did some interviews for me. When my British publisher’s home office was attacked, she stepped in again and helped me deal with the flood of media requests that came our way. All along, she encouraged, supported, and praised me. No matter how busy she was with all her many other clients, she always made time for me when I called. Her support helped me deal with a devastating disappointment, death threats, broken promises, and betrayal — and she reminded me many times that my books had the potential to make a difference in the world.
My agent: I could not, and would not, do this without her. Just as no one would try to sail a ship without a captain, no author should try to navigate the treacherous waters of the publishing world without a good literary agent. A quality agent is an author’s best friend.
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Sherry Jones is an internationally best-selling author of biographical and historical fiction, including THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, THE SWORD OF MEDINA, FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, and WHITE HEART.
I had a blast at the 2013 Romance Writers of America Conference in Atlanta last week, hobnobbing with romance authors, signing my FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, dining with one of my favorite book bloggers, moderating and participating on a panel with my literary agent, Natasha Kern, and volunteering at the Rita Awards ceremony. But my favorite part by far was the authors’ party that my publisher, Simon & Schuster’s Gallery/Pocket Books, threw for us in a tony little steakhouse called Rathbun’s.
We gathered on the black bus parked outside our hotel, about 30 dressed-up authors, all women, and Gallery/Pocket bigwigs including Jean Anne Rose, the director of publicity; senior editors Abby Zidle and Micki Nuding, and the executive editor, Louise Burke, who knows how to pick a fantastic wine. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The bus filled up with laughing, chattering women including my seatmate, Colette Auclair, a perky, quirky redhead whose first romance, THROWN, debuts in the fall. She and I laughed and joked throughout the ride while Abby Zidle handed out plastic cups and bottles of sweet bubbly. When author Cherry Adair stepped on the bus, all flamboyant gestures and, again, red hair, the laughter really began as she treated us all to a glimpse of her strategically-placed cherry tattoo.
At Rathbun’s, which appears to be in some sort of warehouse district, we filled the lower floor dining room, our seats reserved for us with name plates and our necks adorned with miniature books bearing the covers of our own latest creations. I sat, coincidentally and happily, beside Ms. Auclair, and across from Alison Atlee, author of the terrific historical novel THE TYPEWRITER GIRL (more on this book in a later post) and Anna Michaels, a Southern literary author (THE TENDER MERCY OF ROSES) from Tupelo, Mississippi who loves Eudora Welty as much as I.
The food was excellent, the wine remarkable, the company stimulating. Gallery/Pocket really knows how to throw a party. So I said, I think, to Ms. Rose as I staggered off the bus and walked, gently swaying, into the hotel, thinking that I must be the luckiest person on the planet.
Ah, the writer’s life. Sometimes, it really is as glamorous as everyone imagines it to be.
Coming next: Our RWA ’13 panel: “My Agent Saved My Life: What a Good Literary Agent Can Do For You.”
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It seems that a Starbucks worker gave him, or the protagonist of his song, a hard time about wearing a Confederate T-shirt, launching Paisley into a lyrical litany of self-defense. He wears the shirt because he’s proud to be Southern, and besides, he’s a Skynyrd fan, he sings. “It ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin.”
Well, OK, Brad. That’s fair enough. But how about driving a mile — to your local library? You’ll find all the empathy you need in the Fiction section.
When I wrote my controversial historical novel “The Jewel of Medina” about A’isha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, reporters often asked why I’d written a novel instead of a non-fiction book about her. My response: non-fiction deals with facts. Fiction deals with truths. By taking us deep into the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of people not like us, novels give us empathy for others. We become them for those few, tantalizing hours between the covers when we live their lives.
I dare you, Brad, to read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and come away without any understanding of how it feels to be treated less than human because of the color of one’s skin. For a black woman’s perspective, try Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” For a black man’s point of view, how about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man?”
Once you’ve gotten a toehold on the African-American experience in this country, perhaps you’d like to move on to other cultures and lifestyles.
“The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan explores Chinese-American identity AND women’s issues, giving you two for the price of one. Ha Jin, who grew up in Communist China, has written a number of books set there, including “Waiting,” about a doctor during the Cultural Revolution torn between two women, and ways of life – the traditional vs. the new. Who among us hasn’t grappled with tradition?
For the Muslim experience, Khaled Hosseini has written two excellent novels in “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which will force a burqa on you and break your heart. My novels “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina” will turn you into a young girl married to her elderly father’s best friend, the Prophet Muhammad; then a young woman falling in love with her husband; and then a warrior, fighting to preserve her dead husband’s legacy. Who among us hasn’t struggled to find the strength and courage to be ourselves?
Anywhere you want to go, the fiction aisles can take you there. Isaac
Bashevis Singer will show you the world through wry Jewish eyes. “Cheri” by Colette may make you feel like a beautiful woman past her prime trying to hold onto the love of an exasperatingly spoiled, much younger, man. Want to know what women really want? Skim for the “good parts” in a steamy romance and find out.
Having lived, for the hours it takes to read a novel, in someone else’s skin, you might find yourself thinking twice about flying any flag, on a T-shirt or otherwise, that evokes nostalgia for a white-supremacist society that dehumanized an entire population and fought hard for its “right” to do so. (You also might avoid wearing swastikas, for the same reason.) And no one will have to tell you to throw that Confederate-flag-waving T-shirt in the trash or, better yet, to burn it. You’ll just know.
The mind boggles, Brad Paisley, to think what might happen next as you continue to read novel after novel, story after story. Maybe you’ll come out in support of equal pay for women, or write a song empathizing with gays who can’t marry the people they love. One thing’s pretty certain: You won’t be shrugging off the oppression of others with songs that say, “Sorry – I just can’t relate.”
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Sherry Jones is the author of three historical fiction novels and one novella, including FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, about four sisters in 13th-century Provence who all became queens. She is now at work on her fourth novel, about the 12th-century Parisian lovers Abelard and Heloise, debuting in 2014 from Simon and Schuster/Gallery Books.
source: Sherry Jones
Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood recently spoke out against a UN declaration on women’s rights, saying it could “destroy society” by allowing a woman to travel, work and use contraception without her husband’s approval.
They want their country to reject and condemn the declaration.
Egypt has joined Iran, Russia and the Vatican (!!) in what some diplomats have dubbed ‘an unholy alliance.’ (And for all the euphoria about the new Pope, who seems like a nice bloke, remember – he is a staunch conservative on women’s issues.)
That’s my question. I’ll leave the answer to you.
But we come to it because of a previous post here that attracted a lot of interest.
It was about Sherry’s Jones’ book, The Jewel of the Medina.
I asked her more about it.
A religious prophet who was also sexual?
It intrigued me, coming from a Christian tradition whose prophet, Jesus, is so de-sexualized. Why haven’t I heard more about these women?
I suspected that they had influences on Muhammad, and on Islam, that we in the West, at least, don’t know about.
I was most surprised to find that Muhammad was a feminist who gave women in his culture rights they had never possessed before: the right to inherit property, to consent to marriage, to testify in court.
He listened to his wives’ opinions, and allowed them to sit in on his important political and military strategy meetings, to the chagrin of the more traditional men in the community.
A’isha was one of his top advisors, and continued her role as advisor — as well as warrior and spiritual leader — after his death.
SHERRY: I certainly anticipated controversy, yes. After all. “The Jewel of Medina” is about A’isha, the nine-year-old bride of the Prophet Muhammad. But death threats, from people who hadn’t even read the book? I suppose I should have seen it coming.
SHERRY: They backed out two months before the pub date – because an academic warned them they might be threatened. Never in the history of publishing has this happened before. When word got out about it, it made news around the world.
source: Sherry Jones
SHERRY: My UK publisher, Martin Rynja at Gibson Square Books, was targeted.
Three men, one of whom had played a major role in the “Danish cartoon” riots, slipped a Molotov cocktail into the letter slot of his London home-office in the middle of the night — several weeks before “The Jewel of Medina” was scheduled for publication there.
Scotland Yard was already following the arsonists, and arrested them on the spot. They’d already warned Mr. Rynja to spend the night elsewhere, so no one was hurt. But he withdrew from publishing the book, and we’ve never found another UK publisher.
My US publisher, Beaufort Books, couldn’t even find anyone who would distribute the US version to bookstores in the UK.
I called the FBI: “We’re scared for you,” the agent said. “We see things online, in Arabic, that you don’t see.”
A comment on a YouTube video denouncing my (not-yet-published) book said, “Kill the bitch! Let’s do to her what we did to Theo Van Gogh.”
Reuters ran photos from a riot in Bangladesh, and someone issued a manifesto online — afatwa — calling for my murder. Yep, those were frightening times.
He said it contained “brutal scenes of pornography.”
The book sold out instantly, and the media covered the story very aggressively. Blic, a Belgrade newspaper, printed all the scenes from the book that were even mildly racy.
An editor told me it took up about eight column inches.
source: Sherry Jones
SHERRY: I was a wreck. I ran away to a Montana town where I have lots of friends, and stayed with one of them in her mountaintop home. I was there when I learned what was going on in Serbia. Packing my bags to go home, my hands were trembling. I wept.
I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide until it all blew over, but I couldn’t. Others, including my amazing agent, Natasha Kern, were counting on me.
It was then, when I hit bottom, that I imagined what A’isha would do. She embodied strength, and courage, and peace, and love. She helped me to find those qualities within myself, and I was never afraid again.
I decided that, instead of worrying about how and when I would die, I’d rather focus on how I want to live.
photograph: David Shankbone
Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses”, who hid for 10 years under a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomenei – and who came out in support of “The Jewel of Medina” – said thatwithout the freedom to offend, there is no freedom of speech.
I’ll take that concept a step farther: Being offended can be good for us, especially if it makes a person think.
You can read more about Sherry Jones and the Jewel of the Medina here.
How wonderful for any author to find her book listed as among anyone’s favorites! I’ve been dancing a jig ever since seeing the new issue of Dujour Magazine, in which actress Bonnie Somerville lists her favorite historical fiction books. Here’s the article, released on the same day as the debut of acclaimed author Nancy Bilyeau’s new novel, “The Chalice,” for which there’s a trailer at the end but which I can’t copy here. Please go to the article itself to watch it — it’s terrific! Congrats to Nancy, and to Sandra Worth for the inclusion of her book, “The Rose of York,” here.
Actress Bonnie Somerville takes a break from her day job to share her favorite historical fiction novels
In the new CBS series Golden Boy, Bonnie Somerville plays New York City detective Deborah McKenzie. But there’s another side to the Brooklyn native: She’s a lover of history. Somerville, who inhales historical fiction, admits to a longing to play the medieval queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom she calls “one of the most powerful women of all time.” This month,DuJour‘s own Nancy Bilyeau’s The Chalice hits shelves (watch a trailer for the book, below). Somerville checks it out and shares other must-reads from her favorite genre.
The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau
This author became a favorite of mine when I read her first book, The Crown. The Chalice is a perfect sequel for heroine Joanna Stafford. I loved the story, the characters and the rich detail of the novel—making you feel as if you are there with Joanna in 1538, a turbulent time in English history. So much emotion and drama, and surprise twists for even the most hard-to-please mystery fans!
The Rose of York by Sandra Worth
The first in a trilogy, this book is an amazing tale of the York dynasty and its fall. It’s a different take on the classic tale of Edward IV’s court and his brothers, including Richard III, so maligned by history and by Shakespeare. The battle scenes are particularly great and rich in detail.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The story of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and Merlin the Magician—it’s a classic. What a great combination of history, magic and romance! It’s perfect for readers who are intrigued by myth and legend.
Four Sisters, All Queens by Sherry Jones
An amazing book about four sisters who became queens in 13th-century Europe. This is the only family in history to have all sisters crowned! The characters are so compelling—it’s a book about female empowerment at a time when there was little to no power that a woman could have.
Mein Kampf? The Satanic Verses? Harry Potter? (Yes, it’s happened.)
I have just finished reading The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’ best-selling novel about the Prophet Muhammad’s child bride Aisha.
I thought Sherry courageous to take on the subject. Writing about the founder of a major world religion takes guts.
But her methodology is sound; she tries to humanize historical people, as every historical novelist tries to do.
She is torn by fervor and jealousy, married to a man destined to become one of the great religious leaders of history.
Muhammad himself seems at times self serving and lecherous. Which perhaps he was. He is also drawn as compassionate and human.
I didn’t see his charisma portrayed – I would like to have seen that. But he’s not an unsympathetic figure in the book and there’s nothing malicious or defamatory in the way he’s been drawn. After I finished the book I wanted to learn much more about him.
But just before publication her New York publisher cancelled the book, fearing that itmight incite reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists.
After it was finally published elsewhere, Ms Jones was called the ‘world’s most dangerous author.’ Really? It’s a book, it’s an idea. Ideas are allowed.
Voltaire once famously said (actually he was just famously paraphrased) ‘I do not agree with a single word you have said, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.’ This is what free speech means; it’s not about the right to say what we believe, but letting someone else say what we don’t believe.
For example, want to read Hitler’s world view?
Want to read the communist manifesto?
This is why, for all its faults, the west is called the free world and Iran and North Korea aren’t.
The Jewel of Medina is not a book about Mohammed. It’s Aisha’s story. As Sherry says onher web page: “My goal was to tell about the women behind the man — his domestic life — and to portray the difficulties of life in the harem.”
Some called it soft core pornography. I hate to refute this and damage Sherry’s book sales, but this is not Fifty Shades of Islam. How can you write honestly about a marriage and not write about sex? If anyone really thinks the book pornographic, they should get out more.
This one is getting a bit old; the way people are viewed is entirely subjective. How Michelle Obama sees her husband and his motives is quite different from how Donald Trump views him. And Obama’s a famous person who’s stillalive.
There are people who hate me and love me, and who have very conflicting views of my own history. So do you. To say that any history can be precise is a nonsense. No one knows the true story of Mohammed and his wives. Not even them.
That’s why history is intriguing. The historical novel is not about getting close to the truth; it’s about seeing the past through endless prisms.
Do you have to be a Muslim to write about Muslims? Do you have to come from the seventh century to write about it?
No, you just have to do your research. Sherry Jones clearly has. While some have said the novel is too contrived, others say she relied too heavily on historic Islamic sources. Too much license, not enough; sigh. As an historical novelist, you really can’t please all the people all the time.
She”s an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. It was on her advice that the book was pulled. She said: ‘You can’t play with sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”
Henry VIII did not have three wives or seven. He did not have a wooden leg. This is ‘sacred’ history in that it is factual. But interpreting past events – this is what novelists do. That’s why it’s called fiction.
As James Joyce pointed out in ‘Ulysses’, making history ‘sacred’ – religious or secular – is what is truly dangerous. The Da Vinci Code was a bad book because of the writing, not the ideas.
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Jewel of Medina.’ It made me curious about history, which I think any good historical novel should do. I gained a different perspective on the world, and on Islamic women in particular.
So when would you put a fetwa on Salman Rushdie?
When would you set off with a lynching party and go looking for Sherry Jones?
Where is the line in the sand for you?
I seem to be the only person in America not exulting over Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime performance featuring Beyonce’s Crotch.
What? You thought it was the performer herself on the stage? Technically that is true, but, thanks to her costume’s design, the choreography, and some inventive camera angles employed during the much-lauded song-and-dance, it was the singer’s Crotch that took center stage.
Now, I’m not a TV watcher, so I haven’t seen Beyonce on screen since the movie Dreamgirls, which impressed me with her vocal range and, somehow, also led me to think of her as a class act. Not any more. Now I think of her as a complete sell-out, using her body to sell her music, and the Pepsi-Cola Company as her pimp du jour. Who pays? The American public, all of us, not only girls and women but also men and boys who view this objectification with not only approval but outright enthusiasm.
Lest you think me a prude — and I confess, I feel like one right now — I want to say that I think sex is a natural and, at its best, enjoyable, human function that we have somehow confused with morality. I would never judge another for his or her sexual choices, as long as everyone involved were adult and the sex, consensual. But what Beyonce and her coterie of gyrating, scantily-clad cohorts did on that stage was reinforce before 111 million viewers the notion that women exist for one reason, and that is the sexual gratification of men.
Did I say that she did so needlessly? With her voice and her performing abilities, Beyonce could have pulled off an equally stunning show without giving top billing to her Crotch. From the opening camera shot that approached her from below and zoomed slowly on her black-patched, protruding crotch, to the costume whose skirt cut up and over the aforementioned Crotch for obvious reasons, to her gyrations and acrobatics — at one point lying sprawled on the stage with her Crotch pointing at the faces of her audience — Beyonce’s Crotch stole the show, and that is too bad.
It’s too bad because the performance reinforces, for men and women, that female value resides in sex appeal. While much is made over the fact that an all-female band and all-female dancers accompanied her on the stage, as well as Destiny’s Child, the effect on our culture is the continued objectification of women before viewers of every age, including boys and girls.
That sad and distorted message was broadcast during an event which also featured, in the stands, the most sex trafficking of any event in the country, according to the U.S. Attorney General. While Beyonce was waggling her Crotch and seducing us with “fuck me” looks in our living rooms, sex-slaves, many of them underage, were being pimped in the crowd, some raped by 25 to 50 men in one night.
And let’s not forget all those at home, where, arguably, the danger of domestic violence against women, if not the violence itself, increased. In recent years some have disputed the decades-old notion that Super Bowl Sunday sees an upswing in attacks against women in the home, but others say these cries of “balderdash” are merely a backlash and ignore the fact that Sunday is the very worst day in general for domestic violence all year round.
As I averted my eyes again and again from the sight of Beyonce, a woman I had admired, offering her Crotch like some kind of sexual Holy Grail to an adoring public, I couldn’t help thinking of my own daughter, who, at 19, is a strong and smart and, yes, sexy young woman who thinks feminism is no longer needed in a world where women have so many opportunities and advantages for which my generation had to fight.
Sometimes, she speaks so passionately about the egalitarianism of her own generation that she almost convinces me that we no longer need to fight the fight for equality. In fact, I want to believe her. But, after seeing what everyone else is seeing, and loving, on television, I’m telling her now, with great sorrow, that it just isn’t so. We’ve come a long way, but we have oh, so much farther to go.
I am so delighted with the blog Mirabile Dictu‘s review of FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS that I’ve copied it to share with you here. I first learned about this blog, which used to be called Frisbee: A Book Journal, from Trish Hoard, my good friend whom I met when she edited THE SWORD OF MEDINA for Beaufort Books. (She was also the editor of the beautifully written novel OUR SAVAGE by the Montana author Matt Pavelich, which I had reviewed for The Missoulian, where I worked as arts and entertainment editor.) Trish has terrific taste in books, obviously, and so when she recommended Kat Curtain’s blog I surfed right on over, and was hooked immediately. She has turned me on to some terrific books I would not have otherwise read, by authors I’d never heard of, such as Pamela Hansford Johnson, whose book TOO DEAR FOR MY POSSESSING I’ve reviewed here before.
At any rate, Kat read my new book and loved it, and was kind enough to write about it on her blog. She’s included it with other books of “Middlebrow American Women’s Fiction,” giving me, and now, you, more books by authors new (to me) to add to my to-read list. Enjoy!
“Mirabile Does Middlebrow” is a new bimonthly feature here.
I’d rather be reading middlebrow!
I am a fan of middlebrow women’s fiction, and though I rarely write about it, I certainly read my share of popular novels. With a cup of tea in the middle of the night and none of the men awake to tease me, I curl up with the novels of Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Gaskell, Monica Dickens, or Mary Stewart.
I also try lots of contemporary women’s fiction.
Sometimes middlebrow contemporary fiction is a good fit for me, sometimes not. I can’t for the life of me read Jennifer Weiner or Joshlyn Jackson.
I intend to be honest, and hope you will find some good books here, some by famous people, some barely known.
And so here’s the round-up of middlebrow novels for January:
1. Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy. This delightful “chick lit” novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age. The wittyConfessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man. She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.” In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain, and immediately wants to sleep with him.
But she gives us very good advice.
“On no account rush to the loo and apply Touche Eclat or whatever the ruinously expensive foundation is called, the one that claims to remove your wrinkles and fill in the vertical lines down to your mouth, the result of a fifty-year nicotine habit. You will look strangely different, it’s true, but not for the better, as they claim.”
She considers trying Botox, settles for a new facial creme, and then resolves to interest Alain by making a fortune selling her flat in her gentrified neighborhood. She thinks she can buy a house for herself, Alain, and possibly his wife. He is very interested.
Yes, she’s out of control, but she’s very, very funny. B+
2. Hilma Wolitzer’s An Available Man. You might think it is no coincidence that I read a novel about a man in his sixties after reading a novel about a woman in her sixties, but I assure you I’m still clinging to my spry half century. Hilma Wolitzer is the mother of Meg Wolitzer, one of my favorite writers, and Hilma’s light, romantic novels are usually quite good, so I picked up a copy.
When retired science teacher Edward’s children place a personal ad for him in NYR under the name Science Guy, he is annoyed, because he has not gotten over Bee, his late wife, and he doesn’t want to date. But he goes ahead with it, and meets several women who are not quite right for him, among them a teacher who jilted him years ago; a beautiful older blonde whose extensive plastic surgery repulses him; and a widow whose insistence on showing him photos of her dead husband makes him feel he is at a bereavement brunch.
Edward is a kind, sensible, “nice” character, and this short entertaining novel is very “nicely” written. Occasionally an unpredictable moment redeems this novel as we see Edward change and grab life again. B+.
3. Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life. This novel was compared to Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and though it was nothing like it, I very much enjoyed Huth’s shrewd observations of her characters’ rocky marriages and realignments of love. My favorite character is Rachel, a charming woman who spends her days sleeping on 300+ count sheets in a beautifully redecorated bedroom, because there are certainly days when I, too, would like to dream all day. Her husband, Thomas, who is quite nasty to her, has affairs with younger women and falls in love with an artist’s work and schemes to seduce her. Rachel embarrasses herself at a party making a pass at a man, but that is not the end of the world.
We meet other characters, among them unhappy Frances Farthingoe, who gives a lot of parties and decides she needs a custom-made gray awning at her ball, while her quiet husband takes refuge in studying badgers at night.
Marriage is not the end-all when you’re ill-suited, and that is what Huth shows us so charmingly. Grade: A-
4. Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens. Sherry, a Friend of Our Blog , was kind enough to send me a copy of her historical novel, Four Sisters, All Queens. As a fan of Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, and Philippa Gregory, I knew I’d enjoy this novel set in the 13th century about four queens.
I enjoy historical novels about queens to the point that I once considered spending a year reading only historical novels…but I did something else!
And I ended up racing through Sherry’s well-researched, deftly-written novel. She spins the story of the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy, the countess of Provence, who raised and educated her daughters as sons, ensuring that they would learn Latin, French, history, and other subjects that would help them participate in the political process.. She was the “queen maker” though she would have preferred to make kings, and her four daughters were expected to make political marriages. Indeed, Beatrice married them so well that it should have strengthened Provence.
The four sisters grew up to be Queen Marguerite of France, Queen Elenore of England, Queen Sanchia of Germany, and Queen Beatrice of Sicily. Marguerite’s husband, Louis IX of France, is impotent. His mother has a way of showing up in the garden as they are kissing. Marguerite also has to contend with this evil queen politically, as she tries to edge Marguerite out of meetings and sends Marguerite’s uncles home.
My favorite character, Eleanore, has to walk a treacherous path: her coronation is crashed by a madman who claims the coronation is illegal because Henry is betrothed to his daughter. Henry was engaged to her, and broke it off, saying she was too closely related: The Pope is reviewing the document. Marguerite tries to stay cool, and is astonishingly smart, managing to attract all the attention back to herself.
The other two queens, too, have problems, and as they grow older, the politics are even more complicated.
This novel is fascinating, great vacation reading, take it to the Caribbean (in my case the couch). Sherry, a former journalist, is an excellent writer.
5. Jo-Ann Mapson was kind enough to send me a copy ofFinding Casey, the well-written sequel to her award-winning novel, Solomon’s Oak. In Solomon’s Oak, Mapson tells the story of Glory, a grieving widow who bakes pirate cakes and plans weddings to support her farm; Joseph, a retired wounded cop with pain management problems; and Juniper, a rebellious adolescent whose sister disappeared some years ago. In Finding Casey, Glory and Joseph have married and adopted Juniper and moved to Santa Fe, and there isn’t at first much tension in their happy family life. Glory is pregnant, Joseph volunteers on the board of a women’s shelter, and Juniper is in college.
But a new character is introduced, Laurel, a brainwashed young woman who has been horribly abused by a cult leader at “the Farm,” and when she secretly brings her daughter to a hospital against the wishes of the sadistic Seth, she finds help from a social worker.
Mapson has a calm voice and a simple, poetic style. She understands suffering and describes it quietly. I did figure out the plot almost immediately, but that isn’t a bad thing. Though there is suspense, you know she will help her characters.
Finding Casey continues the story without much ado, and perhaps doesn’t quite stand alone. Is is more loosely plotted, because we already know the characters.
So read Solomon’s Oak first. It’s just better to read them in a row.
Maybe it was my New Year’s Resolution to exercise more compassion, to get my ego, as the priestess at Burning Man 2010 put it, out of my love flow. I’ve long thought that I lacked a facility for true empathy — due, perhaps, to my years on the police beat in suburban Philadelphia. After two years of stoically interviewing victims and their families and writing about gruesome crimes, I switched to writing features, then cried cathartic tears for weeks afterward whenever the TV news came on.
Now, events in my personal life have made me resolve to reach more deeply into my own heart this year, dredge up all the empathy and compassion I can find, and increase my love for others if I can. Perhaps that’s why I dreamt last night of a mass killing in Spokane Wash., where I live.
First I came across the dogs, then their police officers, and then the bodies sprawled on the sidewalk along 2nd Ave., shot to death and still bleeding. I averted my eyes and crossed the street, but found only more carnage on the opposite side. The little girl with the blond hair in the pretty orange coat, face-down in a pool of blood, will haunt me forever.
I went into a shopping center, still trying to get away, and found an even more horrific scene. Bodies covered the floor, hundreds and hundreds of them. Beside them, survivors knelt and wept in utter silence. I began to cry out, and others joined me, filling the rooms with our mournful wails. With shaking hands I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and called my daughter to make sure she was safe. Her phone rang and rang and rang before I awoke, shuddering and feeling utterly alone.
The pre-Christmas killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School wounded me, too, far more deeply and traumatically than I had realized.
Of course I was upset when I heard about those 26 adults and children killed in Newtown, Connecticut last December. I cried, yes. I went to Facebook and asked how many more children we would sacrifice on the altar of the almighty gun. I got about 100 comments, many from Christians claiming they need their guns to defend themselves against burglers, anarchists, and the federal government. Is this “turning the other cheek”?
Other Christians, either forgetting or ignoring Christ’s admonition to “judge not, lest you be judged,” tried to blame the lack of prayer in schools for the killings of those innocents, as if God were not love, after all. As if God might have stopped Adam Lanza from shooting those children, but decided not to.
Today I wrote on Facebook about my terrible dream, and about the profound effects of this tragedy, so far from my own home and experience, on my psyche. Surely countless others share this sense of loss, the disorientation and terror that I felt in my dream, and feel now. Or perhaps we are growing numb to it all. Perhaps our capacity for empathy and compassion — for love — diminishes with each new round of carnage. After all, the United States has been steeped in violence, killing, and hatred — in blood — since Sept. 11, 2001.
A lot of so-called Christians are quick to leap to the defense of guns, which have killed 18 people in the U.S. every day since the shootings at Sandy Hook, and of religion, as if the two belonged together. Godlessness is to blame, these folks say, then describe how they would use their own gun(s) to kill anyone who broke into their home. Really? Is this what Jesus would do?
Whom would Jesus kill? A burglar or armed robber, after telling us to give not only our coat to the man who would take it from us, but our shirt, as well? A police officer, after healing the ear of the Roman soldier his disciple cut trying to defend him? The President of the United States, after advising us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”?
We don’t have to ask what kind of gun Jesus would carry, because he wouldn’t have used a gun. Anyone who believes he was the son of God knows that he had the power to call in armies of angels to defend him against the Romans, and to prevent his crucifixion. Instead, he turned the other cheek.
Why didn’t Christ fight back? Because he came to show humanity that God is love. Understanding this is what it means to be “saved.” Loving others — feeding the poor, healing the sick, helping those who can’t help themselves, treating others the way we would want to be treated — is the only path to heaven. This is what he meant when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Clearly, guns and God don’t go together — not for a Christian, at least.
Jesus went to his death in an act of passive resistance after a lifetime of it, demonstrating how God wants us all to live. He was one person who didn’t let his ego get in the way of his love flow. As for me, I’m still working on it. Every day, in 2013.