Our Everchanging World Of Reading & Books

A few interesting conversations are going on around the country right now about reading and books.  With the shift being made over at the L.A. Times in the book review department the question is being posed, “Is the printed book review losing the popularity contest to on-line book reviews such as blogs and on-line professional publications?” 

Are our humble little book blogs a threat to such great publications as The L.A. Times?  Now that the L.A. Times has published it’s final stand-alone book review section, only three newspapers have stand-alone book review sections that are printed; the Washington Post, the N.Y. Times and the Chicago Tribune.  You can read or watch more about this discussion HERE on PBS’s NewsHour. 

In the N.Y. Times Opinion section this morning, there is a collection of letters to the editor about what constitutes reading now a days.  Are you reading when the words are on-line?  Are you only reading when it is a piece of literature?  There are some interesting points being made HERE

What are your thoughts on these two topics?  Do you take pride as I do in your own book blog?  Do you respect and admire the bloggers whose book blogs you frequent and take into consideration the opinions that people like you and me have on books that are vying for your attention and money?  I think we live in a very exciting time when everyone can have a voice and be heard.  Knowing that people are taking their time to read what I have to say and leave comments is a huge thing and an immense compliment to me intellectually.

Today’s Favorite Song

Both Keeping The House and Ellen Baker’s guest post talk of war and sons and husbands going off to report for duty.  These topics have reminded of one of my favorite songs.  It’s by the amazing Belinda Carlisle and it’s called Summer Rain.  The lyric tells a story of a woman seeing her lover off as he reports to duty and though she never sees him again, she will always remember “dancing in the summer rain” with him at the train station.  The video is touching and due to the subject matter, is timeless.  The tune is rich and displays the perfect pop sound that was so prevalent in the late eighties. 

Belinda Carlisle was a huge influence on me musically while I was growing up.  Not only as the front woman of The Go-Go’s but as a solo artist.  In 2001, my husband and I saw her in concert with The Go-Go’s at the DC101 Chili Cook-offin Washington, D.C.  It was right around the time that Belinda Carlisle had posed nude for Playboy and she was in fine form that day.  Both physically and vocally. 

Runaway Horses

The song Summer Rain is off her 1989 release titled Runaway Horses.  It is a good video but an even better song.  Enjoy!

Guest Post ~ Author of Keeping The House, Ellen Baker

I have had so much fun reading KEEPING THE HOUSE and corresponding with author, Ellen Baker, on our interview and receiving her guest post for Planet Books.  At the end of the week we will learn whom she will be sending a signed copy of her breakthrough novel to.  Ellen has been so generous and that is even more apparent when I received her awesome, revealing and thoughtful guest post this morning.  I hope that you enjoy reading it and hearing what she has to say about herself and her experiences writing KEEPING THE HOUSE as much as I did.  Enjoy! 

KEEPING THE HOUSE evolved out of my experiences and fascinations over a period of about ten years, beginning when I was going into my junior year of college.  I’d always loved stories and loved to write – in fact, by this time, I’d already written two novels.  (Of course, I have to add the disclaimer that all writers add about their first works – they were awful – but I only mean to illustrate that I really loved writing and had a definite degree of stick-to-it-iveness.  As it turned out, it was all good practice!)  So, that summer when I was 20, I got an internship at a local historical society in a beautiful little town on the shores of Green Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, and I began to write a novel about a family called the Mickelsons who had lost a son in World War I.  It was 1919, and the family came to their summer home in “Stone Harbor, Wisconsin” for the first summer after the war and tried to pretend nothing had happened. 

I worked on this novel for several years, but meanwhile, the life that was unfolding for me would ultimately inspire – in bits and pieces – KEEPING THE HOUSE.  For example, after college, I spent a year working at a living history farm, where I learned how to quilt by hand, and spent many hours gathered around the quilt frame with my co-workers trading stories and gossip.  Dolly’s quilting experiences are loosely based on mine – though no one ever pulled out any of my too-big, beginner stitches!

Then, in March of 2000, I met Jay Baker, a soldier in the 101st Airborne, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  He was only 21 (I was a worldly 24) and told me before I left to drive back north – I was living in Door County again by this time – that he had fallen for me.  “Head over heels, I think is the term,” he said, with an endearing humility and a little laugh.  Three months later, we were engaged, despite the 700 miles between us.  We spent hours on the phone, and counted down to our usually monthly visits.  Each time we were together, the pain of separating became more extreme.  “One of us is going to have to quit our job,” he said.  “And if I quit mine, I go to jail!”  So, in the summer of 2001, I did.  I got hired back on at The Homeplace and moved down on Memorial Day, just three months before the wedding we’d already planned.  Jay was scheduled to get out of the Army that December, so I planned to live with him in Kentucky for six months, doing a lot of writing (plus, I had finished the 1919 novel and was trying to get an agent for it) and getting married in the midst of it. 

Well, the “getting an agent” part didn’t happen – I collected a folder full of rejections –  and the writing part didn’t work out much better, because we were married on September 8, 2001, and, after 9/11, we waited for word that Jay would be sent to Afghanistan.  And I learned that pinning my hopes to a soldier in a time like that was a bit like running myself back and forth through an old wringer washer, day after day after day.  Though I didn’t make a conscious choice to write about this experience, both Dolly and Wilma experience the same sort of helplessness – Dolly in the unwanted move to Pine Rapids and her consequent difficulties, and Wilma when her sons go off to war.

But I had one more stop before KEEPING THE HOUSE would come to be.  In 2002, just after Jay got out of the Army – it was an anticlimactic, near-miss of an ending, as he got out just about a week before his unit was sent overseas – I became the curator of a World War II museum in northern Wisconsin.  Part of my job was to conduct oral history interviews with veterans, and they told me things they hadn’t spoken of in sixty years.  I was honored to be the one that these men trusted with their stories, and I felt a real bond with them, or at least with the boys they’d been during the war (I often didn’t find out anything about what they’d done for the rest of their lives).  I would never have been able to write about the troubled JJ Mickelson without having known these veterans – though I should clarify (due to JJ’s frequent bad behavior!) that JJ is purely a product of my imagination.

Meanwhile, I was trying hard to fulfill my role as a newly-married homeowner!  In 2002, Jay and I moved into an old colonial-style house, and, much to my dismay, I suddenly began to imagine that I had to be a perfect “housewife.”  I found myself more concerned with whether the dishes were washed and the grocery shopping done than with any of my other goals.  Dust had never bothered me before, but now, seeing it gathered in corners seemed to me a representation of my personal failures.  As a person who had always enjoyed the life inside my mind more than real life, homemaking was decidedly not my cup of tea.  Yet, some women I knew were appalled by my lack of interest in cleaning, and Jay’s co-workers would comment disparagingly on the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the lunchbox he’d packed – gasp – for himself.  To his credit, Jay would scoff at those who scorned me for not cooking and cleaning for him appropriately.  But, like Dolly, I tended to listen too much to what other people said, and couldn’t help but take the criticism somewhat to heart.

Ultimately, I never got an agent for the 1919 novel, and that turned out to be a good thing, because I decided to shelve it and start something new – a  novel that would concern my beloved Mickelson family during WWII (so I thought – of course, as it turned out, I would write about fifty years of their lives).  I also decided to give up my full-time job at the museum in favor of part-time work at a bookstore.  This allowed me to really pursue writing – I attended workshops, read, studied, researched, and met other writers who would read my work and give me feedback.  And, of course, I wrote and wrote and rewrote and rewrote.  Three years later, I had finished KEEPING THE HOUSE, plus gotten an agent and a two-book contract with Random House.  Those were probably the hardest three years of work of my life, and they were absolutely the best and most rewarding, too. 

Now, I’m working on my next novel, also historical fiction – my main characters are women shipbuilders during WWII.  They’re very strong women, but, like Dolly and Wilma, they’re conflicted about many things.  Every day, I look forward to seeing what they’ll do next!

You can read my review of KEEPING THE HOUSE and enter the giveaway that ends this Friday night HERE and catch up with Ellen Baker in our interview HERE.  Also, be sure to check out her website at http://www.ellenbakernovels.com/ as well as her MySpace page HERE.  She also created a MySpace page for her main character Dolly and you can check it out HERE.  Ellen has upcoming appearances through October and you can check out her schedule HERE. 

Guest Post ~ Author of House & Home, Kathleen McCleary

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of reading House & Home by Kathleen McCleary.  I absolutely loved it and reviewed it HERE.  Kathleen is now a Washingtonian (D.C. that is) but she left her heart in Oregon which is where this novel derived from.  I asked Kathleen if she would kindly write a guest post about her expereinces while writing House & Home for us here at Planet Books and she has graciously obliged. 

It still seems somewhat unreal to me that at age forty-eight, I can walk into a bookstore and find my book, the one I wrote, there on the shelves.
Writing my first novel was a little like stumbling off a curb in the dark. I started the novel not because I wanted to write a novel, but because I had just moved across country and left my home of twelve years and was in such a turmoil of grief and anger over the whole thing that I didn’t know what to do with myself.

Here’s what I can tell you I learned about writing during the almost three years it took me to write a novel:
-Try not to care what anyone else thinks. I got about 100 pages into my novel and suddenly realized that maybe I actually WAS writing a novel. I started to worry about what other people might think if they read it, whether or not I could ever get it published, if it might get savagely reviewed. I got so worried that I stopped writing, for almost six months. My husband finally gave me a piece of advice that I clung to like a shipwreck survivor: Just finish it. The act of actually writing an entire book is a huge accomplishment in itself, and something you can be totally proud of, regardless of whether or not it ever gets published.
-Listen to your readers. After spending several months writing alone in a room in my house, I had no idea whether or not my first efforts at fiction were good, average or god-awful. So I signed up for an online novel-writing class at mediabistro.com. There, I read other writers’ work, and posted my own chapters for feedback from the teacher and other class members. It was invaluable. While the writers were an eclectic group (genres included vampire fiction, chick lit, a CIA-thriller, and a detective novel), they all read my novel carefully and responded honestly. In response to their feedback I changed several key plot points, added dialogue, and worked to flesh out various characters. Now that the book is out in the real world, I love hearing from readers about what worked and what didn’t. I’m absorbing all the input and applying what I’ve learned to my second novel.
-Go for a lot of walks. Any time I got really stuck while writing, I went for a long, hard walk over a route with lots of hills. Puffing and sweating was a great release for me, and I got most of my best ideas and sudden insights while walking.
-Listen to music. I can’t write with background noise, so my room is pretty silent when I’m working. But when I’m walking or doing housework, I listen to music—Counting Crows, Martina McBride, Lyle Lovett, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen. They’re all terrific songwriters. I found that listening to the vivid imagery in song lyrics, and to the rhythm of the words, really inspired my writing.

You can learn more about Kathleen McCleary and her novel House & Home at her website http://www.kathleenmccleary.com/.  House & Home was featured in the Home & Garden section of  The N.Y. Times.  You can check out the article HERE.  Also, if you are interested in checking out the classes that MediaBistro.com has to offer just click HERE.

And The Winner Is…

… Lori Barnes!! 

The Great Man

Lori, you have won a copy of the Planet Books July/August book club selection, THE GREAT MANby Kate Christensen.  We will be discussing this book on this blog during the last week of August.  Lori, I will e-mail you today to get your information. 

Everyone, thank you so much for submitting your name for this giveaway.  Remember that we still have one more giveaway running right now.  It’s for Ellen Baker’s KEEPING THE HOUSE and the contest will conclude this Friday at Midnight, EST.  You can check it out and submit your name HERE.

Sunday Salon ~ July 27, 2008

                                   
This weekend has been a busy one.  I did finish an ARC I had requested from author Anisha Lakhani called SCHOOLED that I will be reviewing this week.  It was fun, enjoyable and a great read.  We will also be graced with guest posts from authors Ellen Baker of KEEPING THE HOUSE and Kathleen McCleary of HOUSE & HOME soon too.  Be sure to check back throughout the coming weeks for those.  I also have some surprises in store which will include a great giveaway.  I can’t wait!!

Richard & Judy’s Book Club

A while back I had read and reviewed the book MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL by Dorothy Koomson.  I was just looking around The Net and discovered this little video from a popular British show called Richard & Judy.  They have a book club called the Richard & Judy Book Club and this summer, one of the books they had chosen was MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL.

 My Best Friend's Girl

I discovered a great video from the show that has a book summary told by a celebrity reviewer while she is on holiday in Italy followed by a round table discussion of the book.  I have never seen this show but author Dorothy Koomson’s website had a YouTube video of this segment. 

Today’s Favorite Song

Want to know a secret?  I am a loyal fan of Perez Hilton.com and I check in daily for my celebrity gossip/junk fix.  This morning, as I was scrolling through to see what happened while I was asleep, I came across a video that blew me away.  It is from the (show?) PBS Soundstage and it’s Stevie Nicks covering Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” beautifully.  I love what she has to say at the beginning about wanting to cover this song that is categorized as a ‘boys song’ and then dedicating it to, in my opinion the genius that is, Dave Matthews. 

Interview With Author Ellen Baker

Author Ellen Baker of the newly released paperback Keeping The House ever so graciously accepted my Q&A request and kindly took time out of her busy schedule to answer a dozen questions about her book and writing.  Ellen is currently promoting her novel, Keeping The House with the help of a book tour.  Her event schedule and more information about her and her book can be found on her website HEREKeeping The House was listed as one of the Chicago Tribune’s “Favorite Books of 2007”, was a featured selection of the Doubleday Book Club, and was selected as an “Insider Discovery” title of the Literary Guild.

To learn more about Keeping The House and enter in the signed copy book giveaway please check out my review HERE.  To refresh your memory, here is a summary of the book followed by my interview with the lovely Ellen Baker.

Summary ~ “When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal.  Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and joining the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  Soon her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by a vacant house, owned by the once-prominent Mickelson family.  As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of the Mickelson men and women – and unravels dark secrets woven through the generations of a family.  As Keeping the House moves back and forth in time, it eloquently explores themes of heroism and passion, of men’s struggles with fatherhood and war, and of women’s conflicts with issues of conformity, identity, forbidden dreams, and love.” 

PB:  What originally inspired you to write the family saga that became Keeping The House?
 
Ellen:  I was originally inspired to write about the Mickelson family when I spent a summer in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, during college, about ten years ago.  I was working at the local historical society at the time and learning a lot about the history of the area, and I found it so interesting that “summer people” came back to this idealized place year after year for a break from their everyday lives and concerns, especially since this was a lifestyle I’d never experienced.  I wondered what would happen to a family hoping to go back to their old summer way of life after suffering a terrible tragedy, something they wouldn’t be able to “get over” just by escaping to this gorgeous place.  The story expanded from there, and that original setting – the summer of 1919 following Jack Mickelson’s return from World War I – ultimately became just one chapter of Keeping The House.

PB:  Who was your first character and which one came the easiest to you to write a point of view from?
 
Ellen:  The Mickelson family came first, all at once – John, Wilma, Jack, Chase, Harry, and Jinny.  Dolly Magnuson came toward the end of the process, but she was the easiest to write about.
 
PB:  I have read that you admitted that Harry Mickelson is your favorite character.  Who is your least favorite?  Are you a character in your book?

Ellen:  I really don’t have a “least favorite” character; I imagine I feel about my characters the way I would if I had children – I love them no matter how badly they behave!  I don’t believe that I’m any character in my book, though of course they all contain elements of me.  I’m like Dolly in many ways, although I didn’t think so when I was first writing about her.  I’m more of a “sit back and think” person while she’s “act first and think later,” but we’re both dreamers and romantics and we both wish and strive for the impossible.  I think that Anne is probably who I wish I was… and Wilma is who I might have been had I lived a century ago.
 
PB:  You have a powerful attraction to the World War eras and have devoted so much of yourself to study and preserve this time in American history.  What about this period attracted you in the first place?
 
Ellen:  I’m not sure exactly where it began, but the more I learned about the first half of the twentieth century in America, the more I found it all so fascinating.  I love the fashion, the music, the way people use language.  I love the fact that technology is developing so rapidly and changing the way people live.  And I think that during the wars, life was lived at a very intense pitch.  There’s a lot of love and romance and a lot of violence and grief; I guess the contrast and the collision of all these forces are what fascinate me.

PB:  When you write, do you use paper and pen or a computer?  Do you have a time and place that you have to write within?
 
Ellen:  I use a laptop computer, and I like to be comfortable – so I’m usually sprawled out on the couch, with a cup of tea not far away.  I find that first thing in the morning is my best time to write, but I’ll write and revise all day long if I can.

PB:  What is your favorite part of the novel writing process?
 
Ellen:  I don’t think I could pick just one part of it – I enjoy the whole process.  I love research and character development, I love writing a first draft and being surprised by what happens, and I love editing and seeing all the elements of the story coming together into a coherent whole.
 
PB:  Did the story go the way you always thought it would or did twists and turns surprise you as you wrote them?
 
Ellen:  There were many, many surprises along the way!  When I started writing, I really didn’t know what the story was going to be, exactly, beyond the idea of following the Mickelson family through the two world wars.  I didn’t at all write the chapters of Keeping The House in the sequence they appear in the book now.  Some of the earliest scenes I wrote were about Elissa and Nick meeting at the dance, and about Wilma making pickles, as well as the World War I scenes from John’s point of view (including the one that now is on page 398!).   I’d actually been working on the book for almost two years before Dolly came on the scene.  That she became the centerpiece of the book – what I ended up structuring the rest of the novel around – was the biggest surprise of all.
 
PB:  You wrote Wilma Mickelson as a piano virtuoso.  Do you have a musical background?  If so, is the piano your instrument and what is your favorite piece of music to play?
 
Ellen:  I made Wilma a pianist because she needed to have an abiding passion, something she was conflicted about giving up.  I’m not a pianist – I just took a couple of years of lessons when I was about seven and eight years old – but I was pretty serious about the flute when I was in high school and into college, so I can identify with the process of practicing a piece to try to achieve perfection.  I’ve always liked playing the piano for fun, though, and I’ve enjoyed attempting to play Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, which Wilma plays (much more successfully!) in the novel. 
 
PB:  Have you ever made any of the recipes you researched for Dolly to prepare for her husband Byron?  Any favorites?  In your first years of marital bliss did you keep a cooking journal like Dolly?
 
Ellen:  You’re funny!  I haven’t made any of Dolly’s recipes, actually, but a bakery is preparing her Lacy Raisin Wafers for book clubs (people can visit my website to sign up to win some) so I’ve sampled those and they’re very good.  I had fun researching the recipes and planning the menus for Dolly and Byron… and when I was newly married I guess I did try to plan out each week’s menus and pay attention to what my husband liked and didn’t like, but I certainly wasn’t as efficient as Dolly!  I imagine if I’d been married in 1950 I would probably have been just like her, though, in the context of those times.  Fortunately for me, getting married in 2001, I was able to put most of my obsessive creative energy into writing fiction.
 
PB:  Throughout Keeping The House you have quotes from different publications from the first half of the twentieth century.  Which one did you find most outrageous?
 
Ellen:  The quotes from the Look magazine article “The Other Woman Is Often the Creation of the Wife” and the idea that if a husband is having an affair it is up to his wife to “make adjustments” and “be more cheerful and attractive than usual” seem pretty outrageous. 
 
PB:  On your MySpace page you have posted a picture of a banister and two portraits.  Was there really a Mickelson family and house or are these pictures of your own banister and relatives?
 
Ellen:  The Mickelsons are totally fictional, and somewhere, someone is going to be surprised that I stole photos of their relatives out of a yearbook-type section of photos in a history about a small town in Wisconsin!  It wasn’t my intention – I got the book to help me lay out the town of Pine Rapids – but when I saw those photos, it was clear to me that that woman was Wilma and that man was Harry.  I always rifle through old photos at antique shops, too, to see if I can find unlabeled photos that seem to be a character.  The banister photo was taken in a bed and breakfast that I visited.  I stole architectural details from many B&B’s in Wisconsin to design the Mickelson house.
 
PB:  What is the most interesting question you have received while on your book tour to promote Keeping The House?
 
Ellen:  I’ve received lots of really interesting questions, but one that sticks out in my mind is “What is the significance of the color red for Dolly?”  I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms – somehow I always just knew she’d be drawn to the color.  I remember when I wrote Dolly’s first quilting group scene, there was no question in my mind what she would be wearing – the flaring white dress with red trim and the bright red lipstick (which makes her feel conspicuous among the subdued ladies of the group).  But as a result of getting this question, I realized that red does symbolize Dolly’s passion and daring, and shows how different she is from the other people in Pine Rapids.

Giveaway ~ The Great Man by Kate Christensen

           This Giveaway Has Concluded!

              The Great Man

Today I had the pleasure of hanging out with Planet Books member and fellow Okinawa resident Nicole (lostinbooks) and she generously offered me her finished copy of the July/August Book Club title, The Great Man in case I knew anyone who wanted to read it.  If you have been meaning to pick up your own copy to read for our virtual book club but just haven’t found the time, well one of you may be in luck.  I am offering this lonely copy as a giveaway!  Just leave your name in the comment section of this post and I will draw a winner using Random.org on Monday, July 28th.  So that means you have until Midnight EST on Sunday, July 27th to enter to win.  Remember that the Planet Books book club is now bi-monthly so you still have the month of August to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen.  I have my copy on my TBR shelf and will be getting to it soon.