Tag Archives: Harper Perennial

Review: Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer

25th February 2013

Once upon a time, writers knocked back drinks, knocked about women, and/or knocked themselves off. And people loved it.

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

*This book was offered to me via the publisher, Harper Perennial, in exchange for an honest review.

In January, a friend and I went to a Half Price Books. We separated, looking at the shelves obsessively. As I moved from one aisle to another, I heard this little gem:

“You know Hemingway hated women, right? He was, like, worse than Eminem.”

I looked at the only other person in the aisle, who happened to be my friend, and raised my eyebrows. Poor Hemingway. Worse than Eminem. For whatever (ok, some justified) reason, Hemingway has always been the poster child of authors behaving badly. But he was far from the only one, and Andrew Shaffer’s Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors takes a look at some of these authors, going all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and running up to (my least favorite) literary bad boy, Brett Easton Ellis.

Though you likely know at least a little about many of the authors included, Shaffer’s focus on their addictions and afflictions makes for interesting reading, particularly in the drugs of choice, which change according to trends. Absinthe, opium, and alcohol all make the list, as does LSD. The presence of all that mind-altering material makes you wonder how these people could possibly get any work done. Give me a glass of wine, and I want sleep. Give most of these guys a liter, and they’re workaholics.

Literary Rogues is like the crack it refers to so often. Even with my knowledge of almost all of these writers, I didn’t want to stop reading. It’s a compendium of bad behavior and a testament to the greatest generation of writers and their capabilities. Often, their stories are incredibly sad, and though Shaffer’s wit lightens the tone a bit, more often than not I was left with a vague sense of unease. Not that Shaffer attempts to romanticize these addicts and mentally ill people, but in a way, we as a culture do. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are revered by many, as is Dorothy Parker. Ginsberg and Kerouac have never lost their cult status. It is their genius in the face of their flaws that we seem to find so appealing. In fact, Shaffer refers to several agents and their inability to rein in their clients’ habits and addictions. Though it isn’t overt, Shaffer does seem to be asking if they were merely powerless or if they encouraged the persona and idiosyncrasies as a means of selling books.

Shaffer remarks at one point that the tame nature of most writers these days might be the availability of rehab and the lack of stigma. However, there’s something else that seems to mark the end of the depraved writers: MFA programs. He does get to some of the more contemporary writers (and two of my favorites), John Cheever and Raymond Carver and their stints at Iowa and its infamous workshops. But these are more cautionary tales – men who couldn’t get themselves out of their cups in order to teach. Once writing became something to learn, perhaps it lost its hedonism. Writing was then institutionalized, another form of constraint. Of course, Ellis and McInerny (who studied with Carver) would be the exceptions here. Shaffer does ponder the image changes, but the book never goes any further, and honestly, it isn’t intended to.

A fun book for lovers of literature, Literary Rogues is perfect for those in a reading slump, anyone who likes to prime their palette between books, and/or those who don’t ordinarily enjoy nonfiction.

Add it to your shelf on Goodreads.

Review: An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer

5th February 2013

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

*I received this book from the publisher Harper Perennial in exchange for an honest review.

Naomi is an odd child without many friends. Her father has a heart attack when she is young, holding onto her as he falls to the ground. Her mother has always been fragile, but when the reality of her father’s mortality strikes her, Naomi decides to become a doctor, receiving a copy of Gray’s Anatomy for her tenth birthday. Unlike some childhood career aspirations, Naomi’s doesn’t fade. Her photographic memory causes her problems in school, so when Teddy moves in next door, the two become fast friends. They forge a friendship, understanding the threat of loss, as Teddy’s father has a heart condition that makes him very ill. When her closest confidant moves away suddenly, Naomi bears it but doesn’t recover, apparently still unable, or disinterested, in making friends.

College is another chance for her, but Naomi finds Wellesley every bit as lonely as high school, filled with competitive girls, girls who pass one another on walks while studiously staring at anything but one another. Her solitude isn’t a welcome one, but an inauspicious meeting introduces her to Shakespeare Society, an enigmatic group full of odd, brash women who welcome Naomi. Here, even among women who slightly unnerve her, Naomi begins to make friends, and for a young woman who has only ever had one true friend, the society consumes her, making her reexamine who she is and what she wants.

If you’ve ever read a novel that you should like – it has all the elements that typically make a great novel for you – but didn’t like, then you can understand my dilemma. An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer was that sort of book for me (and apparently others, too, if you check out Goodreads). An independent young girl is an introvert but loves learning and winds up at Wellesley, inducted into the notorious Shakespeare Society. I thought: yes, yes, and more yes!

But this novel struggles with a distinct lack of emotion. Not that there isn’t emotion, but the characters feel so wooden and distant, that I couldn’t empathize. I think the biggest problem is that Naomi never feels all that real. Her best friend moves away, and she comes close to visiting once but stops herself. As devastated as she is by his absence, even as an adult, she doesn’t try to find him but just leaves the loss of him as an open wound. As someone who moved away from friends and had close friends move away, I understood some of this, but as a young adult, those losses didn’t mar my happiness. They didn’t cause me not to make friends. Plus, after Naomi’s father recovers, he’s essentially fine. Yet Naomi can’t seem to quite ever get over that moment. Percer seems to be positing that Naomi isn’t truly happy unless she’s a caregiver, as Naomi says: Perhaps the strongest of these convictions, and the one it took the longest to let go of, was that believing that I needed to save those I loved from harm also meant that I could.” But the prose never really teases out why that’s a problem.

Here’s the deal: if you write a story about an intelligent man or woman privileged enough to attend a private, esteemed university without severe monetary problems or the necessity of working, there needs to be some draw, some real reason for me to relate and care about that character, and frankly, Naomi never felt fleshed out enough for me to do either.

But don’t take my word for it. These bloggers loved this book:

Nomad Reader

Dolce Belleza

Linus’s Blanket

Add it to your Goodreads shelf.


Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

2nd August 2011

*I received this book from Harper Perennial through NetGalley in May. I have been not-so-patiently waiting to tell you all about it. Big thanks to Beth Fish Reads, whose blog introduced me to the book. Preorder at Indiebound so you can get the book NEXT TUESDAY!

Every once in a while, I happen across a book so good and so funny I immediately want to buy 10 copies and hand them out to anyone and everyone. Why only every once in a while? To be honest, humor in writing is not easy. Often, comedy is hit or miss. A book might garner a laugh or two from me, but I’ve only been known on two occasions to laugh out loud multiple times during a plane ride. David Sedaris is responsible for making a good friend and my sister steer clear from me on a layover because they were humiliated by my LOL-ing all over the place. Matthew Norman is responsible for the second occasion. Thankfully, I was traveling solo and could have cared less what my snoring, iPod-listening seatmates thought of me.

Domestic Violets (which, I’m sorry, has one of the best covers I’ve seen in a while) is the story of the Violet family. Tom Violet is a man with a problem. Actually, he’s a man with a couple problems. His wife wants a second child, and he cannot quite…ahem…rise to the occasion. Curtis Violet, Tom’s dad, is a famous writer who has just won the Prize (Pulitzer, that is) and been chucked out on his rear by his most recent, and very young, wife. On top of it all, the recession has just hit, and living in D.C., Tom is on tenterhooks, waiting to see how long he will be able to keep a job none really likes all that much, while secretly writing a novel he’s a bit terrified to publish.

What’s it really about? Well, all that stuff I just said, but to break it down: It’s really about a man who hates his job, loves his wife and family, but who isn’t quite sure how to get out of the miserable place in which he finds himself. Domestic Violets is also about how sometimes in life, when the worst happens, it leaves behind it room for the life we always wanted, except not as cheesy as that last line made it sound.

If you are on Twitter, or if you’ve picked up my subtle hints on the blog, you know I loved this book. I mean, I really loved this book. It’s funny (did I mention that already?), it’s endearing, but most of all, it’s just realistic, and I think because of the writer/family realationships, there were moments that reminded me both of The Human Stain by Philip Roth and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Not in a gimmicky, Norman-is-copying-other-authors sort of way, but in a hey-this-guy-is-a-damn-good-writer kind of way.

Want an example of the humor? Tom Violet sends his daughter to bed and tells her to go to sleep…

I can see by her expression that she’ll do whatever she damn well pleases until she hears me coming up the stairs. By now she’s old enough to know that we’re not going to beat her, so she’s pretty much got the run of the place.

So preorder it. And then come back here so we can talk about it. Because I gave my brother my signed copy I got at BEA (to share the love), and the little punk hasn’t read it yet. He keeps giving excuses like he started a new job and moved and stuff. Whatever.

This book will:

-make you laugh out loud. warning: drinking while reading may cause said beverage to fly from your nostrils.


Other reviews:

Beth Fish Reads

The Book Garden (who also compares humor to Sedaris)

Leeswammes’ Blog (who also compares it to Franzen!)


Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

23rd June 2011

*I stood in line for Simon Van Booy to inscribe this book at BEA11. Pubbed by Harper Perennial, the book is out 07/05/11. Preorder here.

Everything Beautiful Began After.

After what? you may ask.

Rebecca, George, and Henry are all in Athens for different reasons, each isolated in his or her own way – Rebecca, lost and trying to sort herself out, claiming to be an artist but in truth, not working that much. George, the American, leaving behind boarding school and a lonely childhood. Henry, a young archaeologist, digging among the dead and trying to bury a family secret.

The trio drink too much and have intimacy problems, but in one another, they are no longer alone, and they traipse around like college kids on break, desperate to forge a life with meaning and some happiness.

But just when Rebecca, George, and Henry are discovering what life can be like with friendship and love and generosity, it is snatched away, cruelly reminding each of where he or she was before stumbling blindly into the others.

When I first opened the pages of Simon Van Booy’s debut novel, I was worried. I love beautiful writing, I do. However, I am also a fan of Hemingway and his “show, don’t tell” method. His succinct, often-spartan writing can affect me much more than voluminosity. The more I read, though, I thought how odd it was that a man with a writing style so different from Hemingway would remind me of the iconic writer so very much.

Hemingway has the ability to put me, dizzingly, into smoky bars, sitting with boozy boys who feel so much without any comprehension of what it is to feel anymore. Van Booy, too, made me ache with loneliness, the deep loneliness these characters have used as a shield and a comfort, finding moments of beauty but unable to fully appreciate it without someone else to confirm that life is, in fact, beautiful.

And then, oh the grief. I was mourning for and with these characters, the deep kind of mourning where you can’t cry, where tears have no place but where you are hyper alert, and Van Booy describes Henry, alone with his despair:

“Occasionally a dog wanders up the fountain, looks around for a moment, and then turns away without barking.

Newspapers blow across the cobbles like small snails.

Everything you do is a secret because nobody sees or knows.”

Right? Because no one knows what you’re going through, but at the same time everyone does because that kind of pain, at its base, is the same no matter who you are or where you come from.

So – After what? Just “after,” and there’s a good bit of it in this book because you may hurt, and you may rail against life moving on with your grief tucked into your front pocket, but you. are. human. And as Henry finds out, though our grief may be unoriginal, the way we deal with it is not, and

After every chapter of devastation, there is rebuilding.

It happens without thought.

It happens even when there is no guarantee it won’t happen again.

And that, my friends, is one damn bittersweet thought in a book that left me bereft and hopeful all at the same time.

jenn aka the picky girl

P.S. A couple of you expressed on Twitter that you plan to read this. PLEASE come back and share your thoughts. No one I know has read this, and it’s like torture. Ok, I exaggerate, but you get the picture.