It’s featured author week again! I’m so excited to bring you Charlotte Williams, author of The House on the Cliff. Today I’ll have an excerpt of her novel, tomorrow I’ll have my review, and Wednesday I’ll have an exclusive interview with Charlotte.
For today’s “sneak peak”, and with Charlotte Williams’ The House on the Cliff in mind, I wanted to share with you the description of the structure for which the book was named. The house belongs to the Morgan family; the son, Gwyndion, is a client of Jessica Mayhew, and plays an important role in the book. There’s mystery behind the Morgan family, but what I liked was how this mystery appears even in the house itself.
It was a few miles away from a tiny fishing village, perched on a cliff top in solitary splendor, overlooking St. Bride’s Bay. Before announcing my arrival I stopped the car on the side of the road and peered at the house through the big iron gates. It was tremendously grand. A darned sight grander than I’d expected. One of those Jacobean piles with tall chimneys, pointy gables, and castellated whatnots all the way round the roof. It looked like something out of a fairy story. There were latticed windows everywhere, and barley-twist pillars around the porch, and carved stone garlands drooping down over the front coo. But impressive as it all was, when you looked more closely, you could see that parts of it, especially on the wings, were crumbling away. The kind of house that, however much money you spent on it, would always be falling to pieces. Nevertheless, it was still beautiful. Unique. Rococo. Baroque even.
I’m thrilled to present Julie Kibler as my January featured author! Julie’s novel, Calling Me Home, tells the story of Isabelle, a young white woman, who falls in love with Robert, a young black man, in 1930s Kentucky. In addition, we follow Isabelle at 89 years old, who requests her hairdresser, Dorrie, to accompany her to a funeral several states away. Calling Me Home, in addition to simply telling a good story, explores racial tension both in the early twentieth-century South–a time in history known for the civil rights–and now.
To give you a little taste of Kibler’s novel, I want to share with you a portion from Chapter 2. The story alternates between Isabelle’s childhood and Dorrie’s present-day, though both are told from the first-person perspective. This part is in Dorrie’s voice:
When I met Miss Isabelle, she acted more like Miss Miserabelle, and that’s a fact. But I didn’t think she was a racist. God’s honest truth, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I may look young, thank you very much, but I’ve had this gig a while. Oh, the stories they tell, the lines around my customer’s closed eyes, the tension in her scalp when I massage it with shampoo, the condition of the hair I wind around a curler. I knew almost right away Miss Isabelle carried troubles more significant than worrying about the color of my skin. As pretty as she was for an eighty-year-old woman, there was something dark below her surface, and it kept her from being soft. But I was never one to press for all the details–could be that was part of the beauty of the thing. I learned that people talk when they’re ready. Over the years, she became much more than just a customer. She was good to me. I hadn’t ever said so out loud, but in ways, she was more like a mother than the one God gave me. When I thought it, I ducked, waiting for the lightning to strike.
Calling Me Home is available in paperback.
I reviewed this for Friday, but I really wanted to pass along a segment of the foreword I found compelling. The foreword is written by Elisabeth’s grandson, Edmund (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes). In it, he talks about his experience coming across this manuscript–which at the time was untitled–and how certain elements of the novel may have reflected Elisabeth’s life growing up and in exile from Vienna.
The part that I want to share talks about Elisabeth’s love for writing. Edmund had asked her, while she was still alive, while writing mattered, and he never felt she gave him a straight answer. Much later, after she had passed, he came across a single page with this written on it:
Why am I making such a great effort and taxing my own endurance and energy to write this book that no one will read? Why do I have to write? Because I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published … What is lacking? I have a feeling for language. … But I think I write in a rarified atmosphere, I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences, the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves … I distill too much.
I’ve heard a lot of that word: “quintessence.” In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I previewed last week, the photographer Sean O’Connell describes one of his photos as “the quintessence of life.” A large theme of the movie is the search for what this photo really contains, what the quintessence of life (or, in the case of The Exiles Return, what the quintessence of experiences) really is.
I didn’t know what else to call this segment, but it’s my goal to include a small excerpt from a book each Monday, a quote I found powerful or inspirational in my reading.
Leave it to me to break my own rules one week in, but I really wanted to share this bit from a movie I saw last weekend: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The movie is based on a short story by James Thurber, and I promise you it’s one of the best movies I think I’ve ever seen.
Walter Mitty, the main character played by Ben Stiller, works at Life Magazine at a time when Life is transitioning from print to online. He analyses the negatives of the photos that are eventually published in the magazine, a job he’s been doing for the past 16 years.
This little portion is the motto of Life, and a quote Walter holds dear to him. I won’t go into much more detail than that:
To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed.
I wrote this quote down because I want to remember it, because I was inspired by it and by the movie it was a part of. I included it as today’s “Sneak Peak”, even though it’s not really a secret and even through it’s not from a book, because I think it’s too important not to share.
I have the privilege this week to feature Robin Sloan and his book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. This is something I’d like to do more regularly on lifebythebooks, and I’m really grateful that Robin agreed to answering a few questions for me to bring to you.
Today’s sneak peak and tomorrow’s review will both involve Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and on Wednesday I will have the Author Q&A posted.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore originated from a short story written in 2009. I read both, and while there are a few spoilers from reading the story first, the novel definitely provides a unique experience from the story.
For my sneak peak, I wanted to offer the description of the bookstore. It’s the central location to the novel, and I’m sure that if it existed, it would be featured in all of the websites dedicated to bookshelf and/or library porn:
I pushed the bookstore’s glass door. It made a bell tinkle brightly up above, and I stepped slowly through. I did not realize at the time what an important threshold I had just crossed.
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up–three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.
The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest–not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.
I’m working to get into a rhythm with this posting, and I’d like to dedicate Mondays to a short snippet of whatever I happen to be reading. Today, my Sneak Peak comes from The Signature of All Things, the latest from the lovely Elizabeth Gilbert. I discovered her with Eat, Pray, Love, and followed her straight through to Committed. While I’m slightly ashamed to say I haven’t read any of her fiction until now, I’m completely enthralled with this book as well. What I’m finding most exciting about this book are her descriptions.
The book opens with a kind of background of Alma Whittaker, the fierce young protagonist of the book. Her father, Henry, has made a name for himself in botany, in a feat of entrepreneurship that would inspire many young startup-hopefuls today. Henry, in my mind, believes firmly in the addage If you can’t work with them, beat them at their own game.
Henry was not handsome. He was certainly not refined. In all truth, there was something of the village blacksmith about his ruddy face, his large hands, and his rough manners. To most eyes, he appeared neither solid nor credible. Henry Whittaker was an impulsive, loud, and bellicose man, who had enemies all over the world. He had also become, in the past years, a bit of a drinker.
Sounds like quite the catch, right? Fortunately for him, he did snare the eye of a youngish Beatrix van Devender:
She was neither plain nor pretty, which seemed just about right for a wife. She was stout and boomless, a perfect little barrel of a woman, and she was already rolling toward spinsterhood when Henry met her. To most suitors’ tastes, Beatrix van Devender would have appeared dauntingly overeducated. She was conversant in five living languages and two dead ones, with an expertise in botany equal to any man’s. Decidedly, this woman was not a coquette. She was no ornament of the drawing room. She dressed in the full spectrum of colors that one associates with common house sparrows. She nursed a hard suspicion of passion, exaggeration, and beauty, putting her confidence only in that which was solid and credible, and always trusting acquired wisdom over impulsive instinct. Henry perceived her as a living slab of ballast, which was precisely what he desired.
I, myself, may be a bit suspicious of a man who not only thought of me as “a living slab of ballast,” but who liked me that way. That being said, the two married and begat Alma, a girl described as “her father’s daughter”:
Ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. This was a rather unfortunate circumstance for Alma, although it would take her some years to realize it.
There’s a particular scene in Alma’s childhood that I soared while reading, but I won’t give that away; you’ll have to read it for yourselves. The Signature of All Things is my Book of the Week this week, so stay tuned for the review to be posted Friday.
This weekend I read a fabulous book by Alice McDermott, called Someone. I remember reading Charming Billy years ago, and I was so struck with her language and writing style. The same thing happened with Someone. I promise this book will be reviewed in the next few weeks, but for the time being I’ll offer you a little taste of this woman’s fabulous-ness:
Pegeen Chehab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet. Her hat was beige with someone dark along the crown, a brown feather or two. There was a certain asymmetry to her shoulders. She had a loping, hunchbacked walk. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone. She carried her purse in the lightest clasp of her fingers, down along the side of her leg, which made her seem listless and weary even as she covered the distance quickly enough, the gray sidewalk from subway to parlor floor and basement of the house next door.
Someone has already made it on the NY Times bestseller list and is on the longlist for the National Book Award.
So I’m a little late with my “Sneak Peak” this week, but better late than never, right?
I’m really excited to tell you about this book. Like Fangirl, I waited patiently to read this book and then devoured it in a day. And, it just so happens, things lined up well enough that not only is this my featured “Sneak Peak,” but it’s also the Book of the Week this week!
If I could learn Nicholas Spark’s secret, I would save the world, I swear. Bash him if you want, but admit it, you’re jealous. In a way, he’s kind of the Thomas Kinkade of books–he’s managed to produce something people want to buy, and he’s managed to do very well at his work while he’s still alive. Most people this famous are dead.
So, without further ado, I bring to you a small snippet from Sparks’ latest, The Longest Ride, which is out in hardcover today:
Early February 2011–Ira: I sometimes think to myself that I’m the last of my kind. My name is Ira Levinson. I’m a southerner and a Jew, and equally proud to have been called both at one time or another. I’m also an old man. I was born in 1920, the year that alcohol was outlawed and women were given the right to vote, and i often wondered if that was the reason my life turned out the way it did. I’ve never been a drinker, after all, and the woman I married stood in line to cast a ballot for Roosevelt as soon as she reached the appropriate age, so it would be easy to imagine that the year of my birth somehow ordained it all.
Confused yet? Good, you’re intrigued, now go buy the book, and check back Friday for my thoughts in the Book of the Week post.
I’m really excited to read this book from Douglas Lain. Billy Moon tells the story of Christopher Robin, but not one that you might expect from A.A. Milne.
Christopher Robin Milne was an actual person, the son of the Winnie the Pooh author, and after fighting in World War II went on to become a writer. The name comes from his father’s nickname for him, Billy, and from his pronunciation of his name when he was little, “Moon.”
In Lain’s book, Chris’s life takes an unexpected turn to Paris and involves a mysterious new friend. I love the original Milne stories, and as soon as I read about this one in Tor’s catalog, I knew I had to give it a shot.
Here is the opening bit from Douglas Lain’s Billy Moon:
Christopher was thirty-eight years old and still hadn’t managed to escape his stuffed animals. Worse, the neighborhood stray, a grey British Shorthair, was scratching at the entrance of his bookshop. Chris looked up to see the cat making no headway on the glass but leaving muddy prints under the sign that was no flipped so that the CLOSED side was facing out for passersby to read. The cat’s scratching made a repetitive and grating noise that reminded Chris of a broken wristwatch.
I started this book at around 9 pm last night, and as of 10 this morning, I’m over halfway through. This is Brunt’s debut novel, and I’m completely in love.
My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of big mistake. When he first asked, my mother said no. She said there was something macabre about it. When she thought of the two of us sitting in Finn’s apartment with its huge windows and the scent of lavender and orange, when she thought of him looking at us like it might be the last time he would see us, she couldn’t bear it. And, she said, it was a long drive from northern Westchester all the way into Manhattan. She crossed her arms over her chest, looked right into Finn’s bird-blue eyes, and told him it was just hard to find the time these days.