Tag Archive | books

Novelist Bernice McFadden highlights Book and Author Luncheon

A few weeks ago my friend Gail Malloy invited me to be her guest at the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored annually here in Stamford by the Ferguson Library. I figured it would be a staid affair, as these things usually are, but the proceedings were surprisingly lively. The first unexpected liveliness came in the form of Mickey Sherman, the attorney famous for his television appearances, his controversial legal tactics, and mostly for his losing defense of bail-skipping, convicted Darien rapist Alex Kelly, and convicted Greenwich Kennedy-cousin murderer Michael Skakel. Plugging his book, “How Can You Defend These People,” Sherman, when his turn came to speak, insisted he isn’t really a writer and acted as if he’d both written the book and wandered into the place by accident, but he did prove to be quite a hilarious storyteller, so I may just pick up his book anyway at some point.
The second and more interesting liveliness, at least from a bibliophile’s standpoint, came in the form of the beautiful, talented novelist, Bernice McFadden, whose fourth novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I bought on the spot. (Actually, Bernice also writes sexy “chick-lit novels” under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, so her total “books-written” count is somewhere around ten, she informed the crowd that day.)
I finally got a chance to read “Nowhere is a Place” and it turns out to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. Using a technique similar to the one I used in “Saving Elijah,” Bernice weaves back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical one and manages to compel us with both. In the contemporary story, an estranged mother and daughter, Dumpling and Sherry, embark on a road trip across the country to a family reunion in Georgia, and along the way we discover the tragic, brutal and sometimes joyful history of this compelling African-American family. With startlingly vivid, often sensuous language, Bernice not only compels us to turn the page but with great bravery shows us in stark reality the absolute violence and uncompromising brutality of the institution of slavery, the psychological and physical dehumanization, the utter disregard for the common humanity of its victims. And with great, subtle wisdom, Bernice also shows us how that legacy affected and still affects the children of slaves and their children’s children, even to this day.
As a person deeply interested in the psychological effects of grief, trauma, and loss, I found the novel utterly moving, though I admit I often found myself cringing when confronted with scene after scene showing the depraved cruelty perpetrated on blacks by whites. I see why Bernice has been compared to Toni Morrison, and I highly recommend the book.
I also love it that Bernice included a short section at the back of the book called “Are We Related?” Well, Bernice, I doubt that you and I are related, since my family history (about which I admittedly know very little) is one that seems to deny that possibility. Here’s what I know about my family and it isn’t much: Because of brutal persecution of Jews in Russia, my great-great grandmother and father (whose names I don’t know) sent two of her sons, ages 10 and 11, my grandfather Abraham Freedman and his brother (whose name I don’t know) to America. They came alone in ship steerage around 1900. I have seen an affidavit my grandfather signed when he arrived, in which he renounced the Tzar of Russia. I suspect, as you say, that it is a labor of love to research one’s family tree that is not always fruitful. Though I would seriously like to find out more about my own family, fruitfulness might be an issue for me too. The problem is that name Freedman was probably not even my grandfather’s real name, since it was common for immigration officials to simply make up names that would be more “American” when people came before them. My mother’s people also came from Russia around the same time, I think, and on that front I do at least know their name, which was Balabanovich. Any Balabanovich’s out there?
Bernice has agreed to answer some questions–on the writing and publishing process, on how grief figures in her fiction, on some of the startling scenes in her novel, and on the legacy of slavery today. I’ll post that in the next few days.
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On my bookshelf

Up next on my book-laden night table are:

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. One of my favorite writers. This one is Roth in the winter of his life. Brilliant and provocative, as always.

Nowhere is a Place by Bernice McFadden. I heard Bernice speak at a Book and Author Luncheon and there was something about her that moved me. So I picked up her book. Toni Morrison called one of her books, “searing and riveting.” That’s good enough for me. As soon as I finish reading it, she and I are going to have a little interview. She’s agreed. I’m sure I’ll have lots of interesting questions for her, and she’ll have lots of interesting answers. Watch for it.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Happens by Amanda Ripley. I heard Amanda Ripley on Diane Reehm’s show and for some reason, possibly because a friend of mine just barely made it out of the Towers, I was fascinated. In order to write the book, Amanda endured a series of dangerous situations to see how she herself would react. It seems most people freeze, or wait and see what other people are doing, or waste time to gather up their belongings, all of which are exactly wrong. Denial, deliberation, and then taking action are the three steps. Amanda says that you matter more than you think, you must act, luck is not the only factor, although 9/11 was a case in which it was unclear what to do, or as she put it “there was no true north.” She also advises that you should get to know your “disaster personality” and to give your brain something to work with. For example, when you get on the plane, count the number of rows, so that when it’s dark and full of smoke and you can’t see, your brain has something to work with…in a theater know where the exit is, and so on. People who think they have control over their destiny do much better. This seems confirmed by my friend in the Trade Center. She had been in the 93 bombing, and simply wasn’t going to listen to the authorities when they came on the loudspeakers and told everyone to stay. Others who listened to authority weren’t so lucky.

Amanda also talked about the differences between reactions in men and women, blacks and whites, different income levels, etc. For example, income absolutely determines who dies in fire; as one firefighter said, “I never fought a fire in a rich man’s home.” In some disasters it’s much better to be a man; in the Tsunami, for example, women drowned because they were never taught to swim. On the other hand, in hurricanes and floods, men are more likely to die, because women evacuate earlier. This led to the point that really gave me pause, which was that women and minorities differ substantially from white men in their reactions to disaster. According to Amanda, this probably has to do with world view and might reveal that white men have more self confidence, hence their superior ability to take action. Thirty percent of white men, according to this author, seem completely unworried about hazards. I think my husband is in that camp. In many situations, like a hurricane, worrying can be an asset. Men may eventually take action because of their confidence, but they’re already too late. The people who worry have already gotten out. Presumably this means women and blacks, but it seems belied by what happened in New Orleans. I shall have to check the point when I read the book. As for the point about women, maybe some of the propensity to worry has to do with women being the primary caretakers of children, instinctively attuned to worrying about their children. I mention this with apologies to feminists, a group I consider myself part of. Anyway, this is fascinating stuff, at least to me. Can’t wait to read the book.

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. Apparently Matt went under cover in the Reverend Hagee’s church and found out just how deranged these people are. Still, he even, apparently, admits to having felt sucked in at points. It reminds me, for some reason, of one of my favorite bits of interior monologue of all time. It’s from (I think) Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. The character sees a Hassid on the subway, and goes on about how it would be so nice to have rules and laws like he does that tell you what to do in every aspect of your life, your path and God’s plan all laid out for you, how safe and secure that would be…and goes on and on, and then finally says, “But what a f—ing haircut.” I just loved that paragraph, and have always remembered it from way back in the early 80s, despite my currently failing memory. I hope I got the source right. In any case, Taibbi is a provocative and facile writer, his Huffington post spat with Erica Jong notwithstanding.

More Book Recommendations: Psychological Thriller/Dramas

Here are more psychological thriller book recommendations.   At the risk of being accused of shameless self-promoting, I will again first recommend my own books: Saving Elijah, Flight, and A Reasonable Madness. Here are some others that can be placed only loosely in the category of psychological thriller.

Raveling by Peter Moore Smith. I loved this one. An eerie, deeply psychological, highly entertaining thriller and family drama by the brother of actress Julianne Moore. About a man who feels his sanity slipping away while he’s trying to deal with a mother who is seeing ghosts, a fastidious neurosurgeon brother , and a difficult past that includes the long ago disappearance of his sister.

Anything by Paul Auster. Auster’s books include City of Glass, Oracle Night, Leviathan, The Book of Illusions, The Brooklyn Follies, and Moon Palace. While Auster does stand back emotionally from his characters, his books are deeply absorbing page turners, intellectual thrillers. The fascinating and brilliant Auster is not to be missed, even if he is the darling of the literati.

The Witching Hour by Ann Rice I also liked Interview with the Vampire, but this one is by far my favorite Ann Rice. Written in her usual ornate style, this long, engrossing and hypnotic tale of witchcraft and the occult spans four centuries of a great dynasty of witches–a family given to poetry and incest, to murder and philosophy, a family that over the ages is haunted by a powerful, dangerous and seductive being.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Also The Little Friend. I include Donna Tartt’s books, which some may argue are primarily “literary,” because they read like the very best psychological thrillers. Powerful and evocative page turners about friendship, arrogance, murder, the recklessness of youth, family secrets, crime and punishment, and lots of other fascinating subjects that matter.

Blood Test, Over the Edge, Therapy, Self-Defense, Bad Love by Jonathan Kellerman. Kellerman, a psychologist himself, writes effectively and believably (although very violently) in this series, which features a crime solving psychologist named Alex Delaware and his policeman sidekick. Kellerman has millions of fans. I’ve listed some of the earlier efforts in the series as I haven’t read one recently. These books fall more traditionally in the “psychological thriller” genre.

The Key to Midnight, False Memory Phantoms, The Darkest Evening of the Year, Watchers, The House of Thunder, by Dean Koontz. Another extremely popular writer whose work falls more traditionally in the thriller genre, although this one leans more toward horror, as his plots usually involve supernatural doings. Also conspiracies, elaborate technology, and extreme violence. I especially liked The Darkest Evening, which involves a wonderful Golden Retriever. I share Mr. Koontz’s love of dogs, though my dog is a Lab. Again, I’ve listed earlier work, because I haven’t read one recently.

The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. While Atwood is a “literary” writer I list some of her books here because she’s probably my favorite writer, and her books, whatever else they are, are page turners. She’s brilliant and unique and sophisticated and her books are always psychologically sound.

The Stand, by Steven King. This is my favorite, but most of his books are amazing. He’s a great writer.

Seventh Heaven, The Foretelling, Practical Magic, Here on Earth, Fortune’s Daughter by Alice Hoffman. I’ve only listed a few of her many, many books, but I always find Hoffman’s unique magical realist page turners compelling, psychologically sound and irresistible.

Also, Jeffrey Deaver and Dennis Lehane, for more traditional psychological thriller fare.

Book Recommendations: Psychological Thriller/Dramas

A reader from Texas writes:

Dear Fran,

Thanks for writing three unforgettable books. I hope you will keep on writing. And now I would like to have your suggestions for other books in the same category as yours.

Well. Hmmmm. I thank you for joining the small but select contingent of people on the planet who have read the complete works of Fran Dorf, to date. I’m adding “to date” since you hope that I will keep on writing. Another fiction? I’m not sure. I’ve been working on a memoir and essays (one of which I’m going to present at an academic conference in October), and of course I have my blog. The blog is fun, and I’ve had quite a few visitors, more than I expected, to be honest, but it certainly hasn’t taken the world by storm. I heartily thank everyone who’s come to visit, and hope you will come back and recommend it to your friends.

I started three or four novels after Saving Elijah, and even finished one, but it didn’t sell to a publisher and the others just didn’t pan out. The business has changed so much. And maybe I have too, after the experience of losing my son and then writing and publishing Saving Elijah. In any case, there just doesn’t seem to be much room for writers who used to be called “the midlist,” that is, those who sell modestly but are given the chance to keep publishing, even if they don’t achieve bestseller status. The whole business– publishers, editors, big store retail–is geared toward bestsellers. Whereas publishers used to understand that a writer grows with each effort and nurtured you along, nowadays it’s all about the bottom line, and if you don’t hit it out of the park right away, you are going to have a tough slog. The publishing world is full of people like me who’ve published three novels and now can’t seem to find a place. And it doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with reviews, as my books were very well reviewed. The truth is, Saving Elijah may well be my last fiction. My longtime editor writes constantly to encourage me to do what I do and write fiction again. She’s very persuasive and persistent, so you never know.

But other writers have produced and will continue to produce wonderful novels and somehow these get published, and so now on to the recommendations. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of recommending books that would be in the same “category” as mine, as I don’t think my books fit neatly into a category, particularly Saving Elijah, which is part family drama, part ghost story and part thriller. Oh, perhaps they’re all broadly in the psychological suspense category, but I think all good books are psychological, and all good books are also suspenseful. With psychological and suspense as the two criteria, anything might fit, from Toni Morrison to James Patterson. I won’t be recommending James Patterson (He hardly needs me; he has millions of fans), and the truth is I only rarely read the classic psychological thrillers any more, and so I admit this is an eclectic mix indeed, but nevertheless I offer some of my favorites. This is completely subjective of course, but to a greater or lesser degree all of these books have literary merit, authentic human drama, some degree of psychological sophistication, plots with compelling narrative drive in which plot is no more or less important than the characterizations, and characters with interesting and believable interior lives whose actions are convincing. All have a protagonist who is, either from inside demons or outside forces, in some degree of psychological danger. Some may be obscure, but all are in my opinion worth it. So aside from my own three books which I list first in a shameless act of self-promotion (hey, every other writer self-promotes, I figure it’s about time I did it too), here are my recommendations in no particular order:

A Reasonable Madness by Fran Dorf. Entertainment Weekly called it “satisfying” and United Press International called it a “wonderfully believable psychological thriller.”

Flight by Fran Dorf. A Booklist starred review said, “Fran Dorf pilots this ambitious book with infallible accuracy…an emotional landscape, two decades of decaying counterculture, artfully distilled and disassembled. Ethan skit is the quintessance of the ex-con loner.” Pub Weekly called it “riviting, tantalizing, shocking.”

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf. Part ghost story, part family drama, part thriller, Saving Elijah is my baby, my “testament to maternal grief,” as the reviewer at Amazon.com called it.  The Wall Street Journal called it “ambitious, imaginative, and beautifully done.”  See more reviews above and on the novels page. I especially recommend the book to the bereaved, because for all its supernatural trappings and its wise-talking, spectral literary devise the book is more than anything an extended metaphor for the psychological process of grief.

Affinity by Sarah Waters: This period novel takes place in the nineteenth century, and is one of the best ghost stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I also loved Fingersmith, by the same author, another period piece.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath: This writer, who apparently grew up as the son of an Asylum superintendent, writes hypnotically and knowingly about mental illness, obsession, and betrayal. Don’t pay any attention to the mediocre film of Asylum with Natasha Richardson; this is the real thing. An unforgettable narrator. Brilliant, deeply psychological, riveting. I also loved McGrath’s Tales of Manhattan Then and Now: a collection of three extraordinary novellas.

Privileged Conversation by Evan Hunter: This is an oldie but a goodie. It’s Ed McBain writing as Evan Hunter. Sexy and psychologically sound. About a middle aged psychologist who becomes involved with and obsessed by a beautiful young dancer. As the story progresses, the man gradually begins to see this troubled young girl as person rather than object, which implicates him as exploiter rather than lover. A fascinating book.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This is a broadly plotted, ornately written book by a Spaniard about a young man obsessed with a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” and its mysterious author. Daniel Sempere, the son of a widowed bookstore owner, is 10 when he discovers a novel, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. The novel is rare, the author obscure, and rumors tell of a horribly disfigured man who has been burning every copy he can find of Carax’s novels, and the search for the book takes Daniel on a journey that is full of thrilling twists and turns. Gothic. Scary, erotic, touching and tragic.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell: A haunting and absorbing novel about a young woman who receives a phonecall about her great aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, who is being released from Cauldstone Hospital-where she has been locked away for more than sixty one years. Beautifully written, told by a terribly believable if naive narrator, a pleasure, with an end that will shock and surprise you, until you realize how perfectly right it is.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due: This one is less believable than the others, of course, since it concerns the “immortals” who live forever, but it’s still thrilling and psychologically sound and keeps you going.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield A psychological thriller about the lives we invent for ourselves.

Dr. Neruda’s Cure for Evil by Rafael Yglesias. This a a large, long book, but well worth the read for the psychologically sophisticated reader, especially those interested in psychoanalysis. Pub Weekly calls it an “ambitious therapeutic morality tale that explores the banality of evil.” This one can’t really be classified; it’s a psychological thriller, a morality tale, a drama, an expose, and a novel of ideas all rolled into one.

More later. Gotta go now.