Book Review: The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld

Originally published in the March 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Rene Denfield's debut novel, The Enchanted, offers a fresh approach to the crime novel: though the story is heavy with criminals, it is never clear what crimes they may have committed. Rather than focusing on what led her characters to prison, Denfield tells the story of the prison itself--and the lives of the death row inmates in this corrupted place.

We meet "the priest," a fallen cleric who works with the inmates on a spiritual level, and "the lady," an investigator hired by lawyers to aid the appeals of their death-row clients. "The warden" goes home every night to his wife, who is dying of cancer. "The guard" earns a small fortune smuggling contraband into the prison, while "the boy" finds himself offered to the meanest of inmates as a prize for cooperation in the guard's scheme. Meanwhile, the inmates all suffer in their own ways in their lonely cells.

Each character's perspective contributes to the multifaceted life of the prison, which one inmate believes to be enchanted. Their experiences with different aspects of the prison building--the interview room, the cells, the yard, the crematorium--reveal the seedy underbelly of prison life. The result is heartbreaking yet captivating, a study of one of the darkest places in our society--a place that, despite the despair, is always tinged with hope.


The Enchanted | Rene Denfeld | Harper | Hardcover | February 2014

Interview with Kevin Brockmeier: A Difficult Year

Originally published in the April 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.


Kevin Brockmeier is the author of many works of adult and children's fiction, including The Illumination, and several short story collections. His stories have been published in the New Yorker, McSweeney's and Tin House, and he has received the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards and the PEN USA Award. In 2007, he was named one of Granta magazine's Best Young American Novelists. He teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and lives in Little Rock, Ark., where he was raised. His first memoir, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip (see my review below), focuses on a particular period of his life--the seventh grade.

Because so many people cannot recall the seventh grade with any kind of fondness, I have to ask: What made you want to go back to revisit it?

First, that it was a difficult year. For that reason alone, I thought it might make a good story. I also realized I had a lot of stories that I had been telling people since I was 13 years old, and I could pinpoint them all to that time in my life.

I had also never written book of this sort, and wanted to see if I could do it.

This is one of the only memoirs I can recall reading that is written in the third person. Why did you ultimate decide on this approach, when first person seems the more obvious choice?

I attempted the very first paragraph of the book in any number of ways. I ultimately found a voice that allowed me access to that period of my life with specificity. In the third person, the voice of Kevin felt natural. I felt the consciousness that I used to possess at that time blossoming to life, and I wanted to explore that.

At the time, were you aware of any split within yourself, being so observant of other people but struggling to see how you fit into that changing landscape?

I probably was. What surprised and distressed me at the time was the way in which my friendships shifted off in new directions that didn't include me. I was aware of the nuances of those relationships day by day. I just didn't see where it was all going.

A lot of this book is about friendship, and how yours changed over the course of the seventh grade.

Most of those friendships faded over the course of the year. I had a little trio of friends: Thad and Kenneth and Bateman. Bateman remains a friend of mine. I was closest with Thad and Kenneth, but they were no longer a presence in my life by the time the year was over.

That was a difficult year for me, but there were a few people in my life then who were kind and generous and made the year much easier than it otherwise could have been. One of them was Ethan Carpenter, who slowly becomes my best friend over the course of the book. And the other one was my English teacher, Miss Vincent.

You thank every member of your seventh-grade class in your dedication, but Miss Vincent is the only teacher you've included.

Miss Vincent was only at CAC that one year. Every so often I would think about her, where she was, what she had become. But she was a grown-up and I was a kid; there was really no way of staying in touch back then. And I don't even know that I was sure at the time how important she was to me. It was only when I was writing the book that I realized how fundamental of a presence she had been that year, and how intimately involved she was in what happened to me.

Did you ever speak to her again?

I had tried in the past with no luck. But after I finished writing this book, I tried again. I ultimately found someone teaching English in Washington State. She had a different name, hyphenated, but it seemed worth a shot. I sent her a letter, and included a copy ofThe Illumination. I just said who I was, where my life had taken me, and that seventh grade was an extraordinarily difficult year for me. I told her she was kind, and made it easier than it might have been, which was something I hadn't been able to express at the time, but wanted to express now.

I heard back from her a few weeks later. I had found the right person, and she remembered me--a bit surprising giving the years and number of students she had taught, but then, I had written a play about her. We ended up getting coffee when she was in Arkansas visiting family.

There's a section in the middle of the book that feels more fantastical than one might expect in a memoir. Can you talk about that?

I thought of that chapter as a moment of science fiction in the middle of what is otherwise a wholly autobiographical endeavor. Within the world of the narrative, I wanted it to be understood as something that this character is undergoing. But as readers, we understand that this is a device employed as a writer, rather than an actual memorable feature of my experience. It was an opportunity to divorce Kevin Brockmeier from the events he was undergoing, talk about what would happen to him, and give him an opportunity to accept his life, with all of its difficulties.

It's definitely unusual, but intentional. And because that element is in the memoir, it is more in keeping with my novels and short stories.

In an age when bullying is a hot topic, what advice would you have for kids in a difficult spot--or for their parents?

The closest I could come to advice would be acknowledging you aren't the only person who has gone through these experiences. I underwent them, too, I understand what it's like. I'm hesitant to say that things will get better, because who knows? But I can say unequivocally that things will change. It won't always be like this. It's so hard to imagine who you will become. 

Book Review: A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, by Kevin Brockmeier

Originally published in the April 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip focuses on one year of Kevin Brockmeier's life: the seventh grade. This period was short but defining, a difficult year marked by rapidly changing relationships with friends, teachers and the greater world. The young Kevin Brockmeier was bullied as much by those he once called his friends as by those in higher grades; the grown author Kevin Brockmeier (The Illumination; A Brief History of the Dead) reflects on those bullies, and on the islands of kindness he found between them, as well as on the lock-ins, outings to the movie theater, trips to the comic book store and nights watching television that generally made up his life as a seventh-grader.

Brockmeier's first work of nonfiction is told in the third person--an unusual choice given the subject matter, but one that ultimately gives Brockmeier the ability to act as the observer of himself in his own past, much as he once acted as an observer of his classmates and teachers. The voice makes it easy to forget that the stories in A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip are real, not imagined--young Kevin really did pee on his sandwich to stop the mystery lunch thief from stealing his meal each day; he really did write a play about the teacher-napping of his English teacher; young Kevin's first kiss really was at a youth group meeting. And despite the tough times that Brockmeier faced as a boy, any reader can find comfort in the humor in these stories--and the knowledge that the struggling 13-year-old did, eventually, find his place in the world.


A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip | Kevin Brockmeier | Pantheon | Hardcover | April 2014

Book Review: Hotel on the Place Vendome, by Kerry McHugh

Review originally published in the May 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

If the walls of the Hôtel Ritz could talk, The Hotel on the Place Vendome would be their memoirs. Tilar Mazzeo presents a history of this glitzy Parisian hotel, cataloguing the lives and actions of its rich and famous occupants--from Marcel Proust to Coco Chanel, Hemingway and Fitzgerald to Hermann Göring.

Mazzeo (The Secret of Chanel No. 5) starts with the hotel's opening in 1898, then moves chronologically through the building's history. The bulk of her account, though, is spent on the years during World War II and the activities leading up to the Nazi occupation of Paris, then to the city's liberation in 1944. Mazzeo leaves no stone unturned, giving as much attention to the members of the French Resistance--several of whom worked in the Ritz--as to "horizontal collaborators," French women known to sleep with Nazi soldiers during the Occupation.

This is a history many French citizens, even now, would prefer to leave untold; Mazzeo recalls how one interview subject whose husband fought in the Resistance warned her not to write the book. But write it she did, and readers should be grateful, for the lens of the Hôtel Ritz provides not only a fascinating history of a building that has captured our imaginations for over a century, but a broader history of the building's many occupants.

On My Shelf: Casebook, by Mona Simpson

April and May are big publishing months, with publishers pushing to get books on shelves before the glorious season of summer reading. Unfortunately for me, this has meant that I've fallen a bit behind in recent weeks--and one of the sufferers is Mona Simpson's Casebook, which I am meant to be reviewing today but have actually not yet had time to finish.

According to the publisher's description, Casebook presents the story of Miles, a young boy who starts spying on his mother to find out what she is planning for his life. What he finds instead of her plans for him are her plans to divorce her husband--and suddenly Miles is involved in a game of youth detective that promises to explore the big questions of privacy and individual expression in our age of social media and over-sharing.

The Millions called Casebook a "riff on Harriet the Spy" (sign me up, please), and Catherine at Gilmore Guide to Books wrote an excellent review of the novel today (I tend to trust Catherine's recommendations). So even though I've missed my deadline for this particular book, I'm sure I'll work it into my schedule in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for a full review.

In the meantime, check out what others thought as Casebook makes the round of this TLC Book Tour.

PS: Not that it's relevant to the book itself, but Mona Simpson, it turns out, is Steve Jobs sister, and her eulogy for her brother can be read in The New York Times.

Book Review: The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon

Originally published in the April 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission. If you don't already receive it, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon's debut novel, introduces readers to a not-so-distant future in which the oft-predicted death of the book has come to pass. As people become more and more dependent on their "Memes"--devices similar to our current smartphones, but with more predictive functionality--books, newspapers and dictionaries have become increasingly obsolete. Perhaps it is because of the obscurity of his work that lexicographer Doug Johnson has started to become paranoid about his safety--but when he goes missing, his daughter, Anana, is forced to accept that his fears may not have been unfounded.

As Anana probes deeper and deeper into her father's disappearance, it becomes clear the missing lexicographer lies at the heart of a larger problem: a "word flu" that is threatening the world's ability to communicate.

The Word Exchange is a riot of a read, asking big questions about our present and our future; Anana's investigations force readers to consider the ever-increasing role technology plays in our day-to-day lives and the importance of language in shaping our identities and communicating with the world around us. Graedon's clever incorporation of obscure vocabulary will leave those reading on paper reaching for the nearest dictionary--while those reading on devices will think twice about clicking on the words on the screen to look up their definitions.


The Word Exchange | Alena Graedon | April 2014 | Doubleday | Hardcover | 384 pages

#24in48: Reading Updates

Hello all! It's officially the #24in48 readathon in my neck of the woods. I'll be updating on Tumblr, with links in this post over the course of the weekend. I can't wait to see what everyone is reading, and to finally tackle some serious reading from my own TBR stack.

I have plans to go to a Nats game on Saturday night, and to watch Game of Thrones (of course) on Sunday evening, so while I may not get to 24 hours, I'm really crossing my fingers and hoping for lots of uninterrupted reading time this weekend.

Kick-off Post
My reading companion for the weekend.

Giveaway: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, signed by Carol Leifer

Carol Leifer's new book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, boasts what must be one of the most impressive collection of blurbs I've ever seen. I'll leave it here extra large so you can read them all yourself:

...and in case that wasn't impressive enough, the collection continues onto the back. I know blurbs can be a fickle thing in the publishing industry, but come on. How can you not want to read a book that Jerry Seinfeld told you to read? By an author that Chris Rock calls "funny, really funny"?


Yeah, I thought you might be. And the good news is that thanks to the wonderful people over at Quirk Books, I can offer one of you a signed copy of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying for yourself. All you need to do to enter is fill out the form below. Worldwide entries are welcome!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Note: Thanks to Quirk Books for providing the copy of the book for this giveaway.

Looking Ahead: April Titles

It's spring! Maybe! If it ever stops snowing!

...which means publishers are gearing up for summer reading, which means my the list of April titles I'm eyeing is an absurd length, and contains far more books than I could possibly hope to read. But since that's never stopped me from hoping, here are the new books I'm eager for this month:

The Confidence Code, by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman (HarperBusiness, April 15): Subtitled "The Science and Art of Self-Assurance---What Women Should Know," this book promises to be a follow-up to Lean In, which I finally read this year and found really resonated with me. Sign me up, please.

Bourbon, by Dane Huckelbridge (William Morrow, April 1): This bourbon-drinking booklover can't wait to dive into the history of this classic American spirit.

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, by Kevin Brockmeier (Random House, April 8): I read (and loved) Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination, so was excited to dive into the author's first memoir. This one focuses on just the seventh grade, and (spoilers) it's excellent. Stay tuned for a full review.

Cubed, by Nikil Saval (Doubleday, April 22): White collar Americans spend disproportionate amounts of time in small cube-shaped offices, and Nikil Saval's book promises to explore the history behind our workspaces. As one such white collar American working in an office (luckily mine has a door and real walls, so it doesn't technically qualify as a cube), I think this sounds fascinating.

The Remedy, by Thomas Goetz (Gotham, April 3): When this book was pitched to me, I saw the words "Arthur Conan Doyle," "lethal disease," and "popularize science," and knew this would be right up my alley.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, by Carol Leifer (Quirk Books, April 8): I swear I've never seen a book with such an impressive collection of blurbers. And while I usually take blurbs with a grain of salt (or twenty), it's hard to resist when Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldbery, J.J Abrams, Sarah Silverman and about a dozen other popular comedians are telling us to read this book. Stay tuned for more on this one later this week.

Murder on the Home Front, by Molly Lefebure (Grand Central, April 1): I've long been fascinated by the London Blitz and the amazing impact it had on London's citizens, military, architecture, history, etc. This history promises lots of Blitz information and a healthy dose of forensic science, too.

Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace (Random House, April 8): Buzz Lightyear on the cover + the brains behind Pixar Animation Studios + the development of creative culture = Read this.

The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf, April 1): I actually know nothing about this collection except that someone on Twitter was raving about it. Behold the power of social media, because it's now firmly on my TBR list.

Thunderstruck and Other Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken (The Dial Press, April 22): A little bit weird, a little bit beautiful, a little bit emotional. I'm falling in love with McCracken's writing, one story at a time.

Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf, April 8): I actually haven't (yet) read Shipstead's debut, Seating Arrangements, but I've heard enough good things about it to be interested in her sophomore effort, which takes on the world of ballet.

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown & Co, April 1): Emma. Donoghue. 'Nuff said.

Casebook, by Mona Simpson (Knopf, April 16): The story of a boy investigating his parents' separation, asking big questions about privacy in our age of oversharing. The Millions had this one on its list of most anticipated books in 2014, and I know it's on mine as well.

The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon (Doubleday, April 8): Is it just me, or is everyone suddenly talking about this book? If you're not talking about it, now seems a good time to start. This one is reminiscent of Lexicon in the way it explores the power of language--or in this case, the power of taking language away--in a world in which dictionaries are no longer printed and people are dependent on their predictive smart devices. Sound eerily like our world? That's the best part.

Run, Don't Walk, by Adele Levine (Avery, April 10): I fell hard for Phil Klay's Redeployment last month, and plan to continue on the theme of reading more about our vets. While Klay came to the subject of war as a veteran, Levine approaches it after six years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, rehabilitating soldiers in physical and emotional distress. The publisher's description promises "an array of oddball characters." Yes, please.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin, April 1): Transformation, second chances, bookstores, and an exploration of why we read. Could you ring any more of my bells?