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As part of our mission to promote authors, the joy of reading, and to help independent booksellers, The Book Jam has paired with the The Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont to present an ongoing series entitled “3 Questions”. In it, we pose three questions to authors with upcoming visits to the bookstore. (We have a rotating list of six possible questions to ask just to keep things interesting.) Their responses are posted on The Book Jam during the days leading up to their engagement. Our hope is that this exchange will offer insight into their work, will encourage readers to attend these special author events, and ultimately, will inspire some great reading.

This “3 questions” features Jeffrey Lent and his latest work A Slant of Light, a novel about love, loss and war, and of theft and revenge. In it, a Civil War veteran returns home to find his wife and hired man missing and his farm in disrepair. A double murder ensues, the repercussions of which drive the narrative. Mr. Lent was born in Vermont and grew up there and in western New York State, on dairy farms. He studied literature and psychology at Franconia College in New Hampshire and SUNY Purchase. His first novel, In the Fall, was a national bestseller and a New York Times Book Review Notable Book for 2000, and remains a Book Jam favorite. His other novels include Lost Nation, A Peculiar Grace, and After You’ve Gone. Lent lives with his wife and two daughters in central Vermont. (Photo of Mr. Lent is by Geoff Hansen.)
Mr. Lent will be visiting the Norwich Bookstore at 7 pm on Wednesday, April 8th to discuss A Slant of Light. This event is free and open to the public. However, reservations are recommended as space is limited, and due to the high quality of his work, Mr. Lent consistently packs the house.  Call 802-649-1114 or email info@norwichbookstore.com to save your seat.
 
1. What three books have helped shape you into the author you are today, and why?

Light in August. This was my introduction to Faulkner and his impact is akin to a bomb going off every time I re-read him. True Grit. I read it from the library when it came out. I was in the fifth grade and ordered it at my local bookstore – the first piece of contemporary fiction I bought. Robert Frost. There was a collection of his poetry in the house, growing up. My parents had seen him read at Dartmouth, and he was writing of the world I knew.

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2.What author (living or dead) would you most like to have a cup of coffee with and why?

I’d say Faulkner, but then it wouldn’t be coffee and what would I say? You’re a great writer, Bill? He already knew that. So I’d go to Frost and ask him what impact poultry had upon his poetry, and then I guess all I’d have to do is listen for several hours, which would be a grand thing.

3.What books are currently on your bedside table?

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The Big Seven by Jim Harrison. In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen, is waiting for me.

 

books-colorful-stackThe Book Jam Lisas have a favorite gift to present when significant events arise in the lives of loved ones (e.g., 10th, 20th, 50th anniversary, or 20th, 40th, 60th birthday). Yes, of course this gift involves books, but the key to this gift resides in the selection. For this gift, you as the giver, select one best selling book from the year of the original event (wedding or birthday), and then one for every subsequent decade, finishing with a book from the year of the current gift giving occasion. We recognize this description may make no sense at all, so we play out two examples below.

Rest assured we have given this gift to many, and it has been LOVED, LOVED, LOVED by recipients everywhere. Bonus for this gift — as you pick titles to give, you will discover some books you missed reading when they were first published, and the stack of great books to read on your own bed side table will grow.

GIFT-GIVING SCENARIO #1 — Your parents/grandparents/neighbors celebrate their 40th (or you celebrate yours)

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Pick #1 is from 1975, the year they married

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurty – Before the Academy award winning movie, there was a novel revolving around two women – Aurora and her daughter Emma, and their struggle to find the courage and humor needed to live through life’s hazards. This is something we are certain any long married couple can relate to.

Pick #2 hails from 1985

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is also a romantic. This book is their story. We think it will be fun for any married couple to read.

Pick #3 was published in 1995

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – Mr. Hornby is reliably funny as an author, and his books almost always inspire a movie that can be watched once you finish the book. In this outing, the life of a record store owner, who spends his life making top five lists (e.g., top 5 Elvis Costello songs), changes a bit when his girlfriend leaves him. He actually finds this a relief as “how can he have a future with a girl with a bad record collection?” Then once single, life with the girlfriend looks so much better. Bonus– the book will make married life look superb for the gift recipients.

Pick #4 is from 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer – Nine-year-old Oskar has an urgent mission to find the lock matching a key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11. This task becomes an emotional, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey throughout New York City. 9-11 was a huge event in any marriage that lived through it. This book will help the couple receiving this gift talk about it in a new way.

Pick #5, the final selection is from 2015, the year of this special occasion

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)  – The next Gone Girl (from a British perspective), will make the gift recipients’ own relationship and its endurance seem that much more special. We can not say much more as almost any description of the plot will ruin the experience of reading it, but we recommend reading it before the inevitable movie based upon its prose arrives in a theater near you.

GIFT-GIVING SCENARIO #2 — Your girlfriend/niece/daughter/goddaughter turns twenty in 2015.

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Pick #1 comes from 1995, the year of their birth

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama – The current President, the one people born in 1995 remember most clearly at this point, published this autobiography during the year they were born. So, that seems like a great place to start this gift to people born in 1995. In this memoir, President Obama explores what it meant to him to be the son of a black African father and a white American mother. His book takes you from small town Kansas, from which President Obama retraces the migration of his mother’s family to Hawaii, to Kenya, where he meets the African side of his family, and places in between. Note: President Obama won a grammy for his recording of this memoir; so, an audio-book version might be a great option.

Pick #2 was published in 2005, when they were ten

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – Many high schoolers across the country have read this as part of required reading lists because it is an amazing book of the Holocaust with an unusual narrator – Death. You should read it and give it because it 1) will change you and the gift recipient, 2) is well-written, and 3) reminds you that in the heart of the worst darkness there is hope and there are good people. And ultimately, this novel is about the power of books and stories.

Pick #3, the final pick, is from 2015, the year of this special occasion

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (2015) – A superb, superb book about love and life told from the perspective of two teens – Violet and Finch – living in Indiana, trying to figure out what their senior year of HS means, what colleges to attend and how to play the hands they have been dealt by life (him – abusive father, indifferent mother; her – she survived a car wreck, her sister did not). We can not recommend it highly enough; but, be warned you will be very, very sad, as well as happy, while you read this book. Your gift recipient will be thrilled to be reminded that High School and all its angst is behind them.

You get the idea.  And, what is truly, truly great about this idea, is that it works for anyone, for any occasion, year after year. Have fun finding the perfect books for the loved ones in your life.

As part of our mission to promote authors, the joy of reading, and to help independent booksellers, The Book Jam has paired with the The Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont to present an ongoing series entitled “3 Questions”. In it, we pose three questions to authors with upcoming visits to the bookstore. (We have a rotating list of six possible questions to ask just to keep things interesting.) Their responses are posted on The Book Jam during the week leading up to their engagement. Our hope is that this exchange will offer insight into their work, will encourage readers to attend these special author events, and ultimately, will inspire some great reading.
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Our first “3 questions” in 2015 features Pamela and Jon Voelkel and their latest book, Jaguar Stones: The Lost CityBook Four of their Jaguar Stones series for middle grade readers. In this outing, 14-year-old Max Murphy waits in his uncle’s house for his parents’ release from a Latin American jail, when he is forced into yet another scheme of the Maya Death Lords. He heads to the United States with Lola, his Mayan friend from the previous books, on a quest where failure could mean the end of the world… again.
 
The Voelkels will be visiting the Norwich Bookstore from 1 to 3 pm on Saturday, March 7th to discuss Jaguar Stones: The Lost CityThis event is free and open to the public.  Reservations are not required, you need only to show up for a lot of fun with these two interesting authors. Call 802-649-1114 or email info@norwichbookstore.com for additional information. And now, the “3 questions”.
1) If you could give your own book award to an outstanding title you read last year, what would it be?
Pamela: The award is for “Book That Most Consistently Kept 5th-Grader Up Way Too Late On School Nights Because She And Her Mother Always Wanted To Read Just One More Chapter”. And it goes to Liar And Spy by Rebecca Stead. Or to When You Reach Me by the same author. They were both responsible for way too many hours of lost sleep.
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2) What three books would you re-read if you had the time to do so?
Jon: When I was growing up in Colombia, the old lady next door used to shout at my brother and I to be quiet when we played in the back yard. It only made us louder. One day, in an inspired change of tactics,  she dumped a cardboard box of books on our doorstep. They were old and out of print, but three of them became the favorite books of my childhood:  The Road to Miklagard by Henry Treece, The Old Breton Fort,  and The Fish, the Knife & Bobby Magee. I don’t know who wrote the last two, but if I could get my hands on those three books, I would love to re-read them. (Book Jam note: These are all out of print, so we can not link to them, but the Norwich Bookstore would be happy to try to find them for you.)
3) What three authors would you invite to a dinner party?

Pamela and Jon:  Working on the Jaguar Stones books has filled our heads with stories from the Golden Age of Maya archaeology. Our dinner guests would be three authors who blazed new trails in the jungles of Central America. Jon would invite John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, two daring explorers who brought the ancient Maya to the attention of the world. Their book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán – written by Stephens and illustrated by Catherwood – tells the story of their extraordinary adventures. It was a huge bestseller in its day and is still required reading for Mayanists. To the same dinner, Pamela would invite Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, a photographer’s daughter who, in 1873, left the comforts of London far behind to live in the ruins of Uxmal with her much older and fearsomely bearded husband, the eccentric Augustus Le Plongeon. Inspired by a jade artifact she discovered, Alice wrote the dreadful novel Queen Moo’s Talisman, which I don’t recommend you read. Do however seek out her biography Yucatan Through Her Eyes, which contains extracts from her diary and her amazing early photographs of Uxmal and Chichen Itza.


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So a cold, snowy Vermont February is here once more, and again we find ourselves asking, “Do we create a specific post for African-American history month, or does creating a specific post somehow minimize the contributions of people of color?” This question led to — “Do we skip this year’s post, or do we again use this month as a reason to highlight the contributions of African-Americans and African-American authors?” And finally we asked, “How can thinking about these questions help us improve The Book Jam?” We answered that last question first by doing a quick audit of our site looking at our posts from the past 12 months, to see the races/ethnicities of authors we have showcased.

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We found that during the past 12 months, we reviewed 140 books. (We removed the “Pages in the Pub” and “Three Questions with Authors” posts as we do not choose all those books.) Over half (57%) were written by white authors from the USA, 24% by white authors not from the USA (mostly Brits, Canadians, Australians and a few Africans), and 19% were written by authors of color (Asian, Black, Indian, Latinos) from anywhere in the world. We noted that featured authors of color tend to be African-American (50%), followed by Latino (37%), and Indian/Asian (13%). Our gender break-down was more even, with 54% of books we reviewed written by women and 46% by men. We also looked at the images we insert into the posts (beyond the frequent book covers), and noted that we tend to insert images of objects, not people. But, we were uncomfortable to note that when we do insert images of people, they tend to be white.

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This audit led to a vow to be more aware of inserting pictures of people of all races and to feature more authors of color in 2015 — and beyond, in all our posts. We believe “you are what you read” and that reading from a diverse set of perspectives enriches you; so we will strive for more diversity. Our reflection also landed us on the side of using this month to give air time to recent books by authors who are African-American or ones that highlight the African-American experience. This decision was reinforced by an African-American student at Dartmouth College who reminded us recently, “sometimes it just helps for the white person in the room to be the one to raise the race issue.”

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So, after all the build up, we are pleased to share the latest GREAT books we have read that happen to have been penned by African-American authors. We think we have something for everyone here: some fiction, some poetry, some non-fiction and some items for children and young adults. And we sincerely hope our selections help you enjoy some great books this month.

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How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon (2014) – A powerful look at “what goes down” when a 16-year-old black boy in a hoodie is shot by a white man. Was it defense against a gang incident? Was it a man stopping a robbery gone wrong? Was it being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it none of these, or a combination of these? And, just when you think you have all the pieces and perspectives to know what happened, a new piece of information inserted into one of the multiple voices used to tell this story, sends you another direction. A seriously impressive book – cleverly staged, with superb and unique voices throughout, and a plot from today’s headlines. This book makes you think about how perspective influences what you see, how stories are told, how choices have implications, and – well, to be honest – the pull and power of gangs.  Read it and discuss with your favorite teen. ~ Lisa Christie

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014) – I fall hard just about every time an author uses free verse to tell a story to children (e.g., Love That Dog by Sharon Creech). And Ms. Woodson’s prose paints powerful images in this National Book Award winning autobiography about growing up a “brown girl” during the 1960s and 1970s in South Carolina, Ohio and New York.  Her story emerges a book about the Civil Rights movement, growing up, and finding one’s voice as a writer. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Christie

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014) – This slim volume was a National Book Award finalist and offers a powerful way to meditate on what race means in the USA today.  Using news events, such as Hurricane Katrina or another professional tennis player imitating Serena Williams by stuffing towels under her outfits to enhance her bottom and breasts, Ms. Rankine contemplates both what it means to be Black in the USA, and what part we all play as events unfold and we chose what to acknowledge and feel. I think it is important to note that I did not read this in one sitting; but instead, I picked it up, read a bit, thought, put it down for awhile, and repeated. I recommend consuming this book in the same manner, or in one fell swoop. But no matter how you read it, you will be glad you did. ~ Lisa Christie (and Lisa Cadow)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) – We LOVED this book but use the prose of Penny McConnel, co-owner of the Norwich Bookstore to describe it. Thanks Penny! “This amazing book has filled me with such great joy, interest and admiration both during and after I completed it. Efemelu, a young smart Nigerian girl dreams of someday going to America. When she does, her eyes are opened to so much more than she had anticipated; most importantly racism. Back home in Nigeria Efemelu had never thought about being black because everyone was, but when she arrived in the states, she discovered the heavy weight of race that burdens both the black and white populations. In the states she graduates from college, has several relationships with good men and ultimately writes a very popular blog called “Understanding America For The Non White American.” Throughout these years, Efemelu has never forgotten Obinze, the young Nigerian boy she fell in love with in high school and the reader never stops hoping that they will eventually find each other. This is a contemporary story that is not just another story of immigration, but one of identity, love and powerful insights. Adichie is a powerful voice in contemporary fiction; a brave writer whose work I look forward to reading more of.” ~ Penny McConnel (Seconded by Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie)

Matthew Henson: Artic Adventurer by Graphic Library (2006) – I am ashamed to say I had no idea an African American, along with two Inuit men, were with Admiral Robert Peary when he successfully traveled to the North Pole and on his previous unsuccessful attempts. I am grateful this graphic biography for children brought these men to my attention. THANK YOU to our town’s children’s librarian for putting this book in my sons’ hands. (But I will add, shame on me and shame on American history books for not highlighting Mr. Henson. And, shame on us still, for not talking about the Inuits who made the success possible.) ~ Lisa Christie

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selena Alko and illustrated by Sean Qualls (2015) – Mr. Qualls received a Coretta Scott King Honor award for his previous work, and his illustrations for The Case for Loving are “spot on” in their inviting nature. In this picture book (also recently reviewed by The New York Times), Mr. Qualls teams with his wife to tell the story of Loving Versus Virginia, a landmark civil rights decision of the US Supreme Court that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriages, a case resonating as we watch legal decisions over gay marriage unfold. But, beyond its importance, this book tells the story of love. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

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Anyone who has been to a drugstore in the USA lately knows that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. All those red hearts can only mean one thing — valentines are coming. And, after a completely unscientific survey of those we have met the past few days, we have concluded people fall in two camps – those who embrace Valentine’s Day and those who don’t. (Some claimed to ignore it, but seriously, who can successfully do that?!?)

No matter how you choose to deal with this holiday, a very good book can help you cope with the pressure to find or keep love. And, now that we think about it, we admit they can even help you ignore the whole thing if you wish. To help with whatever strategy you choose, we have picked three books for Valentine’s Day – one for those of you in need of a love story with an edge, one for those of you who would like to embrace its sentiments, and one for those of you in need of a laugh as you search for and/or advise others as they navigate their path to “true love”.

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For those who need the catharsis of an angry love story

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015) – This book is going to be BIG.  We will describe it as the next Gone Girl (from a British perspective), but we will not say much more as almost any description of the plot will ruin the experience of reading it. We can also say this book is a great pick for those needing to feel a bit better about their own love life, and/or for those stuck in troubled places, and/or for those of you needing a page turner on these cold winter days. Read it before the inevitable movie based upon its prose arrives in a theater near you.

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For those needing a good book unapologetically about love 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2015) – As people who love bookstores and booksellers, it is hard not to like this charming novel about a bookseller and his bookstore, the love found when a baby is left among his shelves, and the love life of one of his publishing reps. A “shelf talker” the author wrote for Mr. Fikry, the fictional bookseller hero of this book, to use in his store to sell this book (yes that is confusing) succinctly sums what we would say about “The Storied Life…“. Thus, instead of crafting another review, we now share Ms. Zevin’s fictional shelf talker. “Despite its modest size and the liberties the author takes, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry has some lovely moments. Though my taste runs to books that are less sentimental than this one, I’m sure my wife, my daughter, and my best friend cop will love this book, and I will heartily recommend it to them.” And thus, we recommend this to anyone in need of a story that leaves you smiling, or for anyone needing a book to give someone who loves a sentimental tale. (e.g., your Mom)

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For those who need a laugh or two as they journey towards true love, and/or for those of you helping guide teens as they navigate their paths towards love

We Should Hang Out Sometime!: Embarrassingly, a true story by Josh Sundquist (2014) – Mr. Sundquist — a paralympian, a Youtube sensation who was helped along the way by the Vlog-Brothers – Hank and John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars fame), and a cancer survivor — has written an often hilarious, sometimes painfully awkward memoir about his attempts to find a girlfriend. As a reader, you follow him from his Christian Youth Group to college, and then to LA as he attempts to find a date. Ultimately, this book is about how self doubt and fear crippled him more than his actual amputation. Written for young adults, this memoir would make a great reminder to anyone that dating is awkward no matter who you are, but that somehow, we all manage our way through it. (PS – he finally gets the girl.)

And, we finish with a quote from a superb book and classic movie —  The Princess Bride — “This is true love — you think this happens every day?” May love happen for you often, even if not every day.


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The Book Jam firmly believes that if you get a day off from work and school, you should know a little bit about why that day is celebrated. Thus, on today’s federal holiday in the USA, we review two great books (one for younger children and one for the rest of us) and highlight a comic book that all relate to the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love Will See you Through by Angela Farris Watkins and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (December 2014) – In this wonderfully illustrated picture book, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. discusses Dr. King’s six guiding beliefs, and how he embodied him in different moments in his life: 1) Have Courage, 2) Love your enemies, 3) Fight the problem, not the person who caused it, 4) When innocent people are hurt, others are inspired to help, 5) Resist violence of any kind, and finally 6) The universe honors love.  This is a great way to discuss Dr. King with the children in your life, and to start discussions about your own guiding principles and what you do to try to live up to them.

March: Book Two by John Lewis (January 2015) – This second part of a SUPERB series penned by Congressman John Lewis and his aide Andrew Aydin, and then illustrated by Nate Powell in a graphic novel form, is a moving portrayal of the USA’s Civil Rights movement of 1960s. Book Two takes off where New York Times bestselling Book One left us — just after the success of the Nashville sit-in campaign led by Mr. Lewis and his fellow students. (We also loved Book One, as seen in previous Book Jam posts.)

March: Book Two follows Mr. Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders on to buses into the heart of the deep south, to their meetings with Dr. King, and into the offices of power in Washington, DC (culminating with President John F. Kennedy’s). Both books illustrate the brutality, imprisonment, arson, and even murder the protesters faced.  Book Two also shows the internal conflicts the young activists struggled with as their movement grew. Please read this series (and make sure your favorite younger readers find it) as an important reminder of why the work of Dr. King, Congressman Lewis, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks and so so many others is so important to all of us today. (Fun fact: This graphic novel series is inspired by a 1957 comic book – Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story - that inspired Congressman Lewis and other Freedom Riders.)

This post is one of our favorites to write each January because in it we are able to tell you about books we think you’ll actually have time to read (now that your many, many holiday activities are over). We also like this post because we can think of no better way to counteract the post-holiday blues than with a really good book. Some years we seem to focus on “FUN” fiction, other years highlight fiction that really makes you think about important subjects, some years we seem to focus on poetry or non-fiction items that caught our eye. We often add a pick for kids or young adults. This year, our three picks straddle a few categories; we sincerely hope this means that 2015 will bring eclectic adventures both in literature and in life.

Please ENJOY this first Book Jam post of a new year, and may 2015 bring you all many great adventures and books.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2014) – Mr. Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. Peppered with statistics about of people — those on death row who are people of color, the number of people permanently incarcerated for non-violent crimes committed when they were 12 or 13, etc… — Mr. Stevenson’s book brings these numbers to life in ways that make you care. He also, although he could not have known this when writing it, bring stories from today’s headlines home in ways that, be warned, may incite action on your part in 2015. (Note: The New York Times selected this as one of its 100 notable books of 2014, Esquire Magazine called it one of the 5 most important of 2014 and it was one of Time Magazine‘s top ten books of 2014.)~ Lisa Christie

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (2013): Hot off the presses in paperback in summer 2014, the main character of this book is a 100-year old painting that hangs on the wall of a modern London townhouse. The story behind its creation and the mysterious woman at its center takes us back to World War in Nazi-Occupied France and introduces us to two memorable protagonists from different eras — Liv and Sophie. There is surprising depth to this page-turner/love-story; it has the reader considering larger questions such as what is the value of art and just who has the right to own it? What an excellent plot and a very satisfying read — perfect to curl up with in the bath or by the wood stove after the relatives have left. And P.S. If you enjoy this immensely readable work, rejoice!, as this best-selling British novelist has ten other titles to explore – including Me Before You (paperback 2013) which this reviewer can also recommend. ~Lisa Cadow

A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall (2014) – A love story that unfolds through the eyes of 14 different observers of the boy and girl involved.  Perfect for the young adult who needs a bit of romance. Bonus, it is not too saccharine-sweet due to the varying perspectives unfolding the tale. ~ Lisa Christie

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