What I Learned from Anthony Doerr

Depending on what study you go by, Seattle is the first or second most literate city in America. This is thanks in part to the number of wonderful independent bookstores and civic organizations who bring authors to read.

Last week, Elliott Bay Books partnered with Seattle Arts & Lectures to bring Anthony Doerr to speak. I attended and live-tweeted the lecture. Doerr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, titled his talk, “Some Thoughts on Artistic Failure in 6 Parts.” Here are some of the highlights:

1.

Doerr once spent all day reworking one paragraph of All the Light We Cannot See. He researched each detail of the paragraph and thought about each sentence, only to cut it down to one small sentence.

2.

It can sometimes be more desirable to fail. That is to say, failure helps artists to play and explore the mysteries of life. If we are so hung up on success, we don’t take risks. Doerr quoted Ray Bradbury, saying “You only fail if you stop writing.” More broadly, we could apply this to any artistic or business endeavor. I was reminded of our first Book of the Month, Mindset, which says much of the same thing.

3.

Getting the facts right is so important to Doerr because he doesn’t want to lose a reader, or break their concentration on the story. He’ll take whole afternoons to make sure he has a word right in order to create a totally immersive experience.

4.

Doerr says he doesn’t have a satisfying answer for why he chose to make Marie-Laure blind in All the Light We Cannot See. Partly it is because his office is near a center for blind people in Boise, Idaho. But it is also because it was a challenge to write using other senses besides sight.

If you have the chance to see Anthony Doerr speak, jump on it! Until then, pick up All the Light We Cannot See!


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Book of the Month: All the Light We Cannot See

If you haven’t yet read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, it’s probably on your to-be-read list. And if it’s not, I’m thrilled to be the one to tell you about it.

Set in France during World War II, this novel follows the stories of Marie-Laure, a young blind girl, and Werner, an engineering prodigy who has been sucked into the Hitler Youth. This is one of those tales that manages to be beautiful and heart-breaking, redemptive and exciting all at once. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in fiction.

Since it came out last year, it’s also been one of the most talked about books by booksellers, book clubs, and most people I know.

In the clip below, Doerr explains his inspiration and how the disparate pieces fell into place.


All the Light We Cannot See is our Book of the Month and discounted to $14.95 until November 30th

Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Genres, Complex Characters, and Healing Our Wounds

Dolen Perkins-Valdez follows the rabbit hole of historical footnotes, adds robust, nuanced characters,  rhythmic dialogue, and intricate subtexts, and produces some of the best historical fiction around.

The inspiration for her first book, Wench, came one day when she discovered a reference to Tawawa House, in Ohio, where white slave-owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses in the 1850s.

Her second book, Balm, takes place in Chicago shortly after the end of the Civil War, and follows the stories Hemp, who has just been freed from slavery, Madge, a black woman who grew up free and has the gift of healing, Sadie, a War Widow who’s creating a new life for herself as a medium, and Michael, a German-American doctor mourning the loss of his brother.

Dolen took the time to speak to me about both books over the phone, while she was visiting her home state of Tennessee.


[Judy Oldfield]: There’s tons of people writing historical fiction, but you seem to focus on details that other people might brush over. What draws you to your topics?

[Dolen Perkins-Valdez]: It’s a case-by-case thing. The thing that drew me to Wench is different than what drew me to Balm. With Wench I was really drawn to this place in Ohio that no one was really talking about and not just that place, but not talking about those kinds of places, and they weren’t having those kinds of conversations, which had to do with the psychological trauma of slavery and the physical abuse of women.  So I was really drawn to figuring out for myself what it was like for those women who were staying in that place.

For Balm, I was much more attracted to a broader conversation about how people were putting their lives together after the Civil War. I was also very intrigued by the continued, imagined hold of the Civil War over Americans and what that war continues to mean for us as a country.

[JO]: Despite taking place in the past, your themes are extremely relevant today. Do you intentionally put in a lot of parallels or do they naturally come about when you’re writing about race or gender in the past?

[DPV]: I think they naturally come about. I think any historian or aficionado of history or historical fiction writer believes there are clear connections between the past and the present and that’s why we’re captivated by the past. When I’m writing, I’m really trying to stay in that particular moment. I’m not trying to draw contemporary parallels because the characters wouldn’t have been able to draw those. And I think that my initial attraction in the first place is that these are questions that are still important now.

My hope is that by reading Balm we can reflect upon that moment and its connection to current day controversy, such as the continued presence of the Confederate flag on state ground. The flag continues to be present on dozens of state capitals and not just Charleston, South Carolina. There are monuments to Confederate generals all over the country. I think the country needs to think about this history and continue to contemplate what it means for us as a nation. I hope that this book is kind of a healing space for people as we think these things through.

[JO]: There’s so much nuance and complexity in your characters. There are times when the audience loves, hates, and forgives a character. How do you strike that balance between lovable and very flawed people?

[DPV]: The very first thing any author has to do is to love their characters. I love all my characters. I have a particular fondness for them even with those characters that I struggle to understand. In Wench, the character that I most struggled to understand was Drayle [a white slave-owner] and even though I had a difficult time understanding him, I tried to paint him with a compassionate brush stroke. Valerie Martin, the author of the book Property among others, wrote a blurb for Balm that said I “look to the past with a compassionate eye”. I think that’s what I try to do with my characters, to have compassion for them even when they’re really wrong. That’s the key for people who are writing about unlikeable characters.

[JO]: The New York Times recently took some heat for using the term “slave mistresses” but the description for Wench uses basically the same term, “enslaved mistresses”. How do you feel about using that term or is there a different term that you’d like your characters in Wench and the people that this really happened to described as?

[DPV]: The word “slave” is a very inadequate word to describe people, so scholars tend to prefer the term “enslaved people.” The word “slave” defines a person whereas “enslaved” defines a condition.

But the importance of The New York Times’s acknowledgement of that problematic phrase was that the history of rape of black women has largely gone unrecognized in this country. What makes these terms even more difficult is the lack of acknowledgement. If we had more direct, truthful acknowledgement of what happened (which is a very terrible history but it is our history as a country) I think there would be less anxiety around how we term it.

But it’s very difficult and my editor and I struggled with how we would phrase it when I published Wench. I think there are some people who maybe read the front jacket and thought well they weren’t mistresses they were raped. I understood that sentiment but I think after they read the book and understood that the title of the book, Wench, actually is a good connotation of the kind of sexualization that black women underwent at the time.

[JO]: Let’s talk about some of the mechanics of writing. I love your dialogue. You don’t use a lot of apostrophes, you’re not dropping the ‘g’ at the end of an ‘ing’ word, but you focus really on the rhythm of speech and it’s one of the things that translates so well into audiobooks. How were you able to capture historical dialects so well?

[DPV]: If I were to try to capture the dialect in its absolute authenticity, it would probably be unreadable for the contemporary reader. I try to paint a sound. But I did just try and capture the flow, the rhythm, the sound of how maybe my grandparents talked. My grandfather was born in 1904 and my grandmother in 1909 and I remember how they sounded. I tried to use that as my guide.

There’s a phrase in Balm when Madge asks her mother about using a Hoodoo trick on the soldiers that violate her house. Madge says, “I thought you didn’t cast those kinds of tricks on people.” Her mother answers, “don’t ain’t can’t.” Once you get into a rhythm you can hear what your characters are saying. But it is a contemporary representation of the speech. It’s my own interpretation and isn’t an authentic characterization.

[JO]: In Balm, there’s all this talk about Hoodoo, root medicine, root doctors, and mediums. There’s a bit of the fantastic about it. It’s a little magical, gothic, yet it’s classified as historical fiction. Where do you stand on genre classification?

[DPV]: I have a lot of MFA students who are huge fans of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. They’re really torn because they’re in these MFA programs and they want to write what they believe is literary fiction but their hearts are with these genre writers. I think those classifications are beginning to fail us because the genre writers are so good. That line between literary and genre is blurring and I’m glad. I grew up in the 70s and 80s watching I Dream of Genie and Bewitched and reading Stephen King, so I am not really concerned about classification.

I do think there are still some readers out there that might come to Balm and want it to be one thing or the other. But I’m not interested in that divide. I just try to write where my heart is.

I researched every plant that’s mentioned in Balm and everything that they do is actually in the realm of the real; those are things that people actually did, those are actual healing properties of those plants.

But then it came to me that Madge had an extra gift and that drew her to Sadie. Early on someone was talking about the mediums who were very popular during and after the Civil War (these were women who said they communicated with the dead) and said, “Well you know those mediums are false right?” And I said, “Well how do you know they were false?” Maybe some were and maybe some weren’t but it was just really important for the book to take a stand on that and not be ambiguous. I decided that Sadie would be a genuine medium. If I was thinking of those divides I would have been creatively hampered.


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Summer Listens

A good book, cold drink, and warm breeze are the perfect recipe for a summer day.

These audiobooks make the perfect companion for your sunny vacation spot. Whether you’re poolside or couch locked, these captivating novels will transport you to new places, experiences, and lives. The ultimate summer destination is the land of audiobooks and it’s right at your fingertips. So grab your sunscreen, settle into your lawn chair, and enjoy!


Prodigal Summer

Prodigal Summer

By Barbara Kingsolver

Acclaimed author Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer is described as “a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself.” Kingsolver weaves the story of three characters together with a love of nature. The novel captures the essence of summer, the importance of every living thing, and what binds us together as humans. Written in her signature beautiful style, Kingsolver has created a novel that will transport you to the wild country forests of southern Appalachia and the heart of humanity itself.  


Where’d You Go, Bernadette

By Maria Semple

Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette will leave you rolling on the floor laughing. When the quirky-yet-endearing Bernadette Fox goes missing, it is up to her daughter Bee to follow her trail of cryptic clues leading her literally to the ends of the earth. Semple’s humor shines with the help of narrator Kathleen Wilhoite who brings the characters to another level entirely. This novel is perfect entertainment for your summer downtime.


Ender's Game

Ender’s Game

By Orson Scott Card

Science fiction is one of the best genres for the summertime, transporting you to new worlds and lives unimaginable in this day and age. Ender’s Game is no exception. In Andrew “Ender” Wiggins’s world, the government breeds child geniuses to be military leaders as a defense against the hostile aliens attacking Earth. Ender is drafted into the rigorous orbiting Battle School for his military training and quickly rises to the top of his class. Ender’s battles, both internal and external, will entrap you in the dystopian world Orson Scott Card has created and with one of the best plot twists in literature, this novel definitely is a lifetime must read.


Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

By Rebecca Wells

A New York Times Bestseller, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is a Southern fiction staple to be read over and over again. Funny, outrageous, and wise, this novel captures the lives of four Southern women and their lifetime of friendship. Through these relationships, author Rebecca Wells explores the bonds of female friendship, the ups and downs of mother-daughter relationships, and the power of love and humor. Come fall in love with the Ya-Ya sisters in Wells’s clever and endearing novel.


Beautiful Ruins

By Jess Walter

Our featured Book of the Month, Beautiful Ruins is obviously a Libro favorite, but it’s also a perfect summer read. Partially set on the lovely Italian coast, you will fall in love with the idyllic Porto Vergogna and irresistible characters whose lives intertwine by happenstance. Let Jess Walter take you on a journey through the drama of old hollywood and the picturesque Porto Vergogna in his wonderfully entertaining novel.


Island of the Sequined Love Nun

Island of the Sequined Love Nun

By Christopher Moore

Take a crazy trip with Tucker Chase to The Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Tucker is a hopeless geek who makes a living piloting a cargo plane for Mary Jean Cosmetics Corporation—that is, until he crashes the pink plane and finds himself running for his life from Mary Jane’s henchmen. The only employment he can then find is a sketchy gig piloting on secret missions for an unscrupulous medical missionary in the South Pacific. Christopher Moore is the master of the outrageous and if the title didn’t say enough, get ready, because you’re in for a wild ride.


The-Shoemaker's-Wife

The Shoemaker’s Wife

By Adriana Trigiani

Travel through time with Ciro and Enza, two lovers who part and reunite over the course of their lives until the power of their love changes them forever. This novel is set in the majestic beauty of the Italian Alps at the turn of the 20th century. It will take you on a journey through the Italian countryside, America during the First World War and the star-crossed love of Ciro and Enza. This story, inspired by the author Adriana Trigiani’s own family history, will give you a beautiful and unique look into the lives of characters at the turn of the century.


Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

By David Sedaris

David Sedaris’s newest book features a collection of essays, each one taking you on a journey that’s sure to make you laugh out loud. You’ll travel on a world tour, from experiences with French dentistry, to the Australian kookaburra, to the toilets of Beijing and eventually the wild country of North Carolina. Sedaris paints the world in a hilarious light as he recounts his absurd and ridiculous tales.


What have you been reading this summer? Let us know in the comments!

7 Books for a Stimulating Book Club Discussion

I was recently talking to some friends who are in wine clubs (read: book clubs) about the books that make the best book club picks. People’s tastes in books are all different, but that’s OK; each person’s pick doesn’t have cater to everyone. Rather, the best selections generate a lively debate, either because their controversy provokes discussion, their topic sheds light on a part of the world or lifestyle unknown to us, or their prose is layered with meaning and everyone’s individual views enrich the conversation.

Here are a few books that everyone agreed created a lively atmosphere in any book club and go well with a malbec. Not every book was universally loved, but each had something to offer.


I Am Malala

by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Not even the bullet of a Taliban member’s gun could stop Malala Yousafzai from completing her education. Determined to fulfill her dreams, and with the encouragement of her parents, she fought for the right to go to school in the Swat Valley, Pakistan. She has since become the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Why it makes a great book club pick: So often we watch the news, and see faceless violence, statistics, and fear. This book demonstrates the complexity of life in a war-torn country.


A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, and Kris Shepard

Twelve of Dr. King’s most famous, most moving, most thought-provoking speeches are gathered here, and bonus material includes commentaries by theologians and leaders. While the book is great, the audio edition includes the original recordings, and narration from the likes of Rosa Parks, Yolanda King, Ambassador George McGovern, and Senator Edward Kennedy.

Why it makes a great book club pick: King’s speeches, like his work, don’t just cover racial inequality, but social and economic inequality too. Everyone will leave with difficult thoughts, but it’s hard not to feel hopeful after listening to Dr. King.

And for fun, watch Dr. King tell a joke on The Tonight Show.


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

by David Foster Wallace

At moments licentious, at others tender hearted, and often both, the bulk of these short stories revolve around DFW’s imaginings of men’s relationships with and ideas about women. These meticulously crafted stories are like a trip through the labyrinth of David Foster Wallace’s brain. If you aren’t familiar with him, take a minute to read one of my favorite DFW pieces on Roger Federer in The New York Times: Federer as Religious Experience.

Why it makes a great book club pick: Much shorter and more digestible than Infinite Jest, this collection still oozes postmodernist longing while managing to be uproariously funny.


Have a Nice Guilt Trip

by Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella

Dozens of pithy stories make up this fourth collection by mother-and-daughter team Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella. Tackling everything from jury duty, to dog-grooming, to the benefits of central air, nothing is too ridiculous, too taboo, or too mundane for these ladies.

Why it makes a great book club book: Laugh-out-loud funny, everyone will have a different favorite. The best jokes and anecdotes will be flying all night.


Killing Lincoln

by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Bill O’Reilly’s presence on our cultural map. Here we meet him on neutral ground, discussing the assassination of President Lincoln. More like a fast-paced thriller than historical treatise, this book captures the imagination.

Why it makes a good book club pick: No doubt about it, this book is riveting. The conversation might stop there, but it also might go deeper, into the responsibility an author has to fact-check every small detail versus the author’s commitment to entertain, or whether or not the author has a broader agenda outside the narrative.


The Heretic’s Daughter

by Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent, a tenth-generation-descendant of the figures in this story, recounts the horrors of the Salem witch trials. This sweeping family saga, told through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl, brings new life to an oft-told American tale.

Why it makes a good book club pick: With prose that’s gritty yet luscious, it’s easy to mark this one as the best book-club books you’ll read this year. But the dynamic characters and attention to detail are what will really hold the conversation.


The Betrayers

by David Bezmogis

Part high literature, part political thriller, The Betrayers covers one pivotal day in the life of Israeli politician Baruch Kotler. When he fails to back down over the policies regarding the West Bank, his political enemies expose his affair, forcing him to flee to Yalta, where he runs into the man who sent him to the Gulag 40 years ago.

Why it makes a good book club pick: Baruch Kotler’s staunch principles are the stuff book club discussions feast upon. Everyone will be asking “Do you think he should have?” and “Why wouldn’t they?” and “Were you surprised when?”


Have a favorite book from your book club? Leave a suggestion or link to your review in the comments below.