One of the books I took on vacation to Martha’s Vineyard last month was Kim van Alkemade‘s Orphan Number Eight–a book that, from the back blurb, I was pretty sure I was going to like. I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads after not being able to put it down.
An historical novel about a Jewish nurse who plots revenge when one of her patients is the doctor who subjected her to damaging medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage decades before, the book has a risky structure for a debut novelist. Chapters that take place in the present are written in the first person, while chapters in the past are written in the third. This change in voice is startling at first. But van Alkemade is a talented writer who, through rich prose and detail, makes you forget anything but the story as she skillfully brings protagonist Rachel Rabinowitz’s pain, vulnerability, struggle and desire for justice to vivid life.
I’ll be featuring an interview with Kim van Alkemade about Orphan Number Eight on this coming Monday night’s Literary New England Radio Show. Naomi Jackson, author of the fantastic The Star Side of Bird Hill, and Laura Anderson, whose latest engrossing Tudor novel is The Virgin’s Daughter, will be my other guests.
The X-ray treatments Rachel undergoes as part of what her Jewish orphanage doctor believes will be groundbreaking medical research are part of what Kim and I will talk about on the show. Click here for a short teaser and, if you like what you hear, be sure to tune in at 8 p.m. Monday night! In addition to the author interviews, we’ll be giving away copies of each of these books.
But don’t wait to see whether you win a copy of Orphan Number Eight to add it to your to-read list. In it, you’ll travel with Rachel from the cramped tenement apartments of turn-of-the-century Manhattan, to orphanage cribs where children go weeks without ever being touched, to an off-the-map town in Colorado, to the impossibly soft sand and blue sky of Coney Island. It’s a terrific and affecting ride.
Attention Hollywood: Orphan Number Eight should be a movie!
– Cindy Wolfe Boynton
Quote Posted on
“The State of Connecticut has been and continues to be home to countless talented local authors, from world renowned literary figures including Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to authors that are lesser known but equally deserving of recognition …”
Celebrations included an invitation-only reception at the Mark Twain House in Hartford featuring best-selling Connecticut authors June Hyjek (also president of the Association of Publishers for Special Sales, Connecticut chapter) and Kara Sundlun (also an Emmy Award-winning journalist), shown at right, and several state officials. More than 60 people attended.
“When you look at the names of those who have lived and created here, from Mark Twain to Dominick Dunne, you see the shaping of America’s culture,” Hyjek said. “While the bold-faced names get most of the attention, this day intends to celebrate all authors who choose to call Connecticut home. Books combat illiteracy. Even if a book doesn’t become a bestseller, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t added value to someone’s life. Every book is important; every author is important.”
Among the authors with Connecticut connections noted at today’s reception were Pulitzer Prize-winners including A. Scott Berg (Lindbergh), Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) and Bill Dedman (The Color of Money), along with best-sellers Stephanie Meyer (Twilight), Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Candace Bushnell (Sex and The City).
How are each of these authors linked to Connecticut?
- Scott Berg was born in Norwalk
- Annie Proulx was born in Norwich
- Bill Dedman lives in Fairfield County
- Stephanie Meyer and Jay McInerney were born in Hartford
- Elizabeth Gilbert was born in Waterbury and grew up on a small family Christmas tree farm in Litchfield
- Candace Bushnell was born and raised in Glastonbury
Sorry Susannah Cahalan, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Philippa Gregory and Katherine Howe for taking the easy way out and posting this pic, rather than writing proper reviews. Will make it up to each of you lovely ladies, but in the meantime … Thanks for the great reads! Last month, when life was less hectic, I wrote about Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi at length.
Listen to tonight’s Literary New England Radio Show starting at 8 p.m. Our interview with Mary will air at roughly 8:17, and both before and after that conversation, we’ll tell you how to win. In all, we feature three authors and book giveaways on tonight’s show:
Hope you’ll join us! For those who can’t, the good new is that shortly after tonight’s episode ends, it will go into the Literary New England Radio Show archives, where you can listen anytime. Scroll through the archives, and you can access episodes going back to our very first one aired in December 2011.
For six months in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived in a rented house at 244 Compo Road South in Westport, Conn., as he wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned. The house is now a private home.
Fitzgerald was 23 at the time, fresh off the success of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. He and Zelda were newlyweds and known–not always in a good way–for their love of liquor and parties.
Westport, a beacon for artists of all kinds in the 1920s, was a perfect place for the couple. “Summers at Westport, Connecticut, exceeded the riotousness of New York,” said Westport resident and painter Guy Pene du Bois in his 1940 autobiography Artists Say The Silliest Things. “There, gin and orange juice ruled the days and nights. Talk was an extravaganza. Work was an effort made between parties.” And gin was one of the Fitzgeralds’ favorite. In Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, biographer James Mellow describes their “mad rides along Post Road with abrupt stops at roadhouses to replenish the supply of gin.”
The gin rickey was often their drink of choice. Perhaps a great way to celebrate the lives of this legendary literary couple would be to mix a pitcher and bring it to Westport’s Compo Beach at sunset, followed by a stroll down Compo Road South to see the house that ended up being immortalized in The Beautiful and Damned:
The gray house had been there when women who kept cats were probably witches. … Since those days the house had been bolstered up in a feeble corner, considerably repartitioned and newly plastered inside, amplified by kitchen and added to by a side-porch but, save for where some jovial oaf had roofed the new kitchen with red tin, Colonial it defiantly remained.
Some believe Westport also was the actual inspiration for The Great Gatsby, rather than parts of Long Island. Articles in the WestportNow and The New York Times’ Connecticut section explore this possibility, plus include quotes from those who remember the Fitzgeralds during their time in Connecticut. But if gin is still on your mind, hold off on the Gatsby exploration until after you spend a few minutes enjoying this great Open Culture post about Fitzgerald conjugating the verb “to cocktail.” You may want to have a gin rickey in hand.
Hear Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Joseph Finder & Elizabeth Alexander in the Literary New England Radio Show archives
- Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Balm. Set shortly after the end of the Civil War, it’s the story of three people who have come to Chicago in search of a new life: Madge, who was born with magical hands that heal; Sadie, who can talk with the dead; and Hemp, who is searching for both redemption and his missing family.
- Joseph Finder on The Fixer. The latest stand-alone thriller by this New York Times bestselling author that focuses on a former investigative reporter forced to move back to his childhood home, where he makes an exciting and dangerous discovery about his father’s past.
- Elizabeth Alexander on The Light of the World. A gorgeous memoir by an acclaimed poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist about the beauty of married life, the trauma of her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons.
Was a great episode! Definitely check it out!
I have an acute case of Writer Envy. I felt it coming on earlier this month, as I sat in a surprisingly comfortable folding chair at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to hear author Jennifer Tseng read from her debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (published by the always fabulous Europa Editions).
Despite my exhaustion from traveling all day and sleeping little the night before, I found myself leaning forward as she spoke. I couldn’t help it. Her sentences were like Sirens–poetic pathogens made up of words and phrases that lured, serenaded and hummed; that I wanted to get closer to; that wonderfully infected me with pure, unadulterated jealousy: How come I’ve never written anything as gorgeous and compelling as that? I want to! I want to now!
She started the reading at Chapter 1:
It began at the library. While the young man waited quietly to be helped, I stood neatly in thrall to the world outside the window. Momijigari was ending; leaves were falling in drifts like snow. Blackcaps were eating the trees, striking the bark with their beaks then rapidly chewing it, in that annual burlesque of sheer appetite I always found vulgar. When I turned, he cleared his throat and asked for a library card. He explained with darting, downcast eyes that although he’d been coming to the library with his mother since he was a child, he’d never had his own card. There was something in his manner–softness, reverence, a hesitation in the face–this is particular to a son close to his mother. Doesn’t intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught? As I handed him the form and then watched as he filled it in–his fingers fumbling a bit with the tiny pencil–I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty. I had the thought: he is out of reach, a thought that, had I been younger, might have spurred me on, but in middle age, warned me to retreat.
Like Jennifer, protagonist Mayumi is a 40-something-year-old librarian who lives on a small island remarkably like Martha’s Vineyard. As Kirkus described in its review, Mayumi is also a woman “emotionally marooned in a loveless marriage, clinging for warmth to her 4-year-old daughter, and drifting toward middle age [who] finds unlikely, forbidden love and gasp-inducing passion in the arms of an alluring 17-year-old.”
It’s a complicated love story that, as it unfolds, Mayumi can’t help but compare to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. She, after all, is not just a librarian, but a voracious reader and re-reader. Yet Mayumi is no Humbert Humbert. And the relationship Mayumi and the never-named boy develop is nothing if not beautiful, despite the social mores she unapologetically sets aside:
I saw within myself a cup marked complacency and a cup marked disappointment, the contents of both spilling over. I saw that I had been staring impassively for years at the spectacle of my own pain overflowing, as if at a hideous waterfall. Now I turned my gaze toward the young man. … I saw that there was also within me an empty cup marked pleasure and I resolved at once to fill. I refused to be thwarted.
Who of us who’ve reached middle age haven’t felt that kind of longing for fulfillment of desire, whether that desire be for love, sex, the creation of art, the exploration of new places or so many other things? All of us have dreams and desires that are more than just wants. The brave, unconventional and unexpectedly erotic Mayumi shows that while taking risks and going after fulfillment has the potential to end in despair, it can also lead unimaginable happiness, unexpected friendships and unregrettable moments.
Someone said Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness “veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid,” and it’s so true. No one who reads Maymui will be surprised to learn Jennifer is also a poet. Each sentence sings.
A few days after that Bunch of Grapes event, I had the pleasure of spending part of an afternoon with Jennifer. Despite the rain, we sat on the back porch of the West Tisbury Library as I recorded an interview with her for the Literary New England Radio Show. That conversation will air at 8 pm Monday, July 6. We’ll also give away copies of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness on that show, so don’t miss tuning in.
If you you’re going to be in Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, you can meet Jennifer in person at 6 pm Saturday, June 27, at the West Tisbury Library. As the flier below shows, the event will feature bubbles, cake, book talk, book signing, Mayumi swag and more.
In the meantime, no matter where you are, pick up a copy of Mayumi. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be swimming in your own Sea of Happiness. Even for writers susceptible to contracting Writer Envy, this ravishing novel is absolutely worth the risk.
– Cindy Wolfe Boynton