Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith is a finalist in the 2012 International Books Awards in the "Literary Fiction" category!
“In language with the wild power of accuracy, Hystera maps a path through the landscape of trauma and illness, the feverish news of the seventies, and a character’s own indelibly vivid imagery of alarm and comfort. An eye-opening novel."—Joan Silber, author of Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, finalist for the National Book Award
“Hystera is a haunting, mesmerizing story of madness, longing and identity, set against one of the most fascinating times in NYC history. Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant.”—Caroline Leavitt bestselling author of Pictures of You
“Inside a psychiatric ward in the 1970s, Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Hystera takes you on a ride through the wilderness of a young woman’s emotional trauma and breakdown, and seizes upon the intricacies of mental health, our phobias, and fears around it. Brilliantly envisioned, this story of passion, and familial dysfunction, bears witness to an exquisite reknitting of a young woman’s soul, told in language that is brave, startling and ultimately tender and wise.”—Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim
“Leora Skolkin-Smith’s new novel, Hystera, provides a very vivid sense of being in the head of someone having a psychotic breakdown, and is a powerfully useful reference book for dealing with the mental-health system. It also pungently evokes the gritty New York of the ’70s.”—Robert Whitcomb, reviewer The Providence Journal
In June’s LHJ Book Club pick, Next to Love, author Ellen Feldman tells the heartbreaking, but hopeful story of three women’s lives during the paradigm shift of the Baby Boomer generation—1944-1964, spanning WWII and the war in Vietnam.
Babe, Grace and Millie are young wives whose husbands have been drafted to fight in WWII. When the trajectory of their future is forever changed by war’s tragic events, their imperfect, yet steadfast, friendships prove the only constant in their lives.
In the excerpts from the book below, Feldman illustrates a woman’s instinct for survival—the ability to adapt to whatever twists and turns life may present.
Work: Women are constantly breaking through the barriers of perceived gender inferiority, especially when taking on jobs traditionally (and stereotypically) held by men.
“…her father laughed at her for applying. Who did she think she was? He said the same thing when she went to work at Diamond’s rather than a five-and-dime. Who did she think she was? It was the refrain of her life.”
Marriage: In the thick of a long marriage, there often comes a point at which we recognize our original expectations were somewhat idealized.
“Babe thinks of Claude. It always comes back to Claude. Love may endure a lifetime, but it is less reliable on a day-to-day basis.”
Friendship: Long-lasting friendships are often our greatest source of support, but can also be complicated and painful.
“And here they are all these years later. They love one another with atavistic ferocity, though it occurs to Babe sitting in the sunporch, these days perhaps they do not much like one another.”
Motherhood: As we move from childhood into adulthood, we grow to know our mothers not only as mothers, but also as humans—flawed and imperfect.
“The scene is picture perfect, a spread in one of the women’s magazines she and Millie subscribe to. Except it can’t be because in the world of those glossy pictures, mothers do not ask their daughters to keep secrets.”
Society: Many women struggle to meet the expectations society places on us.
“She is ashamed of being a woman alone in the world without a man, unclaimed, unvalued, a reproach to the laws of society and nature. When she found Charlie, she thought she had taken care of all that for life.”
Book Club Bonus! Ask members to discuss expectations pertaining to each of the topics above: work, marriage, friendship, motherhood, society. What does it means to be in a relationship (romantic or platonic) without imposing your own expectations? How we can find more personal fulfillment through expectations we place on ourselves, instead of through our expectations of others?
Please welcome Ken Ballen, author of Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals, to On the Bookcase! Use this interview in our book club meeting to help your discussion by delving deeper into his research for his new book.
- As an American Jew, did you ever fear for your safety during your time in the Middle East, South Asia, and Indonesia? Did you feel explicitly targeted or in danger due to your nationality and/or your religion?
The danger is real. One of the journalists who helped me in Pakistan was subsequently targeted and killed. As a former federal prosecutor, I took as many safety precautions as possible.
- What was it like to interview convicted killers and terrorists? How did you ultimately select the six men to profile?
I have spent nearly two decades of my career interrogating criminals and terrorists, from organized crime and Mafia hit men, to drug dealers, child molesters, con artists, corrupt politicians, murderers, and terrorists themselves. The six individuals profiled had the most compelling stories, defying conventional wisdom. Their life stories are also broadly representative of the more than one hundred other terrorists and radicals I interviewed over a five year period.
- Did your interviews change the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish with Terror Free Tomorrow, the non-profit research organization you chair?
As a federal prosecutor, Congressional investigator and President of Terror Free Tomorrow, I have often been cited as an “expert” on terrorism. Conducting these interviews, particularly of the six people featured in the book, changed everything I thought I knew.
- Was there a particular story or interviewee that you found most compelling? One that you were especially moved by?
All in different ways moved me—that’s why I write about them. I would say that my dinner dream with Shaheed, which led him to renounce terrorism, had to be the most moving encounter. To see someone renounce terrorism from a meeting with you is a profound experience.
- After talking with these former and current radicals, do you give greater meaning to your dreams? Did your interactions with Shaheed make you reconsider their importance?
I’m not sure I give greater importance to my own dreams. Even though my experience with Shaheed was dramatic, it could have ended up quite differently for me, even possibly putting me in danger. Certainly, I would now think twice before sharing my dreams with radical Muslims!
- Do you see hope or viability in Kamal’s more humanistic interpretation of the Quran? Do you think this religious message has the potential to spread and overtake the extremist view?
Whether or not I see hope, more importantly, Kamal does. As I write in the book, change must come from within.
- What are your feelings about Pakistan and their relation to the U.S. in the war on terror?
I was able to corroborate the essential elements of Zeddy’s account. It should deeply terrify anyone who cares about not only the United States but also the future of humanity.
- Do you plan to keep in touch with your acquaintances in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? Have you heard from any recently?
Yes, I keep in touch with about half of those profiled in the book.
- In your Afterword, you outline a position on American policy in the Middle East. How can someone who’s read your book help spread the message about Middle Eastern democracy “under a Muslim vision”? Can you suggest any ways to get involved?
There are many ways to become involved. I believe that inter-religious dialogue is essential. Of course, any reader is also free to support the work of Terror Free Tomorrow.
Kenneth Ballen is President and founder of Terror Free Tomorrow, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, which investigates the causes of extremism. Ballen has spent two decades on the frontlines of law enforcement, international relations, intelligence oversight and congressional investigations. As a federal prosecutor, Ballen successfully convicted international terrorists. He also prosecuted major figures in organized crime, international narcotics, and one of the first cases in the United States involving illegal financing for Middle Eastern terrorists. Ballen has regularly contributed to CNN, and its companion website CNN.com.
"Announcing: A great promotion from our friends at Books for Better Living.
Click to like their Facebook page and Random House will give a dollar to READGlobal. READ is the nonprofit for which I and a number of friends have been working to raise money; it’s a great organization that builds libraries in the Himalayas and most recently in Bhutan. Please spread the word!"
With Mother's Day right around the corner Alexandra Fuller's memoir Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness would be a great pick for a Mother-Daughter book club or a Mother's Day themed book club meeting.
In this sequel to Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller returns to Africa and the story of her unforgettable family.
In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Alexandra Fuller braids a multilayered narrative around the perfectly lit, Happy Valley-era Africa of her mother's childhood; the boiled cabbage grimness of her father's English childhood; and the darker, civil war- torn Africa of her own childhood. At its heart, this is the story of Fuller's mother, Nicola. Born on the Scottish Isle of Skye and raised in Kenya, Nicola holds dear the kinds of values most likely to get you hurt or killed in Africa: loyalty to blood, passion for land, and a holy belief in the restorative power of all animals. Fuller interviewed her mother at length and has captured her inimitable voice with remarkable precision. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is as funny, terrifying, exotic, and unselfconscious as Nicola herself.
We see Nicola and Tim Fuller in their lavender-colored honeymoon period, when east Africa lies before them with all the promise of its liquid equatorial light, even as the British empire in which they both believe wanes. But in short order, an accumulation of mishaps and tragedies bump up against history until the couple finds themselves in a world they hardly recognize. We follow the Fullers as they hopscotch the continent, running from war and unspeakable heartbreak, from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia, even returning to England briefly. But just when it seems that Nicola has been broken entirely by Africa, it is the African earth itself that revives her.
A story of survival and madness, love and war, loyalty and forgiveness, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is an intimate exploration of the author's family. In the end we find Nicola and Tim at a coffee table under their Tree of Forgetfulness on the banana and fish farm where they plan to spend their final days. In local custom, the Tree of Forgetfulness is where villagers meet to resolve disputes and it is here that the Fullers at last find an African kind of peace. Following the ghosts and dreams of memory, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is Alexandra Fuller at her very best.
In The Language of Flowers, the LHJ Book Club pick for May, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh tells the moving story of Victoria Jones, a young woman whose journey through the foster-care system has taught her to be untrusting of herself, the world, and the people in it. Isolated and alone, only her treasured Victorian language of flowers allows her to communicate her true emotions. But until she meets a young man in a flower market, only she understands the message.
Desperate to survive following emancipation from foster care at age eighteen, Victoria is forced to answer the question … “Can we grow past our limitations?” Below are examples from the book that show, for Victoria, flowers are not only a way to communicate, but a symbol of her ability to transcend her personal history.
Message of Hope
Excited to finally have the tools to communicate, Victoria gives her foster mother thistle, a symbol of her hatred for mankind, and ironically it bonds them to each other.
“Thistle!” I said, handing her the jar. “For you,” I added. I reached out awkwardly and patted her once on the shoulder. It was perhaps the first time in my entire life I had initiated contact with another human being-at least the first time in my memory.
Just before her eighteenth birthday, Victoria is warned she must find a job in order to remain in the group home, or else be homeless, but instead she spends her days nurturing her first garden.
“Back in my room, I spread out the shocked roots gently, covered them with the nutrient-rich soil, and watered deeply. The milk jugs drained right onto the carpet, and as the days passed, weeds began to sprout from the worn fiber.”
Fear of Failure
Fearing she will not be able to surmount the obstacles of her past, Victoria makes the heartbreaking decision to return her baby to the father to raise.
When the basket was finally covered, I put the knife back in my pocket, picked up the baby, who had fallen asleep, and lay her down gently on the blanket of moss. Maternal love. It was all I could give her. Someday, I hoped she would understand.
Finding the courage to try again, Victoria returns to the father and her baby to finally realize she is capable of love.
“If it was true that moss did not have roots, and maternal love could grow spontaneously, as if from nothing, perhaps I had been wrong to believe myself unfit to raise my daughter. Perhaps the unattached, the unwanted, the unloved, could grow to give as lushly as anyone else.”
Book Club Bonus!
At your club’s discussion of The Language of Flowers, invite members to bring a favorite flower representing a special message they want to convey to the group. Each flower’s meaning can be discussed, added to a vase and taken home by one lucky drawing winner to enjoy all week.
LHJ is hosting a live Facebook chat with Vanessa Diffenbaugh on Thursday, April 26 at 1:00pm EST! Mark your calendars, and go to LHJ's wall to ask Vanessa a question about The Language of Flowers, her life as a writer, or her philanthropic efforts. We hope to see you there!
Please welcome Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly, to On the Bookcase! Jennifer tells us how her novel was inspired by the ancient tradition of Sortes Vergilianae.
I didn’t set out to write a ghost story, and yet somehow The Year of the Gadfly became one. The apparition of a famous dead journalist counsels my reporter-heroine. A secret chamber in the school basement is thought to be haunted. And a group of young artists use an Ouija board to conjure up the spirit of a dead boy.
This last detail was inspired by a specific occurrence my junior year of high school, in which my Latin class decided to practice the ancient tradition of Sortes Vergilianae, or the “Lottery of Vergil.” According to legend, the Aeneid could be used to divine the future. It had worked for a handful of Roman emperors who’d predicted their rise to power in the book’s pages. Maybe, my classmates thought, the Aeneid could shed light on where we’d get into college or whom we’d end up taking to prom. My boyfriend Ben thought the game was silly. What could a book written over a thousand years before reveal about his future?
We didn’t know how the Sortes Vergilianae was meant to go, so we resorted to holding a kind of séance. We shut off the classroom lights, drew the shades, and sat knee-to-knee in a circle on the floor, holding hands. I was surprised that Ben, skeptic that he was, agreed to go first. He closed his eyes, opened the Aeneid to a random page, and pointed at the text. Then he opened his eyes and read. He’d chosen Book 6, set in Hades—the underworld. Specifically, Ben picked the passage about a boy who dies at the age of 19.
I don’t remember any of the other passages we chose that day. I only remember Ben’s, because only a few months later, he was killed in a car accident. In some strange and horrible way, the Sortes Vergilianae had worked. It fulfilled its promise of revealing Ben’s future. Not that Ben would have given credence to what was simply coincidence. Moreover, he’d have argued, the boy in the book died at 19. He was only 17. Still, I wondered if by turning the Sortes Vergilianae into a séance, we had called up a ghost—somehow pushed Ben toward the underworld before his time.
I know ghosts do not exist in the real world. But I think it was inevitable that after Ben’s death, ghosts would come to populate the world of my imagination. The presence of these spiritual forces in Gadfly—both the walking, talking ghosts and the haunting specter of the past—is my attempt to account for, or at least understand, what happened that day in the Latin classroom. I’d like to see the world through Ben’s skeptical eye, and yet I’m struck daily with the truth of Vergil’s Lottery. How it defined Ben’s future, and mine, in so many inescapable ways.
Jennifer Miller, the author of Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East, holds a BA from Brown University, an MS in Journalism from Columbia, and an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Men's Health, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, and others. She is a native of Washington, DC and currently lives in Brooklyn with all the other writers.
Reading Group Choices attended the Virginia Festival of the Book on March 24th. I, Laura Vianna, was a panel member for the Book Club workshop. I was able to inform the audience of a few tips that Reading Group Choices has gathered over the years from book clubs. A few included:
-Book Club Awards
-Book Group Website
-Food by the Book
-Diversify group membership
At the end of the workshop, the audience was able to share what their book clubs do for fun as well as ask the panel questions and seek advice.
Reading Group Choices also gave away five boxes of books to five lucky winners for their book clubs. Maybe we will be at an event near you!
Quail Ridge Books & Music held a "Book Club Bash" at it's store on Monday, March 19th and Wednesday, March 21st. At this Bash, employees of the book store had chosen 2-3 books each to present to a crowd of local book club members. Each presented book was picked because it would lead to a lively book club discussion.
Reading Group Choices came bearing gifts. Each day the bash was held, RGC gave away 5 boxes of books as a random drawing to different book groups that attended the Bash. We gave away about 120 books!
The event was really exciting and full of useful information. The categories of books included Fiction, Non-Fiction, Short Stories and Young Adult. At the end of both events, owner Nancy Olson opened the event to the attendees and asked what their favorite picks were.
It was a great way to bring together all the book groups in the community to meet each other and find new books to read.
Find out if a bookstore or library near you is doing a similar event!