Top beach reads of 2013, and other things I learned in a downpour

Last Friday, during a monsoon of apocalyptic proportions, I inched down the flooded New Jersey Turnpike to Princeton for a book event.

Billing it Beach Reads Night, the Princeton Public Library had asked nine women authors to discuss their recent publications and what we ourselves liked to thumb through while sitting in the sand.

Cupcake display at Princeton Public Library Beach Reads Night

If you bake it, they will come.

Now, I worship any library big or small, state-of-the-art or state-of-disrepair. But the PPL is in a class of its own. I mean, check out this presentation. In honor of the beach theme, library program director Janie Hermann arranged for Sweetly Spirited Cupcakes to supply fancy baked goods, and Cake It Up Cake Stands to design a wee little beach made of brown sugar. Will you look at that? That’s all edible.

As the deluge built outside, I understood the genius of this confectionery display: if you provide free dessert, people will show up. Guaranteed. The unholy weather forced two of the authors to bail. But readers braved hell and brimstone for a taste of that Tequila Lime cupcake. Even a reporter managed to show, and I speak from long experience that extreme weather is the assignment-shirking excuse. Here’s proof she was there for the treats. (To be fair: she’s a food reporter, so the presence of authors was merely incidental.)

Anyway, I was thrilled to be included, thanks to moderator Amy Bromberg, the teeny tiny and fabulous founder of ChickLitCentral. For me it was the opposite of Groucho Marx’s gripe about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him; me, I was somewhat mortified to find myself among writers of this caliber. The only thing I brought to the party were a gaggle of damp but determined friends (thanks, guys!).

Authors at Princeton Public Library Beach Reads Night

From left, Priscille Sibley (“The Promise of Stardust”); Beatriz Williams (“A Hundred Summers”); me, momentarily not slouching; cupcakes; Pamela Redmond Satran (“The Possibility of You”); Christina Baker Kline (“Orphan Train”); Sally Koslow (“The Widow Waltz”); Amy Bromberg (ChicklitCentral)

Here are some things I learned that night:

• “If they cry, they buy.” That’s what Priscille Sibley said about her debut novel “The Promise of Stardust.” She in turn was quoting her agent, who cried umpteen times while reading Priscille’s manuscript. Sure enough, the publishers cried too, then bought.

• Ideas turn up in the strangest places. Christina Baker Kline discovered her then 10-year-old son flipping through a dusty tome at his grandparents’. When she inquired, she found the book held an account of the “orphan train”—a practice around the turn of the century of sending American children off for labor to the midwest. Idea!

• Some novelists lead double lives. Priscille Sibley is a nurse who writes when she’s off her shift. Pamela Redmond Satran is behind Nameberry, the hugely successful baby-name website. And Beatriz Williams writes popular romance novels under a pseudonym. She and her alter ego snipe at each other on Twitter. Who knew?

• Man, I have the worst posture. The. Worst.

In case you’re in the market for summer reading, below are brief synopses of each author’s book taken from the Princeton Public Library’s Pinterest board on the event. Click each title for the Amazon page. Here’s a link to some more pictures of cupcakes.

The Widow Waltz by Sally Koslow tells the story of a widow who learns the idyllic life she shared with her recently deceased husband – including a plush Manhattan apartment, a Hampton’s beach house, a driver, fine art and club memberships – was built on lies. Realizing that she and her daughters have been left with nothing, the widow struggles to protect her husband’s legacy and cope with her new reality.

The Possibility of You by Pamela Redmond Satran tells the story of three women at three key moments of the past century. Three stories of independence and motherhood, love and loss, power and family that intertwine in unexpected ways and culminate in an explosive ending that shows how one woman’s choices can affect her world forever.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline weaves together the stories of two women, one a widow from Maine who as a child was among the orphans transported from East Coast cities to Midwestern farmlands. The other is a teen girl who grew up in foster care and is assigned to help the widow clean out her attic for community service. Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, “Orphan Train” is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship.

A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams will be released May 30 and tells the story of New York socialite Lily Dane and her heartbreak after her fiancé leaves her and marries her best friend. Kirkus Book Reviews calls “A Hundred Summers” “a candidate for this year’s best beach read – the period story of a derailed love affair seen through a sequence of summers at Seaview, R.I.”

The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley chronicles a husband’s dilemma when he discovers his wife, brain dead after an accident and known to not ever want to be kept on life support, is pregnant. “Sibley does a wonderful job of exploring a complex and controversial moral issue, skillfully giving both sides of the story,” said a review in the American Library Association’s Booklist publication. “This is a gripping, thoughtful, heart-wrenching, and well-written debut …”

 

Should writers have families?

This is my family. They need me to do stuff.

I only just got around to writing about this infuriating essay by Roger Rosenblatt in The New York Times Sunday Book Review from May 11. I only just got to it because I was busy ushering my kids out of the school year and into summer camp—with all the report cards and teacher evaluations and forms, the camp bags and the sunblock and the forms—while slamming toward my own deadlines. It begins,

So there I stood at the front of my granddaughter Jessica’s fourth-grade classroom, still as a glazed dog, while Jessie introduced me to her classmates, to whom I was about to speak. “This is my grandfather, Boppo,” she said, invoking my grandpaternal nickname. “He lives in the basement and does nothing.”

Aw, I thought, as I folded the laundry. Boppo. So sweet. But what could that mean, he “does nothing”?

…as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer.

Huh.

Writers and families don’t mix, Rosenblatt says. Writers “do not live in the real world, or wish to,” and therefore “it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do.” Families should treat writers like exotic animals or anarchists—with care and a bit of caution.

Yeah, I thought. My family treats me just like an African gray parrot. Who makes dinner and wipes butts.

But apparently I’m wrong, because writers as a species are totally useless at any of the millions of tasks that make a family function. As proof, he cites an anecdote about E.L. Doctorow, who, asked by his wife to write a note to their daughter’s school, wound up so tangled up in crafting the perfectly worded letter that his wife gave up and wrote it herself.

If the sad truth be known, writers, being the misfits we are, probably ought not to belong to families in the first place. We simply are too self-interested, though we may excuse the flaw by calling it “focused.”

What I would give to be called self-interested. Or focused.

He concludes,

The writer may not be good for the family, but the family may do wonders for the writer simply by teaching him that “it takes all kinds,” including him.

So here’s the gist: while writers add nothing but dead weight to their families, families sure do enrich a writer’s work—if only as material.

Reading his bio, I recalled that Roger Rosenblatt wrote this book and this book about how, following the death of his daughter, he and his wife moved in with their son-in-law and grandchildren. And then I felt bad, because, come on, that’s a lovely and noble thing to do. Besides, Rosenblatt is the grandfather in the house, not the father. It’s enough that he’s there. Surely he’s entitled to “do nothing.” He’s earned it.

But he doesn’t speak for me. Nor any writer I know.

I suppose his kind of writer exists among my generation. There’s probably a 40-year-old genius in Brooklyn who hunches over his laptop while ignoring his wife’s plea for a hand with a poopy diaper. But I doubt it. Because very soon he’d be divorced, or dead.

Notice I speculate only about a dude. That’s because no way any writer mom would ever be accused of self-interest. Or focus.

Rosenblatt cites Alexander Pope and John Cheever and George Seurat as artists who viewed family as an impediment. Of course, many male writers marry. I’ve read that John Updike wrote three pages a day, every day, even when his kids were little. Which leads me to suspect he wasn’t changing those poopy diapers.

And yet, moms write. And sometimes, we write well. Jennifer Egan’s said that she wrote her Pulitzer-winning book during the hours of 9 and 2, in between the school run. If she’s like me, during that time she’s also shoving in the laundry and marinating the ribs and buying the gifts for the weekend birthday parties.

I’m not really mad at Roger Rosenblatt. He’s a distinguished journalist whose work I’ve long admired. I’m just pointing out that some writers, many writers, don’t get to check out from family life. Without us, our families would fall apart. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.