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I love a good spy story – even better if it involves a canny female protagonist racing against the clock and a formidable enemy. So I jumped at the chance to review Ava Glass’ debut thriller, Alias Emma, which introduces intelligence officer Emma Makepeace. This interview originally ran in Shelf Awareness.

Tell us about the inspiration for Alias Emma.

It’s fair to say Alias Emma was inspired by real life. Britain has always been a hotbed of espionage. Perched at the edge of Europe but a strong ally of the U.S., it’s a magnet for spies from around the world. People are murdered here with poison-tipped umbrellas, radiation in tea cups, nerve agents on door knobs–these are the headlines I’m reading. How could I not want to write about this? It’s crying out to be explored.

Besides the headlines, how did you originally become interested in spies and espionage?

Before I started writing books, I worked for the British government in the department that’s sort of the equivalent of the U.S. Homeland Security agency. My job brought me into glancing contact with spies, and that gave me just the merest glimpse of their world. Before then I’d been a journalist and an editor, so I knew nothing at all about espionage or intelligence work. I was a complete innocent in that way. During that time, I met a young female intelligence officer. She was in her 20s and so smart and fearless; she seemed decades older than her age, and incredibly capable. Alias Emma is my opportunity to imagine what her life might be like.

Modern-day intelligence work often relies on technology: mobile phones, tracking devices, surveillance systems. Tell us how you explore those technologies–either using them or eliminating them–as part of this story.

This is always somewhat tricky. In Alias Emma, the job Emma’s assigned is extracting Michael, the son of a Russian spy who has defected to the U.K. The Russians want their asset back, so she and her husband are taken into protective custody [by British officials], but their adult son refuses to go with them. If Emma can’t get him to safety, he’ll be killed. He doesn’t understand the danger he’s in. During this rescue, Emma is ordered to use no technology that can be tracked. So, she can use no phones, bank cards, computers or tablets. At the same time, London’s extensive CCTV system has been hacked by the Russians who are using the cameras to hunt for Emma and Michael. Technology is everywhere (including the CCTV cameras), but Emma can’t access any of it.

Britain and Russia are old enemies (the Great Game and the Cold War both come to mind), but this story is set in the 21st century and feels very fresh. Why a British/Russian conflict?

I believe the Great Game never ended. We all thought it stopped when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, but we were wrong. It went on. That became quite clear when a former Russian FSB agent named Alexander Litvenenko was murdered by his ex-colleagues with polonium placed in a teapot in an expensive London hotel in 2006. That was followed by a spate of mysterious deaths of Russian exiles and former spies and government officials in the U.K. until, finally, a Russian exile named Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked with nerve gas in a leafy town (near where I live) in 2018. That was when it occurred to me that this secret war might make an interesting subject for a series of novels.

Much of this story is about identity. There are false identities, conflicting identities, Michael’s reluctance to leave the life he’s built for himself behind. Can you speak to that?

To an extent. In my time, I’ve changed careers, towns, even nations. Each move always feels like an opportunity to reinvent yourself. And yet, in my experience, no matter how far you travel, you can’t escape yourself. The past tags along. No matter how hard you try to leave it behind, it always packs itself in your luggage. And this is one lesson that Emma Makepeace is learning in Alias Emma. She can change her appearance, her name, even her eye color–but she will always be shaped by her past.

Will we see Emma in future adventures? Can you give us a teaser?

I’m actually writing the last chapters of book two now! The second book takes Emma out of London and into an undercover operation on an oligarch’s yacht in the Mediterranean. An MI6 analyst has been murdered in a bizarre way that looks like a hallmark of the Russian spy agency GRU. The Agency believes the analyst got too close to revealing a conspiracy by Russian businessmen in London to sell chemical weapons to rogue nations. But the conspiracy may run much deeper than Emma thinks. And it will take her to very dangerous places.

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This weekend, it felt like summer here in the Northeast, which means I’m looking forward to porch-sitting and reading. One of my favorite year-round – but especially summer – genres is the type of mystery featuring whip-smart female sleuths. Cracking open a mystery in the summer takes me back to childhood days spent devouring piles of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books, or (more recently) vacations featuring Miss Marple, Maisie Dobbs or Sara Paretsky‘s Chicago private eye, V.I. Warshawski.

Last summer, I found a new-to-me sleuth: Lane Winslow, a British ex-intelligence agent who has moved to rural British Columbia to rest and heal after her harrowing World War II years. She’s barely settled in when she becomes a murder suspect, but before long, she’s helping the enigmatic Inspector Darling and his cheerful young constable, Ames, track down the real killer. I happened upon A Killer in King’s Cove at the delightful Concord Bookshop, and loved it so much that I immediately ordered its two sequels, Death in a Darkening Mist and An Old, Cold Grave.

Author Iona Whishaw, who spent her childhood in the Kootenays (where her characters live), based her elegant, thoughtful sleuth partly on her own mother’s experiences of intelligence work. Each of Whishaw’s books not only explores Lane’s new surroundings and her character, but delves into the long-term effects of both World Wars on those who survived them.

If that sounds depressing, it isn’t: Whishaw deftly intertwines plot and psychology, giving readers insight not only into Lane’s crime-solving strategies, but the perspectives and lives of her neighbors. The series also follows Lane’s inner journey, from complicated family history to postwar trauma to the beginning of new love. Well plotted and laced with dry wit, Lane’s adventures are entirely satisfying reading. I’m savoring each book and currently loving the latest installment, Framed in Fire.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last summer and then I forgot to post it! Lane has become one of my faves.

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My antiracist reading list this summer includes some of the usual suspects (White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist, among others). But just as crucially, I’ve been spending time with Mildred D. Taylor’s Logan family.

Outspoken, whip-smart Cassie Logan entered my life in the fourth grade, when I first discovered her story in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Unusually for Depression-era Mississippi, Cassie’s tightly knit Black family owned their land, and the book tells of a year when they fought to keep it. I adore Cassie and her brothers, their no-nonsense grandma and their wise, thoughtful parents. I remember extensive classroom discussions about racism, and it was also important for me to encounter a Black protagonist who was not a slave.

Back then, I also read and loved Taylor’s powerful sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken. I’ve reread both books this summer, and they are as rich and compelling now as they were 25 years ago. But there’s more to their story, and I’ve been relishing and learning from the new-to-me chapters of the Logan family saga.

Taylor’s 2001 prequel, The Land, chronicles the childhood of Cassie’s biracial grandfather, Paul-Edward Logan, and his quest to acquire his own land. Born to a plantation owner and a slave woman, Paul-Edward has to reckon with his heritage and make his own way, and he does both with strength and spirit. I also picked up The Road to Memphis, which follows the teenage Cassie, her brother Stacey and several friends as they spirit a friend out of town after a racially charged altercation with three white men. (Bonus: the reissued paperbacks feature covers by 2020 Caldecott Medalist Kadir Nelson, who recently illustrated a New Yorker cover featuring George Floyd.)

Taylor’s concluding Logan novel, All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, picks up Cassie’s story in adulthood. She travels the country as part of the postwar Great Migration, finds both love and grief in California, and goes back home to Mississippi to participate in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Taylor returns to her perennial themes of justice, equality, fierce pride and the Logans’ deep love for their land and one another. Their strength and dignity in the face of discrimination are a potent reminder that Black people have suffered long enough: it’s time for white Americans to do better.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. I love the Logans and I highly recommend these books for older kids and adults alike. 

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Most of y’all know I’m a longtime reviewer for Shelf Awareness (best. gig. ever). That usually means I get a delicious stack of print advance copies to try out every month. But due to the pandemic, my last stack of physical ARCs arrived in mid-March. (Shortly after that, the stay-at-home orders came down, and many publicists and editors – including mine – couldn’t get to their offices to distribute books.)

Since we usually read two to three months ahead (those books I got in March all had pub dates for May, though some of them have been pushed back), we had to shift to e-galleys quickly. I was (am) not a fan of this idea: I love physical books, their heft and feel and smell, and I also don’t want one more reason to scroll on a screen. But my sister has lent me her long-disused Kindle Fire, and after several weeks of denial/procrastinating/avoiding reality, I finally have it set up for digital reading. (I’m requesting books through both Netgalley and Edelweiss, and the experience in both places has been mostly fine.)

It’s not as good as a “real” book, and I’m still reading physical books when I can: either rereading old favorites or working through my long-unread stacks. But the e-reader experience is much better than scrolling through files on my laptop, and it means I can still do the freelance work I love.

Like so much of life under quarantine, it’s not what I would have chosen, but here we are. I am (simultaneously) frustrated, trying to make the best of it, and intensely grateful that these are my problems.

Are you reading digitally in these strange times – or do you normally? Any tips?

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Now more than ever, I enjoy cooking, especially in the colder months: hearty soups, crumbly scones, buttery scrambled eggs (with endless cups of tea). Last July, though, I moved into a studio apartment during an unusually hot Boston summer. After weeks of takeout, stovetop huevos rancheros and ready meals from Trader Joe’s, I needed some new kitchen inspiration.

Enter Cooking Solo, Klancy Miller’s brilliant, colorful cookbook about not only feeding yourself, but enjoying it. I’ve made her risotto, her lemon pancakes, her spicy coconut-sweet potato soup… the list goes on. But more than her recipes, I love Miller’s approach: she insists, as a longtime single person, that investing the time and effort to feed oneself well is worth it. As a recent divorcée, I need that reminder on the regular.

My success with Miller’s recipes inspired me to flip back through some perennial favorites, like Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. I bake Wizenberg’s Scottish scones at least twice a month, but recently made her ratatouille for the first (and second, and third) time in years. Like Wizenberg, when I am dining alone on something that delicious, “I lick my knife until it sparkles, because there’s no one there to catch me.”

For a broader perspective on solo cooking, I turn to Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, an eclectic essay collection edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. Inspired by Laurie Colwin’s eponymous essay (which kicks off the anthology), these pieces, some with recipes, recount the delightful, the depressing and the quirkily indulgent aspects of setting a solo table. Many of the contributors recall solitary meals (or seasons) with deep fondness, even nostalgia. Cooking for one can feel like a depressing prospect, but these books help remind me that there’s a wealth of flavor, adventure and–yes–true sustenance to be found at a table for one.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran at the end of March. I submitted it before the virus hit, but it’s more applicable in some ways now than ever.  

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maisie dobbs in this grave hour book

Female sleuths have been my heroes since childhood, from Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden to Miss Marple and Harriet Vane. But these days, my favorite female investigators have an extra dimension: their complex, layered backgrounds inform their approaches to the cases they take.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs starts out as a scullery maid, but thanks to a wealthy patron, she attends university, then works as a battlefield nurse before hanging out her shingle as a private investigator. Her eponymous first adventure lays out her background and her first few cases, and sets up a richly drawn, insightful historical series. My favorite installments illuminate aspects of Maisie’s personal life, such as A Dangerous Place, which follows her to Gibraltar and Spain in the wake of great loss. 

mary russell books series sherlock holmes mystery

Orphaned, bookish and prickly, Mary Russell literally stumbles over Sherlock Holmes while walking on the Sussex Downs. The great detective takes her on as his protege in Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and they eventually become full partners in crime-solving and life. But Mary resolutely pursues her own scholarly interests at Oxford, which leads her to a mystery that quickly goes beyond the academic in A Letter of Mary. Russell’s complicated history, academic prowess and sharp wit make her a more-than-worthy compatriot for Holmes. (I blazed through this series when I discovered it some years ago, and have loved each new installment.)

clare russ book stack julia spencer fleming mysteries

Arriving in Millers Kill, N.Y., the newly ordained Reverend Clare Fergusson, carrying the scars of her Army career, must prove she’s a capable priest (In the Bleak Midwinter). But as Clare is drawn into several local mysteries and a growing friendship with the married police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, things get messy. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s gripping series ably explores Clare’s grit, compassion and her complex bond with Russ. Hid From Our Eyes, the long-anticipated ninth installment, is out this spring, and I can’t wait to see where Clare’s unusual talents take her next.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. 

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Jhumpa Lahiri next to Flavia de Luce. Agatha Christie stacked atop Anne Lamott. E.B. White’s essays, cheek by jowl with Anne of Green Gables.

My bookshelves look totally different these days, since I moved to a new apartment this summer and agreed to let my sister color-code them. (It took several hours and at least two bottles of wine.)

I was skeptical. What type-A bookworm wouldn’t be? I’d always arranged my books carefully by genre, then by author. I thought I wouldn’t be able to find anything. But the new arrangement is both gorgeous and surprisingly accessible. (I stand corrected.) Bonus: I’m rediscovering some titles when they catch my eye from their reshuffled positions. 

Favorites from several years ago, like Rebecca Pacheco’s Do Your Om Thing or Andi Teran’s Ana of California, wink at me constantly these days. I’m rereading the Harry Potter series again, and searching for each multicolored spine (I have the British editions) is a mini-treasure hunt. And my poetry collections (heavy on the Mary Oliver) are scattered throughout, prompting me to pull them out and read a poem or two.

It’s especially fun when a friend asks about a book: let me see where that is. Oh, yes, the cover is blue, but the spine might be red. (I’m looking at you, As Always, Julia.)

Some series, like Laurie R. King’s excellent Mary Russell mysteries, are scattered all over the place. A few, like my Penguin-orange Thursday Next adventures, are happily, haphazardly stacked together (with Ann Patchett’s essays and Life of Pi). And on the fireplace, a tower of black-spined classics (like The Count of Monte Cristo) shares space with newer stunners, including Kate Quinn’s The Huntress

My bookshelves are still a snapshot of my reading life, but these days, the picture is a much more colorful one. I’m savoring the rainbow it creates along my walls, and the unexpected pleasure of beloved volumes, seen in a vivid new way. And I’m sharing snapshots of each colorful shelf, and highlighting a few favorites, over on Instagram each Monday. 

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. I am one happy bookworm these days. 

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sept 11 memorial reflection

Periodically, I get to interview authors for Shelf Awareness (best freelance gig in the world, no question). Earlier this spring, I spoke to NPR correspondent Aarti Shahani about her memoir, Here We Are. It comes out next week, so I wanted to share part of our conversation with you. Here are some excerpts from my review:

On the surface, Aarti Shahani’s parents had a classic immigrant narrative: hungry for more job opportunities and education for their children, they came to the U.S. in the 1980s. They lived in a vibrant, diverse community in Queens, where Aarti’s mother became a community activist. Her father and uncle ran a small electronics shop in midtown Manhattan. But the reality–from start to finish–is much more complicated.

The Shahanis came to the U.S. from their native India (via Morocco) to escape a dysfunctional family dynamic. Their apartment building in Flushing was crowded and cockroach-infested. And when Aarti’s father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious Colombian drug cartel, their whole family spent years tangled in the U.S. legal system. Both men served time at the notorious Rikers Island prison; Aarti’s uncle Ratan was eventually deported, never to be allowed to return.

Shahani pulls no punches in detailing the government’s treatment of immigrants accused or convicted of even minor crimes, particularly those with a green card as well as those with non-permanent immigration status. She details the hopelessness of legal battles, the violence endemic to Rikers and other prisons, and the mixture of emotions when her father, Namdev, was finally released.

Here We Are is a searing exposé of the U.S. criminal justice system and its glaring flaws, and a love letter from an impetuous, outspoken daughter to her soft-spoken, hardworking father. It goes beyond the scripted immigrant narrative to highlight the Shahanis in their complicated humanity, and it makes an insistent case for readers to do the same. It is at once a statement from Aarti to her dad–we will keep fighting for you until the end–and a declaration by millions of immigrants: we are part of this country, and we are not going anywhere.

Clear-eyed and compulsively readable, shot through with compassion, humor and heart, Here We Are is a quintessential immigrant story and an urgent call for change.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which was rambling, thought-provoking and delightful:

KNG: The narrative of Here We Are has been central to your life and your family’s life. How did you decide to put it into a book?

AS: This book has been inside me for more than half my life. For many years, I chose not to write about it at all. I wanted to see: What does my life look like when I’m not being my parents’ daughter?

I also needed some space from the story to have perspective. And the more the most profound facts about my family’s life got buried, the more I wanted to dig them up. This happens to all of us: you run as fast as you can away from something, and the faster you run, the clearer the signs are that it’s always with you. I decided I didn’t want to run away from this story any more.

There are many parallels between your family’s story (set in the early 2000s) and the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants. Can you talk about that?

There’s a shift in this country, which is my country, where according to some, people like us are not supposed to exist. We don’t have a place here. The shift toward closing borders and attacking the foreigner has been steady and incremental over the years. The things you see now are shocking and terrible, but I can’t say they’re surprising. The continuity–the things I see on the news today–remind me of what my family went through.

The last couple of years in the U.S. remind me a lot of post-9/11 America: the willingness to pounce on “the foreigner.” We forget that there was real political alignment on this issue after 9/11. The sense that we were responding to a national security threat made a lot of people blind. But this country has a long history of being open to outsiders. That needs to be resuscitated immediately, and I think immigrants have to take the lead on it.

You talk frankly about the challenges of navigating the immigration system, both in the courtroom and at home.

Yes. That’s part of wanting to document my family’s story: there are some very uncomfortable facts in it. I think it’s important for people to know the corners that were cut, the things that had to happen, for us to make it in this country. We need to think about that as we continue to debate immigration issues. If your bar to entry for this country is perfection, no one gets in. I think I’m quite honest about who we are. I hope that makes it okay for immigrants to not have to be perfect, and still get to be here.

There are moments of real warmth and humor amid the struggle.

Tragedy can be hilarious. Very funny things can happen when you’re living really painful moments. This is not a screed about America. This is a family story you’re going to relate to. We’re funny and weird, and we get on each other’s nerves, just like your family. I really wanted to give people an immigrant family that’s not role-playing for America. I’m showing you those scripted moments. But you also get to see behind the scenes.

I wrote this book to let people into my family. Some people would say that we’re not an American family. I would contend that we are, and this is the story of fighting to be that. It feels like a fruitful time to share my family’s story: I think more people are willing to listen.

You can check out the full review and interview at Shelf Awareness

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beach reads buttonwood books

Summer reading is one of my favorites, y’all. I wrote a column for Shelf Awareness about a few recent reads I think would be perfect for your beach bag. Here it is, and please share yours!

One of the true readerly delights of summer is heading to the beach (or the back porch) with a book you’re dying to dig into. Whether it’s a traditionally “summery” novel, a new twist on a classic or an inventive take on summer in the city, the bookish possibilities are endless–and all of them pair perfectly with sun, sand and iced tea.

Meg Mitchell Moore (The Admissions, So Far Away) takes readers to bucolic Block Island, R.I., in her fifth novel, The Islanders. Her three protagonists – harried whoopie-pie baker Joy, disgraced author Anthony and bored stay-at-home mom Lu – are each hiding something, and their stories intersect in surprising ways. Both Moore’s setting and her characters have instant appeal, but it’s their deeper layers that make for a breezy yet entirely satisfying read.

(Two side notes: I’ve met Meg once or twice and she is lovely. And: my girl Allison lent me her ARC of The Islanders – so much fun.)

Literature teacher Alys Binat, the outspoken second of five daughters, has sworn never to marry, despite her mother’s constant marital machinations. When Valentine Darsee and his friend Fahad “Bungles” Bingla come to town, things get interesting for Alys and her whole family. Unmarriageable, Soniah Kamal’s modern-day Pakistani take on Pride and Prejudice, contains all the classic elements of Austen’s love story, but its witty dialogue, cultural dynamics and a few other updates help it feel fresh. (This one is straight from Anne’s Summer Reading Guide.)

Sierra Santiago hopes to spend her summer painting murals and hanging with her friends in Brooklyn. But then she discovers she’s a shadowshaper: an heir to a kind of magic channeled through art. Along with various members of her family and a very intriguing boy, Sierra must figure out how to stop the spirits before they destroy everyone she loves. Daniel José Older brings together art, myth, race relations and an epic battle between good and evil in the young adult novel Shadowshaper and its sequel, Shadowhouse Fall. (I cannot wait for the third in this series, which – I think? – comes out next year.)

Whatever and wherever you’re reading this summer, I wish you a literary one.

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light leaves village nyc

I have what I call “the Liberty problem” when I really love a book: I want to do what Liberty Hardy sometimes does on All the Books! and gush, “It’s so good. It’s SO GOOD!” It’s challenging, though, when I have to review a book I love that much – and write about it (somewhat) intelligently.

That’s how I feel about The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall’s debut novel about two ministers and their wives who live and work in Greenwich Village, starting in the 1960s. (Bonus: the church in the book is inspired by Wall’s childhood church, First Presbyterian in NYC – or at least located on the exact same spot. It’s in the part of the Village I love dearly, and I’ve walked by it many times; I even went to a Christmas fair there, back in December.)

I got to read an advance copy of The Dearly Beloved and interview Cara for Shelf Awareness. Below is part of my review, and some excerpts from our email conversation.

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The son of a respected classics professor at Harvard, Charles Barrett has always expected to follow in his father’s academic footsteps. During his undergraduate years as a history major, he is caught off guard by two seismic events. First, he realizes, suddenly and irrevocably, that he wants to be a minister, for reasons he can’t entirely explain. At nearly the same time, he meets Lily, a brilliant, reserved orphan studying at Radcliffe. She captivates Charles, though she tells him immediately that she can never believe in God. Over the next several years, Charles convinces Lily to build a life with him, despite knowing that she will always stand resolutely apart from his faith.

James MacNally, the youngest son of a drunken father and a worried mother, has hardly thought about God until a distant uncle offers him the chance to go to college, to escape his bleak Chicago neighborhood. Growing impatient with abstract philosophy and rhetoric, he moves toward the church as a way to confront the injustices he sees in the world. He meets Nan, a Southern minister’s daughter studying music, and they marry. When, in 1963, Charles and James are jointly called to pastor a Presbyterian church in Greenwich Village, these four lives become inextricably and permanently intertwined.

As the church–historically comfortable, white and middle-class–struggles to adapt to the turbulent 1960s, its two young ministers must adjust to their new jobs, their multifaceted joint responsibilities and to each other. Jane Atlas, the long-time, no-nonsense church secretary, guides them both with a steady hand. But they must learn to navigate the politics of ministry on their own, and work in tandem while respecting one another’s vastly different perspectives.

Wall uses the backdrop of professional ministry and the pressing questions of faith and vocation to expertly explore the layers of connection that exist within each marriage and between the two couples. Over the years, James, Charles and Nan each grow into a deep personal faith, but all of them wrestle mightily with doubts and fears, especially when one of Charles and Lily’s twin sons, Will, is diagnosed with autism. Charles, to his own shame, finds it particularly difficult to accept his son as he is, but all four adults ultimately respond to Will in ways that make them more compassionate, more human.

Wall probes the deep love that exists in each marriage, and the (non-religious) faith both pairs of spouses must place in one another. Through decades of heartbreak, happiness and many ordinary days, they build lives and families the best way they know how; with honesty, compassion and as much grace as they can give themselves and one another. At the end of the book, they have all become people “who had loved and hoped and worked and lost and failed and made amends.”

Quiet, sharply observed and stunning in its simple compassion, The Dearly Beloved is a powerful meditation on friendship, calling, marriage and what happens when faith meets truly hard times.

KNG: Tell us about your inspiration for The Dearly Beloved.

CW: I didn’t set out to write a story about ministers. I was reading Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin, which is about two couples. I loved the way she wrote about marriage and explored what happens after the traditional “happily ever after” wedding moment.

I grew up in a church with two ministers. One was very tall and the other was fiery. They were both dignified, commanding and august. This book is inspired by my memories of them, which are full of reverence and the tiniest sprinkle of fear.

My family history is steeped in religion. My mother and father were raised as Nazarenes–my paternal grandmother converted when she had a vision of an angel on the other side of the washing line. It was a strict religion–no drinking, dancing or listening to music outside the church. But my grandparents’ churches were also warm and welcoming.

Lily tells Charles early in their relationship that she can never believe in God. But he loves her and builds a life with her anyway. Can you talk about this central disagreement in their marriage?

I see Charles and Lily as very much alike. They are both intellectuals, and both make deliberate decisions about the way they want to live their lives. They both grew up in loving families but felt isolated because they were more serious than everyone around them. Charles hadn’t experienced tragedy in the way Lily had, but he was familiar with her feeling of isolation. He and Lily respond to that loneliness in each other–they understand it intuitively. To me, the central issue in their marriage is not religion, per se–it is that Charles wants Lily to be happy, and Lily has accepted the fact that she will never be happy. She lives in pragmatism and he lives in hope.

Also, Charles didn’t discover God until just a few years before he met Lily. His faith is still forming as he courts her, and it grows around her in the same way trees will grow around boulders and fences. Her atheism causes him to constantly re-evaluate his life. He is never on autopilot, because he is always deciding what it means to be a minister whose wife does not believe in God. If he were married to a believer he might be less substantial, his faith lighter and easier. His relationship with Lily makes his faith–and his life–richer and more nuanced. More challenging, certainly, but a challenge that makes him stronger and better able to lead a church.

The book tells the story of Charles’s and James’s work, and how the church responds to them as ministers. That response is sometimes contentious.

The biggest misconception about churches is that everyone gets along. This is not true! A church is like a co-op building–it has a board and voting members. It’s a hierarchy, which causes power struggles. For every member, church is one of the most important places in their lives, which means they’re intensely invested in how it’s run.

Charles and James come into a divided church, in a divided time, in a divided society. They are caught between preserving the historical identity of a respected institution while steering it through the cultural changes of the 1960s in a way that makes it relevant to modern times. This is like turning a cruise ship: there is more than one propeller to redirect, and it takes a long time to head in a new direction. Charles and James make choose that new direction for their church. This is not, generally, the way Presbyterian churches make decisions, so they get in some trouble. But James’s inherent need to take action made it plausible that he would bypass tradition for what he thought was right.

Three of the four main characters are people of deep faith, but their faiths are quite different from one another. How did you approach writing about their varied struggles with belief and doubt?

I have every one of the struggles with belief and doubt that these characters have. I parcelled out my own, varied experiences with faith between them. Writing about four different religious lives was freeing for me–I often feel like I have to make up my mind about faith and religion, but while writing this book I was allowed to embrace my indecision. I had the chance to think deeply about the ways our faiths of origin affect the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. Some people follow their childhood faith without thinking, some tweak it, some completely disavow it. Whatever we do, it remains embedded in us.

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It was a pleasure to talk to Cara, and if you’re looking for an insightful novel about real people grappling with faith and love and calling, I highly recommend The Dearly Beloved. 

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