Summer Reading

Country Driving by Peter Hessler

A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl

Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

This summer I have read so many books.  That’s what I get to do when I don’t have my students and their work to take care of.  I read a few terrible novels, but was saved by the books mentioned above.  Country Driving was given to me by my father because Peter Hessler was his student and he loved the book.  It was an indelible portrait of China in the first decade of the 21st Century.  Using driving and the sudden explosion of the automobile and highways as the organizing principle, it is an astonishing portrait of everything from laws of the road to country life to the factory towns.  I couldn’t put it down.  A Romantic Education is simply a gorgeous memoir.  Hampl came to Hofstra to speak in the fall and ever since I’ve wanted to read her work.  Her insights and the beauty of her language are spellbinding.  For my book group we are reading Madame Bovary and Sentimental Eduction. I haven’t gotten to the first.  Sentimental Education I have now read three times.  Every time I read it, it is new all over again.  This time I appreciated especially the use of descriptive writing to capture the mood and meaning of the characters.  I was led there by reading James Wood’s How Fiction WorksMy Hollywood: I love Mona Simpson and became a writer because of her, in part.  Here, she captures the relationship with the babysitter that all mother’s, in one way or another, must negotiate.  I felt as though she wrote the experience I lived, so able is she to tap into the universal.  And lastly, my cousin Charles recommended I read Our Town for the best description of consciousness in literature.  He suffers from ALS and can no longer speak.  The third Act, reading it, was  as though Charles were speaking to me, generously inviting me in to understand what all of us seem to so often miss.  I have been thinking about the play since I read it in June, at 2AM, unable to sleep.  I think about it when my children disrupt me from something that seems utterly important, that isn’t of course, to see something that they find utterly important.  Sometimes, I confess, I find all their demands a sort of tyranny, but then I’ll think about Our Town and will think of having a long conversation with Charles, of how brief this all is — their childhoods and the demands and the beauty of my complete presence , for them, as hard as it is to achieve.  My first impulse after reading the play was to send it to everyone I love.

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Humiliation & Gratitude: June Notes From The Book Tour

June 2010, a magnificent month.

June 3: Dear Money was published — two very generous, wonderful friends came together to host a beautiful party for me and my novel, following a successful reading and Q&A at Barnes & Nobel. The friends are the talented editor Elisabeth Schmitz and the dazzling Maura McCormack.  The bond trader who helped me so enormously in the writing of this novel came to the party and helped close it down.

June 8: I went to Italy for ten days to start work on a new book of nonfiction (I’m letting the fiction field lie fallow for a spell).  The trip was made possible by my employer, Hofstra University.  They have supported me from the day I started working there, helping to fund excursions for L’America, Dear Money and now the new book.

June 20: just home from Italy I turned around and got on a plane to San Francisco, all the air travel making me feel like a character in Walter Kirn’s novel, Up In The Air. Another great friend, Debbie Stier (read this post to find out more about how brilliant she is), accompanied me along with her darling daughter Daisy. We rode bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and lunched in Sausalito.

June 22: At The Booksmith on Haight Street: I discussed Dear Money with Janis Newman, the author of Mary, an historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln.  She asked brilliant questions and chose a series of passages for me to read — all of it making me think about Dear Money in a new way. The audience, however, was slim and comprised mainly of Debbie’s wonderful colleagues and a friend of my grandmother’s.  I didn’t sell many books that evening and felt badly for putting out the bookstore when they arranged such a spectacular event.  I wrote to the owner of the bookstore, Praveen Madan, to thank him and apologize for the small turnout.  He wrote back:

“Hi Martha,

Thanks for your message and for giving us an opportunity to host you.

I don’t think you should feel bad about the turn out.  All of us did our best to promote the event.  And the value of the event has to take into account not just the people who showed and books sold that evening, but also the broad amount of publicity generated, word of mouth, and ongoing sales at the store before and after the event.   Our email newsletter alone reaches over 6,000 people and many of them would not have found out about your book if we hadn’t done this event together.  Plus we got a chance to meet and learn about your fascinating book and this knowledge will enable us to continue selling Dear Money in the store.”

All writers take note of his wisdom.  And Booksmith, owned together with his wife, Christin, is an intelligently curated store.

One more thing: one of Debbie’s colleagues wrote a blogpost about Dear Money and the evening, that stunned me with its clarity and perceptions.  The Wicked Witch of the Web (great name).

June 23: I flew to LA to be interviewed by Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm. I have been listening to his show for a while on the internet.  He is truly brilliant, extraordinarily perceptive.  I felt, listening to him speak about Dear Money, that he knew it better than I did.  The interview will air some time in August.  He was fun too with a terrific, wicked sense of humor.  That night I read at Book Soup which was very well attended because my baby sister, Deputy Mayor of Education for the City of Los Angeles, brought out her friends and wife’s family.  My brother drove up from San Diego and two friends from middle school (I haven’t seen them in at least 25 years) came long distances too.  At the end of the reading Deputy Mayor made certain everyone bought a copy of the book.

June 26: More generosity from the author of Devotion, Dani Shapiro, whose work I admire beyond measure. With her husband Michael Marin, she hosted a party at her lovely home in Connecticut.  The guest list included the who’s who of the Connecticut literati.  And she did all this simply because she admired Dear Money. Before the party, I gave a reading at another lovely, smart independent bookstore, The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, owned by the gracious Fran Kielty.  My friend Elisabeth Schmitz came to the reading with me, bless her (she’s already heard me read and hosted a party for me).  Our husbands stayed home to watch Ghana defeat the US.  The reading was painfully small.  But as I said to Fran, I have seen everything.  Well, except, a massive audience.  As it happened, a good friend from NYC stumbled into the bookstore just before I was to read.  She was with her 9 year old and a friend.  She was surprised to see me, asked what I was doing, hunted for her books, bought them and left as I read to Fran. She’d already been to my NYC reading.

Such is the life of the mid-list writer.  Across June, a flurry of reviews — exhilarating, one disappointing: the roller coaster.   But always I try to remember (when someone says something superficial or someone says something perceptive; when I read to 2 or 30) I am on a ride; I am fortunate; I am blessed with a career I love that takes me extraordinary places; I am blessed with friends and family who believe in me and who support me with their exquisite generosity.  For this reason I am able to live a creative life.

Now for July: the 8th at 6pm Labyrinth Bookstore in Princeton and on July 24 at 10.30AM I’m on a panel at The Berkshire Wordfest at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, MA. My horoscope says that July will be a thrilling month for me professionally, though not without complication.

Hint: this picture is a metaphor!

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I’m Honored To Present Mona Simpson






Mona Simpson is coming to Hofstra University on Wednesday, March 10 at 7PM to read in the library’s Cultural Center Theater.  You are welcome to join us.

In 1988 my father introduced my sisters and me to Mona. We were all living in New York City then and so was Mona. She had recently published her first novel, Anywhere But Here, and my father had read it, loved it, and given it to his girls because he thought we might love it too. He met Mona at Princeton University where he teaches.  That year she was the fortunate recipient of a Hodder Fellowship.  I’ll never forget how I devoured her book, realizing as I read it that I had to be a writer too, that I wanted to study it, each sentence to see how it was made. And I will never forget the dinner at my sister Laura’s old apartment on 108th Street, meeting this spectacular woman whose work I so admired. We became fast friends, shopping together, running together, being single in New York together.  I looked up to her, asked her about writing, trying to glean from her the big lessons of this career.  Generous and loving and kind, after a while my father referred to her at his fifth daughter.  Young writers are so fortunate if they have a role model.  She was mine.  She and her work, without doubt, drove me to have the courage to write my own fiction. 

Now all these novels and years later, I bring Mona Simpson to Hofstra University’s Great Writers Great Readings series because I want to share her with my students and the larger Hofstra community. I know she will inspire all.  Please come.

Next in the series is the poet Rosanna Warren on April 14th.  Same place.  Same time.


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$$$Classic Novels About Money$$$


Dear Money, my new novel, has, as the title suggests, a lot to do with money.  I became interested in the topic as extreme wealth rose all around me in the heady days of mortgage-backed securities.  Money is a glorious and dirty topic and, it seems, everyone has something to say about it.  While writing the novel I looked to the Victorians for fun and inspiration, among others.  They were obsessed with money and used it as a lens through which to see the hypocrisy and foolishness of their society.  I tell my students that a writer writes and a writer reads.  These are the novels I was reading, all brilliant on money. 

The Bronte Sisters — to borrow from my sister, Jenny: “The Bronte sisters tackle the problem of money, what it does to you if you have it, what it does to you if you don’t.”

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.   I especially love the aging, matronly novelist, struggling with her desire for success and her income.  Her desperation. 

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope 

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray 

The Financier by Theodore Dreiser 

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 

The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald’s obsession with money lead to so much of his best writing.  (I borrowed the title Dear Money from him.  He discarded it.  “Where Do Titles Come From?” 

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.   (When I asked the bond trader who helped teach me about his world to recommend books, the first was Bonfire.  The others were Market Wizards: Interviews With Top Traders and Frank J. Fabrozzi’s The Handbook of Mortgage-Backed Securities — heavy lifting, definitely not a novel.) 

In my reading and thinking, I was most interested in the female characters of Lily Bart, Undine Spragg, Scarlett O’Hara (though I didn’t re-read Gone With The Wind), Becky Sharp.  I often wondered who those women would be today.  How would they have acted had they found themselves in the 21st Century? 

Novels about money that I haven’t yet read but want to read: 

New Grub Street by George Gissing which Jenny loved.  She says, “It is entirely about the terrible compromises a writer must make for the love of money.”  

Money by Martin Amis 

And now there are two new novels, published right now, for my list: 

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee 

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett 

Please add to the list.

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The Books I’m Reading Next

Because I’ve asked and been asked the same questions about belief.  I’ve admired Dani for a long time.  She leads a thoughtful life and she’s a beautiful stylist.

Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Book Trailer

Because the description of the book makes me nostalgic for the 1970s (crazy), and I want to see what Gilmore does with that history and her abundant talents with language.  Her trailer is fantastic, jazzy and urgent, and led me to preorder the book immediately.

Something Red by Jennifer Gilmore

View the book trailer

Because Koelitz is so smart, her prose rich, and who doesn’t want to know about the secret life of a Princeton admissions officer…

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Literally, because the book is such a gorgeous object—beautiful cover, rough cut pages, French flaps.  All that and it is a paperback original.  Then last Sunday it received a rave in the New York Times Book Review.  My friend, Elisabeth Schmitz, is the editor and I love her taste.

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

New York Times Review of The Disappeared

Because I’ve been following her for a while now, her project speaks to me, I’ve felt the things she’s felt about days being long, years short.  I want to practice appreciating what I have more.  Because I admire her tremendously for her determination, her positive approach.  Her book trailer made me cry; I didn’t pause long enough when my children were so young, to enjoy the simple rituals that create their childhoods.  But they are still only 5 and 9, so it is not too late.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin


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Book Group: What We’ve Been Reading, And Some More Ruskin


By the artist Jane Gennaro who has a show at Rogue Space until November 14

(drawn after our Paula Fox evening)

I was invited to join a very serious book group. There is no chat (or not much) of husbands, children, school, plastic surgery. Just the books. Since joining last January we’ve read: 2666 by Roberto Bolano (I was surprised to love this, to be swept into his wild imagination); A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul and his biography The World Is What It Is by Patrick French (Naipaul is completely nuts and brilliant); Joseph Mitchell’s Up In The Old Hotel (all together the pieces were too similar and some felt fabricated) alongside Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (captures an era in New York irresistibly); Don Quixote translated by Edith Grossman (what fun. I gave it to my father on tape, unabridged—he listened to it twice and bought the book so he could read it too); and finally How Fiction Works by James Wood and, because it inspired Wood, John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing. As I said in an earlier post a little bit of Ruskin goes a long way. But there are many delightful passages. I love that he is always distinguishing between the great artist and the inferior, that he has rules for everything and then tells you to disregard them.

A few passages:

“Now remember, nothing distinguishes great men from inferior men more than their always, whether in life or art, knowing the way things are going.

Your dunce thinks they are standing still, and draws them all fixed; your wise man sees the change or changing in them, and draws them so,—the animal in its motion, the tree in its growth, the cloud in its course, the mountain in its wearing away.”

“If a great man is not in a hurry, he never pretends to be; if he has no eagerness in his heart, he puts none into his hand; if he thinks his effect would be better got with two lines, he never, to show his dexterity, tries to do it with one.”

“The other laws, if you think over them, you will find equally significative; and as you draw trees more and more in their various states of health and hardship, you will be every day more struck by the beauty of the types they present of the truths most essential for mankind to know; and you will see what this vegetation of the earth, which is necessary to our life, first, as purifying the air for us and then as food, and just as necessary to our joy in all places of the earth,—what these trees and leaves, I say, are meant to teach us as we contemplate them, and read or hear their lovely language, written or spoken for us, not in frightful black letters nor in dull sentences, but in fair green and shadowy shapes of waving words, and blossomed brightness of odoriferous wit, and sweet whispers of unintrusive wisdom, and playful morality.”

I could write many more, but won’t.  He teaches the reader to be patient and to look, to observe, to care.

Last night, I made a roast pork loin infused with maple and sage and wrapped in bacon and served it with a Persian jeweled rice.  (The recipes will go up when I have time.)  For dessert: almond cake with raspberries and cream.  The almond cake recipe is on this site.

I’d like to add that we’ve only read one woman (Paula Fox) in the year I’ve been with this group.  This raises questions for me that I’ll address in a later post.  In the meantime, please look at the comments on my previous post to see the beginnings of this discussion.

Jane's image

One more by Jane Gennaro

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The Center for Fiction Annual Benefit & Awards Dinner


The Finalists were:

Phillip Meyer, American Rust

Patrick Somerville, The Cradle

Paul Harding, Tinkers

Yiyun Li, The Vagrants

John Pipkin, Woodsburner

And the winner is:


Last year’s winner, Hannah Tinti, was the chair of the committee of judges and gave a thoughtful speech about why each book was selected and how each deserved to win.  They were all lovely debuts.  As one of the five judges, I enjoyed the experience completely.  There were many terrific first novels and reading so many of them across the summer, I was reminded of how lonely and also hopeful those days of writing a first book were.  It seemed this year so many of the debuts had multiple points of view and could move around and across great swathes of time with ease.  Woodsburner is a fiction inspired by a real event: a forest fire accidentally started by Henry David Thoreau in 1844.  Pipkin crawls inside this dramatic day and brings it, vitally, to the page.

The party was a good one.  My favorite surprise was Chuck Palahniuk, a figure so iconic for my students.  In his buffalo leather pants and with his terrific sense of humor, he presented the Maxwell Perkins Award to Gerald Howard.  He made fun of himself, his editor with a nerdy, boyish good sense of fun.  My students love him because through Fight Club he ignited their desire to read.  As Palahniuk said last night, “Because of Gerry there are a lot more readers out there.”

Another fun surprise was being seated next to the lovely Brettne Bloom, the agent for Patrick Somerville.  As it happens, she was a student of my sister Sarah’s at Emory University, studying art history with her.  Sarah gave Brettne two pieces of advice some ten years ago: 1) Always read The New Yorker if you want to learn how to write well.  Read it every week; 2) Go into publishing.  I am stumped by the second piece of advice — Sarah’s an art historian, what does she know about publishing and recommending it as a career path? — but Brettne took the tips to heart and has done both.

I’ve come to The Center for Fiction only recently, through my friend Rene Steinke.  It’s a wonderful organization, directed by Noreen Tomassi.  I can’t think of many places that support fiction writers of all levels and exclusively.  Fiction writers are fortunate to have it.  Check it out on-line and visit it when you’re in New York:

17 East 47th Street, New York, New York  10017

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Patricia Hampl at Hofstra

Yesterday the memoirist Patricia Hampl came to Hofstra University as part of the Great Writers Great Readers series, started by Phillip Lopate six years ago.  I had never read her work before, but started reading from A Romantic Education and was swept away immediately by the precision and beauty of her detail, of the small speaking to the large.


Last night, Hampl read from The Florist’s Daughter, her most recent book.  “These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives, and believing themselves to be ordinary, why do I persist in thinking–knowing–they weren’t ordinary at all?”  Under Hampl’s gaze and through her memory, the lives are made extraordinary.  And this makes me think of the ending of Middlemarch–

…[For] the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who have lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Hampl was brilliant.


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