A conversation with Ann Pearlman, who gave readers around the world “The Christmas Cookie Club,” seemed appropriate for a December books column. But, it turns out her 2009 novel isn’t about Christmas. It’s about commitment.
Which, coming from the Jewish author of a memoir entitled “Infidelity,” makes considerable sense.
The fictional cookie club is hosted by narrator Marnie, whose day begins with preparations for a dozen friends who will be arriving at her Ann Arbor home that evening with food, wine and a story to accompany the ritual exchange of imaginatively presented cookies – with frequent dance breaks. But she’s also anticipating important news that evening from her older daughter and her husband in San Diego and, in a month, a grandchild from her 18-year-old, whose boyfriend is “a black ex-convict and aspiring rap star.”
Pearlman belongs to a real Christmas cookie club here in Ann Arbor, and reading her bestseller had me fantasizing about how lovely it would be put something like that together with friends whose company I treasure all year round and don’t see as often as I’d like. But then I thought again about the generally sluggish crowd I hang with and how the kinder ones would simply laugh at me. Righto. What say we just meet for pink drinks in January, hmm?
Such a lame crew, I suspect, would mystify Pearlman. Among her commitments: She’s a writer (seven published books). She’s an artist. She’s an adventuresome cook (her latest effort extends to homemade liqueurs). By her own account, the boundary between her family and her friendships is often indistinct. She has maintained a psychotherapy practice in Ann Arbor even as her writing career became firmly established. And the day we spoke, this mother of three and grandmother of four was looking forward to dancing the night away at the Necto’s Townie Party, despite a lingering cough from a bout of illness that put her off the cookies at this year’s meeting of the club.
The upcoming trifecta of other-worldly holidays – Halloween, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day – are the perfect frame to showcase a pair of new literary treats from local authors. (A neat trick, no?)
“The Sin-Eater: A Breviary,” Thomas Lynch’s latest collection of poems from Paraclete Press, presents this world and the next according to Argyle, an insurance policy incarnate for unabsolved offenses and, Lynch writes, “the mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings.”
“Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them,” part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series from Wayne State University Press, serves up a dozen ghost stories – some fiction, some true in their own way – from some of the state’s finest writers, many of them from the Ann Arbor area. Laura Kasischke (“Space, In Chains” and “The Raising”) and Keith Taylor, whose next poetry collection, “Marginalia for a Natural History,” comes out next month, are the editors as well as contributors.
Taylor, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, and “Ghost Writers” contributor Elizabeth Kostova (“The Historian,” “The Swan Thieves”) will read from the collection at Zingerman’s Roadhouse on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the sixth annual Vampires’ Ball, a benefit for Food Gatherers. (Hunger. In Washtenaw County. In America. Sin? Horror story? This theme is definitely hanging together here.)
A chief function of the book review “industry” is to give new books a sales push – the “latest” is the point. But today, let’s hear it for the backlist – otherwise known as those books you took note of months (or years) ago and intended to read, or brought home, placed on the shelf and have noted with good intentions ever since.
Two works of fiction by University of Michigan creative writing teacher Peter Ho Davies spent way too much time on my “gotta get to” list. And “The Welsh Girl” (2007) and “The Ugliest House in the World” (1997) were fine company when I finally claimed for them a couple of snowy weeks in February.
“The Ugliest House in the World” (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin) is a collection of deftly composed short stories that are tragic, comic and often a dead-on blend of the two. They take us from colonial southern Africa to anti-colonial Kuala Lumpur, from Wales to – hilariously – Welsh-speaking Patagonia. (“Butch should have known it would come to this when the Kid started shooting ostriches again.”) And while we know things won’t end well for the British in Natal, the officers’ dining-table tales of heroism in the face of Zulu savagery are a ripping good time.
Score another Michigan literary honor for Ann Arbor dirty-book writer Steve Amick.
Two novels. Two appearances on the annual listing of Michigan Notable Books. And two small-town Michigan libraries that canceled an appearance by Amick when somebody had a chance to actually take a look at the book.
“Nothing But a Smile,” which came out in paperback (Anchor, $15) last month, was chosen by the Michigan Public Library of Michigan as a 2010 notable book. It’s a charming 1940s story about Sal, the owner of a struggling Detroit Chicago photography shop, who comes up with idea of staging – and posing for – girlie pictures to pay the bills until her husband comes home from the war. While it is, in a sense, about soft-core porn and its, ah, uses, “Nothing But a Smile” comes off “decent and true” – which is also how Amick’s hero, Wink, describes his war buddy’s wife.
“It’s an old-fashioned, sweet book,” says the author, “but … yeah, people have sex. That’s how we got here.”
“Smile” also features an Ann Arbor-related plot twist – one that turned out to have an ironic, real-life parallel.
“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.” – J.D. Salinger
He can say that again.
Or not, because he died last month. But Jerome (whom, I should make clear, I never met) and I do have that in common. We both spared ourselves the haunting, humiliating spectacle of publication, although he had to learn the hard way and produce an American classic first.
I, on the other hand, wrote a romance novel so bad as to be unfit for print.
Let’s understand one thing. Everybody loves some kind of trash sometime. Tabloid gossip is, of course, the biggie. In a class I’m taking on probate law at Eastern Michigan University, the professor brought up Michael Jackson’s kids to illustrate how the rights of the surviving parent to custody are ironclad unless those rights have been terminated by a court. “The minute he died,” we were told, “she could have pulled up to Neverland and grabbed those kids. She – heck, I don’t even remember that woman’s na–”
“Debbie Rowe!!” volunteered way too many of my classmates.
Trash, trash, irresistible trash.
Once upon a time there lived a pretty lady named Jiselle who was always a bridesmaid and never a bride. But one night she is swept off her feet by a handsome pilot with green eyes and a tragic past. He proposes! She says yes!
But the “happily ever after” part snags on a few complications. Her new husband spends way more time in flight than he does at home. He has three motherless kids, one of them a middle-schooler with the mother of all attitudes. Jiselle’s own mother has an attitude of her own, marked by a particular contempt for unreliable charmers and her own daughter’s pathetic naïveté.
Oh – and a deadly plague is sweeping the land.
“In A Perfect World” is a dystopian fairy tale by Chelsea novelist and poet Laura Kasischke, set in an America whose citizens have become global pariahs – shunned, quarantined and loathed as potential carriers of the gruesomely fatal Phoenix flu. A distant war drags on vaguely. The power grid fails for hours and then days, and then for good. The mysterious plague kills the rich and famous along with everybody else.
“Shanghaied” by Eric Stone (Bleak House Books: hardcover $24.95; paperback $14.95)
“I love Chinese food. But sometimes China doesn’t do much for my appetite.” – Ray Sharp
Though this novel might at the beginning be categorized along with books by writers like Barry Eisler, Brent Ghelfi and maybe even Lee Child, halfway through Eric Stone turns his action story on its ear in an entirely unexpected way.
This is the fourth book in a series featuring detective Ray Sharp, a Hong Kong-based investigator who does “due diligence” investigations with his partner, the Chinese-Mexican dwarf Wen Lei Yue. As the story opens Ray and Lei are looking into a missing monk. What they can’t decide is if the monk is just having a little illicit fun or if the monk is the money man for his well-endowed monastery, in which case his disappearance is more worrisome.
“The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu” by Michael Stanley (Harper, $24.99)
As everyone knows, there is a very famous series of books set in Botswana, by Alexander McCall-Smith. McCall-Smith’s delicate prose is matched by the charm of his main character, Precious Ramotswe. Now there is a new series set in Botswana, with a slightly darker take, though the main character, Detective Kubu, would surely be friendly with Precious were they to meet.
Detective Kubu (the Botswana word for “Hippo”) is hugely fat and hugely smart. If Precious is the African Miss Marple, then Kubu is the African Nero Wolfe. Kubu and Wolfe both share a deep appreciation for the pleasures of the table, and both of them have brains that work best with their eyes closed.
If you own a mystery bookstore, you want to hold an event with Elmore Leonard. That’s what Jamie Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor, told a crowd at the Ann Arbor District Library downtown Thursday evening, while introducing Leonard. Partnering with the library to bring the famed author to town, Aunt Agatha’s was living the dream.
Leonard – who has written over 40 Western and crime/mystery books since his first was published in the 1950s – sat down for a joint interview with his son Peter Leonard (also a crime writer, with two novels under his belt and a third on the way). Fellow Western and mystery author Loren Estleman acted as the interviewer.
The three writers – all Michigan natives – spoke to more than 200 people in the library’s multipurpose room. Every seat in the audience was taken. People who couldn’t find chairs leaned against the walls, novels by the Leonards and Estleman in their arms for the book signing to follow.
“The Last Child” by John Hart (Minotaur Books, $24.95)
Recently one of the VPs at St. Martin’s, Matthew Baldacci, asked if he could swing by the store with author John Hart. I had enjoyed Hart’s first book, “King of Lies,” and enthusiastically agreed – just as enthusiastically, Mathew offered to FedEx me copies of Hart’s new book, “The Last Child.” The book arrived on a Wednesday afternoon for a Thursday visit – I trundled into the store to pick it up, hoping I might get at last halfway through before Hart stopped in – and I couldn’t put it down. I was finished with the book Thursday morning, eager to have a chance to discuss it with the author.
Don’ t avoid the obvious: there is a half-naked woman on the cover of Steve Amick’s new book – wearing “nothing but a smile,” which appropriately is the title of the book (wink-wink). She made quite the impression on you when you walked into Nicola’s Books, where Amick was doing a book signing Tuesday night.
How she got there is quite an innocent story. The book, “Wearing Nothing But a Smile,” deftly balances the innocence of WWII pin-up girls with the harsh realities of the war back home.
Amick admits to stumbling on the idea of a book with the pin-up industry central to the plot.