A Gift of Wonder

I opened an e newsletter from my college in my inbox.  These come frequently and are filled with announcements about student athletes, the completion of construction projects or 19 year olds who win fellowships for being impossibly smarter and more accomplished than I was at that age.  I usually skim the headlines and discard.  Depending on how masochistic I am feeling that day, I might check the list of birth announcements for news of any ex boyfriends’ spawn (it used to be the wedding section, now it’s the births, which seems a weird indicator that we’re all getting older).

But this news burst was different.  It announced the death of a favorite professor of mine in the English Department.  He had introduced me to some of my most loved authors:  John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Auden, Woolf.  I became very still.

This professor had taught me twice in senior level seminars.  He was a fixture of Root Hall, the building that housed the English Department and quickly came to feel like a second home to me during my time at college.  He had been older, but he was not old.  He was a tall man, who I always remember wearing dark suits.  He seemed perpetually amused by his students, and the expressions he cast toward different kids as they scrambled around the hall outside his office was truly comical.  He noticed and commented on small details – a friend’s argyle socks or my red umbrella.  He bought me my first martini – gin, he said, was the only way to make a real martini.  He had us students to his house for dinner parties and to discuss poetry.  He was warm, and funny and fun.  He ushered me and my classmates into new worlds in books I never would have thought to open on my own.

with Andrea, 80s Party, Bundy 2001

Since I graduated, my time at college has taken on a kind of mythic status in my mind.  It feels untouchable, encapsulated, preserved.  My memories are extremely vivid, and the emotions from those four years feel stronger and sharper than much of what has followed them.  It was a defining time in my life, and for the most part I was very happy.  Somehow I expected everything there to remain the same.   As with most colleges, I suspect, Hamilton is both exactly the same and completely different now.

I returned for a brief visit last summer with two friends of mine (and fellow Hamilton grads) who had married and were living not far from campus.  At my request we took a drive on a pretty August afternoon.  The campus was set up to greet the incoming Freshman class.  The trees were green and lush, the sound of mowers buzzed in the distance, and the atmosphere of summer hung warmly in the air.  I felt elated to be back.

The most obvious changes, the refurbished buildings and new development, seemed like a major upgrade.  I dutifully marveled at the presence of a climbing wall and “state of the art” (what does that mean, anyway?) fitness center.  But more than checking out the new goods, I wanted to visit my favorite places – namely, the History Department in the Kirner-Johnson building, and Root Hall.  What I really wanted was to throw open the doors and run up the stairs, combing the halls to see if any of my former professors happened to be around.

the new KJ

But the History Department turned out to be a bust.  KJ, as we called it, had been a squat cement building accented with primary colors – undeniably 60s, and rumored to have been bought from the architectural plans of a college in the southwest that never quite got off the ground.   Now, it had been annexed, built over, and adjoined a new glass atrium with a running fountain, indoor trees and a coffee shop.  Win for KJ.  I strolled admiringly through the labryntine halls, looking closely at the names outside the doors to find the offices of my former professors.  I didn’t recognize any of them.  Not a one.  I started asking for directions – a maintenance man, his giant key chain clanking, an assistant in the new Asian Studies wing, a student who looked absurdly young – they all pointed me in different directions, and I wandered and wandered until I came face to face with a display announcing the History Department and listing the names of the professors beneath it.  At last.

But none of the names I sought were on the list.  I stared, a little shaken.  I’d minored in History, and had spent so many hours in this building, with those people.  I couldn’t believe that they, that we, had all moved on.  It was a naive expectation, but I thought that they would always be here to greet me.  Instead I had returned a stranger.

Root Hall

A little numb and sad, I rejoined my friends and we walked to the other side of campus, towards Root Hall.   I felt nervous energy, as though Root needed to right the weirdness I’d felt in KJ.  Root would be different – even if no one was there, I could walk in, breathe the familiar scents, revel in the echoing clop of my shoes as I climbed the inner stairwell.  I bounded up the steps, steps I first traversed when I was 17 years old, wearing giant black goth-inspired boots.   I reached for the door, sensed the heave and give in my muscle memory before I clasped the handle.  I pulled.  It was locked.

No way.  In ape-like denial,  I pulled again.  I shook hard.  I banged on the door.  Nothing.  Impossible.  In all my time at Hamilton, I never remembered Root having been locked.  My friends looked on amused as I circled the building, seeking an open window.  I’m not sure what I had in mind.  I felt like I’d been locked out of my own house.  I did the only thing I could think of – I phoned my former thesis advisor at his home and left a rambling message about my impromptu visit and being locked out of Root and was he around and if so could he visit and could he please let me inside.  When I take a step back and rethink this, it’s completely ridiculous that this was my course of action nearly ten years after graduation, but there it is.  I ended up leaving, feeling wistful and disappointed, throwing longing glances over my shoulder at the bold white columns.  Lesson learned.  Next time, I’d plan my visit in advance.

What the experience confirmed for me, and what has been a running lesson in my life, is that it’s always the people who make a place special.  Everything else is just a shell that houses us and holds us together.  I could only be so happy looking at the buildings from the outside.  What I really wanted was to see the people inside them who had made this place feel like a home to me, my professors who had become my friends.

Learning of my professor’s death in that email was very sad.  I felt that another little piece of my magical time at college had faded away.  Worse, I couldn’t stand to think that future students would be deprived of knowing him.  His classes had meant a lot to me, and his presence in the department, in Root Hall, felt sacred.  I am so happy to have known him.  He made my life a more wondrous place, and I can’t think of anything better that one person can do for another.

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Early Delivery! Lisa Catherine Harper’s A DOUBLE LIFE: Discovering Motherhood

Just Pubbed!

The official pub date is listed as March 1st, but A DOUBLE LIFE has arrived early and is available now. Congratulations to Lisa Catherine Harper!

As you can see from the fabulous cover to the left, A DOUBLE LIFE is a nonfiction narrative about first time motherhood.  Winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, A DOUBLE LIFE chronicles the author’s first pregnancy from conception through her daughter’s first word, and uses her personal story as the lens through which to explore all the changes (physical, psychological and emotional) a woman undergoes when she decides to become a mother.

Motherhood wasn’t exactly on my mind when my client Lisa Catherine Harper approached me years ago with the manuscript, then titled INSIDE OUT.  I’d never really given it much thought.  I was in my mid-20s and none of my friends had started having babies yet.  Most of us were unmarried, and high on our shopping lists were items like “going-out tops” and false eyelashes.  Like clockwork, we nursed hangovers every Saturday and Sunday morning.  Rather than lusting after houses or family-friendly cars, we hoped to someday have apartments with dishwashers.

I wasn’t sure whether I would relate to Lisa’s project.  I liked kids, generally speaking.  I smiled at them in the ice cream parlor, and like my mother I enjoyed making faces at them in church (sometimes it’s the only way to get through mass).  But I’d never been nuts for babies.  In fact, when using public transportation I tried to put as much space between us as possible.  On the rare occasion that someone put their wiggling child in my arms, I felt awkward and clumsy.  I might as well have been noodling a catfish.  I thought I wanted kids someday, but the idea was distant and hazy.  Motherhood seemed like such a grown up job, and, well, most mornings it was still a challenge to get myself out the door clean, fed and with matching socks.

Lisa Catherine Harper

To my happy surprise, I read Lisa’s manuscript and was fascinated.  And “fascinated” really is the right word.  I was simply amazed by what I read.  Through her careful research and her own heart-warming story, Lisa provided for me that most wonderful of reading experiences – she made me reconsider something I thought I knew; she revealed the miraculous within the seemingly common experience of motherhood.  Suddenly I was really thinking about motherhood.  I was phoning my girlfriends wanting to share different fun facts with them about pregnancy – did you know a woman’s body does [insert interesting and mildly terrifying physical development]. I was eagerly offering my seat on the bus to pregnant women.  Motherhood no longer seemed like an “ordinary” transformation that millions of women underwent.  I now viewed it with a renewed respect and interest.

If I had to describe this illuminating book in one word, it would be thoughtful.  The prose is so nuanced and Harper brings her own experience to life with such tenderness.  You will learn a lot from reading this book (and I would highly recommend it to women who are pregnant or who are thinking of becoming pregnant), but you’ll be so swept along by the author’s expert storytelling that you may not realize just how smart it is.

In the last year, several of my friends have had babies or become pregnant.  These days, more often than not our Facebook pictures show us holding babies instead of beers.  We’re growing up.  Socks still go missing in the wash (one of the great mysteries of the universe), and I’m still sans-dishwasher, but it’s no longer crazy to think I might want a troublesome tot of my own someday.  I’m happy for my newly pregnant friends (and possibly maybe a future me) that intelligent books such as this are available to guide us all through.

A DOUBLE LIFE has been earning some rave reviews, and I’ve included a few below.  For more information, please see the following sites:




“Harper’s elegant, thoughtful writing makes this a must-read for expectant parents…The author’s decision to cast her own experiences against the larger backdrops of biology, family, and transformation makes her book universal, moving, and relevant.” –Publishers Weekly

“With a stiff measure of gallows humor, Harper rides the physical, mental and emotional waves churned by impending motherhood.  A sweet, immediate articulation of the experience of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood.”–Kirkus

“In A DOUBLE LIFE, Lisa Catherine Harper delivers a complex, heartfelt exploration of pregnancy and motherhood. Smart, accessible, and emotionally compelling, it is part memoir, part manifesto—a riveting read for anyone who is a mother, or hopes to become one.”  -Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog and No One You Know

“Harper’s A DOUBLE LIFE is a joy to read!  Full of lyrical prose, fascinating information and profound observation, this book should top any baby shower gift list or any new mother’s stack of bedside books.  It is not to be missed.”  -Kimberly Ford, Ph.D., author of Hump: True Tales of Sex After Kids

“A DOUBLE LIFE stands out for its clear-eyed yet lyrical account of a woman’s journey into motherhood with her daughter. The book is honest without lapsing into bitterness, celebratory without becoming saccharine, a quietly joyful account of motherhood’s emotional, biological and physiological transformations that any parent can relate to and learn from.”  -Caroline Grant, Mama, PhD & Editor-n-Chief, Literary Mama

“If you’re looking for a new book about parenting that won’t make you look like a dork on the commuter train, let me help: This is the cool one.”  -Jeff Gordinier, author of X Saves the World and editor-at-large Details magazine

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Read, Rinse, Repeat (okay, don’t rinse, just repeat)

It’s another PUBDAY FUNDAY, friends!  Today I’m wishing a very happy birthday to my wonderful client Mari Ruti and her book THE CASE FOR FALLING IN LOVE! Just in time for Valentine’s Day, this is one relationship/self-help book that gives a warm cup of comfort to singles and couples alike.

As a nonfiction agent, I see my share of self-help proposals, many of them in the relationship advice category.  They come in with flashy titles like Five Easy Steps to the Man of Your Dreams or Man Whisperer: the Key to Understanding the Male Species. I’ve always found these books mildly annoying, because they seem to offer a fast and easy fix to something extremely complex, mysterious and subjective: the act of falling in love.  They also bother me because they subtly imply that women (and let’s admit that 99 out of 100 of these books are targeted at women) shoulder the responsibility for why relationships succeed or fail.  They suggest that if a woman who wants to be in a relationship is still single, she must be doing something wrong.  Or, that if a woman goes through a tough breakup that wasn’t her choice, she must have done something (or not done something – lingerie and high heels?)  to have made her man lose interest.  Rarely do they concede that the problem could be his (or possibly his mother), or that most of the time it takes two.

The danger in this message is that it can undermine a woman’s self-esteem.  With so many books telling a woman how to think/act/be to be most lovable and desired, she can begin to doubt herself, or contort her personality trying to embody something unrealistic.  Can you imagine a world in which the bestselling relationships book might be titled He’s Just Not Good Enough For You, rather than He’s Just Not That Into You?

But I digress.  All of my griping about this genre is really just to illustrate how completely refreshing I found Mari Ruti’s book THE CASE FOR FALLING IN LOVE: Why We Can’t Master the Madness of Love – and Why That’s the Best Part.  The title speaks for itself.  Ruti’s book doesn’t offer an easy answer to understanding love.  Instead it’s a no-holds-barred manifesto for why we all benefit when we let go and take the plunge, even if it results in heartbreak.  Here’s a brief excerpt from the book jacket:

Our culture’s insistence that women need to learn how to catch and keep a man is actually doing much more harm than good. The more we try to manipulate our relationships, the less we are truly able to experience love’s benefits and wonders.

Love is a slippery, unruly thing, and trying to control and manage it robs us of its delicious unpredictability. Sure, letting go of the reins a bit might mean a broken heart, but heartbreak, in fact, offers a wealth of possibilities—creativity, wisdom, and growth— that we need in order to make the most of our lives.

Ah, sweet common sense!  This is a book about adjusting your perspective so that you can actually learn to love better.

Author Mari Ruti

Educated at Brown, Harvard and the University of Paris, and currently professor of critical theory at the University of Toronto, Mari Ruti is one smart woman!  But what is so wonderful about Ruti and her book is that she fuses her intelligence and academic rigor with a candid, friendly and engaging voice.

Here is some recent praise for the book:

“At last, a relationship advice book that will actually work. If you’re intelligent, interested in love, and like a book you can’t put down, this is it. John Gray, move over. The brilliant Mari Ruti has arrived.”—Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology, Boston College, and author of Born to Buy and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth

“Why play ‘hard to get’ when you can just get what you want? Mari Ruti’s lively research, from Plato to Freud to Gossip Girl to her own bedroom, finally puts an end to playing games, and provides a resource for lovers and the love-scorned alike. A must-read for anyone who has ever fallen in love, wants to, or wants to know what went wrong.”—Arianne Cohen, creator of TheSexDiariesProject.com

“Groundbreaking…Ruti opens the eyes of her readers so that they can love better…A must-read.” —Nancy ReddNew York Times bestselling author of Body Drama

“Finally, a book that takes love seriously. Written with passion and verve… I wish I had read this book years ago!”—Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

For more information, please check out the following websites.  I hope you enjoy the read!



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Confessions of a Book Snob

I don’t represent thrillers these days, mainly because I don’t read them very often.  I’m not sure I’d recognize the next Stieg Larsson or James Patterson if their novels were on submission in my stack.  Somewhere along the line my reading taste became boring, and I stopped reading commercial novels.

I’ll admit it, I became a reading snob.  I have a theory about how this happened.  My tastes have changed since I was a kid.  In grade school I was nuts for Christopher Pike’s YA thrillers, and remember being scolded in math class when my teacher discovered that I was reading Remember Me behind the textbook that I had propped between the desk and my lap.  I also read every Louis Duncan novel I could get my hands on, and was once admonished by my school librarian that I had to share the books with other students and couldn’t check out three at a time from the lending bin.  I also read some Grisham, some Mary Higgins Clark.  No one enjoyed Jurrassic Park more than I did.  Then I went to college.

I majored in English Lit, and my reading list was heavy on the classics.  It was also heavy on “quiet” literary novels, such as Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Alice McDermott’s Child of My Heart.  Perhaps because several class periods were devoted to admiring these reads from every angle, I loved these books with a previously unmatched intensity.  They are still two of my favorite novels, even though I can’t really remember what happens in them.  Their critics might tell you this is because absolutely nothing happens in them.  These are not plot-driven books.  They are about characters, and they capture a time and place with a fullness that is disarming. These books have an ephemeral quality for me.  They are beautiful and aching and wise and seem to touch upon something like truth, shimmering and elusive.   They are like long poems that you have to read slowly to understand.

As I threw myself into “literary” fiction, the thrillers I once enjoyed slipped away.  It would be years later (after both college and a grad school program in creative writing) that I would venture into this territory again.  When I did I couldn’t relate.  I read an awful Jonathan Kellerman novel (number twenty-something in the Alex Delaware Series) and Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story, which is so low on my list I actually donated it to Good Will the day after I finished it.  Where was the subtlety, the understated drama?  The quiet chaos that lurked just beneath the surface?  The answer?  Well, the drama and chaos was all above the surface.  The question I asked myself while reading was no longer, “what is the character’s secret heart?” but rather, “what is the villain going to do with the dead character’s heart?”  And I’d lost my lust for blood.

Sometimes I wonder, did my education warp my ability to enjoy a book for fun?  Will my tastes ever again align with the masses?  I think yes, on both counts.  The pride I feel for having slogged successfully through Spenser and Milton has earned me, I think, the right to be just a little bit haughty about books.  But I’m finding more and more that what I crave these days isn’t a challenging literary read, but an entertaining story.   Maybe I’ve gotten lazy, but I think my pleasure reading could use a few more murders and explosions.  The truth is that the greatest books of all are the ones that combine great writing with great story.  I must truly be a child of the 80s in America, because I’m greedy and I want it all.  Every once in a while, I get my wish.

I was so excited to find a great example of this sweet spot between literary and commercial fiction in Tana French’s debut novel In the Woods, which I finished a few days ago.  It’s the first detective novel I’ve read in years, but it’s so much more than that.  Ms. French has garnered some amazing distinctions in her writing career.  In the Woods won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and went on to be a bestseller.  Her third novel, Faithful Place, was nominated for another Edgar in 2011, this time for Best Novel.  I wouldn’t have bought In the Woods if I hadn’t read the first page while standing in an airport bookstore.  I think it speaks for itself.  Here are a few of the lines that drew me in:

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s.  This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue.  This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses.  It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, One! two! three!  This summer will never end.

I can’t remember when I’ve read a more gorgeous or evocative opening paragraph.  A nuanced setting rendered in deliciously sensory prose, and just wait til you delve into the story within.  This is one bestseller I’m proud to indulge in.

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My Parents Are My Heroes

At some point in our lives, we’ve all been asked, “Who is your role model?”  This is usually followed by, “And why?” which has always struck me as a smug little question, hanging so uselessly onto its predecessor.  Any polysyllabic, interesting human will usually explain their answer without this prompt.

We might find this question on a college application, or perhaps in a job interview, and I’m sure we’ve all written our fair share of responses to it over our grade school years.  When I’ve been asked this question in the past, I’ve always felt an odd pressure to choose someone colorful and unexpected.  I wanted my answer to stand out, or for it to act as  some kind of Rosetta Stone key to understanding my true self.  Here are some of my past selections:

Muhammad Ali, 5th Grade (I did a project on him for Black History Month and thought this choice reflected my inner toughness and dedication to sports).

Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, 8th Grade (potential candidate for most admirable book character ever).

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg, 9th Grade.  He drove back the Confederates and held Little Round Top  (at 13 I was deep in the clutches of a Civil War obsession, and I’d watched the movie Gettysburg in the theater three times).

Rachel Carson, College (I’d read Silent Spring in an Intro to Ecology class, and considered myself quite the budding environmentalist).

Christiane Amanpour, 25. She was and still is, a pretty badass journalist.

But while I admired these people for different reasons at different times in my life, they weren’t really my role models.  Not really.  I didn’t idolize them, or even truly look up to them.  They impressed me.  They made for intriguing conversation, and perhaps to some people they might have made me seem more interesting (or just plain weird), but they weren’t my heroes.  The real answer, the college essay-deflating, uninteresting, honest to god conversation-killer truth is that my role models have always been my parents.

Dad and Mom in Their Christmas Rompers, 2010

I can practically hear the college admission officers groaning.  Not creative enough, they’d say.  Doesn’t indicate an original thinker. Well, it’s true, my parents are my heroes.  And while my response might not be terribly original, my parents certainly are.  How can I possibly describe them to you?  I’ll never get it quite right, but I think some of the magic is in the details.

My mother woke me up almost every morning of my young life by flinging up my window shade and hollering, Rise and shine like a loaf of sour dough bread! My father impressed upon my brother, sister and me at an early age the importance of flying kites and riding trains.  He also affixed glow in the dark star stickers to my bedroom ceiling so that they were an accurate reflection of the planets and constellations in the night sky.  My mother can hold a conversation with any person of any walk of life and charm the pants right off them while being 100% sincere.   She does, as they say, light up the room.  My father is the smartest man I know.  An investment manager with a head for math, he also takes the time to craft book reviews on his company blog that are so well written I want to weep.    My parents taught me to read, to think, and to laugh.  They asked me what my favorite toy was for Christmas when I was two and thought it was marvelous when I answered, “Macaroni.”  They taught me to be very silly, but serious when it counts.  They inspire me with the strength of their love for one another, and their dedication to their family.  Ali, Atticus and Christiane, you’ve got nothing on John and Mary E.

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A 2010 Retrospective: THE DISSEMBLERS

A few months ago when I was first thinking of starting a blog, a writer friend told me that WordPress was “so easy to use, the blog practically creates itself.”  Well, that’s probably true if you’re someone who is patient enough to read instructions.  Unfortunately, that’s never been my strong suit.  I prefer the four-year-old approach of pressing all the buttons until you figure out what you need through trial and error.  So, it took me a little longer than expected to get the blog going.  As a result I missed a few book birthdays, and I’d like to begin to remedy that now.  

So…Happy Belated Birthday to Liza Campbell’s THE DISSEMBLERS, which pubbed last October from the Permanent Press!  In this beautiful literary debut, Campbell deftly probes the secrets of the heart, and examines the ways in which art does and does not imitate life.

Here’s my brief synopsis:  Young painter Ivy Wilkes idolizes Georgia O’Keeffe and moves to Santa Fe to find her artistic voice, only to discover her true talent lies in creating O’Keeffe forgeries. When she becomes romantically involved with her black market dealer, she wonders if love is possible between people who are not honest with one another, and if anyone is ever completely honest.  In her struggle to find her own artistic voice, she navigates the space between pride and guilt, love and selfishness, with devastating consequences.

Open this book to any page, and the first thing you’ll notice is Campbell’s graceful, lyrical prose.  This writing is beautiful, hauntingly so, and spare.   At just about 200 pages, it’s a slender read, but it packs a punch.  I was ecstatic when the New York Journal of Books compared the author’s style to Alice Munro.   Something else that drew me in was the unique narrative voice.  Even when Ivy confides her most private thoughts to the reader, she remains elusive somehow.  Ivy possesses a quiet power that is unnerving; her determination to achieve greatness as a painter at any cost is both inspiring and frightening at times.   It’s an intense read, and a rewarding one.  I’ve often heard books described as “unflinching” in the exploration of their themes.  THE DISSEMBLERS actually earns this by taking a hard look at what motivates us to pursue our dreams, whether it is the desire to be loved or the fear of mediocrity.

Liza Campbell, Author of THE DISSEMBLERS

It’s an exciting debut from a young author who displays remarkable control and confidence in her writing.  I predict she has many great books ahead!  For more information on Liza Campbell, please see her website at http://www.thelizacampbellsite.com

Here are a few reviews of THE DISSEMBLERS:

“[Campbell] is wise and sophisticated in the ways of the heart – its yearnings, its self-deceptions – and she can craft some knockout landscape descriptions. The sun, the sky, the heat, the wind rule with a defining sensual intensity here that is nothing less than remarkable.”  -The Independent

“Through lyrical prose and stimulating descriptions, debut novelist Liza Campbell deftly transports the reader to Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico. The Dissemblers enthralls from the first page to the last. An exquisite wordsmith, Campbell has successfully crafted a magical novel about the allures and realities of any artistic life. The Dissemblers is by far the best book I’ve read this year.”  -entertainmentrealm.com

“The Dissemblers is a beautiful novel in many ways, and Campbell’s prose shines throughout…it offers a loving meditation on the nature of art and its place in our world. Whether describing the sweeping vistas of New Mexico or the longing of the human heart, she paints with words what pigments and brushstrokes might not so readily capture.” –Small Press Reviews

“In carefully wrought prose reminiscent of Alice Munro, Ms. Campbell displays a remarkable ability to shift from Ivy’s interior struggles and musings to the necessities of plot construction to propel the story forward, and uses the severe elegance of both O’Keeffe’s work and the desert environment that produced it to echo Ivy’s shifting loyalties.”  -nyjournalofbooks.com

“In her sure-handed, compact debut, Campbell offers a portrait of the artist as a young woman…a subtle yet engaging study of the characters’ contradictions and the corrosive effect that discontentment has on their lives.” -Booklist

For more reviews and information, please check out the following links:


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To School, Part II

It’s early morning in Milwaukee.  Picture the day as bright and clear, perhaps in early autumn, as the leaves on the Ash trees are just starting to turn golden.  Picture the light glinting off the yellow school bus in front of the white house with a wraparound porch on Marietta Avenue.  Imagine three sets of small feet, all clad in brown leather Sabagos, shuffling down the porch steps toward the bus.  See the littlest two children grab the metal railing and hoist themselves up onto the bus’s first step.  Watch the parents give a friendly wave to the bus driver from the front porch as the bus’s doors slowly swing closed.  See the parents pause for a moment in the doorway, breathing in the sweet, crisp air, watching as the bus carries their precious cargo farther down the street until it’s out of view.  Perhaps the parents sigh with contentment and a small sense of triumph.  Morning ritual complete, they have done their duty for now.  The kids are reasonably clean, clothed and fed.  They can relax.

Little do they know they’ve just consigned their children to an hour-long Jurassic Park encounter in which the security fences are down and the velociraptors are pimply faced bullies intent on inflicting social humiliation.

Bus Bullies, the Velociraptors of Our Time

If I sound dramatic, let me admit outright that my tenure on the East Side bus was unremarkable.  I can’t claim to have been one of the bus’s worst victims, but neither was I a hero to the weak and scorned.  Truth be told, I slept on the bus.  A lot.  A YA novel about my time on the bus might be titled What I Saw and How I Slept.  The rhythm of the bus wheels had an entrancing, hypnotic effect on me that I was powerless against.  Just a few short blocks and I was out.  Occasionally, my mind registered the protestations of some small child as one of the older kids inflicted some act of monstrous cruelty upon him, and I would open my eyes, blearily observe the injustice of it all and then slip promptly back to sleep.

I remember an early incident at the age of ten (my first year attending USM, and hence my first year riding that vile bus) in which I’d sat down in one of the last rows, unknowingly breaking school bus protocol.  As one of the first stops on the route and one of the first students to board, I had my choice of seating.  I innocently parked it in that last row and began to doze uncomfortably with my head tapping against the window.  I was shaken awake by an enraged 9th grader who insisted that I move to the middle of the bus, where the middle schoolers sat, OR ELSE.  I still remember the sick feeling that washed over me, an oozing embarrassment made all the worse by not fully comprehending my crime.  I did, however, perceive that the other kids were all watching me, that my own brother and sister were among them, and that I absolutely must not back down.  After all, I was the Big Sister.

Here is how it all shook out: when I refused to move, he sat on me.  I’ll admit, it was uncomfortable.  He wore an olive green army coat that scratched my cheek and he smelled like Eggo waffles.  But he was a poor excuse for a bully – not much bigger than I was and more bark than bite.  We rode in awkward silence for a few blocks as he waited for me to relent.  He must have been very disappointed when he realized that I’d quietly fallen asleep.

When I woke up the bus had reached the school, and my bully was nowhere to be found.  Perhaps sensing that there were other, more fun, small frye to fry, the bully left me alone after that morning.  But I never made the mistake of sitting in the back row again.

Cocooned as I was in the sweet slumber of denial, I did my best to block out the subsequent eight long years that I would ride that bus (the car in the driveway with the big ribbon on it never materialized on my sixteenth birthday the way it did for other teens in Hollywood movies of the 80s and early 90s).  I don’t remember where I was when another infamous bully tied my little brother to the bus seat with his own shoelaces while he slept.  I vaguely recall opening my eyes to the image of my classmate Josh being held upside down while someone yanked his underwear almost over his shoulders, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything about it.  I remember there was a lot of gum slipped anonymously into girls’ hair.  A lot of Beastie Boys lyrics screamed full volume from the lungs of pre-pubescent boys who clearly did not brush their teeth.  There was also the time when our new bus driver Tammy backed up into a parked car (the impact shook me awake) and then sped away at at least twice the legal speed limit.  I don’t recall saying anything about that either.  My role within the bus’s greater story is a small one, for which I’m grateful.

But my thoughts drift back to those long ago bus rides with an increasing fondness these days, as I now brave the New York City subways and the dreaded MTA.  The act of getting up and getting out the door to go to work in the morning is emptier now than the mad rush to catch the bus I knew as a kid.  Living on my own, the world is quieter and I spend more time inside my own head.  It’s not unpleasant, but sometimes my daily experience seems a little less colorful, less sharply defined.  Which is not to say I don’t encounter my share of nutjobs on the 6 train.  They aren’t quite San Francisco quality, but they’re there.  And they are much better behaved than the bullies of my youth.  So why do I find myself missing those little creeps from the East Side route?

I can’t quite explain this nostalgia I feel, and it worries me to think that maybe if enough time passes, memory can turn something as crumby as those wretched bus rides into a rosy remembrance.  But I smile now when I hear the Beastie Boys’ Brass Monkey (even if my smile is still a little pained), and I always ride to work in the mornings in the last subway car.  I have a nagging suspicion that if I have children, I will happily sign them up to take the bus.  It’s nice to be on the far side, looking back.

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To School, Part I

Growing up, I went to a K-12 college prep school in a northern suburb of Milwaukee.  Along with my brother and sister, I took the bus to school each morning, with varying success.  Our house in the city was one of the first stops on the hour and ten minute route to the school.  In all likelihood, the bus probably picked us up around 7:15am each morning, but in my memory it arrived at a cruel and barbaric 6am, its headlights coldly illuminating our street for the first time that day, no doubt startling sleeping baby birds and squirrels so they almost toppled from their nests.

In my memory, it is always winter and the sky is always black.  My hair is always wet and my mother is always yelling at me to “do something with it!” as I rush out the door.  It was never entirely clear to me what this something was, but it was urgently impressed upon me that it needed to be done.  This may explain my penchant for awkward headbands and cheap drugstore barrets during my teen years.  Note to little girls everywhere: sticking extra items on your head is rarely the solution and usually just draws more attention to the problem.

Boarding the bus was not a calm and orderly process.  It happened in stages.  First, the bellow.  Whichever sainted soul happened to be in the vicinity of the foyer window that looked out onto the street would spot the bus, and would let out a house shaking yell, BUS IS HERE!  Although my house was an old three story plus basement Victorian, we’d all perfected the yell so that it sailed effortlessly across hallways and up and down stairs, sounding the alarm.  Then the race was on!

In his early years, my brother Charlie was terror with a swinging backpack.  He’d fly down the hallway from the kitchen, crust of english muffin in hand, and charge through the door to the bus.  Later, when puberty set in, he became overcome by a strange malady that necessitated he move at a slouching, foot dragging sloth’s pace.  When his concerned and adoring sisters would suggest he move more quickly or get out of the way, he burst into a torrent of baleful moaning about how everyone always picked on him and no one listened to him and no one understood what it was like to be him.  This sickness gripped Charlie for years, and still surfaces occasionally today.  My sister Caitlin and I bear it as best we can.

And Caitlin, ah, sweet Caitlin, the middle child.  I’d like it noted for the record that both of my parents are also middle children, and I feel this may have colored their treatment of us as kids.  Imagine growing up in a house where your little sister’s  nickname is “Precious Little Angel.”  Or, PLA, as my father likes to say – he’s a whiz with acronyms.  Yes, this was Caitlin’s nickname, and my cross to bear.  However, there is some truth to this moniker.  My little sister was almost angelic with her shy smiles and earnest blue eyes.  To my knowledge, she has never to this day eaten a vegetable, because my mother didn’t have the heart to force her.

Goading Caitlin onto the bus was a more delicate operation that usually involved peeling her clinging fingers from around my father’s pant leg.  I would make half-hearted assurances that I would look out for her on that Lord of the Flies deathtrap bus, but everyone knew that the big kids sat in the back and the little kids sat up front.  There was only so much I could do.

Please tune in next time for Part II of To School, as I now need to get out of bed and get myself To Work.

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How sweet it is to spread the word about Lorraine Zago Rosenthal’s debut YA novel, OTHER WORDS FOR LOVE, which pubs today!   This book grabbed me from the first page with its fresh and original voice.  I appreciated Ari’s complexity of character, unusual in a lot of other YA books out there. She’s smart but vulnerable, wise for her age but also innocent. I felt so close to her as the novel progressed. There’s a truthfulness to this coming of age novel that reminds me a little of Judy Blume’s FOREVER and Curtis Sittenfeld’s PREP.  It’s a sophisticated coming of age story that will resonate with older teens and adults.  I hope you’ll agree with me that this novel stays with you long after you finish reading.

The package came together so beautifully with a gorgeous haunting cover that communicates the intimacy and power of the story – shout out to the Delacorte/Random House team!  I’m so proud to be associated with OTHER WORDS FOR LOVE.  Congratulations to my wonderful client Lorraine Zago Rosenthal!   Your book is beautiful.

Here is the book jacket summary:

Ari Mitchell feels invisible at her Brooklyn high school. Her hair is too flat, her style too preppy, and her personality too quiet. And outside school, Ari feels outshined by her beautiful, confident best friend, Summer. Their friendship is as complex and confusing as Ari’s relationship with her troubled older sister, Evelyn, a former teenage mom whose handsome firefighter husband fills Ari’s head with guilty fantasies.
When an unexpected inheritance enables Ari to transfer to an elite Manhattan prep school, she makes a wealthy new friend, Leigh. Leigh introduces Ari to the glamorous side of New York—and to her gorgeous cousin, Blake. Ari doesn’t think she stands a chance, but amazingly, Blake asks her out. As their romance heats up, they find themselves involved in an intense, consuming relationship. Ari’s family worries that she is losing touch with the important things in life, like family, hard work, and planning for the future. Meanwhile, Summer warns her that what she feels for Blake is just an infatuation. Not real love. But Ari’s world is awash with new colors, filled with a freshness and an excitement she hasn’t felt in years.
When misfortune befalls Blake’s family, he pulls away, and Ari’s world drains of color. As she struggles to get over the breakup, Ari must finally ask herself: were their feelings true love . . . or something else?
For more articulate reviews than mine, and author information, please see the links below!
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On my last business trip to New York, before I moved here permanently, I had one last free day to spend in the city before flying back to San Francisco.  For some reason, the prospect of the free day was more overwhelming than all the the previous days spent racing to meetings at the different publishing houses.  I realized it was my first time on my own in New York with no plans and no company.  My previous trips to the city had been with my then-boss, who breezily packed our schedule with back to back meetings every fifteen minutes that left me completely gutted by the end of the day, or with my ex-boyfriend with whom I’d had an intense and consuming nine month long distance relationship.   With both my boss and my boyfriend I had been comfortable taking the back seat with the plans, content to have my schedule decided for me in advance by people who knew the city better than I did.  I was also content to have their company.  I’ve never been a loner.  In spite of having lived alone and been single for the majority of the past ten years of my life, I’ve never thought of myself as someone who needs “alone time.”

I was excited to finally be on my own in New York, but I was also nervous.  It felt like the first test of whether I’d float in the Big Apple.  It was another jumping off point into the unknown, not wholly different from my cross-country move to San Francisco several years earlier, except that now I was 28 instead of 21, and this move seemed less like an adventure and more like a necessity.

Where should I go and how should I spend my day?  I thought of the Met.  I thought of the Fricke, and how my mother had always told me it was her favorite museum in Manhattan.  I thought of Central Park, and the Empire State Building, but the day was overcast and raining.  I thought of the Statue of Liberty, which for some reason I’ve never had any interest in touring.  How was it I was in the most exciting city in the world and didn’t know what to do with myself?

In the end, I decided to go to the Natural History Museum.  I’d never been before, but I had loved the public museum in my hometown of Milwaukee.  I loved to look at the dinosaur bones, to tour the European Village and gaze through the windows at the scenes inside.  I loved the button hidden to the side of the Native American exhibit.  When you pressed it, the rattlesnake in the foreground of the tableau shook its tail like a maracha.  It had always been a place of wonder for me.  Like ducking into a place that held all the wonders of the world without.

I took the subway train and got off at the museum stop on the Upper West Side with a gaggle of school kids.  They looked to be about seven and wore uniforms similar to those I wore in Catholic school.  I followed them into the main hall and stopped in my tracks at the sight of a giant brontosaurus skeleton.  It’s long neck curved up towards the high ceiling, the vertebrae tapering until they met the small, slender head.  The voices of children bounced across the grand ceiling.  A bird was loose inside, batting its wings furiously as it swam around the dome.

I could say many things about this first visit of mine to the museum, but where I’d originally intended this entry to go, and what I remember the most, is the planetarium within the museum.  I bought my ticket to a show about the stars.  I think it was narrated by Robert Redford.  When I entered the planetarium, it was like stepping into a giant, suspended golf ball.  I tried not to look in too much of a rush as I made my way towards the back row.  Although I’m not sure it’s actually true, I’ve always felt you get the best view of the entire sky when you sit in the back.  No need to crane one’s head backwards to see hard to reach constellations.  When the lights fell and the narration began I felt a total sense of peace set in.  I felt like a child again, full of curiosity and wonder, and maybe still a little thrilled by being in the dark.  I don’t remember what I learned from that visit, but I remember that I relaxed, that I sensed I’d be okay.  I’d found the escape I could always return to, if I ever needed it.

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