With over 4.5 million copies of her books in print, Jennifer Weiner’s career is at an all-time high. Her new novel All Fall Down will almost certainly be on bestsellers lists this summer. The story follows Allison Weiss, a hardworking wife and mom who seems to have it all. In reality, she is crumbling under the pressure of her stressful life and has become addicted to prescription painkillers. With her trademark wit and relatable style, Weiner takes the reader through Allison’s downward spiral into addiction and then in her journey to recovery.
Weiner recently answered some questions for our Between the Covers readers. Read on to learn more about what inspired her new novel and where she writes. (Hint: It’s Carrie Bradshaw-inspired!) She also shares her picks for your summer reading list.
What inspired you to write this story?
When I turned 40 – lo these many years ago – I started thinking a lot about happiness. I think it’s in everyone’s nature – certainly it’s in mine – to set goals, and to think, When this happens, I’ll feel happy, or, as soon as I’ve achieved this, I’ll never be sad again. Writers, in particular, fall prey to this kind of thinking: When I get a book published, I’ll be happy and I won’t care if it gets a million bad reviews, or, if my book’s a best-seller, I’ll never let anything bother me again.
Of course, life doesn’t work out that way. No matter what you achieve, there’s always someone who’s done more, or done it faster, and no achievement guarantees perfect peace of mind. So the question becomes: What does happiness look like? How can people find it? What if it’s not what we’ve always believed?
I wanted to write about a character who’d hit all the mile markers, whose life looked like it should have been perfect, and to have that life not feel perfect to her. Allison’s got the handsome husband, the beautiful child, the big house, an interesting job that she likes…but none of it has silenced that voice inside of her, a voice I think so many women have, asking, Is that all? Is this it? And if it is, why do I feel so empty?
All Fall Down really highlights the fact that addiction impacts people of all ages and walks of life. Will you tell us a little bit about the research that you did while writing this book?
I spent time at several different facilities, I read a lot of books and blogs, I talked to lots of people…and then I spent a lot of time inside my own head, thinking about Allison. One of the things I heard from a counselor that really stayed with me was that addicts don’t have a problem with substances; they have a problem with feelings. They never learned how to handle sadness, or anger, or frustration, or disappointment, and the drugs or the alcohol are a symptom, not the disease itself.
Allison is a very relatable character. She’s a busy wife and mother who is struggling to keep the pieces of her life together. Do you see any of yourself in her?
Of course there’s some of me in all of my characters, even though my specifics aren’t exactly like Allison’s. I wanted to make her like me, but I wanted to make her like any mom you’d meet at Little Gym, or in the preschool parking lot. She’s funny, she’s stressed, she’s interesting, she’s overextended…she’s all of us.
Will you share a little bit about your writing process? Where do you write? Do you write every day?
I’m lucky not to be one of those writers who hate writing – I actually really enjoy it, and have ever since I learned how! I write pretty much every day, although sometimes I’ll skip the weekends if I’m busy with my kids. I do most of my writing in my closet, which sounds pathetic until I explain that I basically have Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City closet. Alas, I do not have Carrie’s wardrobe. Possibly because I do not have Carrie’s figure, and a lot of those designers of dresses she wore around Manhattan do not serve my kind.
So I have this gigantic closet which has turned into an office-library-storage space, with my daughters’ artwork hanging on the walls, and my big girl’s old clothes in boxes waiting for my little one to grow into them, and there’s a desk with a big light-up mirror. If Carrie lived in my house the vanity would be her makeup station, but that’s where I do my work.
Throughout your career, you have maintained a strong online presence on your blog and social media, and that has really allowed you to connect with your readers. How has that impacted your writing?
Again, I’m a lucky writer because I enjoy being online. I don’t regard it as a penance or a punishment. I like being quick and quippy on Twitter [follow her @jenniferweiner], I love interacting with readers on social media, and I love using it to get instant feedback – about a character’s name, about a book cover, about what my kids are up to. My suspicion is that readers like feeling that there’s a connection with an author they like.
What is the best book you’ve read recently? Are there any authors on your personal must-read list?
I loved Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. It’s about a kidnapping in Haiti, and it’s a very unsettling book, but oh, so good. And I’m counting the days until Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, the third book in his trilogy about young adult hipster magicians that attend a college for magic (his work has been described as Harry Potter for grownups, but I think it has more in common with the Narnia books). Baltimore’s own Anne Tyler and Laura Lippman are both automatic purchases for me – I love both of their styles!
Weiner's fans will also be pleased to know that she’s visiting Baltimore soon. She will discuss All Fall Down at Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Library on June 18.
In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic had such a profoundly devastating impact that drastic measures had to be taken to stem the infection, Elizabeth Fama’s new young adult novel Plus One covers this period in history. To keep up with the additional demands brought on by the pandemic, many more medical professionals were brought in and worked in shifts divided by night and day. This dual system worked so well in the medical field that it was integrated into other industries and finally the government.
Though the system was first designed with equality in mind, over time things changed. Day became the sought after curfew, offering better jobs and more economic advantages. Sol wanted nothing more than for her grandfather to see his first grand baby, but with her brother being day and she and her grandfather being night, the task was almost insurmountable.
Sol had almost no plan when she set out on her mission, so it was no surprise that an adventure ensues. This young adult novel follows Sol as she is betrayed by someone she’s supposed to love, loves someone she’s expected to hate and finds strength in unlikely places. Fama creates a fast-paced and compelling story with compassionate characters and an unexpected ending. Fans of the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth should check out this standalone dystopian novel.
Don’t forget dear old dad’s special day is this Sunday. In the spirit of the day, enjoy this list of some of the most fabulous father figures in literature. If you have a favorite we missed, share in the comments.
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch is the gold standard of fathers. He is handsome, honest, a sharpshooter and just the world’s greatest dad. Harper Lee’s iconic character was given life by Gregory Peck in the film adaptation which prompted the American Film Institute to call Atticus the “greatest movie hero of the 20th century.”
Horton in Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss. Horton the elephant is tricked into sitting on a bird's egg while its mother, Mayzie, takes a permanent vacation. Horton overcomes a variety of challenges, but remains committed to his task, stating, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, one hundred per cent!"
William in Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Danny has the best life. He lives in a gypsy caravan, he works on cars and his best friend is his storyteller father, William. When the two embark on an adventure of a lifetime, their relationship deepens. This story of father-son love highlights a dad who Danny calls, "the most marvelous and exciting father a boy ever had."
The Man/The Father in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. An unnamed father and his young son journey across a grim post-apocalyptic landscape. As the duo search for safety, the father realizes he is dying, yet still struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure and starvation.
Will Freeman in About a Boy by Nick Hornby. Will Freeman is a 36-year-old bachelor focused on wine, women and song. Marcus Brewer is an introverted middle school boy whose mother is suicidal. While their initial friendship is based on deceit, they come to respect and genuinely like each other, and a real relationship is formed.
Harry Silver in Man and Boy by Tony Parsons. Harry’s one-night stand starts a chain reaction of events immediately prior to his 30th birthday. His wife leaves him, he loses his job and he is suddenly a single parent to a 4-year-old. As Harry navigates the daily details of parenting, he focuses on the important relationships in his life – his son and his father.
Be sure to check out two new nonfiction titles which tackle the tricky world of fatherhood with humor and honesty. Good Talk, Dad by Bill and Willie Geist is a hilarious tribute to the special bond between fathers and sons, and Dave Engledow offers a hysterical photo-centric parody of one clueless dad and his adorable daughter in Confessions of the World’s Best Father.
Bill and Willie Geist have a great deal in common. They are both TV personalities: Bill on CBS News Sunday Morning and Willie on The Today Show. They both have a deep love of sports. They are both raconteurs with a wickedly insightful sense of humor. As a father and son, they have shared, and sometimes not shared, many of life’s milestones, and in Good Talk, Dad we are lucky they have decided to share those milestones with us.
The book is designed to feel like an ongoing conversation between a father and son as well as to serve as an oral history for generations of Geists yet unborn. The extremely well done audiobook is especially a treat as both Bill and Willie do the narration. Each section of the book is divided into a topic like sports, parenting or sex. Each Geist weighs in with his thoughts and their shared experience or recollections on the issue, and they take the opportunity to fill each other in on the parts the other might not have known about. The two points of view are clear and unique. Bill is a Midwestern, who served in Vietnam and spent much of his career in print journalism. Willie grew up in New Jersey and had easy access to New York City; he was accomplished in sports and practically fell into a series of jobs in broadcast journalism. These differences play extremely well off one another like discordant syncopation in a jazz number. The feel is like Bill Bryson meets Sh*t My Dad Says. It is funny, real and heartfelt.
Good Talk, Dad, above all else, feels genuine. In your mind’s eye, you can see these two men who clearly love and respect each other hunched over a computer rapidly emailing each other back and forth. They share laughter and feelings in a way that men in our society are not often comfortable doing in person. The resulting image is of a family where laughter is more common than anger, where people like and support each other, and where they are just plain comfortable around each other. It might just leave you a little bit jealous that you have not experienced life as a Geist.
Two memoirs hit the library shelves recently. One is tender, the other brash, but each author writes with much love. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Virginia author Carol Wall is a poignant account of her friendship with Giles Owita, a Kenyan immigrant. Celebrity gossip blogger Elaine Lui writes about her Chinese mother in the blunt and brassy Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When a Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of).
Carol Wall looks at her Roanoke neighbors’ verdant gardens and lawns and knows her shabby yard needs help. Wall hires a friend’s gardener, Mr. Owita, and hands him a list of her gardening desires which Owita politely ignores. Wall and Owita cross racial and cultural boundaries as their relationship morphs from one of employer and gardener to student and teacher and eventually, dear friends. Wall is frank about her emotional struggles as a breast cancer survivor, and the support provided by Owita as both a gardening mentor and fellow traveler becomes increasingly important to her. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening is a lovely and spiritual homage to Giles Owita, whose guidance and example allow Wall to see the beauty in life despite its fleeting nature.
Elaine Lui opens Listen to the Squawking Chicken with a description of her petite mother as a “China Woman Elvis” dressed in a rhinestone-studded, denim popped-collar pantsuit, massive visor and sunglasses. Ma’s Cantonese nickname is Tsiahng Gai, meaning Squawking Chicken, and when she speaks, her daughter compares her voice to a siren. Ma is loud, pushy and controlling, and embraces the use of guilt and threats as parenting tools. Lui ‘s recollections often portray her mother as harsh and judgmental, holding cruel court in her mahjong rooms, but a different picture emerges as Lui shares stories of the atrocious deprivation and brutality of Ma’s childhood. Ma’s methods may be unorthodox, but Lui recognizes her mothering is done out of love and the desire to protect her daughter from the horrors which shaped her. Lui talks about her book and posted an absolutely adorable picture of Ma on her website.
Ah, romance. It is a funny thing. What do you do when your life is nothing like the romance novels you read and edit? Patience Bloom (love the name) has written a charming memoir about her own life navigating the trials and errors of love, relationships and simply growing up in the publishing industry. Her new book Romance Is My Day Job will resonate with those who read romance novels and those who don’t.
A senior editor for Harlequin, Bloom’s road to love and happiness was a far cry from the heroines in the books she loves. She begins her story in the cushy Connecticut boarding school, where she, the daughter of two historians, attended as a scholarship student. Her cutesy chapter headings like "Tragic Heroes Are Romantic on the Page but Sad in Real Life,” and "When in Crisis, Go Party in Paris," give the reader the impression Bloom doesn’t take herself too seriously. Indeed, there are plenty of crushes, disappointments and messy situations along the way, some more serious than others, including an incident of violence. There are high school and college teaching jobs, a master’s degree and eventually a job reading historical romance manuscripts for the biggest romance publisher of “those cute books you can hide in your purse.” She wrings her hands over the fact that middle age is fast approaching and she’s still alone. “I should have this part of my life figured out," she says. Love is her business, after all.
A quick read with interesting tidbits about the publishing industry make this a fun escape for lovers of romance genre and others, too, whose interest may be piqued by the irony of the author’s experience. Bloom’s spunky voice, breathy Harlequin-esque descriptions and romantic novel archetypes are sure to bring a smile to anyone whose life doesn’t quite arc the way they intended.
As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the unspeakable murders of three young civil rights volunteers, two books introduce to young readers what happened in Mississippi in June of 1964 – and the legacy of that Freedom Summer. Susan Goldman Rubin takes a timeline approach in her middle grade book Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Each chapter is titled with a time, such as “June 21, 1964, Afternoon,” the last time any of the three victims were seen alive. Pulling no punches, Rubin outlines the devastating reality of the ingrained racist attitudes among many of the people of Neshoba County, Mississippi, at that time, while making plain that those feelings extended to the all-white law enforcement authorities which aided and abetted in the killings. Maps, interviews and reproductions of photos and newspaper clippings all bring to light the horror of the situation that played out over the course of that summer.
Don Mitchell’s The Freedom Summer Murders covers similar territory but in a slightly different way, and for a teen audience. Chapters introduce us to the victims individually as each of the young men – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – receives his due. Interviews with their families, friends and other volunteers in Mississippi that summer help bring a better focus to who they were and why they felt so strongly for this cause. Additionally, Mitchell’s book fully examines the legacy of the summer and how their martyrdom ignited nationwide awareness, shock and fury. He includes the protracted legal battles and eventual reconciliation efforts that have helped move Mississippi and the state forward from this dark episode even to this day.
Caldecott Honor winner Mo Willems has brought back his beloved pigeon character in the funny new picture book The Pigeon Needs a Bath! The bus driver, this time clad in a shower cap and bathrobe, once again needs your help. Pigeon is absolutely, positively filthy. It’s been about a month, maybe even longer, since Pigeon had a bath. Goodness sakes, Pigeon is really starting to smell. He’s so stinky that the flies buzzing around Pigeon don’t want to be near him. Can you help convince Pigeon that he should take a bath?
Sixth in the Pigeon series, we last saw Pigeon two years ago co-starring in The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? Duckling makes an appearance in Pigeon’s new book in the form of a rubber ducky in the bath tub. Cartoon-like illustrations transition from muddy brown to bright, clean colors as Pigeon finally gets into the bath and starts to get clean. He’s having so much fun, he may never get out of the bath tub!
Whether it’s driving a bus, finding a hot dog, staying up late or wanting a puppy, Pigeon is sure to delight young children with his requests, which may also mimic some of the desires of the audience as well. Willems, both author and illustrator, has been awarded three Caldecott Honors, two Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals and Three Geisel Honors for his children’s books. And as your little ones progress from picture books to beginning readers, they are sure to also enjoy his Elephant & Piggie series.
Don’t know what to read? Our librarians have been devouring books at rapid rates to answer this very question. Want to know what’s the newest, steamiest romance? The next literary breakout novel? There’s a post for that.
Since the blog’s conception, readers have been discovering great titles by learning from experts who write daily about the books they love for a variety of tastes. Not only are readers using posts to find up-and-coming titles, they are stumbling upon past gems they may have missed. To celebrate this milestone, we wanted to know what the most popular titles were out of our hundreds of posts. The results? The top three were Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Along the way to this 1,000th post, we’ve expanded the ways we can satisfy you hungry readers. Now you can add your insights and observations in comments, get the story behind the story with exclusive author interviews and chat up The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion with us during our Facebook Book Club Chat on June 11 at 7 p.m.
As always, keep checking in with Between the Covers to keep your finger on the pulse…
Spanning the 20th century, Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is a rags-to-riches story about Lillian Dunkle, an indomitable Russian Jewish immigrant who builds an empire and becomes America's “Ice Cream Queen.” The story is narrated by Lillian, whose sharp wit and acerbic sense of humor are a stark contrast to her public image as kindly grandmother. Her personality is the heart of this character-driven story about the pursuit of the American dream.
Gilman recently answered some questions about her novel for Between the Covers readers. Grab a double scoop of your favorite ice cream, and read on to get to know Gilman and what inspired this fascinating new novel.
The ice cream business is an unusual starting point for a novel. What was it about that industry that caught your attention?
First of all, I love ice cream. And if you’re going to write a book, it better be about a topic that can sustain your passion and interest for years.
I initially got the idea for The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street when a friend and I were reminiscing about a local ice cream chain called Carvel. The owner, Tom Carvel, did his own tv commercials, in which he would rasp, “Please, buy my Carvel ice cream?” They were so hokey and homespun, they were sort of fabulous.
Googling “Tom Carvel” on a whim, I learned that he was a Greek immigrant, Tom Carvelas, who arrived in America penniless, only to build an enormous empire of ice cream franchises. Then I discovered that the Mattuses, the founders of Haagen-Daz, were two first-generation Jews who came from the tenements in the Bronx. These ice cream makers’ stories were classic American-immigrant-rags-to-riches sagas. This struck me as a wonderful basis for a novel.
You did an enormous amount of research while working on this novel. Did it included any taste-testing? (We hope so!) What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
By all means, I did taste-testing! As the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies, why, it was imperative! I even contacted my inspiration – the Carvel Ice Cream Company itself – and arranged to work at a Carvel ice cream franchise out in Massapequa, Long Island. For two days, the owner let me go behind the scenes, learn the ropes and work as an ice cream maker serving customers. I loved every minute of it – except the owner was no dummy. He wouldn’t let me near that soft ice cream machine unsupervised. He must have known that, given the chance, I’d place my head directly beneath the server and just let the ice cream pour directly into my mouth.
There is also the Carpigiani Gelato University located just outside of Italy. I live about five hours away, in Geneva, Switzerland, so of course I had to go there as well, tour its Gelato Museum and take a Gelato Masterclass. I learned the science and mathematics behind gelato-making, made my own batch of gelato, and then of course, tasted my own concoction. I was in such heaven, I thought the top of my head would explode.
As for my favorite flavor, if there’s no decent mint-chip to be had, I am always happy with chocolate.
Lillian is a force to be reckoned with in the novel, and she has a very distinct voice from the first page. Did you have any real life inspiration for this formidable character?
I have to say, Lillian’s voice came to me in the proverbial flash. As I sat down to write the beginning, I heard her speaking, and that was it – I just had her. There are parts of her way of speaking that are reminiscent of my paternal grandmother — particularly her word choices — but the voice was unique to me. I felt as if I channeled it. In terms of her overall character, there’s a dash of Scarlett O’Hara and Leona Helmsley, I suppose, but really, I saw her as far more than simply mean and imperious, or a caricature talking ethnic schtick, or a punchline. I wanted her to be phenomenally complex and contradictory and compelling — the way all of us really are.
This is your first novel. What made you want to take on this new challenge? How did the process differ from writing nonfiction?
Ever since I was 8 years old, when I fell in love with reading and started to write my own short stories in little notebooks, I dreamed of writing a novel. I always assumed that one day, I’d become the author of some sort of wonderful, fictional opus. Yet as I grew up, I kept getting sidetracked. Although I got an MFA in Creative Writing and published short stories and even won literary prizes, things in our culture kept pissing me off so much that I felt compelled to respond with books. Kiss My Tiara was in reaction to a dating guide that urged women to trick men into marrying them. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress was conceived as a smart, funny counter-point to women’s memoirs that focused on either miserable childhoods, or being single and going shopping. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, the true story of a disastrous trip to China, was an antidote to several popular books in which women got over divorces by going to ashrams or renovating villas in Tuscany. I suppose I had to get three nonfiction books off my chest before I could finally get around to writing that novel.
I never expected to be a nonfiction author at all. It was an accident! The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street may seem like a new direction, but it doesn’t feel like one to me at all. Finally, I’ve returned to my first love, to what I intended to do all along.
What is the best book you have read recently?
Let me give you three completely different ones: I loved Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son; it was epic, disturbing, rich and unlike anything I’ve ever read, particularly given its setting. On a recent vacation, I read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette; the first half made me laugh out loud from its smart, wicked wit. I was also profoundly moved by The Bosnia List, a new memoir co-written by Kenan Trebincevic and my friend Susan Shapiro. The story blew me away, and really enhanced my understanding of the Balkan conflict in an intimate way. I want everything when I read: humor, pain, transcendence, pleasure, education, enlightenment. Always, I want them to be intelligent. But I can never pick one favorite.