Review: Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!

ffj-movieIf you loved the film Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! staring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant or if you seek out self-assured, slightly out-of-step characters, you must read Florence Foster Jenkins’ eponymously named biography to revel in the heiress turned opera diva who astounded and delighted New York musical audiences in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.


If time is short, start with my review of her biography by Darryl W. Bullock in the Historical Novel Society’s quarterly journal.

Brava, Madame Foster Jenkins! Brava!!!!


Review: A Fine Imitation

After reading my reviews friends often ask, “but—did you like the book?” Generally, I shrug their questions off. It’s not my job to like or dislike a book. I believe good reviews provide enough information for the reader to decide if they will like the book.  I’ve already read it—at least four times.

If I’m truly unhappy with some aspect of the work, I may slip in a hint that the book wasn’t my favorite: “others may like,” “not to everyone’s taste,” or “too much of a good thing.”

Fortunately, there was no need for code phrases about A Fine Imitation. Although it shares the New York setting and 1920s period, Amber Brock’s debut novel is not the next The Great Gatsby, but it is an excellent summer read for fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic.

Read my full review of A Fine Imitation published in the Historical Novel Society‘s May 2016 Historical Novels Review.

Review: At The Existentialist Café

Most of the books I review for the Historical Novel Society have little word of mouth. An unknown gem, I predict, each time I tear open the manila mailer, hoping to find the next best seller.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 11.49.09 AMAnd then there was the time my envelope yielded At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, And Apricot Cocktails. Four dour characters commanded the cover—the men smoking and only the woman making eye contact with her reader. This one’s a loser, I concluded, unless the recipe for apricot cocktails is truly intoxicating.

Soon, my “loser” book began to taunt my flip condemnation. A full page ad in the New York Times was followed by a solid review. The Guardian joined in with a glowing analysis. The LA Times celebrated that “the existentialists come alive (over cocktails.)” flagged the book as the #1 Best Seller in Philosopher Biographies (admittedly a thin category.) Even the Historical Novel Society published a feature review describing Sarah Bakewell’s work as “admirable.”


So, did I agree with the experts? Read my review from the May issue of the Historical Novels Review and find out.

I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

Character Foretastes – The Tsar of Love and Techno

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra‘s first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, won multiple awards including the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award.


The TSar of Love and TechnoIn late 2015, Marra released an equally award-worthy collection of short stories: The Tsar of Love and Techno

I recently studied Marra’s latest to understand his disjointed timeline and slow character reveals: The Tsar of Love and Techno – Character Introductions.

While my craft analysis may not appeal to all readers, I recommend The Tsar of Love and Techno to all for its language, structure, insights into the Soviet era, and the reverberations of  personal decisions through generations. Presented across decades and in multiple voices, the collection flows with the easy digressions one might experience in a long evening’s conversation with a friend.

Please share your thoughts on Marra’s work below. Criticism is as welcome as compliments.

In Game Nine of The World Series…

World-Series-Trophy 2013I realize it took me three tries to pass calculus, but even I know that 5 + 3 = 8 and 5 + 2 = 7. But those right answers look wrong if you’re talking about the World Series. The National League vs. American league playoff has always been a best-of-seven games battle. First team to win four games is declared the Champion.

1903 World Series PosterWell—maybe not.
In the first World Series, 1903, Boston (American League) beat Pittsburg (National League) five to three in a best-of-nine game format.

Since 1905, the World Series has been a best-of-seven playoff except for the three years after World War One when intense interest expanded the Series to its original nine games.

  • 1919: Cincinnati over the Chicago White Sox (5-3) (The year of the Black Sox scandal)
  • 1920: Cleveland over Brooklyn (5-2)
  • 1921: New York Giants over New York Yankees (5-3)

If you’re keeping score, you’ve noted that the World Series wasn’t played in 1904. The Yankees won the NL championship and refused to play Boston because they considered the new (1901) AL to be the minor leagues.

Don’t believe me? You can look it up. As Eddie Bennett, the Yankee’s batboy from 1921 to 1933, said in my story “Good Luck”It’s in all the record books.”

Linked Short Story Collections

Linked story collections combine the best of the short story (quick read, compressed action) with the long arc and multiple characters of a well-crafted novel.

Individual stories are unique, like a single stem in an English Garden, but when combined with flowers unlike themselves, their power to amaze increases.

Lately, I came across a list of linked story collections, some familiar friends and others new acquaintances. For those who love linked stories as much as I do, here’s an expanded list including some of my favorites.

Please add a comment about your favorite linked story collections and check back for new titles.

Recognizing a contemporary model in story collections, The New York Times (October 4, 2015) listed five story collections linked by theme rather than characters.

Starred (*) books suggested by friends. Thank you all so much!

  1. All That Man Is by David Szalay – Stories about nine men in different phases of life
  2. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Winner – 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
  3. Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat
  4. Criminals: Love Stories by Valerie Trueblood  “Each of the fifteen stories asks two defining questions: What kind of love story is this? as well as, Who here is exactly what kind of criminal?”
  5. Egg Heaven by Robin Parks
  6. Ellen In Pieces by Caroline Adderson
  7. How Like an Angel by Jack Driscoll
  8. I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek
  9. Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories by Joan Silber
  10. In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison
  11. Late Lights by Kara Weiss
  12. Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
  13. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
  14. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
  15. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout Winner – 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a 2014 mini-series staring Francis McDormand
  16. * Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls by Susanna Solomon
  17. Refund by Karen Bender  “Money. Who has it. Who doesn’t. How you get it. How you don’t.”
  18. Send Me by Patrick RyanPatrick Ryan is editor of One Teen Story and an editor-at-large for One Story.
  19. Snowblind – Tales of Alpine Obsession by Daniel Arnold  Stories of the men and women whose lives are defined by the call of the mountain.
  20. The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis
  21. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  22. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
  23. Turtleface and Beyond by Arthur Bradford
  24. What Happened Here by Bonnie Zobell – Novella “What Happened Here” Winner – 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards
  25. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – Considered the grandfather of the linked story genre.

The Poetry of Boxing

On the Fourth of July 1910, two boxers met in Reno, Nevada for a world heavyweight title bout. Jim Jeffries, the first of many unsuccessful Great White Hope boxers, came out of retirement and lost to Jack Johnson, the controversial heavyweight champion who flaunted his domination over his white opponents.

Celebrations, protests, even riots erupted in twenty-five states and fifty American cities in the aftermath of the 1910 fight. Hundreds were injured. Twenty died.

Fifteen years later, in the mid-1920s, fear of  riots was one reason my character, Harry “The Black Panther” Wills, never got his shot at Jack Dempsey’s World Heavyweight Title.

Celebrated poet William Warning Cuney reflected the fight’s impact on the Black community in his poem:


Oh, my Lord
What a morning,
Oh, my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries’
Snow-white face
Up to the ceiling.
Yes, my Lord,
Fighting is wrong,
But what an uppercut.
Oh, my Lord,
What a morning,
Oh, my Lord
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries’
Lily-white face
Up to the ceiling.
Oh, my Lord
What a morning,
Oh, my Lord
Take care of Jack.
Keep him, Lord
As you made him,
Big, and strong, and black.