Book Club Guest Blog: Signs of Life and the Healing Power of Literature

March 19, 2012 at 12:45 pm , by

Today’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections.

In the LHJ book club pick, Signs of Life, author Natalie Taylor shares her story of loss, grief and healing following the untimely death of her husband. She finds love and hope in her baby, takes comfort in the support of her friends, and, as a high school English teacher, reflects on the wisdom she’s read in great books.

Here are some brief excerpts from the book that illustrate how Taylor used classic literature as therapy, helping her understand and deal with her grief.

After the death of her husband, Taylor suffers agonizing grief. She relates the shock and disbelief with characters from The Great Gatsby.

“Oh my God, I’m never going to see him again…I will never be able to go back…I know that even now, three months later, my brain hasn’t fully absorbed the concept. That’s what Gatsby and I also have in common. We can’t seem to swallow our own realities.”

When Taylor gives birth to her son, Kai, she is overcome with an a feeling of love and hopefulness that even the greatest poets cannot describe.

“The best way I can say it is that when a baby is born, the ghosts of the world’s greatest poets stand and listen to the cry of a life that just took its first breath and even they can’t find the words.”

As Taylor begins to redefine her life, she is inspired to avoid the ‘W’ of widowhood, like the label ‘A’ for adulterer in The Scarlet Letter.

“Suddenly literature turns into a good movie and you’re standing up in your seat, smiling and clapping in your head. You wish at some point in your life you get to tell someone how you really feel. It makes you wish you had the courage to redefine what your letter stood for.”

As Taylor finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel, Thoreau’s writing helps put her expectations for the future into perspective.

“…although Thoreau’s narrative of ice melting may not wow the average twenty-first century audience, the process itself is really amazing when you think about it. Nature understands that things take time. You can’t rush certain things if you want them to work correctly…Sometimes I really look forward to how I will feel in ten years.”


During your Signs of Life book club discussion, ask your members to:

  • Share the three books that have made the biggest impact in their lives. What meaningful lessons did the books offer?
  • Write his/her own six-word memoir.  For Example: Hope triumphs death; life goes on.


Book Club Wrap-up: Vaclav & Lena

March 15, 2012 at 12:36 pm , by

Did you fall in love reading Haley Tanner’s Vaclav & Lena this month with us? We hope all of our fellow book clubbers swooned together while reading this work of romantic literary fiction, and that you were dazzled by its themes of magic and illusions. We invited Tanner to take over our Facebook wall one afternoon, and we couldn’t peel our eyes away from her candid accounts of her life as a writer and behind-the-scenes secrets about working on V&L, her first novel. Missed out? You can read the chat here, and listen up for info on more author chats to come—all you have to do is like us on Facebook to stay in the loop.

Now that our April issue is on newsstands, we’re ready to reveal our next pick! A first for the LHJ Book Club, we’ve chosen a truly mesmerizing memoir this month, Signs of Life, by Natalie Taylor. When Taylor was 24, she was newly married, pregnant, and on top of the world. Then, the worst thing happened: her husband died in a freak accident. Signs of Life is the story of the year-and-a-half that followed, and trust us when we say it is as hilarious as it is harrowing. Visit our book club page to read a letter from Taylor to get you started. And, as always, stay with us on Facebook, Twitter, and right here on our blog to join the conversation as we chat about the book all month long.

But first, tell us what you thought of Vaclav & Lena! Comment here or tweet us at @LHJMagazine with the hashtag #lhjbookclub.

Guest Blog: How a Stay-At-Home Dad Penned His First Novel (And Win a Copy of His Book!)

March 12, 2012 at 3:31 pm , by

The Expats, a first novel by former book editor Chris Pavone, is an international espionage thriller that’s invited comparisons to Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum. The protagonist, Kate Moore, is (as was Pavone for a time) an expat and stay-at-home parent living a typical expat life in Luxembourg. But she’s also guarding a tremendous, life-defining secret—one that slowly begins to unravel her neat routines. As she begins to uncover secrets about the people around her, she finds herself buried in layers of deceit so thick they threaten her family, her marriage and her life. This expertly crafted story will keep you guessing until the very last page.

In this guest blog, Pavone explains how a mysterious woman on a park bench inspired him to write the book. Plus, find out how to win your own copy of The Expats at the end of the post!

I’d spent nearly two decades sitting behind desks in New York City publishing houses when suddenly I found myself in Luxembourg, sitting on benches in playgrounds in the cold damp, making small talk with vague acquaintances about the things we used to do, the people we used to be, before we became people who did this, here. We were expat stay-at-home parents—in my case, to an energetic pair of then-four-year-old twin boys.

First-time novelist Chris Pavone, back in New York City, armed with the tools of his new trade: a cup of coffee and a manuscript ready for marking up. Pavone wrote most of The Expats in European cafés. Photo credit: Nina Subin

We stay-at-home parents had all arrived via roughly the same path: our spouses got interesting/exciting/lucrative job offers abroad, and we thought it sounded fun (or at least different). So we packed up everything we could bring, and left behind everything we couldn’t. For many of us, the latter included the jobs, the careers, the selves that we’d spent our adult lives defining. Now we had to become other people.

For all the fun of constantly traveling around Europe, and for all the newness of this adventure, it was hard for me to embrace the routine. Taking the kids to their international school, attending class-parents meetings, going to the gym or French lessons or the supermarket. Driving around a city I didn’t really know, ignoring traffic laws I didn’t entirely understand, in a language I didn’t properly speak. Looking for the things that my family needed, or wanted: underwear and raincoats, DVDs and sticker books, a vacuum cleaner and a toaster, a cordless drill and a metric measuring tape. Food that I could pack for the kids’ lunch that they wouldn’t reject.

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On Reading and Writing: A Q&A with Author Haley Tanner

March 9, 2012 at 11:04 am , by

Have you picked up this month’s book club pick, Vaclav & Lena? It’s a touching love story (Aren’t you a sucker for a good love story? We are!), by Haley Tanner. We have a penchant for reading literature here at LHJ, so I was eager to chat with this young debut novelist about her writing process and the books she’s curled up with recently. Read on for the inside scoop, and check out a preview to Vaclav & Lena and the rest of the LHJ Book Club bookshelf on our books page.

What have you read recently and loved?

I just read The Adults, by Alison Espach, which was amazing. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in Connecticut, and it’s full of dramatic tension. There’s some really heavy, serious subject matter, but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.

Do you find it hard to read other stories while you are writing?

I do get to a point where I can’t read other writing, because I start to sound like JD Salinger or Muriel Spark. But sometimes I’ll intentionally read other writers while I’m writing. If, say, I feel like my setting is falling flat, I’ll read someone who’s really good with setting. Or if I feel like I’m forgetting to have fun, I’ll read Tom Robbins for a little while. It’s like a prescription.

Where did the germ of the idea for Vaclav & Lena originate? Did you always have the story in the back of your mind?

I was writing an assignment for a class, procrastinating at midnight. I had class the next day, and I’d written nothing. I finally just sat down and I started writing, and the first thing I wrote is still the first page of the book, Vaclav’s introduction to his magic act. Once I had the characters, I watched what they would do. It was incredibly fun, and I never had a larger plan for them. Even when I was on page 45, I didn’t know what page 46 would look like.

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Win A Signed Copy of Kate Winslet’s The Golden Hat

March 1, 2012 at 6:00 am , by

In our March issue, the beautiful Kate Winslet shared her new passion project—a crusade to spread autism awareness. After narrating a documentary on autistic children who themselves would never be able to speak, she knew she couldn’t just pack up and go home; she was desperate do something to help them. So Kate (and quite a few of her celebrity friends), put together a wonderful new book called The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism, sales of which will benefit Kate’s Golden Hat Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for the inclusion and education of autistic children everywhere.

We’re over the moon about this book, and can’t wait for you to pick it up—so we’re giving away 20 signed copies! To enter, just post a comment below.

Official Rules

Can This (Good) Marriage Be Saved?

February 21, 2012 at 11:48 am , by

No Cheating, No Dying is journalist Elizabeth Weil’s account of the year she devotes to making her self-described good marriage even better. Weil and her husband, Dan Duane—both writers and overachievers—submitted to couples counseling, sex therapy, group workshops and more, applying themselves to their marriage as they would to a new writing assignment, hobby or exercise regimen. But being married with two children is no two-mile swim (which the couple did from Alcatraz to San Francisco). It’s complicated. For every issue unearthed, resolved and shelved during Weil’s marital spring-cleaning, another seemed to pop up to take its place. Weil shared some insights with us about her sometimes tumultuous journey to rehab her “good enough” marriage.

Q. After nearly a decade of a marriage that was not broken, what made you decide to fix it?
A. I noticed that I was being lazy-brained about my marriage in a way that I was not about the rest of my life. I had stacks of book on how to be a good mother. I kept up with the latest research on how to stay healthy. I put a lot of effort into my friendships, my work life and staying fit. But I had an attitude about my marriage that it was either star-crossed or it wasn’t. And once I noticed that attitude, it seemed silly. So I decided to change it.

Q. How did your husband, Dan, react to your proposal?
A. With horror! I’m sort of kidding. But his first reaction, when I brought it up, was “I can’t think of anything worse.”

Q. Where did the name of the book No Cheating, No Dying come from?
A. Those were our secret vows. Of course we stood up at the altar in front of our friends and family and promised to love and care for each other for richer and for poorer, in sickness and health and all that. But privately we said to each other: no cheating, no dying. We figured our marriage could survive anything else.

Q. You refer to a lot of marriage psychology publications and self-help books. Which ones did you find particularly helpful to you as a couple? Why?
A. Stephen Mitchell’s Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time really had a huge impact on me. Mitchell argues that romance doesn’t die in marriage due to neglect. Romance dies because we kill it, on purpose, as it becomes increasingly dangerous. We are so dependent on our spouses. These days husbands and wives aren’t just lovers or financial partners. We’re also co-parents, emotional supports, best friends. We can’t bear to think of our spouses as anything less than entirely predictable. And as a result we can start to think they’re boring and unromantic. But really, we’ve just put our spouses in that box. We need to take them out again.

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Book Club Guest Blog: Illusions and Vaclav & Lena

February 17, 2012 at 11:35 am , by

Today’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections. 

In the LHJ book club pick, Vaclav & Lena, author Haley Tanner tells the story of a young Russian immigrant boy’s obsession with becoming a great magician. While Vaclav studies and practices his magic, his best friend, love interest and assistant, Lena, hides behind the illusions of her horrific home life. It’s a delight to read how Tanner skillfully marries the literal theme of magic with a deeper metaphor and exploration of illusions.

When discussing the book with your club, ask members to identify examples of the use of illusions. What are the tricks behind them? How might we be using illusions in our own lives to hide or protect ourselves? What magic in life is worthwhile? Here are some brief excerpts from the book that illuminate the theme to get your conversation going.

When Vaclav and Lena are reunited as teenagers, they both reveal more self-awareness in trying to control the unmanageable parts of their lives.

“’Same thing’, he says, meaning same thing as when you left, meaning still magic, still trying to take care of you with my mind, still trying to control events using supernatural powers.”

When Lena finally settles into a relatively normal life with her new mother, she has a hard time maintaining the mirage of happiness, as she is haunted by her past.

“This is especially difficult when she must lead a meeting of the student council or the art club, or rally her teammates at soccer practice, but she gets through it, one minute at a time, by pretending.”

During a moment of introspection and clarity while escaping to a bathroom stall in her school, Lena realizes how she uses the illusion of different personas as a coping mechanism.

“She decides that the spots are keys to living a life as a complete person, not as a disjointed puzzle person made up of many different people trying to masquerade as one person.”

This leads Lena to another observation. She’s not the only one masquerading—everyone around her is projecting an ideal self-image to hide behind, an illusion to mask their perceived inadequacies.

“Everyone wants to go about as if they were a fantastic superhero, born into the world complete; no one wants to acknowledge that they are self-consciously creating themselves, but everyone is. Everyone is, Lena thinks.”