Life & Style
Three Books, One Weekend
Steven Stoll talks about his book, Ramp Hollow, follow its launch at Breakwater Books in Guilford. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Roxanne Coady, left, talks with author Amy Bloom while Bloom signs copies of her new novel, White Houses, during the book’s launch at R. J. Julia Booksellers, Coady’s bookstore in Madison. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Sean Alexander, left, with Colleen Kelley Alexander, talking with Megyn Kelly on the set of the Today show about Colleen Kelly Alexander’s new memoir, Gratitude in Motion. (Photo courtesy of Colleen Kelly Alexander )
Colleen Kelly Alexander (Photo courtesy of Colleen Kelly Alexander )
The launch of Amy Bloom’s new novel, White Houses, drew more than 100 fans to R. J. Julia Booksellers in Madison for the book launch. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source | Buy This Photo)
In the dead of winter, when the holidays are done and spring is still far away, all I really need for a great weekend is a good book.
Why three? Because sometimes when I’m reading a thoughtful book, I stop for a bit to ponder a point made. Or my mood changes and I want something a bit different.
Sometimes I want a book that challenges my perceptions or core beliefs. Sometimes I want a book that is inspiring. Sometimes I crave a good love story. No matter the subject, it’s all the better if the author happens to be someone who lives in the area because, who knows, maybe I’ll run into them at the grocery store, or while grabbing a cup of coffee, or at the local bookstore. Luckily for me, the shoreline and Connecticut River valley is full of wonderful writers.
With that in mind, I’d like to recommend these three books, all recently published. Ramp Hollow: the Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll, who lives in Guilford; Gratitude in Motion: A True Story of Hope, Determination, and the Everyday Heroes Around Us by Colleen Kelly Alexander of Madison; and White Houses, a novel by Amy Bloom who lives in the Stony Creek section of Branford.
All three authors launched their book tours in or near their hometowns, with the help of our local independent bookstores and libraries.
'A Reminder of All That Love Should Be'
Amy Bloom got the idea for her latest novel, White Houses, while working on her earlier novel, Lucky Us, which was set in the 1930s and 1940s. The Roosevelts, and Franklin and Eleanor in particular, kept popping up in accounts of the era. No surprise there. FDR was indeed an iconic figure, winning four presidential elections and leading the country through both the Great Depression and World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt was not only the longest-serving first lady of the United States, she was a beloved world-renowned activist in her own right.
Drawn in particular to Eleanor's story, Bloom read Blanche Wiesen Cook's three-volume biography of the great lady, and she became intrigued by one of Eleanor's dearest friends, Lorena Hicks. Upon reading letters between Eleanor and Lorena in the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, Bloom realized it was not only a love story, it was a "love story that had disappeared from history." Hicks had, literally, been cut out of pictures in the Roosevelt family picture albums.
Bloom, who, in addition to being a best-selling author, is also a psychotherapist, says she is particularly intrigued by people who fall in love, then separate, then get back together. She decided when reading the letters she wanted to imagine and write this romantic novel.
"I thought, this was a great love affair," she says. "I wanted to write about it and imagine these people."
During the book launch at R.J. Julia Booksellers, bookstore owner Roxanne Coady called the novel "a reminder of all that love should be," and indeed it is. It is romantic, complex, sad, and wise all at once, a story not only about a relationship, but about relationships in general, set against the backdrop of a tumultuous era.
With chapter titles taken from the poems of Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman, the favorite poets of Roosevelt and Hickman, the novel traces a cast of complicated and utterly fascinating people navigating extremely complicated relationships. Bloom says one of the most difficult parts of writing the novel was deciding who would be the ideal narrator.
"But once I found Lorena, she came to life, and that helped me move forward," she says.
Bloom says the best stories are very specific and, at the same time, universal. This novel succeeds on both counts.
"This is a very particular love story between two women with some things in common, and a lot of things not in common. They come together, are pulled apart, and refuse to let go of each other," she says. "It's about love. And it's about the idea that no love is wasted. That doesn't mean you always get the run, from the beginning to the end of a lifetime. It's not a failure if it doesn't last forever. You know, I like writing about the ups and downs in a human relationship."
Bloom's children joke that she writes about four things, she says, "family, sex, love, and death."
"But, hey, that's a pretty big chunk of real estate," Bloom says.
What's next for Bloom? She's currently intrigued by the idea of writing about Marie Curie and "her extraordinary family."
"Her daughters and her whole extended family, from the late 1800s to Auschwitz, it's an extraordinary bunch of brilliant, eclectic, oddball, determined people," she says. After that, "I think another collection of short stories."
In addition to her book launch at R.J. Julia, Bloom also spoke before a hometown crowd at the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library on Thimble Island Roads in Stony Creek, an event sponsored by Breakwater Books in Guilford.
Bloom says there's a special quality to introducing your book before a hometown crowd.
"It's great," she says. "I mean, when I write, I'm completely alone. And I don't think about the audience. I think about the story, and the characters, and how I can make them come to life. I'm mindful that it will be read, but that doesn't feel real when I'm writing it. So when I get to sit down with an audience at R.J. Julia or at the Stony Creek library, it's a very special experience, to be connected through the work and my affection for the people in the audience."
She also has several more talks coming up including on Friday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Simsbury Public Library, 725 Hopmeadow Street, Simsbury, at the Westport Library, 20 Jesup Road, Westport on Tuesday, April 3, and at the Gunn Memorial Library, 5 Wykeham Road, Washington on Thursday, April 5 at 6 p.m.
A Complex Struggle, a Sensitive Portrayal
When Stoll launched his book at Breakwater Books in his hometown of Guilford, he had a bit of competition for people’s attention. It was in the midst of the bustling holiday shopping season late on a Saturday afternoon. By the time he started his talk, however, the room filled to overflowing with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and people he’d never met, all anxious to hear his take on Appalachia and why it matters now. The event drew the biggest crowd ever hosted in that space. People filled the chairs, were sitting on the floor, and peering in from the front room.
This was just one indication of the excitement surrounding the publication of this book. It went on to receive thoughtful and positive reviews in the The New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications.
“I’ve published other books, but it’s never been like this,” he told the audience. “I’m overwhelmed by the attention from you, and the attention this book has received.”
Historians like Stoll, who is a professor of history at Fordham University, and the author of several other books, are not used to that level of attention, he said to the crowd, smiling.
The book itself was 10 years in the making and, in fact, Stoll did not originally set out to write about Appalachia. He knew it was an immensely complicated place, and a subject that had been tackled numerous times by people who had vast amounts of expertise in the subject. Still, he became drawn to the region as he began to realize it was a way to understand the collision between two different ways of living, how capitalism along with our country’s generally accepted theory of progress can collide with communities of people who get by with small scale farming, foraging, hunting, distilling, and trading.
He said people like those who live in impoverished communities like Appalachia are often portrayed as “backward savages,” and their culture as “something to be destroyed.”
After a number of trips to West Virginia, he came upon an archive at a library that included the records of a coal company that operated in that area. He read about the strategies being used to take the land from those who lived on it, and earned their living from it. Then he visited a place called Ramp Hollow, which takes its name from the species of wild onion that grows there.
“I saw two houses that knocked me back,” he said.
One was an abandoned coal miner’s shanty and the other, a log cabin that dated back to the 18th century, in which a family of farmers used to live. He found himself wanting to make sense of these two homes, and the people who used to live there.
“The log cabin in the high meadow and the tar paper shanty in the industrial hollow form a pair of sorts, a unity of apparent opposites,” he writes in the book. “In one sense, they stand for two moments in Appalachian history. The cabin gave way to the shanty, just as a free and robust set of subsistence practices gave way to impoverished wage labor. But history does not offer us neat formulations. By the time extractive industry had reordered the landscape, the people who inhabited both houses lived almost the same way. Husbands and sons spent their days in the mines, while wives and daughters tended gardens. The distinction between cabin and shanty had collapsed into Appalachian poverty.”
The story he goes on to tell is both broad and deep. He talks with historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, sociologists. He quotes both corporate records and novels, and provides copious endnotes that provide plenty of fodder for additional reading. He tackles the question of how “the elimination of the ecological base contributed to the dependency of mountain households.” He explains how the same thing is still going on today, “suggesting the story I tell is not done and over with, not really past at all.” And he ends with a thought-provoking section on what we might do about this.
Stoll admits to his predilection for “democratic socialism.” He then launches into what he calls “a thought experiment” he calls The Commons Communities Act that advocates for the creation of commons communities organized according to certain design principles, wherever “a sufficient ecological base exists,” with social services and education provided for the residents, and protected by the Department of Agriculture. He also outlines a series of what he calls allied programs that could help attract teachers, doctors, and others to these communities, along with strategies on how to connect these communities with markets for whatever is produced.
But, as Stoll points out in his book, optimism “always requires a greater effort” than just being pessimistic and giving up on people, by characterizing them as backward, stupid, or unwilling to improve their lot. As his book draws to its conclusion, he quotes Arundhati Roy, the Man Booker Prize winning novelist.
“The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who would have a different imagination,” Roy writes in Walking with the Comrades, a work I was not aware of, but will now certainly read.
“We need to know history in order to make policy,” Stoll writes. “Otherwise, we might allow an old story to think for us, a story told for centuries that has never told the truth.”
The Product of Heroes
When Colleen Kelly Alexander launched her book tour at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison in January to more than 100 people, it was just the latest in a series of triumphs made possible by her perseverance, determination, and a joyful attitude that guides her with love through the world. But if you tell her that, she’ll gently remind you, her story isn’t just about her. She says her recovery from a horrific accident in October 2011 is about the everyday heroes who not only supported her as she recovered, but who, in general, are the ones to step up whenever help is needed.
I met Alexander in 2011, after she was run over by a truck while she was riding her bike. I was a reporter covering the accident and her subsequent recovery. She later became an acquaintance, and then a very good friend. I make two brief appearances in the book itself, so I thought, “I know this story.”
I sat down to read it and was startled by how much I did not know, about the extent of her injuries, and what it must have taken to get through them. It’s not that Alexander did not talk about them, it’s that, when she did talk about them, she’d generally talk about them in the context of what she would need to do by way of recovery, and what she would need to do so that she could participate in the next race, the next triathlon, the next half-Ironman, and in life itself.
Sometimes it was as simple as how to roll out of bed without further injuring herself. Other times it was as complex as how to overcome her fear of riding her bike again while she was experiencing flashbacks. She was sometimes discouraged, sometimes frightened, and always very real about what she was facing. Then she’d be like, “What’s next, how do I get to what’s next?”
Alexander went from being crushed by a truck, bleeding out and flatlining twice, and into a coma. As the book recounts, her “primary diagnosis” including significant damage over much of her lower body, multiple pelvic fractures, sacrospinous injury, extensive soft tissue hematoma, acute blood loss anemia, electrolyte imbalance, ventilator-acquired pneumonia, and metabolic acidosis, among other issues.
“It was quite a list, and yet I was standing,” she writes.
After she emerged from her coma and went home, she endured 29 brutal surgeries. Then, in the midst of those surgeries, she began to race again. Fifty races. Forty triathlons. Four half-Ironmans. She gave most of the medals away, to people she considered the heroes in her life.
Beyond the fact that the book is completely inspiring, it’s also a really good read. One of my favorite parts of the book is that it’s also a love story, the one between her and her husband Sean Alexander. It’s a classic girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy story.
At the end of the book, there is a section entitled “How to Be a Hero.” Donate blood. Learn CPR and first aid. Learn the rules of the road for cycling and pedestrian safety. Support the ALS foundation. Support your local fire/EMS station. Be a mentor. Be a force for peace. And there are tips on how to do all of that and more.
The Alexanders now work with the Red Cross to encourage people to donate blood. They’re advocates for making the world a more bike-friendly place. They are also advocates for mental health. Recently, they’ve been running a marathon of talks related to the book’s release, at running stores, bike stores, book stores, on radio shows, and on television, including the Today show. They’re appearing before audiences in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Coming up? The Dr. Oz show, the Hallmark channel, and interviews with other print, and radio, and television outlets.
At the same time, Alexander is developing a workbook that could be used in tandem with the book, a sort of how-to, so that readers can apply the principles that guided her during her recovery, to help with their recovery from life’s traumas.
“It’s self-guided, so that people can find their own resiliency factors and apply them directly,” she says. “I would just love that.”
Her goal is to develop it into a curriculum that can be taught. She is in discussions with an online publisher who would be able to help her do that.
She says she’s a little bit surprised by the enormous response to the book.
“But then, I hoped it would be like that,” she says. “Because this story was never about just Sean and me. Our hope was that it would always take off on more of a national level. This story is just so much about everyone. Our hope is that this story is transformative for all of us.”