I will let my review speak for itself, but this was definitely one of Backman’s best books. A Man Called Ove still has my heart, but this one really touched me and has stuck with me ever since. Backman is a go-to author for me, and after hearing how much other readers loved this one, I was not disappointed.
I received an advanced listeners copy (ALC) from Libro.fm, and while I enjoyed most parts, I found a lot of the meditations and tips were repetitive from other books that I’ve read before. I wished that I had something new to take away from this book, but I still enjoyed listening to get a recharge.
I discovered Kristin Hannah a few years back when I read The Great Alone (a great book), and after reading The Nightingale (now one of my favorites) and Firefly Lane (another one of my favorites), I had to read Winter Garden with a buddy group on bookstagram. I really enjoyed it! I thought it was a little slow going at first but was soon captivated by the story.
I have been reading the Throne of Glass series since last year with a buddy read group and I am really loving it. I discovered Sarah J. Maas last year during the start of quarantine, and her books have literally helped me get through the pandemic. So far, Queen of Shadows is my favorite of the series (there are 7 books and a book of short stories). I finished Empire of Storms in February (loved it) and I will be starting Tower of Dawn this month!
I really, really wanted to love this book as much as everyone else. Unfortunately, I was exhausted when I finished it. Hear me out: Her writing is beautiful, but she paid too much attention to the bookish atmosphere and aesthetics than the actual plot. The stories within the story? Beautiful. The character development and plot? Not so beautiful. I was lost in the last 150 pages, feeling unsatisfied at the end. BUT — she can certainly create beautiful prose. I plan to read The Night Circus in April because people love it so much.
I listened to an advanced listener’s copy (ALC) from Libro.fm, and I found the narration to be astounding. I heard that the physical book can be hard to follow with the different chorus of voices, but listening to the audiobook and the narrator grounded me as I took in this powerful debut. This book was unique, beautiful, and heart-wrenching.
Have you read these? If you are interested in any of these books and learning about trigger warnings, please don’t hesitate to email me: email@example.com or contact me on Instagram: @keepitkassual.
Jokes aside, I am looking forward to reading more books this month. I have been planning out my reading list each month this year and I’ve stuck to them. Typically, I am a mood reader, but with COVID-19 and all of its uncertainty, I decided to add some structure to my reading to keep me in check.
Last month, I read a lot of fantasy, so I decided to keep to my buddy reads but also add in some fiction, romance, historical fiction and a thriller. Super excited.
Another sequel, and I know I am going to love it. I look forward to revisiting Beartown and learning more about these beloved characters. Also, I know. It looks like a book about hockey, but it’s so much more than that! Check out my review of Beartown to see what I mean.
More sequels?! What can I say, I love me a good series. I have really enjoyed Hibbert’s romances focusing on the Brown sisters (Dani Brown was my personal favorite out of the two). This one comes out March 9 and I was pumped to get an advanced listeners copy (ALC) from Libro.fm. I really look forward to learning more about Eve’s story.
I am almost done with the Throne of Glass series (happy face/sad face). This one focuses on Chaol and Nesryn’s story and I heard it has so many great, new characters in it. I am super excited to pick this one up.
… Pretend you didn’t see that series reference. First of all, Martha Hall Kelly is a delight. Second, Lilac Girls is a MUST READ. It has Connecticut ties, so of course I jumped at the chance to read it when it came out. I was fortunate to receive an advanced readers copy (ARC) of Sunflower Sisters from NetGalley and can’t wait to read it. This book comes out March 30.
Hey, look. This isn’t part of a series! Now this one just sounds cool. I usually read tons of thrillers in the summer, but I decided to add one to my list this month! Even looking at the cover gives me heart palpitations. Can’t wait to dive in.
February was another great month for reading. We had a TON of snow in New England, so I was more than happy to stay indoors and read under lots of blankets.
I read mostly fantasy in February — 4 out of the 6 books were fantasy or fantasy romance. I am still wrapping up my Throne of Glass buddy read, A Court of Silver Flames came out on Feb. 16 (which I will review in a separate post), and I was in a buddy read for From Blood and Ash. Overall, I am pleased with my book stack in February and look forward to reading more great books in March.
This series continues to captivate and amaze me. I found this one to be super action-packed and intriguing. I really loved all of the characters and enjoyed following their stories. Lysandra? Favorite. Dorian? Another favorite. Also … this cover is stunning. I plan to do a full series review when I am done in April and I will gush about why I love Throne of Glass so much.
Ehhhh … well … this book proved that I might not love ALL fantasy books. First, I’d like to say that the concept behind this story is super complex and captivating, but the execution of the story and worldbuilding were lackluster. The dialogue was very watered down and cheesy (lots of eye rolling), and I just couldn’t get into the romance. I found Hunt to be super predatory and icky. I wish I loved this book, and I know that so many of my pals loved it, but it didn’t do it for me. I’m sorry, fantasy friends. Will I cave in and read the rest of the series because I need to know what happens anyway? Probably.
More fantasy? You bet. Badass heroine? Yep. Sign me up. I flew through this first book and really enjoy Bardugo’s Grishaverse. She really knows how to keep her audience captivated, and this fantasy series is so different from other fantastic texts that I’ve read. I love the Russian elements and I really am digging Alina. And, hello, Darkling (hate your name but I enjoy you). Oh … hi, Mal. Leave.
I received an advanced listeners copy (ALC) from Libro.fm and I am telling you all RUN don’t walk to get this one. This work of nonfiction was curated by Kendi and Blain and features a collective group of scholars, writers, historians, journalists, lawyers, poets and activists who share the history of African America. It’s poignant and powerful and everyone should read it. I bought a physical copy just so I can revisit certain parts and share this book with friends and family.
This book follows the story of Nesta and Cassian and let me tell you … it gets STEAMY. I don’t even know if “steamy” covers it. Tons of blushing and clutching my pearls. I am going to post a longer review, but I will tell you what I liked: Nesta’s journey to self-love, the power of sisterhood and the bond of strong women, and the discussions of trauma. What I didn’t like? Not enough fantasy. This book was super focused on their romance and Nesta’s healing. It was a wild experience … and that final Az chapter? I have some thoughts! If you want to read this, please contact me for trigger warnings. While every SJM book focuses on trauma in some ways, this one felt a little different.
I received an advanced readers copy (ARC) from NetGalley and found myself underwhelmed after reading this book. Honestly, I loved the cover … how cute is this cover!? BUT, I skimmed through a lot of it because, again, I’m finding newer self-help books are regurgitating what I’ve read before. I thought some parts were cheeky and cute, but overall, I did not get anything new out of this book.
If you want to read any of these books and are interested in learning content warnings, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Instagram: @keepitkassual.
Beartown has been sitting on my shelves for a few years now. When I first picked it up, I thought the book wasn’t for me because of all of the hockey content, but I pushed forward this time and realized it was much more than that.
This book, like all of Backman’s books, is complicated. There are many characters presented within the text who are experiencing different, yet relatable struggles. Whether it is your identity or financial hardships, marital struggles, or internal strife, you find yourself in each and every one of those characters as they experience their separate grief, sadness, and fear. You find peace knowing you are not alone. Beartown is a story about being human. It’s raw and poignant to every reader.
Beartown, largely, is about how a fragile and already violent and complicit community reacts to a tragic moment. It looks at characters who make the right decisions, and characters who make the wrong ones. It is fictional, yet we see this happen all of the time, and it is frustrating.
The town, focused solely on getting its hockey team to the finals, loses sight of morality and humanity in this one important event. I read this book with shaking hands and angry tears most of the time, but Backman does not fully betray the reader. He shows that in darkness, there is light and that there are bears in this community who will fight for their cubs.
There are many “teams” in this book besides the obvious hockey one. Beartown demonstrates the power behind a good team and the strength of small teams. These teams can be husband and wife, lovers, best friends, colleagues, and mentors. Characters were constantly learning throughout this story how to be better individuals so that they can support their teams. I was moved by many of the characters and their loyalty to one another. It was a beautiful, raw, and complicated story.
A few things to wrap up my review:
Believe victims and survivors. BELIEVE THEM.
Have grit and persevere.
Knock yourself into that wall if you need to — full force. Again. Again. Again. You have strength and you have worth.
Welcome, 2021. I think it’s safe to say that everyone has been looking forward to your arrival.
Though it is a new year, that doesn’t mean that our work is over. We still have a global pandemic to combat. We still need to have those difficult conversations and take action against racial injustice. We have so much work to do.
This new year feels very different. I don’t feel as inspired as in years past. I’m burnt out and emotionally spent. However, I think that’s why continuing my tradition of establishing a theme for the new year is important, especially the one I came up with for 2021.
Last year’s theme was Self-Care (boy, was that ever necessary), and I am looking forward to continuing that theme with a little creative empowerment. This year’s theme is Creativity.
I have always been creative, from writing stories as a kid and journaling throughout my life to doodling and creating music. As I’ve grown, however, my creative aspirations have taken a backseat. I have found that my career and education are consuming my time, and I really want to balance out those responsibilities with embracing creative outlets.
When I think of a year of creativity, I envision a few things:
Writing: As a communications/PR pro and a graduate student writing a Master’s thesis, writing is definitely something I do all of the time. It can be exhausting, but I want to do more creative writing to balance it out. This year, I plan to update my blog at least once a week with bookish content. I also plan on starting my first book once my thesis is done.
Home: Ian and I bought a house this summer, and while we purchased it flipped, there are a lot of projects that we would like to complete. I would like to use my creative side and look at ways we can make this house even more of a home – from paint colors to wood accents to furniture and carpets! I’ll make sure to update this blog with our home decor.
Music: When I was 12 years old, my grandpa gave me a guitar for Christmas. I’ve always loved singing and performing, in fact, my theme for 2018 involved performing.
I learned basic chords and played a lot throughout high school and college, singing to my suite mates and future husband (hehe), but my guitar has been neglected. I now also own a mandolin and a ukulele, and I would like to learn how to play those too. Get ready for a year of music!
At the beginning of 2020, I set a goal to read 50 books this year. I planned to slow down and enjoy the books I read, rather than stressing about meeting a large goal. Well, this year was unexpected as we found ourselves at home more than ever before. Despite this extra time, I still decided to read slow, but still surpassed my reading goal by 10 books this year.
Each year, I reflect on my favorite books. I like to share an array of books that reflect different genres and perspectives. While my reading list was heavily fantasy-focused this year (thanks to Sarah J. Maas), I still tried to incorporate romance, memoir, historical fiction, fiction, thriller, and young adult in my reading list. I also introduced new authors to my bookshelves, such as N.K. Jemisin, Neal Shusterman, Octavia Butler, Kristin Hannah, and T.J. Klune. I had an amazing reading year and made incredible bookish friends from around the world!
I do not think there is a more perfect book out there. Fantasy, adorable children, LGBTQ representation, inclusion, humanity, self-acceptance – this book will make you cry happy tears and clutch your heart to make sure it doesn’t burst. I loved this book. I have purchased this book for about 5 people, and will continue to do so until everyone I know reads it.
I discovered Sarah J. Maas in 2020, reading her ACOTAR series with a buddy read group. Out of all of the SJM books I read this year (about 10), this one was the best. The world, the writing, the characters – it was an amazing experience. Like any fantasy book, get ready for some world building, lots of details, and with SJM, lots of steam. I love Bryce and Hunt, and I could not get enough of this story! Anxiously awaiting the next release.
This memoir should be read by all. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Miller, and my husband read the physical book this year. This memoir transformed and empowered me to stand up against injustice in its many forms. It is a poignant, important memoir that stirs crucial conversations about sexual assault and its survivors. Believe survivors. This memoir was moving, poetic, and brilliant. You will have no words reading this.
This science fiction novel tells the story about a woman who travels back and forth to the Antebellum South, constantly saving a young white man who is her ancestor. This book is fascinating, horrific, and important to read. It’s a captivating story about the history of racism and slavery in the United States. I read this book in one day.
My first Kristin Hannah book was The Great Alone in 2017, and while I really enjoyed it, The Nightingale is a book that will stick with me for a while. It is so powerful, telling the tale of sisterhood, WWII, sacrifice, women spies, and heartbreak. I cried and clasped my hand to my mouth many times throughout this book. Definitely recommend this one. I can’t stop thinking about it.
I was really lucky to receive an advanced reader’s copy of this book back in the spring. I love Practical Magic (the movie) and very much loved Hoffman’s Rules of Magic. I was so excited to get this book and read about Maria Owens. I was not disappointed. A story about sisterhood and witches? Powerful women? Witchy, magical tips about herbs and spells? Even a little historical fiction crossover? Yes, please.
This book, though considered fiction, is based on a true, horrific reform school that operated for 111 years in the United States. It’s such a poignant, heart-wrenching book. It is enraging, captivating, and so well-written. It is a masterpiece. Read it read it read it.
I read The Broken Earth trilogy this summer, and was blown away by Jemisin and her work. This is some of the best, most captivating prose I have ever read. The dystopic, horrific world that Jemisin creates is just the start of why this series was so fascinating. The book features Black characters, a Black female protagonist, and has powerful conversations about race, class, individualism, gender equity, and more. Just read the entire series, OK?
And yet another Kristin Hannah book that made me ugly cry. I think I sobbed for 5 minutes after reading this one. So beautiful – a story about friendship, loss, love, grief, family, coming-of-age, chasing dreams – I couldn’t get enough of it. Reminded me of Now and Then. I heard the sequel is even more gutting, so here I go!
Can I recommend that readers read this one instead of American Dirt? This is an own voices story about immigration and real and current events. This is an extremely painful, heartbreaking story. It tore my heart apart as I read this. It deserves all of the attention and praise.
Can we please talk about this terrifying feminist debut? This book was so scary, captivating, and just plain old awesome. I loved it. This book was revolutionary in many ways. It was some dark horror, and I was here for it. If you want witchy, cutesy spells, don’t read this one. If you want to have some nightmares, read this one!
I was really lucky to receive an advanced listeners copy from Libro.fm. You want to read a powerful story about a woman learning about her northern and southern roots? You want to get a humbling history lesson and learn about the Great Migration and the displacement of Black people across the country – a lesson you did not learn accurately in school? Read this book. Also, Jerkins is a delight!
This was one of the best gothic horror books I’ve read in a long time. Creepy, hair-raising story about a headstrong woman who encounters the imaginable. It also talks about race, colonialism, and eugenics as part of its horror. It’s just … so good. And the cover? Amazing.
What are some of your favorite books this year? Share in the comments!
“They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.”
“You don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. You’re good enough.”
“But when you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath. Because we made it through this day as well.
There’ll be another one along tomorrow.”
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
I wanted to highlight these quotes from Fredrik Backman’s latest book Anxious People because they made me feel the most. Like, the hand-over-your-mouth-with-tears-in-your-eyes feels after a long day of work during a global pandemic and divisive political election. Just … lots of feelings.
It’s been a rough year for all, and when I first heard of Anxious People, I was admittedly … anxious about it. A book about mental health? Would it be too triggering for me? Would I have trouble reading it? Will I like it?
The answer to all of these questions is yes. It was hard to read. Some moments, I needed to put the book down and read something else for a few days. The story, however, was so intricate and powerful that I needed to learn what happened to these likeable, sometimes unbearable characters. I needed to work through that pain and discomfort, for in the end it was worth it. The ending was so beautiful! It was restorative.
I laughed out loud the first 5 pages of this book (something I never do). I cried during this book (something I usually do not do). I just really enjoyed reading it. I heard the audio is fantastic, and consider listening to it down the road as a reread.
Backman has a gift for writing about the intense, raw moments of being a human. (A Man Called Ove? I still get choked up) In this book, like all of the others, of the characters were flawed and are written in such a unique way. He really has a gift. I am grateful I had the chance to read it with a group of insanely sweet bookstagram friends. Have you read this one?
This is a poignant comedy about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.
Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths.
As police surround the premises and television channels broadcast the hostage situation live, the tension mounts and even deeper secrets are slowly revealed. Before long, the robber must decide which is the more terrifying prospect: going out to face the police, or staying in the apartment with this group of impossible people.
I did not know what to expect when I started The Broken Earth series, but I was not disappointed. The series started popping up on my Bookstagram feed (@keepitkassual) in the late spring, and I knew that it was something I needed to get my hands on!
The glossy Hugo Award pictured on each cover is more than well-deserved. Author N.K. Jemisin presents some of the best storytelling that I have ever read with shifting points of view and poetic, poignant prose. You are constantly on the edge of your seat as you read, concentrating on every word as you learn about Essun and her story.
Orogenes are a specific race within the Stillness with a power called sessapinae, giving them the ability to control tectonic activity within the earth. Also referred to as the derogatory term, roggas, orogenes are oppressed, feared, and hated beings; they are seen as the “Other” within the Stillness. Essun, an orogene herself, kept this secret from Jija. She believes that Jija has taken Nassun somewhere to kill her, so she sets forth to find them and seek revenge on Jija. That is the premise of the story. Essun’s quest to find her daughter. What readers are presented with is so much more, however.
What I liked about The Broken Earth series was that the books shed light on many important social topics, including environmentalism (the Earth seeking revenge on the beings that destroyed it), systemic racism, and classism. The books aren’t just limited to those themes, however. They also explore individualism, resistance, LGBTQ relationships, and gender equity. These topics are important, and they are impeccably intertwined throughout the books.
The first book was my favorite, for it seemed the most organized. I enjoyed the shifting points of view. Essun’s story is told in the second point of view, so, you, the reader, are Essun. You are the protagonist. The Fifth Season also follows the stories of Damaya and Syenite, two other orogenes. The ending of the book will leave you feeling exhausted and duped … but in a good way.
The Obelisk Gate has the one thing that a reader of the fantastic enjoys: world-building. Hundreds of pages of it. So much that it almost came across as disjointed and hard to follow. This might be because I don’t enjoy lengthy world-building, but it’s high fantasy, so I should have been prepared for it. I do read and enjoy Tolkien, don’t I? He loves to talk about trees.
The Stone Sky, the final book, can be read quickly because you don’t want to put it down once you start. Jemisin’s writing is entrancing. The mother-daughter struggle is profound as you discover that Nassun’s powers go beyond what Essun could have ever imagined. This difficulties that they face stretches to the very end. The finale is truly heart-wrenching and fast-paced. You’ll finish feeling heartbroken yet satisfied. You will find yourself experiencing a complex array of emotions. That’s because it’s such a complex series.
In The Broken Earth series, Jemisin presents readers with the following question:
What are we willing to sacrifice to avoid positive change?
The Broken Earth series is a profound glimpse into our present and our future. It’s important now, more than ever, to have conversations about climate, race, and human rights. We must make sustainable change. We have to save our world.
Recently, I rediscovered my love for journaling. I currently have two journals: a bullet journal where I track my bookish creative needs, and another journal where I focus on mental check-ins before bed and other writing.
With the recent pandemic sweeping the globe, I noticed my journaling habits dwindling. I have been glued to my phone, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook to try to make sense of it all. I couldn’t believe what I read, but seeing that everyone was facing the same issues somehow made me feel less alone. The issue with this, of course, is that people don’t always post the most encouraging or factual things on social media, so those notions of connectivity also brought panic, uncertainty, and a lot of anxiety that I could not curb.
I decided to unplug — to only focus on the positive things — and pay more attention to books (more than I already do). I am working to exercise daily, eat healthily, and be mindful of what I can control. I slowly started journaling again, readying myself to write down what I was feeling. I realized that I was avoiding journaling because it was easier to harbor anxiety and fear rather than see it on paper. It’s been a few days now, and I am enjoying the process and act of journaling. It has helped to record my thoughts and activities during this time and work through them rather than avoid them.
I found myself this Sunday morning scribbling in my journal, feeling much like Jo March when she has a moment of inspiration and needs to get it down. I wrote six pages of free prose, mostly detailing what is happening, how I feel, and how my husband and I are coping during these troubling times. I wanted to share some of it with my readers, for I feel like this is how we might all feel. I also want to start sharing more of my writing with others, which takes a lot of courage.
Here are my favorite snippets:
As a homebody, this is certainly a lifestyle that I am used to, but I find myself gripping to my humanity more and more as we encounter outside individuals on our walks or in the grocery stores. As someone who is so introverted, I find myself craving extroversion. Technology is keeping “us” connected through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat…Google Hangout, FaceTime and Zoom and “we” are having virtual Happy Hours and game nights. Families are joining each other for dinner in their respective living rooms. Why haven’t we done this before? Last week, my friends and I got together for a virtual chat. We laughed and caught up. One friend said: “We should have been doing this all the time anyway!” It’s true. Why wouldn’t my friends and I schedule regular time to do this? When we can’t get together physically, why don’t “we” embrace technology and still be together socially?
I hope that we all appreciate the simplicities of greetings: a smile, a handshake, or a “hello, how are you?” as we pass each other on the street. Why did we lose that in the first place? Ian and I went for a walk the other day, and every person looked at us and said “hi,” as if they were also craving that social interaction. Before, we wouldn’t get a glance from half of the people we crossed paths with. Where did humanity go? Does it take us to all be locked in our homes to strive for politeness when someone passes by?
I hope we learn to appreciate each other more — that we continue to take better care of one another and of ourselves. What about our planet? What about appreciating those on the front lines all of the time? Or asking those “what about them?” questions when things go wrong? I hope we don’t lose sight of that — taking care of each other.
After this is over, I hope that we continue to pick up more books, appreciate the small things like getting an iced coffee or an ice cream cone. I hope more people browse bookstores or work to support small businesses. I hope that we call our friends more, FaceTime with our grandparents regularly. I hope that we exercise and crave to go outdoors and take care of it. These things were always options, but now it’s something that we want to do and share.
I hope that we rediscover hobbies during this time- our love of books, favorite movies, playing or creating music. I hope that we are creative – that we paint, write, draw. I hope we are OK if we do none of those things but take time to look within ourselves and know that we are resilient … that we are strong and we can regain control and maintain that control when the world seems to have lost it. I hope we can just “be” and know that if we do anything, it is good enough. Enough with comparing ourselves on social media, thinking that we are not good enough. Enough with the drive for money and the greed to be successful. Can we continue to check in with one another? Can celebrities and musicians continue to share their talents?
I hope we act silly; that we dance. That we come out of this stronger than ever.
I am so excited to see all the creative work that comes from this. I can’t wait to see all the art, read all of the prose, and listen to new music. I hope to create my own work, academic and personal, during this time. I hope to learn how to be OK with my work, breathe slowly and be patient with my craft — to continue being diligent as a writer. I want to be loud; I want to praise others for their talents and help others feel safe and not alone. It’s time to be there for each other.
In November, I met Juliet Grames, author of her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. We met at an event held in my home state where she talked about her novel and her family. I even had dinner with her! It was an unforgettable experience, further deepening my love for literature and becoming an author.
I read her novel last month and was deeply moved by it. From immigration to feminism, this book has every topic that can interest a reader. There is so much history, and as a Connecticut native, like Juliet, I was interested to learn more about my own family’s emigration to the United States.
From Calabria to Connecticut: A sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman’s tenacious fight against her own fate.
For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.
In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family in his absence.
When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.
In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.
How long was this book in the making? A long time–you could say since 2011, when I first wrote down Stella Fortuna’s name and earnestly started research and note-taking. Or you could say since 1988, when I was five years old and realized I was already haunted by what I didn’t know about my grandmother’s life story. I spent the thirty years in between then and now trying to learn more about her, about the faraway world she came from, and about other immigrant women in her generation, trying to fill in the blanks. In the end, I couldn’t fill them in, so I wrote a novel about a fictional Italian immigrant woman, instead.
Can you talk about your literary pilgrimage to Italy? I know you did a lot of research for this book—how did it change the book itself, and how did it change you? Yes, I did a lot of research in many different formats, but one of the most important pieces of the puzzle was the month I spent in Ievoli, Calabria, the village where my grandmother was born a hundred years ago. I showed up in Ievoli knowing no one, only with an overwhelming feeling of crazed, high-pressure joy, terrified that my Italian wasn’t good enough, that I would disappoint my grandmother’s legacy, that I’d never be able to reconstruct her life from what she’d left behind so long ago. My terror was unjustified on all counts. I was welcomed with open arms. Total strangers (who turned out to be third cousins, of course–it’s a small village) insisted I live in their home, fed me and drove me around to their favorite sights and introduced me to anyone they could think of who might have helpful information for me. I spent a transformative month absorbing everything I could about their mountaintop lifestyle, their food and folksongs and proverbs and superstitions, and realizing how much of it was already familiar to me, cultural residue of my time with my grandmother. I left knowing so much more about her, and so much more about myself–and knowing I would go back.
Your book is about your family and their struggles. Can you tell me about your experience writing about something so personal? Although my inspiration for beginning this book was my grandmother–and just as much her sister, my great aunt–it is, in the end, a work of fiction. Because my grandmother was lobotomized when I was five years old, I never felt I understood who she really was as a person before her brain injury, despite the many hundreds of hours I spent with her (she lived to be 98 years old). I tried to write a biography of her many times, but I could never wrap my head around her motives or choices. In the end, I only felt free to write and finish a book inspired by her by inventing a fictional woman to write about instead.
Not only does your book shed light on Italian culture, but it also puts a spotlight on immigration and the struggle that those who emigrated faced (in America and the families back at home). What did you hope to get across writing about this topic? We are at a pivotal and violent moment in American history. I am especially grieved by the vitriol toward immigrants in the press and among politicians, especially considering the very vast majority of Americans are descendants of immigrants who would not have been allowed legally into the United States under current restrictions. I would dearly love to see us rehumanize the conversation around immigration by remembering our immigrant grandparents and imagining how their–and our–lives would have been altered if they had faced the immigration conditions in place today.
This book is truly a feminist novel. What do you hope readers take away after reading Stella Fortuna about women, specifically women from that era?
Thank you. It would make me happy to know that a reader of my novel was inspired to reappraise their own foremothers–grandmothers, mother, aunts. For those (many) of us with a grandmother who has been written off in family history as mean, boring, aloof, short-tempered, drunk, stingy, or a difficult woman of any specific adjective, I hope the book inspires the question but why? Why was she a difficult woman? Usually, there is a very, very good reason–an untold story of what she went through to survive or protect a loved one.
What was your hardest scene to write?
If you’ve read the book, I bet you can guess. It was so difficult to write that I knew it would be difficult to read, and I struggled mightily over whether to keep it in the text. But the whole reason I wanted to write this book in the first place was to acknowledge the traumas of our foremothers, which are so often buried in order to protect the legacies of our forefathers.
What’s your favorite underappreciated novel?
Oh no, this question is the hardest one here, since when you really love a novel no amount of public appreciation is enough! I’m going to choose The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, set in 1920s Paris, a fictional reimagining of the life of the young American woman who ended up becoming the model for painter Tamara de Lempicka (as well as her lover). It came out in 2011 and I loved it so much I was eagerly awaiting the author’s follow-up–only to find out last spring that she passed away at age 46 of cancer. She was such a powerful and sensitive writer that I hope many others will discover her and feel compelled to spread the word.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think the most fatal flaw among aspiring writers is getting so caught up in the idea of publishing that they drive themselves into despair, when in fact writing should be an art practice that brings them joy. Publishing and everything to do with it is almost entirely out of a writer’s control–it’s a classic situation of not pinning one’s happiness on third parties. Of course, it took me 15 years of working in publishing to feel this zen about it, but I know intimately how the sausage is made. Whatever else is happening in the world, a writer should need to come back to the page and keep striving to attain their highest artistic ability, whether anyone else ever reads it or not. That’s the real goal of writing.
What’s next on the horizon?
I’m working on a novel set in 1960 in Italy, a crime novel about a naive young woman who travels to an isolated village on a charity mission only to realize that she has vastly underestimated the complexities of the locals’ struggles–ranging from emigration to political corruption to the legacy of World War II on a tiny community–and that she’s being pulled into their drama as a sort of amateur detective.
A giant thank-you to Juliet for the interview. You can learn more about her book (and purchase it) here.