Mother-Daughter Book Club Reunion

December 18, 2009

Last night my daughter, Madeleine and I went to dinner with our mother-daughter book club members. After more than eight years in the club together, the girls all started college in August and September. This was the first time they were home after the end of their first terms, and the first time we were all together since before they graduated in May. We were missing one member, who is still finishing finals at her school and won’t be home until the rest of us are scattered in different directions. Otherwise, the evening was perfect.

As I looked around the table at these familiar faces, I was grateful for the fact that we’re still making it a priority to spend time together. I’ve known most of the girls in the group since first grade and through the added connection of Girl Scouts, and it was so rewarding to see them grown into poised young women. Even though we hadn’t all read a common book for our get together, our thread is strong enough for us to have meaningful conversations about each others lives without the opening a book provides.

Too many times I find myself in conversations at gatherings of acquaintances where I don’t create conversation that matters and don’t receive any back. So it was especially rewarding to spend an evening with people I care about, learning new things about who they are as individuals.

Book Review: The Only True Genius in the Family, Interview with Author Jennie Nash

February 23, 2009

I recently finished reading a newly released book by Jennie Nash called The Only True Genius in the Family. Nash’s straightforward writing style brought me into the world of her characters right away, and I thought my readers would want to know more about the woman who wrote it. Nash generously spent time answering questions for mother-daughter book club readers, and she also wrote an essay about what it’s like to have your daughter read your novels, sex scenes and all. We’ll start the week with my review of Nash’s book along with her answers to my questions. Tomorrow, I’ll post her essay along with details of a special book give away.

Book review: The Only True Genius in the Family by Jennie Nash


Claire seems to have it all—a successful career as a food photographer, a beautiful daughter who’s on the verge of earning her MFA as a painter, and a husband in the midst of selling his long-time family business. Her father is Paul Switzer, considered to be one of the most visionary photographers of his time. Claire has always had a difficult relationship with him. He dismisses her career and lavishes his attention on his granddaughter, who he feels has inherited the artistic genius in the family.

When Switzer dies, Claire’s perfect world threatens to fall apart, as she starts to question her own abilities and reexamines the relationship she had with her dad. The complex relationships in the story—both mother-daughter and father-daughter —will offer a lot to discuss within a mother-daughter book club, including issues such as jealousy, resentment, and the question of boundaries around art. Claire’s struggle to come to terms with her own talents will resonate with both generations. I recommend it for groups with girls who are in high school.

A conversation with Jennie Nash.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

JN: I just knew. Even as early as fourth grade, I knew. My dad was a professor and he sat in his study at a wonderful Olivetti typewriter with green keys, clacking away. I loved that sound – the noise and the rhythm and the quiet that surrounded it. I also loved the fact of the words on the page – the way they actually looked. I had a bulletin board in my bedroom where I kept quotes I liked – snippets from novelists like John Updike or from great thinkers like Rachel Carson. Some of the quotes were just a few words long, others were whole paragraphs or poems. I thought they were incredibly powerful and I wanted to feel some of that same power. It took me a long time to figure out that good writing isn’t only about pretty-sounding prose; it also has something to do with what the words mean. Imagine!

You’ve written non-fiction books before about subjects it seems were near to your heart. What made you decide to switch to fiction?

JN: I did indeed write three books of non-fiction. They were all memoirs, which is to say that they were stories from my own life. I am proud of those books, particularly the breast cancer memoir, The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer, because it has helped a lot of women and that feels good. A few things happened that caused me to switch to fiction. One is that I got tired of the constraints of my life; I got bored of my own story. The other reason is that I gave myself permission to become a storyteller. You heard what I said in the answer above about how it took me a long time to figure out that writing has something to do with what the words on the page actually mean? What I mean is that it took me nearly 3 books and 40 years! When I was writing memoir, I thought that the idea was to take what I knew and make it sound good – give it structure, shape. I still believe that to be a very valid process. But what I learned is that I could go backwards: I could start with an idea, and through story – by weaving the idea into a story — I could give it meaning. I realized, in other words, that a story generates its own truth – a truth that becomes equally as valid as the truth we live every day. I found that very exciting.

Claire is the daughter of a man considered to be a genius with photography. She is the mother of a woman just being recognized as a possible genius in painting. How did you decide to tell the story of a family of artists and the woman who considers herself sandwiched between two generations of geniuses?

I’ve been very interested in the myth of the prodigy—the idea that genius just comes to certain people, like a lightening strike from god. I wanted to write about that idea through the lens of the mother-daughter relationship—i.e what would the experience be of the mother of such a prodigy? When I started to set that up, and to try to understand who the mother was, I kept coming back to the idea that she knew something about genius, but wasn’t considered a genius herself—kind of like the Saliere character in the Amadeus movie—the musician who was blessed enough to recognize Mozart’s genius, but cursed not to be able to match it. I kept being drawn to the idea of jealousy. It didn’t seem believable, however, for a mom to be jealous of her daughter for her talent, alone. There had to be something else. The thing that emerged was the relationship this woman’s daughter had with this woman’s father. It seemed natural to make that father an artist, too—and suddenly I had three generations of artists and the question of genius, jealousy and inheritance.

What do you think is important about Claire’s struggle to find what she’s good at and be comfortable with it?

JN: I think it’s the key to happiness! That’s my idea of true genius – to find the thing you’re good at, to become comfortable with it to the point where you own it, and to give yourself permission to do it. That has been the arc of my life in writing, and it has brought me an enormous amount of satisfaction.

Do you consider yourself a photographer?

JN: I am so absolutely not a photographer! I can’t even remember to bring the point-and-shoot camera to my kid’s water polo games and graduation ceremonies, and even then all I can do is point and shoot. Needless to say, I did a lot of research for my story!

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on and when we can expect to see something new from your pen?

JN: I am working on a novel that will be out in 2010. It’s tentatively called The Encyclopedia of Grief—although on some days, I call it The Threadbare Heart. (Any votes on that?) It’s a love story. Well, actually, it’s two love stories that overlap in some very resonant ways. There’s a mother and a daughter at the center of this story, too, but they are much older than Bailey and Claire. There’s also a dog named Luna, which is my favorite part.

Book Review: Unraveling by Lynn Biederman and Michelle Baldini

November 17, 2008


Previously I’ve written about an interview with Lynn Biederman, author of unraveling, and her mom. But I realized I never wrote my official review of the book for my blog readers. So here it is, just in time for you to pick up and read while school’s out for Thanksgiving.

unraveling by Lynn Biederman and Michelle Baldini

Amanda Himmelfarb is starting high school and is ready to grab all she can of it. She wants to leave behind the loser image that got her the one-time nickname of Himmelfart. She’s contemplating having sex with a boy she met on vacation the year before. And she’s constantly at odds with her mother, who watches her like a hawk and comes down hard on her for all the things she imagines Amanda wants to do. The reader aches for everyone involved in the dysfunctional dynamics of this family: the mother-daughter pair who are constantly at odds, the mom and dad who argue over discipline and trust, the younger sister who takes advantage of it all to gain special privileges for herself. In short, everyone is unraveling, and the more threads that get pulled away, the faster the foundation continues to crumble. Just when everyone seems on the brink of coming apart, a surprising event helps them start to put the stitches of their lives back together.

Members of mother-daughter book clubs will find unraveling by Lynn Biederman and Michelle Baldini a safe place to discuss mother-daughter conflicts and look at how they affect the whole family. So much of the conflict comes about through misunderstanding and miscommunication, it’s a primer on what not to say or do if you want to maintain good relationships between parents and children. There’s also lots to talk about, particularly on the topic of girls who feel unloved and unaccepted may be less able to set acceptable boundaries for all areas of their lives.

If you’d like to check out the interview, here’s the link to Good News Broadcast.