Empire Falls by Richard Russo

empire falls pic

Empire Falls
Richard Russo


Empire Falls is a great novel with many layers and characters and that’s just the kind of story I like to read. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002 and HBO made it into a miniseries in 2005 (check it out here). I read it much later than most people, but I think the story and characters survive the time.

Its first layer is about Empire Falls, Maine, a town that is struggling to survive and is controlled by Francine Whiting, of the once-strong Whiting Industries. This backdrop introduces you to those who have chosen to stay and they make up many of Russo’s subsequent interconnecting layers. We learn about Miles Roby, his failed marriage to Janine and his own parents’ unhappy marriage. We meet Janine’s fiancé, Walt Comeau, and try to understand the new life she is about to begin. And later on we see how Miles struggles to understand his mother Grace and the choices she made as a young woman.

But this story is also about Miles and Janine’s high school daughter Tick, her friends Zack Minty, Candace and especially John Voss and these intense teenage relationships and conflicts. Russo has skillfully introduced this sleeper plot and we see how it slowly moves the story to its climax. I also like how Russo includes many other side characters, such as Jimmy Minty, Otto Meyer, Miles’ brother David, Charlene and Father Mark and develops them so we know that their lives are just as complicated, and are key parts of the story.

In addition to an excellent plot that is carefully constructed and both serious and humorous, this story is about the control of money and people, survival and the search for happiness. And on top of that, many of Russo’s characters struggle to understand the meaning of life and religion as they face both painful memories and discoveries.

There are many seemingly small pieces of conversations that, upon a second look, show how much thought went into writing Empire Falls. For example, Russo shows just how complicated father-son relationships are as he parallels Miles and Max with Jimmy Minty and his father. Both Miles and Jimmy hang onto their fathers, despite their flaws. Jimmy says, “He did slap my mom around a little…But I miss him anyway. You only get one father, is the way I look at it.” Later Miles tries to explain to David why he keeps giving their own father a second chance: “He’s pretty good at getting to me. I guess I don’t want to be sold short when I’m old.”

I think my favorite scene is when Jimmy Minty and Miles argue at the football game. Russo shows so well just how someone who is as unsophisticated as Jimmy still has excellent insight into people. Jimmy says, “You’re not the only one people like, okay? And I’ll tell you something else. What people around here like best about me? They like it that they’re more like me than they are like you. They look at me and they see the town they grew up in…You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t good enough. They look at you and see everything they ever done wrong in their lives.”

I also think Miles’ relationship with Cindy Whiting is very interesting and was glad to see how Cindy’s character developed from someone pathetic and needy into someone strong and independent. She’s also an example of a character we think is less significant, but who comes up with something important to say. She tells Miles, “It’s like you decided a long time ago that someone like me is incapable of joy…It doesn’t occur to you that I might be happy.”

The Whiting family dynamics and history are also very interesting and amusing and Russo has a different style of describing these people, using irony and a cold kind of humor. I liked this part just as much, particularly the story of Francine’s gazebo.

Empire Falls has a tidy and satisfying ending, with just enough open story lines to make me hopeful about the characters and their futures.

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2016 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction – Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer

The Pulitzer Prizes

The winners have been announced and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen has won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Viet Thanh Nguyen from youtube.com
Photo: youtube.com

What’s the book about?  Here is a summary from Amazon:

The Sympathizer

One of 2015’s most highly acclaimed debuts, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting of recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.

A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Want to know more?  Check out this information from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Amazon Author page:

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015). He also authored Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002) and co-edited Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (University of Hawaii Press, 2014). An associate professor at the University of Southern California, he teaches in the departments of English and American Studies and Ethnicity.

He has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (2011-2012), the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (2008-2009) and the Fine Arts Work Center (2004-2005). He has also received residencies, fellowships, and grants from the Luce Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, the James Irvine Foundation, the Huntington Library, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.

His short fiction has been published in Manoa, Best New American Voices 2007, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross-Cultural Collision and Connection, Narrative Magazine, TriQuarterly, the Chicago Tribune, and Gulf Coast, where his story won the 2007 Fiction Prize.

His writing has been translated into Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Spanish, and he has given invited lectures in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Germany. He is finishing an academic book titled War, Memory, Identity.

You can learn more about Nguyen by visiting his website:  vietnguyen.info.

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What’s That Book? The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Whats That Book

The Goldfinch

Title: The Goldfinch

Author: Donna Tartt

Genre: Literary Fiction

Rating: ****

What’s it about? A thirteen-year-old boy survives an accident that kills his mother. To maintain a connection to her, he steals a priceless painting. But though the artwork is his tether to her, it’s also a constant source of guilt, one that grows like a cancer as he gets shuttled from a wealthy, New York family who took him in to the father who had previously abandoned him. His angst and suffering continue into adulthood and lead him into the seedy underbelly of the art world.

How did you hear about it? In the news shortly after it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014, though I didn’t read it until recently for a book club.

Closing comments: I give the book two different star ratings: 5 stars for the writing and 3 stars for keeping me engaged, thereby awarding it 4 stars over all. In terms of the writing, the description was wonderfully vivid, filling my mind with images as well as words, and the weaving together of complex plot and thematic elements was beautifully done. On the other hand, the novel often dragged, with dense passages throughout its hefty 771 pages that made my mind wander. But overall it’s a worthwhile, thought-provoking read. Just plan ample time to finish it.

Contributor: Carrie Rubin

Carrie Rubin is a physician, public health advocate and writer.  She is the author of two medical thrillers, Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. You can find Carrie on her blog, The Write Transition, where she chronicles her transition into the writing world, and on Twitter @carrie_rubin.

Have you read something you’d like to share?  Consider being a contributor!  Contact bvitelli2009@gmail.com for more information.

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What’s new with Book Club Mom?

Here are a few of the things happening in my world:

Stll Life with Bread Crumbs
I’m about to begin reading Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen.  Quindlen is an American author, journalist and columnist. Still Life with Bread Crumbs was published in 2014 and is her latest novel. Other fiction includes One True Thing, Black and Blue and Blessings. Her New York Times column, Public and Private, won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1992. Quindlen is currently a columnist for Newsweek.

Here’s a complete list of Quindlen’s work:

Still Life with Bread Crumbs
Every Last One
Rise and Shine
Black and Blue
One True Thing
Object Lessons

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake
Good Dog, Stay
Being Perfect
Loud and Clear
A Short Guide to a Happy Life
How Reading Changed My Life
Thinking Out Loud
Living Out Loud

Happily Ever After
The Tree That Came to Stay

Other Miscellaneous Happenings:

  • My blogging friend, Cathy of 746 Books, recently posted about a great picture book by Chris Van Allsburg entitled The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Check out her post on this book by clicking here. Van Allsburg (visit his website here) is an American author and illustrator of children’s books, including The Polar Express and Jumanji.  In The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, each picture is paired with a title and a few lines, designed to spark the imagination. My kids have outgrown picture books, but I got it at the library anyway. I agree with Kathy – this book isn’t just for kids!

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick ping

  • Summer is just around the corner and many parents are wondering how they will be able to keep their kids reading. My friend, Margaret, sent me a link to this helpful article from the Washington Post, Advice from kids’ authors: How do you get kids excited to read?
  • And for adult readers, Popsugar.com has published a list of the hottest new books to read this summer. Click here to check it out!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot see

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr


I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this terrific book set during World War II in the walled coastal city of Saint Malo, France. It’s easy to understand why All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s a story full of great characters, important themes, and a plot that’s a wonderful mix of reality and fairytale.

Imagine being Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young blind girl in Paris, whose entire world revolves around her father, Daniel, a trusted locksmith at the city’s Museum of Natural History. He’s built her a miniature model of their neighborhood and is busy teaching her how to find her way. Meanwhile, the threat of German occupation is real, and the museum is rushing to pack up and send off its valuable exhibits and specimens, before they become German property. Among these priceless objects is the Sea of Flames diamond, a legendary stone of mesmerizing beauty, but thought to carry a curse. When Marie-Laure and her father flee France for Saint Malo, he’s carrying a gem, but is it the Sea of Flames or a decoy?

At the same time, Werner Pfennig is a young boy growing up in an orphanage in the coal mining town of Zollverein, Germany. Desperate for a way out of a life destined for the coal mines, Werner discovers a broken radio. He’s instantly fascinated and teaches himself how to fix and build radios. A genius understanding of the math behind transmitting and receiving signals earns him a glowing reputation, but his hopeful future takes a turn when he’s called to fix a radio for a German officer. The officer recruits Werner to be a member of an elite Hitler youth group and he’s sent away to a brutal camp.

Werner becomes an expert in radio transmission, but questions of morality weigh heavy on him, especially when he’s on missions to locate enemy transmissions. When her father has to leave, Marie-Laure feels helpless in her uncle’s house where it’s becoming more and more dangerous. Slowly, these characters develop and find a way to make a difference, but their futures carry sadness as well.

I won’t spoil the story for you, so I will stop here. This is the kind of book you study. It’s full of great quotes, wonderful ideas and serious moral questions. I’m sure I will be reading this again!

I have many favorite parts, and I’ll write about them tomorrow!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!


2015 Pulitzer Prize winners announced

credit:  Pulitzer.org
credit: Pulitzer.org

In case you missed it, winners of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize were announced on Monday, April 20. Here are some interesting facts about the famous newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer and the award:

photo from Wikipedia
photo from Wikipedia
  • Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary in 1847. He came to the United States as a recruit for the Union Army during the Civil War and later became a U.S. citizen. He died in 1911, at age sixty-four.
  • Before he became a newspaper magnate, Pulitzer was aimless and unemployed. He once sold his only possession, a white hankie, for 75¢.
  • He once had a job as a mule hostler, but quit that job in frustration, later noting, “The man who has not cared for sixteen mules does not know what work and troubles are.”
  • Pulitzer married Katherine Davis in 1878. They had seven children. Five lived to adulthood.
  • Pulitzer was elected to the Republican state legislature in Missouri in 1870. But he switched parties in 1880 and served a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He was an outspoken supporter of the Democratic platform.
  • The term “yellow journalism” became a common strategy during the circulation war between Pulitzer’s New York World and Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Both publishers used sensationalism, exaggeration, and scandal to sell their newspapers.
  • Pulitzer was a driven newspaper publisher, but he had many health issues. He was nearly blind, a condition that worsened over time from long hours on the job. He also suffered from depression and was painfully sensitive to noise. He eventually relinquished control of the day-to-day operations of the World, but still controlled the editorial content and direction of the paper.
  • The Columbia School of Journalism was founded in 1912, using money from Pulitzer’s estate.
  • The Pulitzer prizes were established in 1917 to recognize outstanding journalism, photography, literature, history, poetry, music and drama. There are twenty-one award categories.
  • Twenty of the winners receive $10,000 cash. The winner in the Public Service category of Journalism receives a gold medal. This award goes to a news organization, not an individual.
  • Only United States citizens are eligible to apply for the prize in Letters, Drama and Music, except for the History category of Letters, in which the book must be about the United States, but the author may be of any nationality.
  • In the Journalism category, entrants do not have to be U.S. citizens, but the work must have appeared in a U.S. newspaper that is published at least once a week, on a newspaper’s website or an online news organization website.
  • John F. Kennedy has been the only President to receive the Pulitzer Prize. He was awarded the prize in 1957 for his biography, Profiles in Courage.
  • Self-published books are eligible for the prize, but they must be available in print.

Here are the 2015 winners, as posted in the Pulitzer Prize website:


PUBLIC SERVICE – The Post and Courier, Charleston, SC


INVESTIGATIVE REPORTINGTwo Prizes: – Eric Lipton of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal Staff

EXPLANATORY REPORTING – Zachary R. Mider of Bloomberg News

LOCAL REPORTING – Rob Kuznia, Rebecca Kimitch and Frank Suraci of the Daily Breeze, Torrance, CA

NATIONAL REPORTING – Carol D. Leonnig of The Washington Post


FEATURE WRITING – Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times

COMMENTARY – Lisa Falkenberg of the Houston Chronicle

CRITICISM – Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times

EDITORIAL WRITING – Kathleen Kingsbury of The Boston Globe

EDITORIAL CARTOONING – Adam Zyglis of The Buffalo News

BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY – St. Louis Post-Dispatch Photography Staff

FEATURE PHOTOGRAPHY – Daniel Berehulak , freelance photographer, The New York Times

Books, Drama and Music

FICTION – “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

DRAMA – “Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guirgis

HISTORY – “Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People ” by Elizabeth A. Fenn (Hill and Wang)

BIOGRAPHY – “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe” by David I. Kertzer (Random House)

POETRY – “Digest” by Gregory Pardlo (Four Way Books)

GENERAL NONFICTION – “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt)

MUSIC – “Anthracite Fields” by Julia Wolfe (G. Schirmer, Inc.)


Thank you to the following sources:

Pulitzer Prizes website
Pulitzer website biography
Wikipedia biography on Pulitzer
Wikipedia article on yellow journalism
Encylopædia Britannica biography on Pulitzer

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!


Olive Kitteridge – HBO miniseries coming soon!

olive kitteridge miniseries

I am very excited to tell you that one of my all-time favorite books has been made into an HBO miniseries. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. And now you can watch the story on HBO. The first two parts will be shown on November 2 at 9:00 pm. Parts 3 and 4 will be shown November 3, also at 9:00 pm.

The miniseries stars Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and Bill Murray. It was directed by Lisa Cholodenko and the teleplay was written by Jane Anderson.

Here’s a blurb from the HBO website:

OLIVE KITTERIDGE tells the poignantly sweet, acerbically funny and devastatingly tragic story of a seemingly placid New England town wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, told through the lens of Olive (Frances McDormand), whose wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center. Richard Jenkins portrays Olive’s husband, Henry.

The story, which spans 25 years, focuses on her relationships with her husband, Henry, the good-hearted and kindly town pharmacist; their son, Christopher, who resents his mother’s approach to parenting; and other members of their community.

You can watch a preview: http://www.hbo.com/olive-kitteridge#/

See the full cast and crew: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3012698/

Check out the book, too, for a risk-free read!

olive kitt pic

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More Empty Mansions updates!

empty mansions pic
Empty Mansions
by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

I’m very excited to tell you that Bill Dedman, co-author of Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune has agreed to an interview! If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I totally enjoyed reading this life story of the reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, co-authored by Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Huguette Clark grew up surrounded by riches and spent the last twenty years of her life living in various hospitals in New York, by choice. Clark’s will was hotly contested.

Bill Dedman
Bill Dedman

Bill Dedman is a Pulitzer-Prize winning American journalist, an investigative reporter for NBC News, and co-author of the No. 1 bestselling book Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune.

In 1989, Dedman received the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for “The Color of Money,” a series of articles in Bill Kovach’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution on racial discrimination by mortgage lenders in middle-income black neighborhoods. (Thanks Wikipedia! – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Dedman)

Here are some of the updates I received from Bill Dedman:

Empty Mansions will be out in paperback on April 22.

Huguette Clark’s art collection is currently touring the world and will be auctioned by Christie’s in May and June. These works include paintings by Monet and Renoir which have not been seen by the public for decades. Here’s the link to the article describing this artwork: http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/30/22513322-art-cache-of-recluse-huguette-clark-revealed-begins-world-tour-before-sale.

Here are three of the paintings to be auctioned:

Renoir's "Woman with Umbrella"
Renoir’s “Woman with Umbrella”
"Water Lilies" from the series by Monet
“Water Lilies” from the series by Monet
Renoir's "Girls Playing Battledore and Shuttlecock"
Renoir’s “Girls Playing Battledore and Shuttlecock”

Details of the legal battle surrounding her estate are available at: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/38810137.

Here’s a YouTube video of Huguette Clark’s doll collection: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRgWY2PdaDc.

Clark’s jewelry collection was sold at Christie’s in 2012 to help pay for the management of her estate during the dispute. Here’s the link describing her jewelry: http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/04/17/11249129-sold-jewels-of-heiress-huguette-clark-bring-a-surprising-18-million-at-auction.

These cool emerald, pearl and diamond earrings were part of her collection.
These cool emerald, pearl and diamond earrings were part of her collection.

And the biggest news is that there may be a film of Empty Mansions.   Hollywood director Ryan Murphy (creator of “Glee” and “American Horror Story”) has optioned the film. The news came out in this Deadline Hollywood article:  http://www.deadline.com/2014/03/empty-mansions-to-get-film-treatment/.

Still curious? Do you have anything you would like to ask Bill Dedman? I’ll be preparing questions in the next few days. Reply in the Comments section and I’ll include your questions in my interview.

Thanks for reading – come back again!

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Straight man pic

Straight Man
by Richard Russo


After reading Straight Man, I’m left wondering why Richard Russo decided that a university English department would be so interesting to the reading public. And that’s coming from an English Major!

I read Straight Man for my book club and I attended our monthly meeting wondering what my friends would say. They said, “Read Empire Falls. Then you will understand why Russo is so good.” I did and I do, but Straight Man is not a book I would read twice.

Despite this comment, I thought the writing was very good, and Hank Devereaux’s sarcasm and fresh-talk is amusing and easy to read. But the characters and story-line are so crazily far-fetched, goose included, that I could not fit them into the setting and plot. That bothered me. I’m thinking maybe the joke is on me, however, for not giving into this ridiculous story.