The Light Between Oceans

M.L. Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans is published today. I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book this past spring, and it was fantastic; I reviewed it on Goodreads at the time, but here it is again for those who are interested:

In the aftermath of the Great War, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia, and works alone on an island as a lighthouse keeper. On occasional trips back to the mainland, he meets and then marries Isabel Graysmark; they return to the island together, where Isabel conceives and miscarries three times.

Shortly after the third miscarriage, a boat washes up on the island, containing a dead man and a living baby. Isabel persuades Tom not to report it – to bury the man and keep the baby as their own. He uneasily agrees; but back on the mainland, the baby’s mother grieves for her lost husband and son.

The Light Between Oceans is an extraordinary story of the difference one decision makes; how the future must be lived when the past cannot be changed; of right and wrong and love. Not only is it a beautiful book with strong characters, its thought-provoking central dilemma makes it a great discussion starter and excellent book club pick. Also: bonus points for a gorgeous cover.

Reviewers and Readers: what do we want?

I read a lot of books (understatement of my life), and a lot of book reviews (especially since it’s now part of my job), but until recently I did not know about Bookmarks Magazine. They have their own reviews, but they also provide links to reviews elsewhere. Two of the most useful features on the site are “see all of this week’s reviews” and “see most-reviewed books (last 8 weeks).”

For collection development purposes (i.e. buying books for the library), I’ve been relying on traditional sources, like Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. These are all great resources, but I also really appreciate being able to go to Bookmarks to read several reviews of a book at once.

Recently, having just read Gold by Chris Cleave (and having attended a reading at the Brookline Booksmith), I was curious as to how it was being reviewed in the mainstream press. Thanks to NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read Gold before its official publication date, knowing little about it except the basic premise, and form my own opinion (in a word: lovefest) before I read the opinions of others. Reading some of the reviews Bookmarks linked to, I found that others’ opinions were decidedly mixed, with at least one reviewer (LA Times) complaining of “a feeling of being manipulated.”

Now, book reviewing is a subjective thing, but this seemed to be an odd complaint. No one really likes the word “manipulate,” but isn’t that what all writers, fiction and nonfiction, aspire to do? Nonfiction authors nearly always have an agenda; they are trying to convince you to see things a certain way. (Granted, while plenty of nonfiction has an obvious bias, other nonfiction aspires to be bias-free. It’s basically impossible, but points for effort.)

Fiction, on the other hand…fiction is made up. Invented. Imaginary. Necessitates, frequently, a “willing suspension of disbelief.” We read fiction because we are hungry for stories, and because even though characters and places might be made-up, they are also often deeply true. The authors who can manipulate us best are the ones we love most.

 

Book it to the library

I just wrote a long-ish post on “the value of your library,” most of which applies whether you’re an Arlington, MA resident/library user or not. The main point of the post is that public libraries, even if you only visit yours two or three times a year, are a pretty amazing deal. Arlington, for example, spends $44.57 per capita on its public library.

If you live in Massachusetts and are interested in the per capita spending for your local library, check out this report (PDF) from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), which has that data for every one of Massachusetts’ 350 towns. Average per capita spending is $37.15 (or 1.30% of the municipal budget); the medians are slightly lower.

Can you think of a better deal for forty bucks? I can’t. Check out ilovelibraries.org’s Library Value Calculator to see what the library is worth to you.

Swifter, Higher, Stronger

Last night, I went to listen to Chris Cleave talk at the Brookline Booksmith, an excellent independent bookstore. (Earlier in the day, Cleave spoke at Porter Square Books, another lovely indie.) The talk was completely worth the crosstown trip in rush hour. Cleave is a delightful speaker; he’s energetic, articulate, intelligent, funny, and self-effacing. He talked about his writing process and about the research he did for each book, and then read a little bit from his newest, Gold, and answered questions from the audience.

Cleave’s approach, as a journalist-turned-author, is to investigate “timeless questions in a timely manner.” For Incendiary, the question was, “Why do governments take better care of rich people than poor people?” For Little Bee (published as The Other Hand in the U.K.), the question was, “Should we step outside our comfort zone to bring others into it?” And for Gold, the question was, “How much ambition should we give up in the name of love?”

Olympians, Cleave pointed out, have “a different scale of ambition.” For Olympic athletes, unlike the rest of us, it is “necessary for everyone else in the world to fail” for them to win. Rivalries are intense; but rivalry is similar to “romantic love…[it] lifts both people up better than they could have been individually.” In Gold, Zoe and Kate train together and push each other to be their best, each hoping that her best is the best.

In researching Gold, Cleave interviewed top-level athletes, as well as doctors and nurses at a children’s hospital. “These people operate at such emotional extremes….It’s my job to describe indescribable things…[to visit the] extreme edges [of] exceptional lives and report back.” Cleave also trained on a bicycle himself, discovering a “savage joy” in winning (“That’s why you do the research, to go out and find things you weren’t expecting”), as well as the “unbridgeable gulf” between top athletes and the rest of us. Cleave said that the race scenes between Kate and Zoe are the heart of the book (“reclaiming action for literary fiction”). As a reader I’m not sure I agree, though the race scenes are well-written and intense.

Of the two high-level struggles in Gold – Kate and Zoe’s rivalry, eight-year-old Sophie’s fight against leukemia – Cleave said, the characters either see the difference or they don’t. Kate, as Sophie’s mother, has more often sacrificed ambition for love than love for ambition; Zoe is the opposite, and whether she will or can change is one of the central questions of her character and of the book.

After Cleave read a brief passage from Gold (Kate and Zoe’s coach Tom Voss speaking with Zoe’s agent on the phone, early in the book), there was a Q&A period. The first question was, “How do you write children well?” As a father of three children (or “experimental subjects”), he observes closely, with special attention to speech patterns; Charlie, from Little Bee, was closely modeled on Cleave’s eldest son. “Moments are ephemeral, you have to preserve them,” he said. “I’m nostalgic for the present even before it’s become the past.”

Why, I asked, did all three of his books contain infidelity? “I’m interested in people who are in transition,” he answered. People in steady states aren’t interesting; you don’t see many novels about happy marriages. When characters are in flux/in crisis/changing, “there’s only so much you can change” – your city, your job, your partner. Infidelity isn’t one of Cleave’s “timeless questions,” and his writing about it is remarkably free of judgment.

Another woman in the audience asked how Cleave wrote women characters so well. “Well there is a lot of dressing up involved,” he joked. Asking taboo questions during interviews was one successful tactic; wearing headphones (sound off) in public was another. He then explained an early rule he set for himself: “[I'm] not writing about me.” Counter to the common advice to “write what you know,” Cleave sets out to “cross a boundary every time” he picks up a pen. “I’m very curious about people,” he said, and one can tell from his books that he is a careful listener and close observer indeed.

During the book signing after the reading and Q&A, Cleave was polite and engaging. When I asked him if he had ever considered another outcome for Sophie, he said right away that he had, in the first draft, but he changed it. “Sensitive readers,” however, will pick up on certain sentences that are so full of foreboding that they have nearly the same impact as another outcome would have done. (Sorry if that’s vague; I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

All in all, I now have even more respect for this author than before. If he comes through your city or town on his tour, I encourage you to go see him, and of course I highly, highly recommend picking up a copy of Gold.

Read the Goodreads interview with Chris Cleave.

Chris Cleave’s books on Goodreads: