All because of Aaron Sorkin: how the West Wing changed me

The internet is aflutter with excitement about Aaron Sorkin’s new television show, The Newsroom. All kinds of questions are being asked: how will Sorkin write a Republican protagonist? Where’s Bradley Whitford? Will The Newsroom air anywhere besides the US?

Here’s what I’m asking: will it change lives?

Because The West Wing changed mine.

For a long time, my friends in London had been telling me I should watch it. “It’s all about politics,” they’d say. “You like politics.” They were right. Once I gave in, the show took over my life. I began to get irresistible cravings for episodes. At the end of season seven, bereft and grieving, I began to tweet my sorrow at there being no new episodes, and that was the beginning of several beautiful friendships – with Twitter itself, and with several fellow fans whom I met along the way.

And something surprising happened in me as I watched: I fell in love with the English language.

As a child and teenager, I wrote prolifically — in French, which is my mother tongue. When we moved back to the UK, and English became my dominant language, I did not feel so inspired. French, I was convinced, was superior. It was beautiful. English was not.

But that was before Aaron Sorkin convinced me otherwise. His mastery of the language awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. “Oratory should raise your heart rate,” says one of his characters, and that is exactly what his words did for me.  I began to devour novels. I began to itch to write again.

Sorkin assumes an intelligent viewer, and yet still teaches them a multitude of things. He doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. And in the language itself there is poetry, too, and rhythm:

“Nice job on the speech,” says one character to another, Sam Seaborn, in the third season.

“How did you know I wrote it?” he asks her.

She quotes some of its phrases. “We did not seek, nor did we provoke… We did not expect, nor did we invite…”

“A little thing called cadence,” Sam replies, and you get the sense that Aaron Sorkin is winking at his viewers through those lines.

Sorkin is also skilled at developing complex and memorable characters, avoiding, for example, the liberal temptation to paint all Republicans as evil.  Life is not black and white, and nor should fiction be if it is to be believable.

Josh Lyman – deftly played by Bradley Whitford – is one such character: arrogant, brilliant, and deeply wounded. He is also at the center of a will-they-won’t-they storyline which kept many viewers hooked; I wanted my writing to do that, too. The restraint which Aaron Sorkin showed in not getting Josh and his assistant Donna together too soon – and the resulting tension – is one of the defining features of the show. I wanted to create characters as compelling as Josh and Donna; I wanted my stories, like Sorkin’s, to reflect the complexities of life in general and romance in particular.

So it was that walking home one summer Saturday after a morning of French teaching, an unexpected thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be fun to tutor Bradley Whitford?  And that was the start of my first novel, in which someone very much like me teaches French to someone a little like him, who inspires her to move to Washington DC and (many years later) become a Senator.

Given the source of my inspiration, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would provide the backdrop to the story. My friends in London had been right: this wasn’t a new interest. I chose Sociology in my last two years of high school and almost studied Social and Political Science at University. I was once passionate about that stuff. And The West Wing prodded at that, too. Prodded and poked and awoke the beast.

And of course, I had to visit Washington, and the city stole my heart. Maybe it was the majesty of the monuments or the colors of autumn: we don’t have the deep, deep red of the maple tree in Europe. Maybe it was the surreal sense of stepping into a fictional world that had seemed only to exist on screens and in my imagination. Maybe it was eavesdropping on high-level conversations in classy restaurants. Maybe it was the abundance of literary events and of bookshops with names like Politics and Prose. Maybe – most likely of all – it was the fact that my writing feels intricately bound up with DC and the corridors of political power. Hard to tell. But I knew I wanted to live there.

Writing, by then, had become a serious passion; I began to dream about studying it full-time. And when I dream, I reach for Google. I typed in “MFA” and “DC”, omitting “two birds”, “one stone”. And it came up with American University, a place which not only offered exactly what I needed in terms of the course but which also –  oh, happy day! — was rated number one nationally for its political involvement.

I applied but wasn’t accepted. Would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my admissions essay and sent in a better writing sample the following year, and this time it was a yes.

I’ll be moving to DC in August. Perhaps to embark on a whole new chapter of my life complete with best-selling novels, a part-time voluntary job at the Democratic Party, and my very own Josh Lyman. Or perhaps just for a two-year adventure. But either way, it’s because of Aaron Sorkin. It’s because of The West Wing.

Claire’s Week in Books, 20th – 27th September


I don’t want to speak too soon, but it’s just about possible that I am over the worst of my book slump. It’s been two months of not really being able to concentrate on reading, for various reasons, but over the last eight days I have at least finished two that I’ve been reading for a while.


Charis, by Preston Sprinkle

charisThis is my one-chapter-per-Sunday book, so I’ve been reading it for a long time. It’s an exploration and illustration of what grace means – God’s unearned favour for the thoroughly undeserving, i.e. all of us. It’s a radical and life-changing thing when understood properly, and this book was a great way to remind myself of that.

Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton Tiny Pretty Things

A very different kind of grace in this one – the physical kind. Not much grace evidenced in relationships, though – lots of catty competitiveness among elite teenage ballerinas. Competition for the top ballet spots, of course, but also for boys and attention and love and identity. I would not want to be friends with many of these characters, but they were so fun to read about. And the ending was perfect, and I’ll be thinking about it for days.


My book buying had slumped lately, too, in part I think because of my guilt at never finishing books, but on Saturday I popped into the Strand bookstore in NYC with no clear intention of buying anything, and I came out with this pile (oops), plus a tote bag, Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours  (which, counter-intuitively, I came across because it was completely misshelved) and some pens, pencils and a colouring book – I want to see what all this fuss is about, and whether it helps me to relax and/or think creative thoughts…


dear mr writer guyI’d been intrigued about Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy since hearing Dinty Moore speak about writing on the topic of celebrities at AWP this year. The book was half price, and he had me at the first paragraph of the introduction: “Perhaps you are standing in this bookstore, scanning this introductory chapter wondering just what sort of book you have in hand. You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem only to accentuate your considerable charm. You are intelligent. And immune to flattery.”

Drama was a complete impulse buy, which is rarer than you might think with me and books. It’s a dramagraphic novel – I’ve never readyany – but it’s about theatre nerds at high school, and theatre and acting and that whole world is quickly becoming one of my favourite things to read and write about. And what the heck, it was only $9, and it seemed fun.

the dinnerThe Dinner was another one of those books I’ve picked up a hundred times and meant to read. My agent (have I mentioned I have an agent?) talked about it when I met up with her last month, so I thought I’d move it up the TBR. It was $7 – my general rule at the Strand is that I can only buy things that are cheaper than they would be as eBooks. (Though it’s a rule I break when necessary.) It turns out that one of the characters is named Claire – I’m not sure how I feel about this yet.

Hotel Living comes recommended by Christina Haag, who is one of my favourite writers and one of the hotel livingbest people you’ll ever meet. She says “it’s about sex, loss, the glitter and emptiness of high living, and the search for what connects us”. Um, yes please.

&Sons is another one of those I’ve thought about reading so often it’s almost embarrassing. As far as &sonsI can tell, it’s very much a book about, and for, the literary élite of New York City. And let’s be honest, I kind of aspire to be part of that. Plus, the weather was gorgeous in NYC today, and I enjoyed my walk through the West Village after my deliciously British brunch at Tea and Sympathy, so I was feeling all I-heart-NY-ish, and warm and fuzzy about reading about the city. I didn’t even notice, but this one is signed, too – a bargain at $7.

I was down in the memoir section looking for Arthur Miller’s Timebends – which wasn’t there – when I Come-to-the-edgespotted a copy of Christina Haag’s Come to the Edge. If you’ve talked to me about books for longer than five minutes at any point in the last three years, you’ll know that this book deserves to be much better known – yes, I was skeptical about celebrity memoir too, but this one is a gem. The writing is gorgeous, the emotions authentic, much like the writer herself, and honestly, it’s almost incidental that the story of love and loss is related to American royalty. Anyway – this copy was signed, and in pristine condition (less so after I dropped it from a great height along with a whole pile of others: careful with your Instagramming out there, people), and it felt wrong to just leave it there. I much prefer the hardback version and that’s the one I always buy as a gift – I feel like the cover is a much better reflection of the tone of the book than the paperback cover is – and I always have to do that through Amazon, which quite frankly I would rather not. So now I have a spare one for someone I love – I don’t buy this book for just anyone. It feels like I am giving away a little piece of my soul when I give this book, so I choose carefully.

our townOur Town caught my eye as it sat on a table close to the cheap fiction. My knowledge of plays is shameful, and I’ve been meaning to remedy this for a while. Once I’d seen Our Town, I got out my To-Reads list on Goodreads and found as many of the “I should really read this” as I could – hence also The Real Thing, Doubt, A Streetcar named Desire and Sweeney Todd.

I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for or why I was in the M section, but Paul McLain’s The Paris the paris wifeWife called out to me. One of my friends has told me that I would like it, and she has read quite a few that I’ve recommended to her, so it seemed only fair to pick it up. Especially at Strand prices!


I’ll be reading Remember Me Like This for work reasons: I’m going to be writing a piece on the book and its author for The Writer’s Center, where is has just won a prize. fates and furies I’m also hoping to start Fates and Furies soon. My Twitter feed seemed to be exploding with love for this one on its publication date a couple of weeks ago – and with love for its author, too, which always makes me more likely to want to read a book – and then when Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot mentioned it on the All The Books! Podcast too that day, I figured this was one bandwagon I would jump on. It’s about the complicated twists and turns of a marriage from the point of view of both the husband (fates) and the wife (furies) – I love that stuff, the psychology of love, and it sounds like it’s great and there’s a big twist in the middle. Lauren was a delight to listen to when she talked about her book at Busboys and Poets, and she high fived me about getting an agent and said she couldn’t wait to read my novel, so now of course I’m even more excited about reading hers because it feels like we have some kind of bond. I know: there’s nothing logical or even particularly real about this, though I do think that connecting with an author can enhance the whole reading experience so that what was a good read becomes a great one and what was a great one becomes unforgettable.

Claire’s week in books: Big News!

I don’t have much book news at the moment, if by book news you are expecting the usual reports on books bought, read, looked forward to. On the other hand, I do have my biggest book news ever, which also happens to be life news.

I have an agent!

Agents are, by and large, the people who sell books to editors at publishing houses. They are the gatekeepers, the spam filters. To take your first steps on the publishing ladder, you basically “apply” to an agent by sending them what is known as a query letter – a pithy summary of your novel, a paragraph about yourself, a compelling reason why they are the best agent for your work. Some of them want the dreaded synopsis. (I say dreaded, because think about your favourite film; now think about how much fun it is to have someone else recount the events in the film for you rather than watching it yourself. See?) Most of them want sample pages from the book, but the number can vary from 5 to 50, and, in one case that I came across, the whole manuscript. That’s extremely rare, though. Usually, you have to be “asked for a full”. This happens, for context, almost never. My first novel, Inevitable, which was by no means terrible, got a grand total of zero full requests.

Unscripted is better, though, or at least more publishable, and easier to make into the aforementioned pithy paragraph – or maybe I am just better at it now. I started querying it in April, and on 16th June, after what may or may not have been my 42nd query, I got my first full request. It was a proud moment. It was followed by three more.

After a few weeks, the first one came back with a no – which was a little disappointing, because there wasn’t even a note as to why. This is par for the course with queries – many agents just tell you on their website that if you haven’t heard from them by x date, you may assume thanks but no thanks. Many others send a form rejection – some of which don’t even bother with your name. Really? I wanted to write back. You couldn’t spring for the software that would automatically insert our names? This is all a bit soul destroying, considering the effort that goes into each query letter, and considering too that a little piece of your heart goes out with each of these query letters. It does mean, though, that any hint of a personalization on the rejection note – “this is great writing and an interesting premise; maybe try my colleague?” – is supremely encouraging. Anyway, I had assumed that when people rejected your full manuscript they at least gave you a line or two as to why. Turns out, no they don’t.

It wasn’t as depressing as it could have been, though, because by the time they rejected me I had had another full request. And this one was promising – I had been referred to this agent by a friend of hers, whom I had met on a writing course and who had liked my work enough to consider it worthy of her attention. I sent this agent a letter, mentioning the name, and got an instant and friendly reply, then the hoped-for full request.

I didn’t count my chickens, though. I noticed that July seemed to be a good month for getting replies from agents, so I doubled, quadrupled, my efforts. My aim was to get to 100 agents; after that I would re-assess. I think that I secretly thought that the quicker I got to 100 with no success the quicker I could self-publish and get this book off my to-do list. Self-publishing was never the dream; traditional publishing has always been what I have aimed for. But while I thought Unscripted was good, or at least not bad, no-one on MFA programs ever says to you, “Listen, this is of publishable quality.” It’s actually very hard to tell from people’s comments at a workshop whether a piece is brilliant or utter trifle, because no matter the quality of the piece, it has to be both praised and criticised. Plus, I’ve been through this process before, with a novel I really believed in. So I was hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst. I made it to 70 queries and then one morning (3rd August to be exact) I woke up and I had an email.

This agent had “absolutely adored” Unscripted. Did I have time to speak that day? Um, yes. I thought I could probably make the time. (!!) We played phone tag for a few hours. I sat by my phone until 3 pm, unable to shower or go out to buy milk for coffee just in case that was the moment at which she rang, and certainly unable to concentrate of anything remotely productive. We spoke for two hours. I came off the phone thinking that maybe she loved my novel more than I did. It was amazing. And surreal after all these weeks, months, of not even a bite from other agents, and all these years of having other people opine in workshops as to what I should change, to have someone else “get” my novel, not want it to be anything other than it is, and believe it can sell.

And I get it now, the rejections – some of them, yes, despite what agents’ polite auto responses will tell you, are indications of insufficiently polished writing or ill thought-out plot. But many of them are simply this: the agent didn’t fall in love. And that’s okay. We don’t all fall in love with every book. (Much as I wish everyone would share my impeccable taste.) You don’t want an agent who likes your book and thinks it can sell. You want an agent who loves your book and believes in it more than you do and will go out to bat for it. Who will say to editors, and mean it, you don’t want to be the one to turn this novel down.

I’d been advised to email the other agents who had a full – and, to be safe, basically all the other agents who hadn’t yet explicitly rejected me (and some of whom sprang into action, suddenly wanting to read the book they’d had sitting in their inbox for months). So I had to wait for them to say no before I could officially say yes to Mel, my now agent. I went up to New York to meet her face to face on 17th August. I felt like I was a character in one of my own novels. So surreal. So amazing. So unbelievable that it had finally happened.

The next step – which we’ve just embarked on – was for her to send me suggestions for edits. Both comments scribbled on my manuscript itself at the sentence level, and also broader points, like “we need to know more about x” or “maybe you want to rethink the relationship between these two characters”. The aim at the moment is for me to get these edits to her by the end of September, and then she’ll do another read through, and then I might do a bit more polishing. And then she’ll start pitching publishers. It could all happen comparatively fast. (I could have a deal by October!) It also might not. There might be deals for translations; there might be deals for an audio version; there might not be. But I’m cautiously optimistic.

And, oh my goodness, what having an agent does. It’s so much more than maybe getting a book deal, which is obviously the whole point of everything. It’s validation: someone who knows the industry has declared that you can write, and not only write, but write stuff that others might pay money to read. It’s your friends congratulating you and hugging you and celebrating with you even if they don’t quite know what an agent is or does or why they’re important. It’s being able to hold your metaphorical head high on Twitter when you engage authors in conversation. It’s being able to look straight into someone’s eyes when they ask what you do and say, “I’m a writer”. And that? That is worth every minute of poring over those query letters.

Claire’s Week In Books, 2nd-9th August

Forgive me, readers, for I have, well – not sinned, exactly, but not finished a book in long time. I’m not entirely sure where my reading mojo has gone, though it did disappear around the time I got my iPhone 6, so maybe we’ll blame social networking.

I did, however, acquire some books this week. I finally signed up for Scribd the other week – kind of like Netflix, but for books, although it’s actually more like Hulu in that you have to wait a bit before the newest stuff comes out. Mostly, I’d love to be able to use it to read the books I already own in hardback because they are signed but I don’t want to carry them around with me. Sadly, though, there’s not a lot of frontlist on Scribd – though they do have a lot of audiobooks, and newer books are more often to be found in that format.

I also acquired the following eclectic little collection, all at low, low, prices (thank you, BookRiot!)


The girls from corona del marThe Girls from Corona del Mar, by Rufi Thorpe

I picked this up a few times last summer, each time hoping it was about girls in Spain. It isn’t, but I have it on good authority from my friend Joellyn Powers who has excellent booktaste that this is worth it even without a Spanish setting. (Remember her name, she is also a great writer and it’s only a matter of time before you see it in the bookstores.) We both like novels about female friendship and this one is “a fiercely beautiful debut blazing with emotion: a major first novel about friendships made in youth and how these bonds, challenged by loss, illness, parenthood, and distance, either break or sustain”. Sounds like the $1.99 I spent on it was more than worth it! I’ll report back in due course.

Neanderthal Seeks Human, by Penny Reidneanderthal

This bills itself as a “smart romance”, and NPR’s Linda Holmes seems to agree – it was featured a while back on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. I don’t read a lot of romance (though I make exceptions when there is politics involved) but this sounded like something I would enjoy. I love the quirk and charm of a series called Knitting in the City, and it was free on Amazon, so I decided to give it a try.

modern romanceModern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

And speaking of romance, this book has had quite a lot of buzz (and no doubt a huge advance) lately. I nabbed it for $3.99, and also have the audio on Scribd, which in theory at least may mean that I’ll get through it quicker as I alternate mediums. (When I’ve had to get through long books fast for book club – Life after Life and The Goldfinch – the Whispersync feature on Amazonhas proved very useful. It syncs between book mediums so you can pick up where you left off, in whichever way is most convenient. This way won’t be quite as seamless, but still.) Anyway, talk of format aside, this book is full of witty insight on, well, modern romance and its mores. He co-wrote it with Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist, and I’ve heard there’s a crunching gear shift between the sections rather than a seamless transition between the sections. That’s put me off, but maybe the audio is the solution: since it will all be in Aziz’s voice, maybe I won’t notice so much when it’s not in his, well, voice.


Shamefully empty.


I’m going on a long holiday soon that’s going to involve lots of travel and lots of beach time, so I’m hoping this will help me get my reading mojo back. I’m looking forward to reading these:

Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton Tiny Pretty Things

“Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars in this soapy, drama-packed novel featuring diverse characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school.” What’s not to love about THAT?

Oh! You Pretty Things, by Shanna Mahin oh you pretty things

I do love a good Hollywood novel, and this seems to be a promising one. Side note: what is it about all the pretty things and tiny things and beautiful things in titles at the moment? I plan to read this while I’m in Southern California. Iideally, while I’m on the train going past – but, for once, not stopping in – Los Angeles. This books might make me regret that decision, though.

Claire’s Mid Year Book Round-Up: Really Good Books of 2015 part 2

Last week, I posted about my absolute favourite top three books of the year so far.

the walls around ustiny beautiful thingsIMG_3296

But these were great too:

The Cranes Dance, by Meg Howrey the cranes dance

You could sort of say this novel has changed my life. I had no idea adult ballet lessons existed, and now I do, and I take them twice a week, and it’s wonderful. I know: I’m as surprised as anyone else is by this turn of events. Anyway, that’s beside the pointe (ballet is so punnable, it’s one of my favourite things about it). This book is a fascinating world into the world of dance, through the eyes of a jaded, cynical, ageing (so, mid twenties maybe?) ballerina whose acerbic voice reflects this jadedness and cynicism so well, in such a pleasurable way. Kate Crane’s sister is also a dancer, and they have a highly dysfuctional relationship, in large part because of (possible) mental health issues. This was one of those unputdownable books – especially if you love a deep dive into the mind of a brilliantly drawn character. Bonus: the author was herself a dancer, so you know that everything about that world is (wait for it) on pointe.

frances and bernardFrances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

In the summer of 1957, Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony. She finds him faintly ridiculous, but talented. He sees her as aloof, but intriguing. Afterward, he writes her a letter. Soon they are immersed in the kind of fast, deep friendship that can take over—and change the course of—our lives.

This is a lovely, heartbreaking epistolary novel. I like these quieter books that explore the nooks and crannies of human relationships, particularly those of the will-they-won’t-they variety. All the better if the deeper questions of faith are involved, which they are here. Oh, and lots of New York. Basically, if you liked Christina Haag’s Come To The Edge (which, if you’ve ever talked to me about books, you will be sick of hearing about), you will probably really enjoy this too. The writing is lovely.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerrall the light we cannot see

Speaking of lovely writing… my goodness, this book. Every sentence feels like a poem, but in a really readable, non-pretentious way. I wasn’t sure about reading it – I’m not a huge fan of World War II novels, mainly because of the impending sense of doom and certain knowledge that all the characters I will come to know and love are likely to suffer horribly and/or die horrendous deaths, but when my book club picked this one, I succumbed to the hype surrounding his book. (Another reason I was hesitant to try it, to be honest.) I’m so glad I did – it’s long, but beautiful, and sucks you into the worlds of Marie-Laure, a blind girl, in Saint-Malo, and Werner, a super-talented German boy, whose link is the wonder and magic of radio and its role in World War II.

the wrong side of rightThe Wrong Side of Right, by Jenn Marie Thorne

And now for something completely different, though if you know me and my obsession with politics and political fiction, you won’t be surprised at all. This one is a YA novel about a teenage girl who finds herself at the centre of a media storm when the Republican nominee for President turns up at her house one day and announces he is her father. You certainly don’t have to a political junkie – or, come to think of it, really to know anything about American politics – to empathise and wonder about that predicament, along with the pressures of insta-family and all that entails. The blurb says Aaron Sorkin meets The Princess Diairies on this one – Aaron Sorkin’s named invoked, I suspect, mainly to draw in the likes of me (and hey, it worked). I really enjoyed it: it was the perfect beach read for me – a well told, surprising, non-clichéd, compelling story with vivid characters at its heart.

What are your favourite reads of the year so far?

Claire’s Mid Year Round Up: 2015 in Great Books (so far)

I’ve read some stonkingly good books this year. Here are some of the ones that made it to five stars on my Goodreads account (a privilege reserved for, usually, zero to maybe three books a year), or would have made it to 4.5 stars if Goodreads allowed it, which, Goodreads, whyyyy would you not?

IMG_3296Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (published 2014, paperback 2015)

This has been a critically acclaimed book and a commercial success, and deservedly so. It’s subtle and heartbreaking – if you love dysfunctional families and books that explore the complexities of psychology and relationships and being an outsider, this one’s for you. “Lydia is dead,” it begins. “But they don’t know that yet.” The writing is so moving and perceptive, and we had a fabulous discussion about it at book club. One of our members wondered out loud if the author had been a therapist – that’s the level of intricate insight into the human soul that this book displays. And it will keep you turning pages. Pack it for the beach, as long as you don’t mind something slightly (okay, more than slightly) melancholy with your sand and sunbathing.

The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma (published 2015) the walls around us

Don’t believe them when they tell you this is YA. Or at least, don’t make all the assumptions that at least some of you (and sometimes I) make about YA. Yes, it features teenagers, but if we’re adults, we’ve been teenagers, so why wouldn’t we be able to empathise with teenage narrators? This book is beautifully written, and it’s weird and spooky in the best way. There is ballet (which is how it hooked me) and there are possible ghosts and there is murder and there is prison and there are girls who are meaner (hopefully) than anyone you went to school with. This was unputdownable. There was less ballet than I was hoping for,  but what it lacked in that it made up for in every other way. Read read read. Maybe don’t give it to your sweet and innocent ballet-dancing teenage daughter? But read it yourself. And give it to you all rival dance moms as some kind of subliminal warning. Okay. Maybe I’m getting carried away.

tiny beautiful thingsTiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed     (published 2012)

This is another one I’d kept hearing about, mostly from Rebecca Schinsky on the BookRiot podcast, who always mentions this on the twice-yearly recommendation shows they do, as a great potential gift for so many people. Cheryl Strayed is now famous for her book Wild, though I will always think fondly of her as one of the first people I read in the first semester of the first year on my MFA, in nonfiction workshop. I learned from her, or started to at least, about getting several different essays, from different angles and with different emphases, out of the same basic material from your life. So when I do this now, I inevitably think of her. But I digress.

Before she was known as the author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed was the anonymous Dear Sugar on The Rumpus website – an agony aunt of sorts, if agony aunts were endowed with ruthless compassion, profound honesty, and excellent prose. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of these columns. I know: you’re skeptical. So was I. But after I listened to her new podcast, which she shares with Steve Almond, I decided to give it a go. No regrets! It is moving and eloquent, and never predictable. Rebecca Schinsky is right! (I don’t know why I ever doubted her.) There is something in this book for everyone.

I listened to this one on Audio. Cheryl reads it herself, and it’s wonderful. It’s also practical if you like your audiobooks in chunks just big enough to cover your walk to the Metro, your four stops on the Red Line, and then your very short walk to the dance studio. (Yes, there may be a theme to this post, too.) But, be warned: if, like me, you use audiobooks for commutes and in otherwise public places, you might have to get good at biting your lower lip or the inside of your cheek to stem the inevitable flow of tears: for me, it was the very first and the very last letter that were most dangerous.

But that’s not all! These books were great too. I’ll tell you about them next week.

frances and bernardall the light we cannot seethe cranes dancethe wrong side of right

Claire’s Week in Books: Fabulous Brown Alumnae Edition

There’s been a bit of a theme to my book buying over the last couple of weeks: these three books are all great (I say this in faith because I have only read two of them at this point), all have a Brown University link, and are all written by lovely women whom I have met (though admittedly only two of them would have any idea who I am).


Come to the Edge, by Christina Haag

I am forever losing Audible credits because I forget to use them, so I got ahead of the curve and bought a book I knew I would want to revisit. Christina Haag’s moving and beautiful memoir of love and loss, Come to the Edge, is one of my all-time favourites. I already have the hardback and the Kobo versions. (I went to Providence last year and owed it to myself to sit in or close to some of the places described in this book and re-read the relevant passages), but I hadn’t brought it with me.) Anyway, I’m long due a reread of this gorgeous book, but there are so many books and there is so little time, so my plan is to use audiobooks for rereads. Christina reads it herself, and she’s an accomplished actress, and has also become my friend, so I’m looking forward to this. My original review of it is here. This book captured my heart and I want it to capture everyone else’s, too – it deserves it. Buy it for yourself and then buy it for everyone else you know. You won’t regret it.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, by Adelle Waldman

Another book I technically already own, on Kindle – it was one of my favourite reads of 2014, and when I found out that its the love affairs of nathaniel pauthor, Adelle Waldman was teaching a writing workshop at Sarah Lawrence this June, and that it was particularly going to be focused on the psychology of characters, I jumped at the chance to take it. I’m still pinching myself that I got the opportunity to learn from such an accomplished, insightful writer. And of course, I wanted the book, signed by her, to take away so I could prove to myself that it had really happened. I definitely intend to read it again at some point too – it’s funny, insightful, and mildly terrifying to anyone wanting a relationship (or in one) with a thirty-something male. In a good way, I think. It feels to me like she nailed the interiority of the commitment phobic young man, and I’ve yet to find a guy who has disagreed with me. Like Christina Haag, Adelle Waldman is a Brown grad and a lovely person. I wonder if there’s some kind of correlation there.

Dear Mr You, by Mary-Louise Parker

dear mr youOkay, fine: Mary-Louise Parker is not a Brown grad, but she played one on TV: Amy Gardner is a very divisive character on The West Wing and I alternate between loving to hate her and hating to love her, and these feelings were in large part the inspiration behind my first novel, Inevitable. I’m very lucky and very excited to have got hold of an Advanced Review Copy of her memoir. I have to admit I’m not a big fan of either the title or the cover, but I have been impatient to read this since I first heard about it what feels like forever ago. It’s a collection of letters to the men in her life – some real, some imagined – and I’ve got to say, I love this idea, and wish I had thought of it myself. (Though everything I’ve ever written could essentially be interpreted as a letter to one particular man, but I digress.) I’ve also heard good things about how well written it is, which doesn’t surprise me. I saw her in a play, Heisenberg, a week ago and she was phenomenal, and really lovely to me when I waited for her at stage door. This might be the book I am most excited about in the whole of 2015. It comes out officially on 10th November and I am crossing everything that there will be a book event at Politics and Prose for this one so I can get it signed and say all the things I wimped out of saying when I saw her in New York.