NY Times Book Club

Every week, I read the Sunday NY Times. Along with breakfast and a leisurely coffee, I can relax for at least an hour or two dipping into its different sections. Surprisingly, I find the Business section quite interesting and of course, there’s the Opinion pieces and competition between my husband and I over who gets to read that first. But I digress.

Two weeks ago, I noticed a full page ad for the Times’ book club inviting subscribers to join a discussion of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. I’d never read any of Wharton’s fiction, but I did read her WWI diaries – a fascinating look at Paris and other parts of France during that terrible conflict. Those diaries gave me tidbits of inspiration as I wrote Lies Told In Silence. A NY Times discussion of an author who wrote in the late 19th and early twentieth century sounded like a great idea to me, so I signed up.

Edith Wharton – source Goodreads

If you’re interested in a synopsis of The Custom of the Country, you can check it out here.

The main character, Undine Spragg, is a Midwestern girl who attempts to ascend New York society. Needless to say, those of influence in NYC are at first not the slightest bit interested in a brash, grasping young woman whose only attractive feature is her beauty. That is, not until the son of a family from established New York ‘aristocracy’ decides to marry her.

Claire Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children, presented the novel along with details of Edith Wharton’s background and writing career – apparently Edith wrote her first book at 40 and has many works to her credit, including novels, poetry, novellas, non-fiction, and short stories.

Claire Messud called The Custom of the Country a ‘comedy of manners’ that was written during a time when Wharton was divorcing her husband Teddy Wharton and relocating to Paris. Messud suggested that Undine Spragg – the initials US being significant – is an indomitable heroine of unwavering ambition. Watching the chat comments it was clear to me that many of those attending disliked the heroine intensely – my opinion as well.

What was it like to participate in a book club of more than 4000 people? Actually, there was no participation – unless you call a chat column that scrolled so quickly you couldn’t really read it participation. However, I did appreciate Claire Messud’s presentation and her enthusiasm for both Wharton and The Custom of the Country and I applaud the New York Times’ book club venture.

I think I’ll try Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence next.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A ‘Shultz Hour’

source: Macali Communications

A departure from historical fiction to consider life in general. One of my favourite newspapers is the New York Times. We get the Sunday NYT in Toronto as well as reading it whenever we’re in the US and I almost always find time to read the Op-Ed section. (I like the Sunday business section but that’s another story.)

On April 18th David Leonhardt wrote Why You’d Benefit from a Shultz Hour, which spoke to me.

Leonhardt draws wisdom and perspective from George Shultz, a former Secretary of State who dedicated one hour a week for uninterrupted reflection. Leonhardt uses that notion to talk about the search and need “for a reprieve from our smart-phone addled lives”. Further, he makes the connection between taking time for such idleness and creativity. Such “task-negative” time according to Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University is “responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable.”

Hmmm … I’m in the business of creativity. Better start having my own Shultz hour!

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.


Is Fiction Changing for Better or Worse?

In its online home, The New York Times offers a series of topics under the banner Room for Debate. One of these topics discusses whether fiction is changing for better or worse. Having read what all six debaters had to say along with many comments offered by readers, I’ve concluded that most are optimistic about the novel’s place in our world.

This is good news.

Jane Smiley “In our dangerous world, the freedom and empathy that fiction develops in its readers remain essential.”

Matt de la Pena “We’ve grown terrified of sadness and self-reflection, and we actively avoid ideas that challenge.” De la Pena seems less optimistic.

Robin Sloan “Novels, on the other hand, are just about the most durable home for words we’ve yet discovered.” Sloan argues that new forms of writing prompted by technology are far less durable.

Thomas Glave “For it is at last undeniable that for all of us, wherever we may be, the opportunity to experience other people’s stories — their fiction — is a powerfully human one, that requires the uncommon and invaluable skills of careful listening and the ability to enter the lives of people different from ourselves.”

William Deresiewicz “the novel continues to do what it has always done best: compile the atlas of private experience, show us what it feels like to be alive at our particular time and place.”

Historical fiction is a particular type of novel. Survey participants responded to a question about why they enjoy this type of fiction.

What do these responses suggest?

To be fair, I did not frame the question to reflect whether historical fiction is better or worse, but look at the number one reason for reading this type of novel: to bring the past to life, appreciating how people lived and coped in very different times.

The stories of the past are highly relevant today which seems to me to resonate with Smiley, Glave and Deresiewicz. I would also argue that this top response is consistent with what Sloan has to say given that the notion of reading about history emphasizes the popularity of durable stories.

Just a thought.