When you are a book publicist, the choices to read are boundless. I’m looking at a pile of books that just arrived, and am wondering which book to pick first. If I spend the weekend reading a particular book, will the author hire me? If not, have I wasted my time?
The book that piques my interest the most, I must confess, is somewhat sensational and salacious, but definitely media driven: SEX LOVE AND MONEY: Revenge and Ruin in the World of High-Stakes Divorce by Gerald Nissenbaum, J.D. and John Sedgwick (Hudson Street Press/The Penguin Group).
Salacious because there is a lot of talk about sex. Sensational because the characters involved are some of the wealthiest people in the country (their names have been changed) but their actions are crass and selfish and expose the basest traits in human behavior.
Some of the stories read like fiction and the book is hard to put down. As Nissenbaum says in his book, the stories “contain the truths that make fiction jealous.”
“Sure,” Nissenbaum says, “These are divorce cases, but really they’re life studies. Divorce reveals the full range of human behavior, from the good to the very, very bad….Divorce rarely involves murder, but my cases have plenty of theft, battery, tax evasion, kidnapping, drug taking, verbal and physical and sexual abuse, willful destruction of property, and illicit sex of every sort, from the adulterous to the utterly perverse. Because divorce cases entail the love and betrayal that go into every marital meltdown, these stories have enough emotion for a century of soap operas—jealously, rage, lust, passion, vengeance, mourning, spite, revulsion.”
The stories are surely riveting. What is it about the basest side of human nature that holds us in its grip, that seduces us into reading about the actions and motives of people behaving badly and shamelessly? Suffice it to say that we humans revel in the scurrilous behavior of others. Witness the national media obsession with Tiger Woods, whose actions are really only accountable to his wife and children—the family that he betrayed--and to a lesser extent, those admirers who feel let down by a public figure they looked up to and held to a higher standard.
Do we embrace others’ sins against their lovers and spouses because we are relieved it hasn’t happened to us (at least not yet)? Or are we empathizing with the betrayed or betrayer because it has? Either way, the public outing of those who have betrayed their lovers still engages us and holds us captive.
But these very public displays of adultery and betrayal, whether we are watching a confession on TV or reading about them on the written page, even though they can be as addictive as a thriller, ultimately do not enrich our lives. Which is why, this weekend, I am returning to a gem of a book I found in my mother’s collection after she passed away, and that has sat on my shelf unread for many years: JOHN BURROUGHS TALKS: His Reminiscences and Comments As Reported by Clifton Johnson.
Burroughs was a naturalist who preferred the country to the city. He lived during the Civil War and the later part of the 19th century into the early 20th century. His reflections bring us back to a time when people walked through meadows and woods to town, or to return home from a train trip to the city. When Burroughs describes his rural surroundings, or the different birdsongs he spends his time listening to, my spirit and soul soars to those woods, meadows and mountains he so loving describes.
But the more things change, the more they remain the same. If you think that our newspapers have traveled down the dirty path that was once as pristine as the woods and meadows Burroughs describes, think again. Burroughs may have indeed been amazed by the progress of today's media--the different forums-- but not by the content of much of it.
As Burroughs said in March of 1896, “In fact, the newspapers in general don’t measure up to their opportunities. They have been losing influence for years back—particularly the papers published in the big cities. Some of them sold themselves to the devil long ago. There are certain ones so bad I wouldn’t have them in my house….You get paper enough to make a bedquilt, and the reading is mostly trash…Yes, the majority of the newspapers, in what they print and in typography, fall far short of good taste.”
Which is why I consider myself blessed to have to make such difficult decisions everyday: What shall I read next? If I don't want to read about the latest celebrity or political scandal, there are so many wonderful books being published every day to choose from. I have a personal list of books I hope to get to as well as the many compelling, satisfying and often riveting books such as SEX LOVE AND MONEY that are sent to me by prospective clients: books that entertain and books that enrich me; books that educate and inform; and books that enhance--and sometimes change-- my life and make lasting impressions. I have enough choices to satiate every longing, desire and need to fill eternity—and then some.
I was profoundly moved by Gail Godwin’s UNFINISHED DESIRES. I have read most of her books, having begun my literary fascination with Ms. Godwin with one of her early novels, A MOTHER AND TWO DAUGHTERS.
When I read during the Christmas holiday week that UNFINISHED DESIRES, about an all-girls Catholic High School, was coming out in January, my only wish was that it had come out during the Christmas break, when I traditionally spend my week off taking a reading vacation. A review I read after the holidays by Lauren Bufferd in BookPage increased my anticipation for the latest Godwin novel: “It’s only January, but if you plan on reading just one great novel in 2010, this might be it,”
UNFINISHED DESIRES was definitely worth the wait. I savored this evocative novel that captures so realistically the spirit, conflicts, competition and rivalries, the jealousies and dynamics that occur in an all-girls Catholic high school.
The novel is set at The Academy of Mt. St. Gabriel, a school located in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. I attended an all-girls’ Catholic high school, The Academy of Mt. St. Ursula, in the Bronx. The settings and school names may be different, and the girls from different demographics, but therein the differences end.
UNFINISHED DESIRES recounts the life of the headmistress, Mother Ravenel, while she presided at Mt. St. Gabriel’s, and especially one year in 1952. The repercussions of an incident that occurred in that year almost brought her down and still haunts her in her old age. The plot’s suspense revolves around that incident—one that was conceived by a headstrong student whose mother attended Mt. St. Gabriel’s and was a classmate of Mother Ravenel’s.
There are many twists and turns in this novel, which is not full of high drama, but is one of delicious detail. And it’s the details in this wonderfully rendered novel, the relationships and friendships between the girls, their teachers, the headmistress and the relationships of the headmistress, that make it so poignant, realistic and worth the read.
I have the fondest memories of my education at Mt. St. Ursula. I will be attending my 40th high school reunion this spring. UNFINISHED DESIRES brought me back to a time of innocence, where the biggest problems we faced were test scores, not getting a call from a Fordham boy we had a crush on, a hurt classmate who did not get asked to the Fordham prom and you did, calling up a boy you had a crush on and asking him to the Sophomore Tea. And, yes, there was jealousy, competition, rivalries and conflicts at my high school. Where in life are there not? But they were healthy rivalries and competition among us and understandable jealousies that never took on the bizarre and sordid nature we read about in the news.
Ours was a close-knit class of 200 girls. Shortly after reading UNFINISHED DESIRES, I was asked by my high school to write a letter to my classmates encouraging them to attend our 40th reunion. I was honored. My memories were already back at the Mount for several days before the request came after reading UNFINISHED DESIRES.
Some of my happiest days and fondest memories were of the four years I spent at the Mount. UNFINISHED DESIRES brought them all back.
I urge anyone who has attended an all girl’s Catholic High School to run to your nearest bookstore or library and get this book. It is a must-read! And for those who attended a co-ed public or co-ed Catholic school, read this book for your own edification. As Lauren Bufferd in her review for BookPage adds, “…the wise, human story [Godwin] tells reaches beyond the boundaries of region and religion, satisfying any reader looking for a good story.”
UNFINISHED DESIRES has received rave reviews in many publications, including in The New York Times, which hailed it as "reserved yet powerful" … "Godwin has created several deeply affecting characters."
Following is another excerpt of Lauren Bufferd’s rave review in BookPage:
“Complex intergenerational relationships of blood, friendship and passion abound in this powerful novel. Best friends jockey for position, closeness threatens to spill over into physical intimacy and the power struggles between mothers and daughters, teachers and students seethe and swarm.”
To read the entire review, go to http://www.bookpage.com/books-10012714-Unfinished+Desires