Posts Tagged Chris Bohjalian

January/February Boston-area Book Readings of Note



Amy Cuddy–Presence

Porter Square Books

Monday, January 18 at 7pm

the guest room

Chris Bohjalian–The Guest Room

Wellesley Books

Tuesday, January 19 at 7pm

your heart

Sunil Yapa–Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

Harvard Book Store

Tuesday, January 19 at 7pm

poor your soul

Mira Ptacin–Poor Your Soul

Harvard Book Store

Wednesday, January 20 at 7pm

the past

Tessa Hadley–The Past

Harvard Book Store

Wednesday, January 27 at 7pm

dogs of littlefield

Suzanne Berne–The Dogs of Littlefield

Brookline Booksmith

Thursday, January 28 at 7pm

Concord Bookshop

Sunday, January 31 at 3pm



Sayed Kashua–Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Harvard Book Store

Thursday, February 18 at 7pm

ethan canin

Ethan Canin–A Doubter’s Almanac

Harvard Book Store

Friday, February 19 at 7pm

highest glass ceiling

Ellen Fitzpatrick–The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency

Harvard Book Store

Thursday, February 11 at 7pm


Hannah Tennant-Moore–Wreck and Order

Harvard Book Store

Wednesday, February 24 at 7pm

on my own

Diane Rehm–On My Own

Harvard Book Store

Monday, February 29 at 7pm

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book review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands


Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian. Publisher: Doubleday (July 2014). Contemporary fiction. Hardcover. 288 pages. ISBN13: 9780385534833.

In Chris Bohjalian’s 17th novel, there’s been a disaster at a nuclear power plant in Vermont. Sixteen-year-old Emily lost both parents who worked there. Her father as an engineer. Her mother the public relations manager. She’s now homeless and fending for herself in Burlington, Vermont. She’s cutting, taking drugs, stealing and working as a prostitute. Told in first-person, the novel jumps from present to past as Emily contemplates her situation. Choppy sentence structure, cadence. It didn’t flow. Some novels do and some don’t.

I like Chris Bohjalian. He’s a nice guy. He’s a good writer. I cried at the end of my favorite of his novels, Skeletons at the Feast. I also truly enjoyed The Sandcastle Girls, Midwives and Secrets of Eden. He adores Mad Men. He likes cats. I follow him on twitter. I’d hoped to like his latest novel, his 18th. Unfortunately it fell flat for me.

Almost stopped reading with the early use of the word beater on page 58 to describe an article of clothing. I saw it used again on another page. Was shocked. For someone who has written about a lot of female characters and particularly battered women and abusive relationships doesn’t Bohjalian realize that by using beater instead of tank top or some other descriptive (he IS a fiction writer) he’s propagating rape culture and violence against women. “Beater” and “wife beater” need to be removed from our collective vocabulary.

Confused that character says of Emily Blunt: “Like Watson, she’s great at women about to go mental.” I’ve seen most Blunt films and can’t think of one example. I asked Bohjalian about this via twitter and he told me that Emily was thinking of The Devil Wears Prada. Yeah, don’t think so. In comparison to Emily Watson’s characters? No. I adore Emily Blunt and Emily Watson. Guess I want their work accurately represented. I realize this is a fictional teenager’s interpretation but still.

I did not care about Emily and that’s unfortunate. Not enough character development. By the end of the novel I should have been invested in this girl. I felt I knew very little about her except for surface things. She likes Emily Dickinson. She keeps journals. She cuts herself. But who is this girl. I felt there wasn’t enough depth or connection for Emily.

RATING: ***/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Doubleday.

purchase at Amazon: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands: A Novel

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in the realm: Summer Reading Part I

[descriptions from Goodreads]


Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian [Doubleday, July 8]
–story of Emily Shepard, a homeless girl living in an igloo made of garbage bags in Burlington. Nearly a year ago, a power plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont had a meltdown, and both of Emily’s parents were killed. Devastatingly, her father was in charge of the plant, and the meltdown may have been his fault—was he drunk when it happened?


Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen [Knopf, July 8]
–It is 1938 when Eveline, a young bride, follows her husband into the wilderness of Minnesota. Though their cabin is rundown, they have a river full of fish, a garden out back, and a new baby boy named Hux. But when Emil leaves to take care of his sick father, the unthinkable happens: a stranger arrives, and Eveline becomes pregnant. She gives the child away, and while Hux grows up hunting and fishing in the woods with his parents, his sister, Naamah, is raised an orphan. Years later, haunted by the knowledge of this forsaken girl, Hux decides to find his sister and bring her home to the cabin.


Euphoria by Lily King
–For years, English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field studying the Kiona tribe of Papua, New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brother’s public suicide, and increasingly infuriated with and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of killing himself when a chance meeting with colleagues, the controversial and consummate Nell Stone and her wry Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just finished their studies of the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s ill health, the couple is ravenous for another new discovery. Together with Bankson they set out to uncover the Tam, a local tribe with an almost mythic existence.

rise and fall

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman [Dial Press, June]
–Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her News arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.

I love you more

I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy [Doubleday, June]
–Picasso Lane is twelve years old when her father, Oliver, is murdered at their summer beach house. Her mother, Diana, is the primary suspect—until the police discover his second wife, and then his third. The women say they have never met—but Picasso knows otherwise.

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BOOKS: Best of 2012 So Far

[these are listed in the order that I’ve read them]

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery [Riverhead, 2012]

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margo Livesey [HarperCollins, 2012]

Stay Awake: stories by Dan Chaon [Ballantine/Random House, 2012]

Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood by Charlotte Silver [2012]

Make It Stay by Joan Frank [Permanent Press, 2012]

Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous [Europa, April 2012]

The Lion is In by Delia Ephron [March 2012]

Guts by Kristen Johnston [March 2012]

Threats by Amelia Gray [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012]

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [Dutton, 2012]

Dirt by David Vann [Harper, April 2012]

I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern [IT Books, 2012]

Lizz Free or Die by Lizz Winstead [Riverhead Books, 2012]

MISS FULLER by April Bernard [SteerForth Press, 2012]

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian [Doubleday, 2012]

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus [Knopf, 2012]

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [Riverhead, 2012]

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields [Pamela Dorman, 2012]

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The Sandcastle Girls: book review

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Publisher: Doubleday (July 2012). Fiction. Hardcover. 299 pages. ISBN: 978-385534796.

Does our past influence our future? How much does our ancestry affect who we are today? Certainly the past changes the future but to what extent? How many people know about the Armenian genocide in 1915 where a million and half Armenians where massacred by the Turks because they weren’t Muslim but were Christian? Did it change what happened merely thirty years later to the Jews in the Holocaust or to the Serbs in Yugoslavia or to those in Darfur? Of course stories need to be told and we must remember every atrocity.

Author Chris Bohjalian quite effectively writes about topics such as midwives, domestic abuse, rape, homeopathy, transgender issues and homelessness. One of my favorite novels of Bohjalian’s is about WWI, The Skeleton Feast. In The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian shifts again to historical fiction and painstakingly magnifies a horrific period of bloodshed when the Turks gathered Armenians for mass exodus from Turkey to Syria to die to be executed or left to die in the desert while England and the United States basically looked the other way from what they viewed as a civil war that would resolve itself.

The novel shifts between present day Bronxville, New York and Aleppo, Syria in 1915. In New York, a 44-year-old novelist researches a photograph, taken during the genocide that may or may not be her Armenian relative. For much of her adult life her father’s shared little of his Armenian heritage with her, particularly the stories of her grandparents that maybe she should know. The present day description of Armenian culture? Fantastic. I live in Boston and have lived in Watertown where many [“at least seven thousand”] Armenians live and where the Armenian Library and Museum of America is located.

In Syria, there’s Elizabeth Endicott, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate and volunteer with Boston-based Friends of Armenia. She, along with her doctor father will be delivering aid and comfort to the refugees from the Armenian genocide. She meets two refugees and takes them into her care for the duration of her stay—a young woman and a little girl. With depth and heartfelt clarity, through Nevart and Hatoun, readers can envision this unimaginable atrocity via their distinctive lenses.

Elizabeth also meets Armen, an Armenian engineer who lost his wife and young daughter. Both see unbelievable suffering, cruelty and misery. It strengthens their bond. The pair change and grow through their shared and individual experiences. Motivated both by her desire to help and in a feeling that she’s truly contributing something, Elizabeth stays behind when her father returns to Boston. The wealthy Boston Brahmin and Armen fall in love while writing letters when he leaves to join the British army in Egypt.

This is a bold work of historical fiction with memorable characters, meticulous details and a story with a credible twist. Bohjalian describes bitter circumstances in the orphanages, the camps and in the hospital. Many scenes with vulgar, inhumane soldiers will make you cringe. It’s war. It’s a massacre. It’s not pretty. It’s one of those little talked about secret histories. The Sandcastle Girls is a potent novel that may change your outlook on humanity.

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purchase at Amazon: The Sandcastle Girls: A Novel

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book review: Secrets of Eden

Title: Secrets of Eden
Author: Chris Bohjalian
ISBN: 978-0307394972
Pages: 384
Publisher: Shaye Areheart Books; First Edition, First Printing edition (February 2, 2010)
Category: contemporary fiction
Review source: Shaye Areheart Books
Rating: 4/5

Now, Stephen Drew wasn’t using some poor woman’s face as a floor sander, and he wasn’t inflicting himself on some defenseless middle-school girl. (Note I am not being catty and adding “as far as we know.” Because in my opinion, we do know: He wasn’t.) But he certainly abused his place and his power, and he sure as hell took advantage of women in his congregation. For a minister, the guy had ice in his veins. Lived completely alone, didn’t even have a dog or a cat. He really creeped me out once when he went off on this riff about the Crucifixion as a form of execution. Very scholarly, but later it was clear that even his lawyer had wished he’d dialed down the serial-killer vibe.

Author Chris Bohjalian continues to challenge himself and his readers by delving into controversial and provocative topics. Secrets of Eden is a page-turner about domestic violence and what at first appears to be a murder-suicide in a small Vermont hamlet. The story is told from four points of view: from town Pastor Stephen Drew, who remained close to Alice Hayward well after their affair ended; from the well-meaning and dogged prosecutor Catherine Benincasa; from Heather Laurent, a best-selling author who suffered the same thing in her teenage years and now sees Angels; and from the Hayward’s teenage daughter Katie, who witnessed her father beating and verbally abusing her mom for years. As a story-telling technique it works quite well for Secrets of Eden as we gain insight from those intimately involved (Stephen and Katie) as well as an outsider’s perspective (Catherine and Heather). What Bohjalian leaves us with is an exquisitely crafted whodunit as well as an expose on domestic violence and its tragic consequences. A compelling read, Secrets of Eden is truly memorable and a conversation starter.

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book review: Skeletons at the Feast



Title: Skeletons at the Feast

Author: Chris Bohjalian
ISBN: 978-1-84737-314-4
Pages: 363
Release Date: February 10, 2009 (paperback)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review source: personal copy
Rating: 5/5




Anna understood on a level that was more intellectual than visceral that aging represented a steady winnowing of a life’s possibilities. She grasped death from bullets and bombs and bayonets far better than she did death from old age and cancer. But she was not uncomprehending of the reality that the infinite steadily contracted, the options narrowed, and eventually one’s future would be as shallow as a spoon. As predictable—and enervating—as the mud that followed the first thaws in March. And so as they walked on toward Stettin, three more days beneath a dreary, ever-lowering sky, in her mind she recited a litany of names. Yes, they did get distracted. All of them. They were distracted as much by their memories of what—of whom—they had lost as they were by what loomed before them. Gone, she thought, at least for the moment, was Werner. And disappeared behind him into that great fog of battle were her father and Helmut. Her twin. Then there was her mother’s brother, dead, as well as the obdurate man’s daughter and daughter-in-law and grandson. There were Klara and Gabi, not certainly dead but most likely dead. Russians, two killed in a barn in the midst of an act of inexplicable kindness. No, that wasn’t right: It wasn’t an act of kindness at all. They were stealing everything her family had: They had simply chosen not to rape and murder her in the process. Funny how war altered one’s definition of mercy.

Skeletons at the Feast highlights an aspect of WWII that many people may know little about: when the Third Reich finally was losing ground in Germany, Russian forces started to take over the countryside and people began to flee their homes in an attempt to reach Allied Forces (British and American) across the lines of the Third Reich. Chris Bohjalian depicts the horrors and the disregard for humanity and numerous despicable moments in this unforgettable work of historical fiction. Bohjalian makes the story much more powerful by adding memorable details: soldiers raping, humiliating and killing young girls and babies; a girl at a camp who survives due to the boots her boyfriend gave her before the war; trading family jewelry for beets and potatoes, entire wagons of Jewish prisoners being burned alive, discussions about banned German books, listened to the verboten BBC radio, the Hitler Youth, a woman having her period and having a riding crop forced inside her vagina by an SS guard.

Skeletons at the Feast focuses on the Emmerich family, Prussian aristocrats. 18-year-old Anna is the central figure. Her lover, Callum Finella, is a Scottish prisoner of war, who had been brought to work at her family farm. Her mother Mitti and younger brother Theo join the group that embarks on this bitter winter journey. Uri Singer, a German Jew who escaped from Auschwitz, and has taken the identity of a Wehrmacht corporal joins them on the journey. Skeletons at the Feast painstakingly describes the details of their relationships, struggles, feelings, and reaction to the war-torn countryside.

–review by Amy Steele

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 Skeletons at the Feast Paperback

The very kind Chris Bohjalian managed to answer some questions via email between radio interviews [he’s currently off on tour].

Amy Steele: You mentioned finding a journal that sparked the idea for Skeletons at the Feast. What interested you about writing a book about WWII?

Chris Bohjalian: I have always loved reading big, sweeping, epic World War II love stories – novels such as Sophie’s Choice, The English Patient, and Atonement. That was one factor.

But there was also this: In the past my novels have had, by design, a ripple of moral ambiguity to them. Not this time: World War II was a conflict without moral ambiguity. There was good and there was evil, and good triumphed. That was a factor that drew me to the subject, too.

Finally, there is the reality that the women and men who survived the Holocaust are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Many of the people I interviewed – the Holocaust survivors and the Germans – were telling their story for one of the last times in their lives.  It was important to me to get their memories down for subsequent generations.

STEELE: It amazes me that there are so many untold stories of WWII still to be told. The Russian invasion of Germany is not talked about often. What do we learn from the past and WWII in particular?

CB: Well, we learned that the Greatest Generation really was pretty great.  That’s one thing.

We also learned that some people’s fortitude and courage and resilience are profound.

But, sadly, we also saw that the human capacity for barbarism is limitless, too. 

And, sadly, as we gaze around the globe and look at the post World War II world – Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur – we just don’t seem to be evolving in that regard.

STEELE: It’s such a difficult subject and you add all these crucially integral details: the basic disregard for humanity—raping young girls/pillaging, Uri who steals SS officer’s identity, discussion of literature/ listening to the BBC, the Hitler youth, Cecile in the camp, the friends who are so verbal in hatred of the Jews… How much research goes into a novel like this? Do you research before you write or as you go?

CB: I do an enormous amount of research, both before writing and as I am writing.

And I do all of my interviewing myself. In this case, that was especially important. I wanted to hear firsthand the stories of the Survivors and the stories of the German refugees.  There is often an inflection in an answer or a small gesture that teaches a person more than a transcript of an interview.  Moreover, by doing the interviews myself I have the chance to ask follow-up questions I might not have thought of, and to explore avenues I hadn’t anticipated.



STEELE: What is most important to you when writing a novel?

CB: Giving readers a good story – one that makes them really want to keep turning the pages.

STEELE: What is your favorite aspect of this story?

CB: This novel has some of my favorite characters – people like Anna and Cecile and Uri and Theo.  This is the first time I have finished writing a book and been sad that it was done.  I missed those characters and wanted to spend more time with them.

And, of course, I always think of the extraordinary people I met in my research, and my friend’s mother – the diarist’s daughter.  She was a 16-year-old when she and her family made that unbelievably arduous trek west across Poland and Germany in 1945.  She’s a remarkable woman.

STEELE: You have a beautiful old house in Burlington, Vermont which seems like an idyllic setting in which to create novels. Why do you like living there and how has it affected your writing?

CB: Actually, I have a beautiful old house an hour from Burlington. I live in a village of barely a thousand people halfway up Vermont’s third highest mountain.

Writers talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about finding their voice. I found my voice in rural Vermont. I never would have written books such as Midwives or The Double Bind had I not moved there.

And while I might have written a World War II love story, it wouldn’t have been Skeletons at the Feast because I wouldn’t have become friends with a wonderful guy (and his family) whose mother and grandmother made that long walk across Europe, and whose grandmother kept a diary.

STEELE: You’ve written novels about vastly different topics. How are you able to switch from one to another? What do you do for down time between novels?

CB: There is no down time between novels.  I finish one and embark on the next.  Really, I write every day, and I have to write something.

STEELE: Why do you write?

CB: The mortgage. 

I’m kidding – sort of.  There is a certain artistic passion that drives any novelist or poet (recall Rilke’s inspiring words on this subject), but it is also a lovely way to make a living. 

STEELE: What is the greatest challenge of being a novelist?

CB: In my case, it is battling back an ever present inferiority complex – that sense of my own mediocrity.  Every month I seem to read a novel that is better than anything I will ever write in my life.

STEELE: What is in your to-be-read pile?

CS: A forthcoming collection of short stories by Jabari Asim, A Taste of Honey, and Audrey Niffengger’s Her Fearful Symmetry

STEELE: What advice do you give to someone who wants to start a novel and just cannot start writing?

CS: Aspiring writers can find my thoughts on this at length on my blog

STEELE: Where do most of your ideas come from?

CS: Usually from people I meet.  They tell me a story or show me a photo or ask me to look at a diary – and I am off and running.

 STEELE: Your publicist sent me an ARC of Secrets of Eden— another topical and potent subject—domestic violence. Cannot wait to read this one. How did this novel come about?

CS: Thank you.  Secrets of Eden is a literary thriller in the tradition of The Double Bind and Midwives.  It’s about a domestic abuse murder-suicide with a twist; it seems the husband did not shoot himself after he strangled his wife, as everyone initially assumed.  Someone else shot him. 

The idea grew from the stories women told me after The Double Bind was published.  The reality is that violence against women in this country is absolutely epidemic.

Chris Bohjalian will be  at the Concord Festival of Authors Breakfast with the Authors on November 7.

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