23 September 2010

Book Review
I read the first few pages and I was suddenly afraid.  Afraid to put this down even for a quick break because it deserved my complete focus on it, each tortured character demanding that I listen to their voice, their story.  I didn't want to miss a thing, no matter whether disturbing or unsettling, and I certainly didn't want to forget a single moment that the characters experienced.

I received The Gin Closet from the author
, Leslie Jamison, and am upset that I couldn't read it sooner than when I first received it.  I was trapped within so many commitments, both in my professional and personal life, that it wasn't until this week that I could devote the time it truly warranted.  I was flying out to Minneapolis for a meeting, and the author's copy came along for the flight.

The book is told from two perspectives in the first person:  Stella and Tilly.  Stella is the daughter of a high-powered immigration lawyer, Dora, and the granddaughter of Lucy, who in her ailing years reveals a secret that no one has talked about.  There is another, a daughter of Lucy's that has never been spoken of.  Stella, broken though she may be, is determined to find this aunt, someone named Matilda who goes by Tilly.  When she finds her, Tilly is surrounded by empty bottles of gin in a run-down trailer in the middle of the desert.  But it's something that Stella can grasp onto in the mired sadness of her life -- again, maybe someone she can try to help.  She convinces Tilly that they should pack everything up, get her dry and sober on the trip, and move together to San Francisco, where Tilly's son is a rich banker with plenty of space in his home, and plenty of his own quiet grief to share. Stella and Tilly really almost are the same person, their experiences painfully different and similar all at the same time.  Is that possible?  It almost felt like I was reading a song:
It was a closet, not the bedroom.  I could see dim shapes:  bottles glinting on the floor and the ghostly ribs of a turkey carcass. There was a small stool tucked into the corner.  I could pick out flies buzzing in the blackness.  The mess rotted quietly, like a festering wound.  I pulled a chord.  A naked bulb sparked dirty light into the dark, showing an inflatable mattress covered with plastic bottles:  empty handles of gin, too many to count.  The air reeked like a drunk's breath.  There was a pink blanket bunched into one corner, the kind of candy shade a child might choose. (p. 94)

I felt guilty as I read this book -- each character's troubled story touched me and I felt ashamed that I was enjoying reading about their terrible miseries, rooting though I may have been for them to overcome their tragedies.

This is a story of grief, sadness, isolation.  There were scenes that were uncomfortable and troubling but they were real, completely authentic and believable to each character, and I never felt tricked into any part of this story -- I was a willing reader who wanted a happy ending, but instead I got life's truth.  Leslie Jamison's debut will render you speechless and amazed, and leave you thinking about it for days.

Please read this. Visit Leslie Jamison's site by clicking
Author Interview
I was so excited that Leslie Jamison was not only kind enough to do an e-interview, but also to answer the questions so quickly in time for today’s post (I sent my questions to her last night and I received a response this morning!).  Take a look through the below Q&A -- it was an absolute pleasure to read this book and interact with the author:
1.  This is such a beautifully crafted story.  Every writer always says that they've written since they were a kid, but when do you feel that you felt more comfortable with writing, when the words on the page felt like they were honest and true?
When I graduated from my MFA program in 2006, I was working on a novel that wasn't anything like this one. It was totally concept-driven, about a strange social reality museum, a bit low on the plot, and (I'm not sure what this means) full of male characters. In any case, I never felt at home in its world. I always felt as if I were forcing or twisting emotions into existence on the page. I was working long hours at desk jobs in New York and feeling bitter about it. Then I moved to LA to begin taking care of my grandmother, who was dying, and found I couldn't keep writing that first novel anymore. I just couldn't. There was no energy or inspiration left; the will to write it had dissolved because the book didn't feel important enough. I started writing scenes from my own life instead, without any sense of where they were headed--scenes of caretaking and familial strife and reconnection--and these launched the book on its path. I don't say this because I think that powerful writing has to come from real life, but because I do feel it needs (for me, at least) to flow from an emotional vein that feels urgent. And I think it was important I wrote those early scenes without a clear sense of the larger whole they would fit inside of. I didn't have ambitions for them, I just wanted to get them down.
 2.  Who do you feel helped to shape you and your writing?
Some of the writers who've been most important to me: William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Richard Yates, Mary Gaitskill, Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Charlie D'Ambrosio. But it's my mother who has shaped most deeply the way I try to imagine the lives of other people. She's informed, more than anyone else, my sense of what empathy might look like--the forms it might take--and I want my writing to be an extension of that. I think it has to be.
3.  What contemporary authors do you feel maintain that authentic storytelling, regardless of how disturbing or unsettling an image may be?
Cormac McCarthy and Richard Yates are really great examples of what it means to maintain authenticity in telling violent stories. McCarthy's are often literally violent--the frontier of Blood Meridian or the post-apocalyptic ravages of The Road--while Yates offers domestic landscapes so withering in their emotional dysfunction you get the feeling of carnage. In both authors'  work, I often find myself hungering to turn away, unsure whether I want to bear another moment of someone's suffering---but I trust, at all moments, that I'm being a told a story whose end I won't regret arriving at. This trust glosses the unnerving moments with faith--not that there will be a happy ending, but a sadness worthy of attention.

4.  There are so many social issues in the story from anorexia to alcoholism -- how did you know which issue should be associated with a character?
This is a great question; I feel like it gets at the heart of the book. I thought of the species of disorder in the book--anorexia, addiction, sexuality--not as "social issues" to be attached to characters, but as expressions of selfhood that found their origins in consciousness. So they began inside each character, but found their rhymes--clearly, painfully--across the other characters with whom they shared the unhappy little domestic sphere of the novel. The realm of the body becomes an essential vocabulary for suffering in the book, and this notion—the body as language, as visceral utterance—is what connects many of the novel’s disparate “issues” in my mind: suicide and alcohol and anorexia. These women articulate pain by starving or drinking or selling themselves. I wanted to look at their physical damage as a kind of self-inflicted alchemy—something that could turn unseen despair into visible communicationand one of the biggest emotional challenges for me, as a writer, was to empathize with these self-destructive impulses without glorifying them. 
5.  What is it about us as people that you feel makes it difficult to be close to each other?
A big question; not sure it's one I'm qualified to answer! But of course I'll go ahead and say something anyway. I think that there's an intense feeling of inadequacy that makes it hard for many of my characters (let's stick to them, for now) to love as they'd like to love---the inadequacy feeds a hunger for love that can't ever be fully satisfied, and this desperate seeking of love sometimes distracts from giving it. Of course the two are always intertwined: loving, and wanting to be loved. What am I saying here? I suppose that the trick is to find a balance that gives more than it takes.
6.  What's next for you?
I am working on a novel about the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua.

Note from Coffee and a Book Chick

I'd like to personally thank Leslie Jamison for being so engaged with the book blogging community -- I love it when an author is personally involved with their work and you get a feel that their involvement with all of us is more than just something that they "have to do."  Many, many thanks.
I’m excited to offer this book up internationally -- to enter, simply leave a comment to this post and also include your email address.  You don’t have to be a follower of my blog, but as I always say, I love feeling the love.
Random.org will pick the winner and I’ll ship out the book to you no matter if you’re in the US, Canada, or overseas -- I really want this book to go into a true book-lover’s hands.  Winner announced next Thursday, allowing one full week for participants to enter in to receive this copy.

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


  1. With such a glowing endorsement, how could I resist? Really enjoyed your review and interview with Leslie Jamison. Sounds like a resonant, powerful read -- and something about that cover haunts me!

    I'd love a chance to read it -- thanks!

    writing.meg [at] gmail.com

  2. What a great review! Of course I want to read this book now, so I would definitely appreciate it if you would throw my name into the hat for your givewaway! Sounds like such a powerful read with some fascinating characters!

    bagambo (at) yahoo (dot) com

  3. I thought the book was really sad too. Wonderful review and interview. No need to enter me.

  4. Sounds like a really interesting book.

    tediousandbrief at gmail

  5. Great review & interview! I know I've seen this book around the blogosphere, but now you've really got me interested in it.


  6. Thanks for a great review and interview. Everything about this book grabbed me, from the title (The Gin Closet...doesn't get any better than that) to Jamison's "expressions of selfhood" in the interview (again, doesn't get any better than that.)

    Yes, please enter me. kittiehoward@gmail.com

  7. Wow! I love your interview! TRuly engaging & thoughtful questions....and Ms. Jamison's responses are so moving!

    I included a link to your post

  8. Very good review and interview! Thanks!


    libraryofmyown at gmail dot com

  9. Thanks for e-mail about your review.

    Fantastic review.

    Thanks for the chance to read it.

    Add me to the list of entrants to win please.

    silversolara AT gmail DOT com

  10. This is one book that I really want to read. The cover drew me in immediately!

  11. Terrific review and wonderful interview--bet I'd be absorbed by this book as well!

    Please enter me in this great giveaway. I have become a follower.



  12. KUDOS!!! Phenomenal review!! This went on my personal tbr list after reading your review. Then after reading the excellent author interview you did, I wish it was in my requested review tbr pile so I could read it sooner. Fantastic.
    Please enter me...I just have to read this book after everything I have read. Thank you for the invite to witness both.

  13. Great review and a very interesting interview.

    I'd very much like to read it - thanks for the giveaway opportunity.


  14. sounds super good!
    pinkflipflops44 at gmail dot com

  15. Great review! I felt the same way about both The Gin Closet and Jamison! It always feels like a stroke of luck to read a book so perfectly crafted.

  16. Wow ... what a review! What a recommendation! What a wonderful interview! I'd be foolish if I didn't ask to be entered.

    That cover is something too.

    jfligster (at) gmail.com

  17. Goodness! I absolutely enjoyed reading this review! I love how you say write that it felt like you were reading a song. Definitely compelling enough for me to want to read the characters' troubled stories. Different and the same. Tragedy kinda pools/pulls people together like that.

    p.s. thank you for your note, i've been craving hot choco ever since, and am about to indulge in some now! :)

  18. I'm so glad you loved this book so much! I have this one on my shelf and am really looking forward to reading it soon now, especially with this background of the author interview. Great post!

  19. It's great that you found a book that really touches you and that you don't want to let go.

    I'd love to win a copy!

    jh303015 at gmail.com

  20. I've been wanting to read this one -- sounds really good.

    bibliophilebythesea AT gmail dot com

  21. This sounds excellent - please enter me.

    ofabookworm AT gmail DOT com

  22. This book obviously packs a powerful emotional punch, and the author's comments about it being written/inspired by her own caretaking makes it all the more poignant.

    Great post, Natalie! And please do enter me in the giveaway.


  23. Great review and interview, you can color me intrigued. I hadn't heard of this book before but it sounds intense!

    avidreader25 [at]gmail[dot]com

  24. This sounds like a great read. And what great questions in the interview--and great answers!

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. This is a great interview-and I love each of the writers Jamison names as an influence!

  27. I have this one on my kindle already but put it down for another day. The interview makes me want to pick it up again.

    I came over from Stacy's blog.

  28. Such a beautiful review and interview! Loved the questions you asked! Now I want to read it more than ever.

    ReadingOnARainyDay AT gmail DOT com

  29. I just recently started following book blogs, and yours is the best for reviews and interviews. Thank you.
    jhbalvin at gmail dot com

  30. Excellent review & interview Natalie! I had heard about this book a few months back and am glad you are bringing it up so I can make sure to add it to my list.
    Would love to be entered in the giveaway. Thank you!

  31. Your review and interview were totally rockin! I love those books that make me a little bit squirmy while I am reading them, and I think it sounds like a really powerful and potent read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. It sounds like something I would really like!

  32. This sounds like a powerful read, although really sad.
    I would love a chance to win this, thanks!

    infiniteshelf at gmail dot com

  33. I had seen this book somewhere else and loved the cover, and you've pushed me over the edge. What a great post.

    I'd love to be entered as you've totally piqued my interest. Fantastic!

  34. I just finished reading "The Gin Closet," and I loved, loved, loved it. Reality is brutal, yet Leslie managed to portray it with beautiful use of our language. I cannot believe that such a wonderfully written book came from someone so very young.

  35. THANKS TO ALL!!...for leaving a comment and for entering to win this copy! The contest is now closed, and the lucky winner will be announced tomorrow!

    Feel free to continue to leave a comment if you would like to continue to express your love for The Gin Closet! :)

  36. I'm just now catching up on my e-mails and google reader after having some crazy packed days so I'm just now seeing this... GREAT review!! This book sounds good... I'm adding it to my WL. Hope I love it as much as you did! Great interview as well! Very thoughtful questions and answers.

  37. I know my comment is quite late but I read a review of this book on the blog Amused by Books and the blogger referenced your review at the end of hers and linked it. This book sounded interesting and I wanted to read another blogger's opinion. And I'm glad I did. Your review of this book is fantastic and despite the intense and troubling story and the powerful themes/issues that are part of the book, I want to run out and buy it to read right now. It sounds like a very real story with well-developed flawed and relatable characters.

    Your interview with Leslie Jamison was terrific, too! I especially liked your questions about pairing issues and characters and who helped Ms. Jamison to shape her writing.

    I am going to look this book up now and get a copy of it very soon! Thank you!
    ~ Amy

  38. Ich habe vor kurzem kam in Ihrem Blog und lese mit. Ich dachte, ich würde mein erster Kommentar zu schreiben. Ich weiß nicht, was ich sagen soll, außer dass ich gerne gelesen. Nice Blog.

  39. Jenny - Thanks so much! I hope you enjoy it!

    Amy - Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm so sorry it took me this long to respond; I've recently adjusted the comment notification system, so it will alert me when there is any comment on a post that is older than 14 days! So glad that you visited from stopping by Amused by Books' site - I love her blog and it's definitely an indication that one book can mean so many different things to different readers. I hope you read this book and let us know what your thoughts are!