Ann Hood’s Morningstar: Growing Up with Books | LibraryReads Author Spotlight

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Following The Book That Matters Most, fiction about a reading group whose members each present the book that most shaped or sustained their lives, Ann Hood’s Morningstar: Growing Up with Books seems like the perfect nonfiction complement. Indeed, it spun off from that novel as Hood returned to investigate the books that truly mattered to her. “I find myself answering equally with The Bell Jar and Rabbit Run,” she mused in a telephone conversation with LJ, “but why Marjorie Morningstar?” Rereading Herman Wouk’s juicy tale about an upper-middle-class Jewish girl whose background is so different from Hood’s “operatic Italian family” inspired an essay that Hood’s editor encouraged her to expand to a book-length piece.

As Hood worked her way through works that proved turning points in her young life, she came to see that they were all about “me changing and the world changing around me.” For instance, she read Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar classic, Johnny Got His Gun, at a time when protest against the Vietnam War was intensifying and Harold Robbins’s A Stone for Danny Fisher as her brother was dating a Jewish girl, roiling both families until he converted to marry her. The chapters exploring those works are titled “How To Ask Why” and “How To Be Curious,” respectively, and the entire book is structured as a series of life lessons as Hood came to realize that reading meant “seeking guidance in how to lead my life.”

Hood’s memoir impresses for the sheer breadth of her reading as a youngster, all the more remarkable because, as she says of her hard-working immigrant family in the introduction, “Reading was not something for which they had time or inclination.” Chronicling her discovery of books in the unabashed tone she has found typical of her nonfiction voice, Hood forged a “real reconnection with that teenage self in the most delightful way,” moving from works ranging from Robert H. Rimmer’s The Harrad Experiment (“How To Have Sex”) to Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago (“How To See the World”).

Clearly, Hood does not subscribe to literary snobbism, for readers or writers. “As a reader, I want to fall into a Stephen King book or a Da Vinci Code as much as a Zadie Smith or Philip Roth title,” she notes, “while I realized a long time ago that I can learn a lot from popular novelists, because the hardest thing for me to write is plot.” She’s also aware that for her some works by a particular author may simply resonate more than others. Unfortunately, not everyone is as generous as she is; she’s had to tell huffy fans, “I am sorry that one didn’t work for you. But others are loving it, and there is a writer behind it doing her best.”

Writers must learn to move from the personal to the universal, an act of magic Hood clarifies by citing the long-standing writerly wisdom that an author must answer three questions: what if, then what, and so what? “Even if I can tell a good story, why do people want to read it,” she explains. “You must find the emotional truth of your story.”

For her, reading has been a means of understanding not just herself but what she wanted, just as the grief following personal tragedy has proved motivating in both writing and life: “You can be stuck in the story of that loss or redefine yourself.” In the end, she has continually redefined herself, saying, “I can’t wait to sit down and write.” Just as her fans can’t wait to sit down and read her books.—Barbara Hoffert

Created by a group of librarians, LibraryReads offers a monthly list of ten current titles culled from nominations made by librarians nationwide as their favorites. See the August 2017 list at ow.ly/4S0330dL4rn and contact libraryreads.org/for-library-staff to make your own nomination.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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