Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Julia Claiborne Johnson’s works are love letters to the early 1900s, in two very different ways. I recently read her first, Be Frank With Me, and it’s so funny and heartfelt that it gave me high hopes for her second, 2021’s Better Luck Next Time.

In Be Frank With Me, a young New Yorker named Alice Whitley narrates the story of her time working for prickly and reclusive author M.M. Banning in the early 2000s. Alice spends most of her time taking care of Frank, Banning’s nine-year-old son. Frank is a sharp dresser, a destructive force, and a treasure trove of facts, especially about the golden age of film (circa 1910 through around 1960). He has two specific rules: No Touching Frank, and No Touching Frank’s Things. None of this makes it easy for him to connect with other kids (or anyone, really), but through their time together Alice comes to care deeply for him, even as her curiosity grows about who his father is – not to mention all the questions she has about his mother and her enigmatic handyman Xander.

While I’m not sure I’m satisfied with where the book ends (although it’s always a good sign to want more, isn’t it?) I loved smiling and laughing my way through it, particularly as Alice grows and learns along the way. Her dry wit and Frank’s unique voice combined into an unforgettable friendship.

If you like books about authors, quirky kids, or young adults coming of age, you might like Be Frank With Me. If you loved Be Frank With Me, and want a story of love, marriage, divorce, and dude ranches in 1930s Nevada, you might try Better Luck Next Time. Both have a sense of nostalgia and reminiscence about them in different ways.

In the case of Better Luck Next Time, two very different women arrive at The Flying Leap dude ranch in Reno, Nevada, hoping to stay the six weeks that will make them “residents” of Reno and therefore able to take advantage of its quick divorce policy. One is Nina, an heiress and pilot on her third divorce, and the other is Emily, for whom seeking a divorce is the bravest thing she’s ever done. They couldn’t be more different, and yet both strike up friendship with Ward, a handsome ranch hand. Themes include destructive love, healing friendship, and chosen family – and apparently the book is both humorous and heartfelt in good measure.

Another Reknown Novelist Comes to the Quad-Cities

Fall of the SparrowFresh on the heels of Elizabeth Berg’s visit to the Quad-Cities, comes Robert Hellenga, author of many best selling novels. He is the keynote speaker Thursday, June 25th at Midwest Writing Center’s annual conference. This year, events are held at St. Ambrose University.

My favorite novel by Robert Hellenga is The Fall of the Sparrow, which is partially set at a liberal arts college in Galesburg (the author is a Knox College  literature professor), and partly in Italy.  Though there’s a insider feeling of intimacy when you’re familiar with the local references; the novel resonates with many themes. The main character is a classics professor  and the reader learns about Latin, Greek, Persian rugs, as well as the blues,  and shares Woody’s deep appreciation of Italian culture.

Elizabeth Berg Comes to the Quad-Cities

bergBarnes & Noble and the Moline Public Library snagged a pretty big fish; the Quad-Cities should be proud! Berg read from Home Safe and answered wide-ranging questions from a full house at the Moline Public Library Tuesday afternoon.

We learned that both daughters are writers (one professionally and one potentially), she’d like to serve tea to E.B. White and have a drink (vodka) with Marilyn Monroe (this in response to a question about who Berg would most  like to have tea with). She said she’d be too nervous to drink tea with White, so would rather serve him and a guest.

We learned also that the Oakbrook, IL author was a nurse before she was an author, was involved in a Second-City type of drama group in the Twin Cities, and likes to quilt but doesn’t think she is good at it.  The book she recently recommended to NPR was Beat That by Ann Hodgman – a cookbook that is just fun to read.

She talked about how devastating her experience with writer’s block was and how this led to her current book. Her daily routine of writing all morning (she normally writes till early afternoon in her pajamas and said her Fedex man must think she had a very long-lasting case of flu). She talked about her dry spell with her daughter, who suggested that she write about it. Home Safe is about Helen, a well-known novelist, who is unable to write after husband of many years dies suddenly. Helen gradually “fills her well” with life experience, such as teaching a writing class of disparate individuals (a high point of the novel). All of Elizabeth Berg’s  fans are grateful that her daughter’s suggestion was successful.