Friday, January 30, 2009

The Sinner's Guide to Confession by Phyllis Schieber (Review & Author Guest Post)

The Sinner's Guide to Confession by Phyllis Schieber is a delightful book about friendships, secrets, sex, marriage, and motherhood. Schieber follows three friends in their fifties: Barbara, a widow with three children and a romance novelist who secretly writes erotica; Ellen, a woman grieving for the child she was forced to give up when she was 16 and facing the loss of her husband to a younger woman; and Kaye, a mother of two who is having an affair.

I've seen several reviews characterizing The Sinner's Guide to Confession as chick lit, and while I agree that the book covers many of the themes common to the genre, it has more depth and more character development and evolution than many of the chick lit books I've read. I've also seen some reviews focusing on the ages of the main characters and how they have little in common with Barbara, Ellen, and Kaye. Though I'm in the age group of their children, I was able to identify with the women at several points during the story. I don't think I'm alone in worrying what people might think of my writing (Barbara), feeling a fierce love for my child (Ellen), or thinking about things I might have changed in my marriage (Kaye). Who hasn't lamented the passing of time or clashed with their families? Who hasn't kept a secret about themselves from the people they trust most in the world?

Schieber does a great job moving between the characters and their points of view, and I loved the bantering between them. I didn't always agree with their decisions, but they seemed real. Schieber doesn't shy away from presenting their weaknesses; after all, the title implies that we're all sinners.

There were a few interesting secondary characters, and my favorite was Gertie, Kaye's 80-something, feisty mother. In fact, my favorite passage from the book is a quote by Gertie:

'Growing old? I'm already old. The funny thing about it is that you're never really different on the inside. It's always a surprise to remember that I'm eighty-two. I can't imagine such a thing. When did it happen? Sometimes, just before I open my eyes, I think I hear your father snoring, and then I wonder why I didn't hear you cry or why Solly didn't bring you to me. He used to take you out of the crib and bring you to my bed. Then I used to nurse you and play with his hair. Such a time it was, all curled up with my family. I thought I was the only mother in the world. And now it's gone. A dream.'

Schieber's writing flows with such truths, and I was surprised the book covered so many heavy themes while remaining hopeful. By the time I finished reading, Barbara, Ellen, and Kaye felt like old friends. I definitely recommend The Sinner's Guide to Confession if you read a lot of women's fiction and even if you don't.


I have the pleasure of welcoming Phyllis Schieber, author of The Sinner's Guide to Confession, to Diary of an Eccentric to talk about writing. Welcome, Phyllis!

This past weekend I watched the documentary "Man on Wire," the breathtaking film about Philippe Petit, the twenty-four-year old French self-trained wire walker who pulled off the "artistic crime of the century" in 1974 when he walked and danced on a wire suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. For forty-five minutes, Petit performed a high-wire act without a safety net or a harness, mesmerizing the crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk 110 stories below. While I was fascinated by Petit's skill and the daring feat that continues to amaze, I was perhaps even more taken with his attitude and responses to the hordes of reporters who asked the same question over and over: "Why did you do it?" Petit's frustration is almost as exquisite as his exploit. He responds, "Here I do something magnificent and beautiful and people ask why. There is no why." And such is the response of that rare individual: a true artist, the person who creates and performs for the sake of art.

I am no Philippe Petit. I know why I write, but I understand what he means when he says, "There is no why." If someone were to ask me why I write, I would have to say, "Because I have no choice." In the years between the sales of my books, I continued to write, and I would have continued even if my agent was unable to sell The Sinner's Guide to Confession. I write because I am a writer. I write because it is the way I make sense of the world. And I write because whatever I see or hear or experience has the potential to be translated into narrative. I notice the way a woman holds her bread at the edge of her husband's plate, so his beans will not spill over. I record the most subtle exchange of looks between friends when someone else at the table mentions a name. I am aware of how a mother and daughter resemble each other as they shop together in a department store. When I attend a dinner for a friend and the hostess tells the story of how her previous home burned down, I am eager to leave and jot down the details because it is likely I will want to use not only the story, but the narrator's wonderful tone and good humor as she tells about the unfortunate event. I will be sure to make mention of her crisp blue eyes and her throaty laughter. Often when I ask someone if he or she noticed something that was so apparent to me, I get a quizzical look. Always, however, I am the one who is perplexed. How is it possible that such an unusual expression, or such a surprisingly harsh tone or such an unexpected movement could go unnoticed when it is as plain as anything to me? I am always listening, always looking and always writing in my head.

One of the most important lessons I have learned as a writer is that I am not unique. I remember once many years ago, I had a meltdown and phoned my writing teacher of many years, the late Hayes Jacobs. I wailed, "I'll never be successful. I don't have any talent. I'm wasting my time in your seminar. There's no point." He listened without interruption. When I was done, he said, "You too, eh?" I laughed, but I felt better immediately. Apparently, all writers anguish at one time or another. The life of a writer is solitary and often frustrating. Still, I celebrate that it is my daunting destiny to recreate my perceptions, and then put them in a form that makes sense to others. Sometimes I struggle, and sometimes the words seem to dance onto the page. When the words dance, a rare occurrence, I worry that it is too easy. There seems to be a happy medium. Writing is always a consequence of extremes. Mostly, however, I feel blessed that I am able to string words together in a way that has an impact on others. The ability to make someone laugh or cry, or even both, is a thrill that little else surpasses.

Perhaps it is because I began to read early and never stopped that it feels as though what happens in books makes much more sense than what happens in real life. Books are simply a written record of the writer's truth, and I have the wonderful job of delivering that truth to my readers. When a story begins to take shape in my consciousness, I always worry if it is a story worth telling. Is it original? Is it interesting enough? Once I move past that stage and allow myself to be swept along by the characters and their needs, I settle down to the real work of making the story come to life. I am in charge now, but not really. The story is in charge. I am merely its voice. I almost never grow tired of being a writer. There is always something that inspires me, or evokes a memory, or sparks an emotion. I sometimes have this image of myself holding a huge magnet, watching as all my thoughts and dreams come twirling at top speed, drawn to the magnet, eager to be captured and finally uncovered.

I am always on the lookout for a new story, an anecdote that can be turned into a novel, a few lines in the newspaper that catch my attention, or the way a couple holds hands on the train, staring wordlessly ahead. Something must have just happened. I study them surreptitiously for the duration of the ride, wondering, imagining, and planning. It is the beginning of chapter. There really is no why.


About The Sinner's Guide to Confession

Kaye and Barbara are longtime friends, now in their fifties. Ellen, who is several years younger, develops a friendship with the other two women years later, solidifying this close-knit group. The three women are inseparable, yet each nurtures a secret that she keeps from the others.

About Author Phyllis Schieber

The first great irony of my life was that I was born in a Catholic hospital. My parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had settled in the South Bronx among other new immigrants. In the mid-fifties, my family moved to Washington Heights. The area offered scenic views of the Hudson River and the Palisades, as well as access to Fort Tryon Park and the mysteries of the Cloisters. I graduated from George Washington High School. I graduated at high school at sixteen, went on to Bronx Community College, transferred to and graduated from Herbert H. Lehman College with a B.A. in English and a New York State license to teach English. I earned my M.A. in Literature from New York University and later my M.S. as a developmental specialist from Yeshiva University. I have worked as a high school English teacher and as a learning disabilities specialist. My first novel, Strictly Personal, for young adults, was published by Fawcett-Juniper. Willing Spirits was published by William Morrow. My most recent novel, The Sinner's Guide to Confession, was released by Berkley Putnam. In March 2009, Berkley Putnam will issue the first paperback publication of Willing Spirits.

Win a Free Book from Phyllis Schieber--It's very easy to be entered in a drawing for a FREE book by Phyllis Schieber. Post comments on any blogs during the virtual tour, and you will have a chance to win a book from Phyllis. One random person will win--but we are also asking visitors to share a secret and one secret will also win a free book. As a bonus, the blog owner that hosted the winning comments will also win a book. Share some interesting stories and questions with Phyllis Schieber during the tour--and have a chance to win a book.

For full details about Phyllis Schieber's virtual tour, visit her tour home page.

Order your copy here.

You can visit Phyllis Schieber here or here.


The Sinner's Guide to Confession also was reviewed by:

Savvy Verse & Wit
Ramya's Bookshelf
Peeking Between the Pages
Confessions of a Real Librarian
Book Addiction
Booking Mama
The Literate Housewife Review

If you've also reviewed it, let me know in the comments, and I'll add your link!

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The Sinner's Guide to Confession from the publisher for review purposes.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Anna, I LIKE this lady. In blogdom, you read alot of author interviews, but this one really reached out to me. Ms. Schieber is truly blessed (and probably sometimes feels cursed!) to be so aware of her life's passion and her desiny. This one has been added to the list!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I love your review Anna. This sounds really good. And that's a great quote by Gertie. I have a while to go before I'm eighty-two, but no matter how old I get, I still feel the same inside as well.

Phyllis Schieber said...

Anna, thanks for a truly terrific review. And thank you for sharing my thoughts about categorizing SINNER'S as chick lit! With all respect to the genre, I always saw my work as part of the women's fiction genre. I am also especially glad that as a younger woman, you can relate to the main characters. You are so right on target in highlighting the feeling and struggles of each woman. I share your love for Gertie, and you picked one of my favorite passages as well. I hope you will review WILLING SPIRITS when it is released in March. Thank you again. . . really.

Sandy! I'm sure I would like you as well (I already do!). I hope you will let me know what you think of SINNER'S after you read it. And don't forget to look for WILLING SPIRITS as well.

Nicole, you are so right. Anna wrote a spectacular review. I have some time to go before I'm eighty-two, but Gertie is a role model for me! Thanks for stopping by.

Serena said...

I loved this blog post! Fantastic guest post from Phyllis. I love that she struggles like I do and I just have to take to heart that all writers struggle and try to remember that when I am down myself.

your review was awesome as always my friend.

Darlene said...

REally great review Anna! I love reading a book that's left me feeling like I've made friends.

Unknown said...

Glad to see you liked this book. I already have it on my wish list. It'll be interesting to see how all of the secrets play a part in the book.

Phyllis Schieber said...

Hi Serena,
We all struggle. It took me years to recognize that and to take some comfort in it as well. Never give up the struggle-that's key. Good luck.

It is a great review, Dar. I think these are women you will recognize and enjoy.

I love being on people's "wish list," Janel. Thanks for including me!

Marie Cloutier said...

sounds like a great book and the interview was fantastic!

Nikki Leigh said...

This line could be a direct quote from either of my grandmothers. They will both turn 90 this year and I've heard this from them - almost word for word - 'Growing old? I'm already old. The funny thing about it is that you're never really different on the inside. It's always a surprise to remember that I'm eighty-two. I can't imagine such a thing. When did it happen?

Gertie is a great character -- at some point we need another story about Gertie :)

Nikki Leigh

PS - Thank you for hosting Phyllis on her tour and I'm starting to coordinate the Willing Spirits tour. We'll have to talk :)

avisannschild said...

Wow, this is an awesome post! Great review, Anna, and a fantastic guest post, Phyllis.

Anna, I love that you addressed the issue of whether or not this is chick lit, a term I feel ambivalent about (in great part because I think it's so frequently misused). I read lots of women's fiction, so this one is definitely on my wish list now!

Phyllis, I love the way you describe getting inspired by the things you observe. The way you wrote this post makes me think that I will really enjoy your books!

Phyllis Schieber said...

Thanks, avisannschild, for following this this tour with me. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I felt that if only person was affected by what I wrote, I would be happy! And I'm beyond happy now!Please let me know what you think after you read SINNER'S. Don't forget to look for WILLING SPIRITS in March.

The Bookworm said...

great review, i've seen this book around and it does sound good.

Wendi said...

That book sounds very interesting Anna - I'm really interested in reading it and wish I had been able to get in on the tour! I think it is amazing what we can learn from books. :)

I've left you an award! Stop by when you get a chance and pick it up!

~ Wendi

Jeannie said...

What a great review, Anna, and a fabulous interview! This sounds fun and I see it's available on Kindle. I will pick this one up sometime this month.

Thanks so much, my friend. I sure do miss you. I will write you an email tomorrow- promise! :D

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this review and interview; both were, for lack of a better word, enlightening.

I'm glad you addressed the "chick lit" question, which moves *The Sinner's Guide ...* from a desperate beach read to a spot on my bookcase :)

Phyllis Schieber said...

Hi Jeannie! I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview. It was rather challenging to answer so many questions! I'm delighted you found the interview worthwhile. The review was terrific. Please let me know what you think of SINNER'S after you are done. And don't forget to look for WILLING SPIRITS when it is released in March!

Dawn, I think that "enlightening" is a rather terrific and flattering word. And thank you for your support of my clarification of "chick lit" as it applies to SINNER'S. I hope you will enjoy the novel.

Phyllis Schieber said...

Wendi B, so nice to hear from you. We will be starting a new tour for WILLING SPIRITS very soon. Perhaps you could be in on that one!
Thanks for your enthusiasm.

Anna said...

Sandy: Phyllis is great, isn't she?? I hope you get a chance to read Sinner's Guide. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Nicole: Thanks! I often forget how old I am. LOL

Phyllis: You are very welcome! The book was great, so you totally deserve the praise. I've emailed Nikki re: the Willing Spirits tour. Thanks so much for keeping up with the discussion here. I love when the authors take part!

Serena: Thanks!

Dar: Thanks! The best books are the ones that let us form emotional attachments.

Janel: I hope you get a chance to read it. The secrets certainly hold your interest.

Marie: It was a great book, and I really enjoyed ready Phyllis' guest spot myself.

Nikki: You're welcome! My gram just turned 90, so I hear you.

avisannschild: Thanks! I don't really like the term chick lit, but I do use it from time to time to describe certain types of books.

Naida: Thanks!

Wendi: I hope you get a chance to read it. Thanks so much for the award! You've made my day!

Jeannie: Thanks! I know you say you read slow, but I'll wait patiently to hear what you think about this one. I look forward to that email. :)

Dawn: Thanks! I have my own definitions of chick lit, and this book isn't it. :)

Phyllis Schieber said...

Thank you all for your support and your responses. It's been great fun! Just one thing. . . I don't think that "Phyllis" was properly attributed to the the comment after Nicole's comment. LOL. I don't think I would have said, "The book is great, so you totally deserve the praise." But I love that someone else thought the book was great! No harm done. And thank you all again!

Anna said...

Phyllis, the bolded names in my last comment...that's me responding to people's comments. I was addressing the comment "The book was great. You totally deserve the praise" to you! LOL No worries!

Phyllis Schieber said...

Ah, now I see! LOL I guess I'm not as smart as I think I am. Really though, Anna, you really deserve the praise, and I am totally grateful and so happy to have met so many genuine readers.
All the best.