Author Archives: Louisa Ermelino

Destination: Read Before you go… or After

Louisa Ermelino -- December 17th, 2013

I’ve always been a little perverse. I buy/collect all the guidebooks for my destination and overwhelmed, ignore them. When I come back home, I start reading them and

1) compare my reality to the guidebook comments

2) can’t believe what I’ve missed

3) check out the section of “books to read before you go” but of course, I’ve already been

I’m going to Italy and I’m determined to do some homework but I’m already overwhelmed. I’m skipping the guidebooks and just looking at my shelves of which I have many. Here’s what I’ve found and here’s what I’m planning to to read  (and re-read) before I go:

Three books I know nothing about except that I found them on my shelves

Two memoirs by non natives:

The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

Naples Declared by Benjamin Taylor

One novel set in Abruzzo during WW II by the late Laudomia Bonanni, her first book to be translated into English: The Reprisal

And old dog-eared favorites:

The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa

Christ Stopped At Eboli by Carlo Levi

Women of Rome by Alberto Moravia

The Broken Fountain by Thomas Belmonte

I’m open to suggestions. I’ve got time…








How Does It Feel to Win a Literary Prize?

Louisa Ermelino -- December 3rd, 2013


I was having lunch with Kent Carroll, the publisher of Europa Editions, and we started talking about prizes: the Booker being opened up to Americans, the value of a prize, does it always increase sales, does it guarantee fame. The usual publishing gossip. Thing was, he had a story that went beyond the usual.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980, eleven years after the author committed suicide. It’s a great publishing story, a southern gothic story, involving a relentless mother, many rejections, and Walker Percy, who had brought the ten year old manuscript to the university press and wrote the introduction.

Carroll, then at Grove Press, acquired world English language paperback rights from LSU, making the offer for $2000 (his ceiling) after the book kept him up all night reading. Grove published the paperback in April, 1981, having launched a publicity blitz for the LSU hardcover that led to extraordinary reviews and extraordinary coverage.

That year, Carroll was having a drink in a Greenwich Village Bar looking up at the wall mounted TV when they announced the 1981 Pulitzer Prizes. A Confederacy of Dunces won for fiction.

Carroll pointed to the TV. “Hey,” he told the bartender, “That’s my book.” The bartender bought him a drink and announced the news. “This guy just won the Pulitzer prize!” Cheers all around. Glasses clinked. Patrons came over and bought Carroll more drinks. Word spread that the guy who wrote the book that won the Pulitzer Prize was sitting right there at the bar. Drinks all around. Excitement built.

Someone opened the door to the bar and called out into the street that there was a Pulitzer prize winner inside. People flooded in to toast the “winner”. More drinks.

By the time the bar closed in the early morning, and Carroll stumbled home, he had won the Nobel.

It was the start of a great career, both for Carroll, and for the book: Today, Confederacy of Dunces has over 1,500,000 copies in print in eighteen languages.

The Novel: Does Size Matter?

Louisa Ermelino -- November 11th, 2013


All the news this morning is the sale of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City On Fire, for close to two million dollars. Every headline makes a point of pointing out that the novel is 900 pages. What’s that about? We seem to like everything else big… houses, cars, sandwiches, but when it comes to books, we get skittish.

Which made me think about long novels. I know they strike fear into the hearts of editors (even the binding is more complicated) and I know I’ve often thought that a book could have been edited, and that I’m not interested in “it’s great except for the middle hundred pages or “just get through the first ten chapters and it really takes off.” But what about a book that you never want to end? that you want to crawl off into a secret corner with and read until your eyes burn?

gonewiththewindIn 1936, were readers more willing to curl up with a 1037 page novel like Gone With the Wind (Warner Books got the paperback down to 1024)? I read that novel one summer at Camp Tekakwitha in New Jersey when I was ten (no, it was not in 1936) . We had one copy (it was a girl’s camp) and we sat in a circle and ripped the pages out one by one and passed them around.

John Dos Passos’s trilogy, U.S.A. (1937) at 1312 pages is another Depression novel that could go on forever without regret. Admittedly, I had to read that one for school but still it was worth every page.

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993), was a surprise bestseller, and at 1349 pages, one of the longest novels every pubished in the English language. Infinite Jest (1996), David Foster Wallace’s classic, clocks in at 1088 pages and the hardcover weighed 3.2 pounds. 1Q84 (2011) by Haruki Mrakami is a mere 944 pages.

I admit, 900 pages is a lot of book, but when it’s good, when every page counts, it’s unparalleled. I’m wishing Hallberg luck and if you’re still not convinced, don’t despair. You can always wait for the movie.

Everyone’s Talking About Best Books, But Let Me Tell You About Madrid

Louisa Ermelino -- October 23rd, 2013


The Visitors Programme of Accion Cultural Espanola invited me to Madrid for LIBER, the 31st International Book Fair that took place from October 2-4. The Fair alternates each year between Madrid and Barcelona and while it’s small, it’s important. Accion is a public institution that aims to foster and promote Spain’s culture and heritage “within and beyond our borders.”

I said yes. I’d never been to Madrid, I’ve hung on (barely) to my high school Spanish, and I was curious about a European book fair that wasn’t London or Frankfurt. Your assignment, because I know most of you also studied Spanish in high school, is to put the accents in the right place in this article. There will not be grades but great satisfaction.

The city was a marvel, the people wonderful, a highlight being the PICE lunch (Programa Para La Internacionalization de La Cultura Espanola) hosted by Miguel Albero and Ainhoa Sanchez Mateo with publishers from Brazil, Slovenia and Russia. Another was the gala awards dinner on Oct. 3 to which Michael Gordon, the Director of Business Development for Code Mantra, whom I met for the first time at the Guadalajara book fair, an American who been living in Spain since he met his wife many years and children ago, got me invited last minute through unending security because… the Prince of Spain was attending.photo4

I managed that evening to meet Executive Director Antonio Maria Avila of the Federacion de Gremios de Editores de Espana who had made the arrangements for my coming to Madrid and who was gracious despite the fact that I had stood him up for a meeting because I was at the PICE lunch. At the dinner, at La Masia de San Luis, held to honor writers and organizations that contribute to literature, John Banville won for author writing in a foreign language.

And for iberioamericana literature (which includes Spain and Latin America and also Brazil where the language is Portuguese ) the winner was author Eduardo Mendoza who told me that “recognition as a young man is wonderful but I’m getting older so it’s especially wonderful to still be recognized. Or maybe,” he said, “I just won because my name starts with the letter M!” Extremely popular in Spain, Mendoza is from Barcelona and writes historical novels about his city and also parodies of mysteries that look at the social and political life in Barcelona.

photo5Crown Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia gave out the awards. Felipe is drop dead handsome and beloved and no one could resist repeating the story that Letizia was a journalist (read “no royal blood”) and a divorcee when they married. A love match for sure. Approached after the presentation (what do Americans know about protocol) the Prince said he could not name a favorite book because he liked too many but that right now he was reading an economic essay about liquidity.

The elegance of the Spaniard was apparent everywhere despite harsh economic times.


I Pack My Books As Carefully As I Pack My Clothes

Louisa Ermelino -- September 16th, 2013

I pack my books as carefully as I pack my clothes. And I pack real books so I’m very careful, although I shed them as I go along, which proves that I am generous and also that I hate luggage. This obsession goes back a long way, to when I hit the trail overland to India before it was a trail, 9781451626650_p0_v1_s260x420years ahead of the Lonely Planet founders even. I left from Venice, where I was staying with friends who had just come back. They gave me a seashell because I wouldn’t see the sea again until I hit Bombay, told me to remember that we all see the same moon no matter where we are, said I needed a book to read and handed me Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I was traveling with an Englishman who had just graduated Cambridge and had an entire backpack of books (and not one change of underwear). The ones I remember are: The Golden Bough by James George Frazer, The Secret Doctrine by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and The Murder of Christ by Wilhelm Reich. I would not be borrowing any of these. But enough history.

Truth is, I carried Catch-22 for the next five years and never even opened it. Somewhere on the road, I traded it for a Mars Bar. But I’m seasoned now. I still make mistakes (easily shed) but if you’re going to Egypt, even if it’s just in your imagination, have I got the books for you. Continue reading

5 Books of Adventure and Lust

Louisa Ermelino -- August 23rd, 2013

Good books are like lovers. When they’re good, they are impossible to forget. And by good, I don’t mean sweet or kind or endearing. I mean rugged, kick-ass, leg breaking, can’t get them out of your head. These books are usually handed to me by my smart and savvy deputy reviews editor, both past and present, and then I’m cooked. I’m shut down to the hundreds of others that overwhelm PW’s office because I’ve found the one. Sometimes a lot of readers agree with me, sometimes not, and I never care. I’m just grateful. And can’t wait for the Best Books of the Year free-for-all we have every year in the pub downstairs.


The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Gritty and terrifying and powerful, yet smooth as silk, this novel about a cadre of characters living on the border between Ohio and Kentucky, includes a malevolent preacher who douses himself in spiders and drags around his wheelchair-bound sidekick whom he crippled in a religious stunt, a married couple who troll the highway looking for hitchhikers to mutilate and murder, and… you get the idea. Pollack knows his territory and his people. Reading him is like stopping at a roadside bar and listening to some stranger tell stories without ever taking a breath.


State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is no discovery, true, but for me, this book broke the bank. I confess, I’ve never read Bel Canto which has been in my pile of “to reads” for years, and what brought me to this book was that it was set in the Amazon. I hear Amazon (the jungle) or Nagaland or Ethiopia and I’m halfway there. Continue reading

PW Best Books 2012: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Louisa Ermelino -- October 25th, 2012

Leading up to the November 5th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2012, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:

Junot, Junot, Junot….might the Diaz juggernaut be slowing down? Fat chance, although now that he’s been passed over for the Nobel, where else is there left to go? Will he end up like Alexander the Great, in that tale of dubious veracity, sitting down and crying because there are no more worlds to conquer?  Nah, Diaz will be fine because he’s a writer and if we can all hold our breath long enough, he‘ll deliver another book and keep dazzling us all. I’m betting a novel this time, if he meant it when he said “I hope to never write a short story again because they are incredibly difficult.” But he makes it look easy in this latest collection This is How You Lose Her and he’s disappointed no one despite the long wait. Junot has a voice, and a confidence and he’s angry and endearing both. He wants us to know who he is and where he came from and he does it with stories that take us to the world he landed in when he came from the Dominican Republic as a young boy. He’s the voice of the new immigrant, the one who made it; he’s Ivy League educated, he’s won the Pulitzer, he teaches at MIT in blanco New England. He’s outside his early world, remembering, adapting, absorbing, and telling us where he came from.

In This is How You Lose Her, we follow Yunior, who first appeared in Drown. Yunior has a way with the ladies but he’s a cheater, a liar, and his girlfriend, Magdalena, in the first story “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”, considers him “a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.” And he proves her and all the others, correct, right up to the last story, the very best, in my opinion, although there’s truly not a sleeper in the bunch. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” is where the hens come home to roost when our “batshit cuero” spirals into the hell of unrequited love after his email trash can reveals that he’s been with fifty girls during his supposedly committed courtship. The seven stories in between cover family (a dying brother), more women (including Mami) and in “Otravida, Otravez,” the narrator is a woman: “Yasmin, he says. His mustache is against my ear, sawing at me.” Yasmin’s lover has a wife back in Santo Domingo, and when he tells her about a fatal accident at the factory where he works and what would she do if he had been killed, she says nothing: “I set my face against him; he has known the wrong women if he expects more.” Unlike Diaz, who gives us all he’s got.

PW Best Books 2011: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Louisa Ermelino -- October 24th, 2011

For the next two weeks, leading up to our Best Books of 2011 Issue on November 7, the PW reviews department will be blogging about a few of the books from the top 100.  Here’s the first post:

I’ve always gravitated towards the exotic. It started with Chinese and Norse myths when I was a kid and moved on from there. But it’s seeming to me these days that the most exotic is right here, maybe even too close for comfort. Specifically, Donald Ray Pollock territory, that area of America that starts in southern Ohio and bleeds into northern Kentucky. And bleeding is Pollack’s specialty.

A colleague from Nebraska told me to read The Devil All The Time, Pollock’s first novel. Pollock grew up in Knockenstiff, Ohio (Knockemstiff is the title of his first book, a collection of stories) and worked in a paper mill for thirty years. On the book jacket he’s wearing work boots and a white crew neck T-shirt that you know came in a packet of three and he writes like the smokestack in Meade, Ohio, that he describes on the first page of chapter one: “The smokestack across town, by far the tallest structure in this part of the state, belched forth another dirty brown cloud. You could see it for miles, puffing like a volcano about to blow its skinny top.”

Pollock’s prologue sets you up with nine year-old Arvin Eugene Russell following his father into the woods to kneel at the “prayer log” in a clearing his father will turn into a sacrificial pit of blood and carcasses in a futile exchange for his wife’s health.

Arvin will appear and reappear among Pollock’s gruesome and lost characters: a husband and wife serial killing team trawl the interstate for young male victims, a preacher who victimizes an innocent girl and throws spiders over himself at sermons accompanied by his wheelchair bound guitar playing cousin, crippled after ingesting poison to prove his love of the Lord.

“The one with the good legs wore a baggy black suit and a pair of heavy, broken-down brogans. His brown hair was slicked back with oil, his sunken cheeks pitted and scarred purple from acne….The cripple nodded and smiled at the crowd. His overalls were mended with patches from a feed sack and his thin legs were twisted up under him at sharp angles…one looked like the Prince of Darkness and the other like a clown down on his luck.”

Pollock gives us over to despair and destitution and an undiluted primal evil; he raises the grotesque to art. You can’t believe what you’re reading but you do, and you can’t stop reading it. There’s resolution and it’s not pretty.  He’s a conjurer, a magician, a prophet with a modern day Old Testament.

All I can tell you is that when a guy from Nebraska gives you a book, read it.