Before the Fall by Noah Hawley


Noah Hawley’s bestselling thriller Before the Fall throws just about everything but the kitchen sink at protagonist Scott Burroughs: a plane crash, a dark night stranded in icy Atlantic water, suspicion, gossip, a naked woman, demon rum, economic failure, aquatic sharks and paparazzi, their terra firma equivalent. Hawley, the show-runner for television’s Peabody-award winning Fargo, definitely puts Everyman Burroughs through his paces in Before the Fall, the novel the New York Times calls “one of the year’s best suspense novels, a mesmerizing, surprise-jammed mystery that works purely on its own, character-driven terms.”

The world of Before the Fall has more in common with JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy than Detective Molly Solverson. Before the Fall begins with the flight of a small, chartered air plane peopled by a wealthy television news executive, his wife and their two children; a couple friendly with them; two pilots and a flight attendant; and Burroughs, a sort of vagabond artist/painter of disasters, who arrives just in the nick of time to fly with them. Much to his later peril. Within a few pages (so I’m not giving anything away) the plane crashes and the remainder of Before the Fall deals with the aftermath of those who survived and those who are investigating to determine why.

art of swimming

Melchisedec Thevenot 1696


He surfaces, shouting. It is night. The sat water burns his eyes. Heat singes his lungs. There is no moon, just a diffusion of moonlight through the burly fog, wave caps churning midnight blue in front of him. Around him eerie orange flames lick the froth.

The water is on fire, he thinks, kicking away instinctively.

And then, after a moment of sock and disorientation:

The plane has crashed.

It’s a fascinating morality that takes hold of Burroughs and those who surround him: a television talk-show egomaniac, a wealthy art patron, a frustrated FBI agent, an unhappily married relative. The facts often get in the way of the characters’ opinions, all of which frustrate the most sympathetic character in the book, the poor slub from the NTSB who has to wade through all the propaganda and water-logged evidence field to try to find out what, or who, caused this calamity.

[W]hen the phone rang that night in late August, Gus did what he always did. He snapped to attention and put the engineer part of himself to work. But he also took the time to think about the victims — crew members and civilians, and worse: two small children with their whole lives ahead of them — and to reflect on the hardship and loss that would be endured by those they left behind.

First though, came the facts. A private jet — make? model? year built? service history? — had gone missing — departing airport? destination airport? last radio transmission? radar data? weather conditions? Other planes in the area had been contacted — any sightings? — as had other airports — has the flight been diverted or contacted another tower? But no one had seen or heard from the flight since the precise second that ATC at Teterboro lost track of it.

jack_lalanne_logoVia Gus Franklin, and beyond the NTSB examiner, in Before the Fall, Hawley separately reviews the past lives of each of the travelers on the plane, a game of Clue for the reader racing to find out what actually happened, and along the way, tossing fascinating tidbits historical tidbits about Jack Lalane, opinions about the current New York art scene and media, ruminations celebrity, fame, infamy, and booze. When written this way, the ending needs to be worth the race through the prose and I was slightly underwhelmed.

My prediction: your book club is going to want to read Before the Fall. It’s buzzy, quick, interesting even if the “twist” at the end isn’t quite as twisty as you might want.


Scott meets Maggie Bateman at the Farmers’ Market on Martha’s Vineyard. He goes there each weekend to have pastries and buy his vegetables. After that, Scott takes a recreational ocean swim and then cooks his dog some spaghetti and meatballs.

My menu would include some pastry, maybe a large cheese danish I could cut and serve as a dessert.

Farmers’ Market Green Beans

String and snap beans and cover with water to clean. Rinse the water around, then dump it and add more water to cover beans. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, add salt and pepper to taste and about 1.5 tablespoons olive oil. Simmer for one hour. After about an hour, add one-quarter of a large Vidalia onion, chopped, and several baby potatoes and cook until the potatoes are well-done and fall apart.

Spaghetti and Meatballs — I’ll substitute ground turkey

Serve with red wine and good bread.

MUSICbefore the fall

The Ocean, Led Zeppelin

Catch a Wave, The Beach Boys

Einstein on the Beach, The Counting Crows

Blue Ocean Floor, Justin Timberlake

How Deep is the Ocean, Ella Fitzgerald

Ocean, The Cure

The Ocean, U2

Ocean Deep, Cliff Richard

Moonlight Swim, Elvis Presley

Movie Cast: Noah Hawley is the Show Runner for Fargo. My pick is first, a Fargo alternative is second, below.

Scott Burroughs – Aaron Eckhardt/Patrick Wilson

David Bateman – George Clooney/Bob Odenkirk

Maggie Bateman — Margot Robbie/Rachel Keller

Gil Baruch — Russell Crowe/Brad Garrett

Ben Kipling — Seth Rogan/Oliver Platt

Sarah Kipling — Julia Louis-Dreyfus/Alison Tohlman

James Melody — Jon Hamm/Billy Bob Thornton

Emma Lightner — Julianne Hough/Cristin Milioti

Charlie Busch — James Marsden/Colin Hanks

Gus Franklin — Robert Downey, Jr./Ted Danson

Happy Reading!




Woodford Brave, by Marcia Thornton Jones


In Woodford Brave, Corey Woodford’s dad is gone to war, serving in the US Armed Forces during World War II. A statue of Corey’s grandfather, a World War 1 hero cements the center of Corey’s town. But Corey isn’t so sure about his own heroic status. He jumps at stray cats, fears ghosts in the house next door, and can’t quite bring himself to confront his best friends’ teasing. He would rather just escape into the Cosmic Adventures of the Mighty Space Warrior comic books he reads or into his own alter-ego as “The Kid” in the comics he draws to send to his dad.

Marcia Thornton Jones, author of the Bailey School Kids’ series, brings a wolfhoundspersonal approach to Woodford Brave, a mid-grade novel. I was fortunate to be at an early reading and signing of Marcia’s for this book. She said it is one of her most personal works: “there are scenes from my life, my family” in this book. One of which is the fearful Irish Wolfhounds who patrol the yard of the neighbor Corey suspects is a German spy. Marcia’s own childhood experience of confronting two such beasts inspired their appearance here.

Woodford Brave confronts some tough issues: bullying, absence of a parent, death, prejudice. Marcia said that she conceived Woodford Brave as a book about the Vietnam War era, but ultimately was convinced to transfer the book to the Second World War. I think it works well, maybe better. The earnestness of Corey yearning to become the kind of man he believes his father and grandfather to be somehow seemed to me more closely linked to the landscape of the “greatest generation.” Corey’s frustrations and goals seem pretty universal though.

I was sick of not being taken seriously, of always having to prove myself. I was tired of the way my best friend laughed when Sawyer made fun of me, and how they both acted like the fact that my father and grandfather were both war heroes had absolutely nothing to do with me. My veins carried the blood of the brave, and they knew it . . .

One striking aspect of Woodford Brave is the incorporation of Corey’s comic strip, written by Marcia and illustrated by Kevin Whipple, to advance the plot. Through his character, “The Kid,” Corey communicates with his dad about things that he, Corey, can’t find a way to say.

comic book

I quite enjoyed Woodford Brave, so much so that it will be under the Christmas tree for a few people!


As you might expect, the food in Woodford Brave is kid-friendly. Peanut butter sandwiches, ham and biscuits, jam. There’s mention of cakes, canning tomatoes and Victory Gardens. I like making mini-muffins, layering the muffin with a bit of fig jam and country ham for a delicious alternative to a plain ham and biscuit.


Great song and group references!

Glenn Miller, Chattanooga Choo Choo

Benny Goodman, Taking a Chance on Love

Frank Sinatra

Doris Day

Leo Brown

Bing Crosby

MOVIE CASTINGwoodford brave

I have to punt on the child actors. But for the adults:

Ziegler — Christoph Waltz

Mrs. Woodford — Bryce Dallas Howard





Reunion, by Hannah Pittard

brother and sis

No one knows how to punch a button better than a sibling. Whether it’s referring to the younger sister as “Pooh,” her hated childhood nickname, or reminding the know-it-all older brother how he failed Calculus thirty years ago, siblings have a knack being a best friend, sometimes an only friend, and worst enemy. In Hannah Pittard’s second novel Reunion, the Pulaski siblings are alternately all of these and more to one another.

Kate Pulaski is flying home, stranded on the tarmac waiting for a storm to pass so she can get home to her estranged husband. She’s trying to figure out if her affair was a cause or a result of problems in her marriage and what exactly she does and does not want to do about it. She gets a message telling her that her father has died. The message, a voice mail, happens to be on speaker phone and Kate as well as all those in hearing distance hear older brother Elliott Pulaski tell his sister that their father has walked onto his porch in Atlanta and shot himself in the head. Then, he orders her to come home.

Delta Airlines vintage advertisement

Delta Airlines vintage advertisement

Home . . . in Atlanta . . . Kate, Elliott and Nell, the three siblings of Frank Pulaski and his first wife, must confront the succeeding four wives and each of their progeny. It’s failing screenwriter Kate’s worst nightmare: she hates all of the wives, is keeping the secrets of her impending divorce and financial crisis secret from her full siblings and would rather never see again any of the half siblings all while confronting her emotions about her father’s death . . . and life.

Reunion ups the ante on your normal holiday get-togethers by adding death and an inordinate number of spouses and siblings. But Hannah Pittard pinpoints with heartbreaking specificity the underlying crucible of drama, superiority, inferiority, love, hate, judgment, forgiveness and understanding — those elements which underlie both the smallest family holiday and the circus of Reunion.

I had the pleasure of participating in a two-day workshop led by Hannah, a professor at the University of Kentucky, during the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference last month and thoroughly enjoyed her class, the women writers I met in it, and Hannah herself. That’s not why I read Reunion though. Hannah’s first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was one of the most compelling novels I read last summer. And I look forward to reading Listen to Me and Atlanta, 1962 which should be coming out soon.

Reunion was named a Millions‘ Most Anticipated Book, a Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice, a BuzzFeed Top-5 Great Book, a Best New Book by People Magazine, a Top-10 Read by Bustle Magazine and LibraryReads, a Must-Read by TimeOut Chicago, and a Hot New Novel by Good Housekeeping.  Kirkus Reviews called it “well-written, with a clear narrative voice.”

Anyone who has ever wanted to use a sibling as a dart board will love it.


There are several scenes of cooking. Southern family and funeral, food is inevitable. I asked Hannah what she would suggest and here’s her answer:

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard

I imagine the meal the characters are cooking the second night in Atlanta (when Nell’s in the tank top and jean shorts) to be some sort of tomato-y Italian deliciousness. Eggplant parmesan? Lasagne? Something filling and family-style. You know? My husband is the chef in this house, otherwise I’d provide a recipe!

What I can give you is the recipe for a super stiff, super fresh, super dry margarita, which is my go-to drink while writing or when watching my husband cook us dinner.
Per drink, here’s the recipe. Super simple:
2 ounces tequila (I love Milagro silver)
1 ounce fresh lime
just shy one half ounce Pierre Ferrande Dry Curacao
Fill a shaker with the above ingredients and tons of ice; shake the sh*t out of it; serve over ice with a fresh lime. Don’t bother cleaning anything because you’ll be making seconds before you know it!

Whenever there was a death in my family, a casserole or two would fill the bill.


Hannah provided me with her playlist created for the LargeHearted Boy music blog: lhb

What I love about this exercise is that it asks me to do what I’m almost always doing in my head at any given moment of the day. As I kid, I was such a romantic. I desperately wanted to live my life inside a John Hughes movie. I didn’t just want the happy ending. I wanted the heartache that led up to the happy ending. The closest I could come to living inside a movie was through music. Even when it wasn’t playing, I pretended it was. And often — this is embarrassing, but… — often I’d even pretend there was a camera on me. So while my parents might have been minding their own business – sitting in the front seat on a drive across town to eat Chinese, say – I was probably in the back seat, imagining what I looked like on screen to all of my viewers and imagining also what mournful (always mournful) song they might be listening to as I went on with my listless life. In many ways, I’ve been waiting to be asked for this playlist since the day I hit puberty.

“The Only Living Boy in New York” – Simon & Garfunkel

This might seem like an obvious pick because the song is about a plane ride, and my book begins on a plane, but it’s also the perfect opener 1) because of the tone (a magical combination of hope and despair) and 2) because it’s the song I’ve listened to the most number of times in my life, on planes and off them. It’s a song that feels both like the beginning and the end. And because″>Reunion is my most autobiographical novel (side note: I have never cheated on my husband, but I have been in epic credit card debt), I am giving this song to Kate, my narrator, who, as the novel begins, is sitting on an airplane with news that her father has just committed suicide.

“Common People” – Pulp

Kate’s a mess. She’s also in debt. She and her husband have a wicked fight early on in the novel. “Common People” is my go-to song when I need to run a 7-minute mile. Kate doesn’t need to run a 7-minute mile, but after the argument, she’s filled with a similar sort of energetic rage. Since she and her husband are in public (at the airport) when the fight goes down, Kate can’t scream. But I can totally see her finding a bathroom stall, putting in her earphones, and dancing the shit out of this song afterwards.

“The Nights Too Long” – Lucinda Williams 

I’m a Lucinda Williams nut, but somehow I only recently discovered this song and, as a result, it’s been on heavy rotation in my home. It’s the story of Sylvia, who says, “I’m moving away, I’m gonna get what I want… I won’t be needing these silly dresses and nylon hose ‘cause when I get to where I’m going, I’m going to buy me all new clothes.” Sylvia is both optimistic and doleful. She is aching for life, for experience, for something bigger and better than what she has. So is Kate. (So are we all? Sometimes? Most of the time?)

“On Saturday Night” – Lyle Lovett

It’s a song about getting high with your family, which happens – in life and in this book.

“Rewrite” – Paul Simon

This song is playing as Kate drunkenly sets the table for dinner. It’s apt since she’s a failed screenwriter who might very soon be looking for work at a carwash.

“Corpus Christi Bay” – Robert Earle Keen 

This is a lugubrious, earnest snapshot of brotherhood and drunkenness. If it’s a love story, it’s a love story between two brothers: “We were bad for one another, but we were good at having fun.”″>Reunion is, in its way, a love story between siblings. But what makes this song so perfect is that Kate, the narrator, is pining for a time that no longer exists. Her siblings have moved on; they’ve grown up. But there’s also a clarity towards the end of the novel that Kate is moving towards. Alcohol is the least of her troubles (maybe not least?), but this song certainly hints at her nearing epiphany: “If I could live my life all over, it wouldn’t matter anyway because I never could stay sober…”

“Most of the Time” – Bob Dylan 

It’s morning, the day of the funeral, and Kate gets a phone call from her husband that she’s been both expecting and dreading. The sound of the song fits the mood of the moment beautifully, but so do the lyrics. “Most of the time she ain’t even in my mind… I don’t pretend. I don’t even care if I ever see her again. Most of the time.” Kate’s a liar who’s been trying to come clean about her feelings, but that’s a hard thing to do when you disagree with your own heart.

“Keep Me in Your Heart” – Warren Zevon

This is non-negotiable. This is the song you should play as you read the final chapter. It’s a song I can’t listen to without crying. It’s a song I can barely think of without crying. I think first – because you have to – of Warren Zevon himself. It’s his song and it’s his plea: “I’m running out of breath. Keep me in your hearts for while. If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less…” It’s so sincere, so simple, so honest. So the words are his, yes, but they’re also the words of anyone who has ever been left or who’s ever leaving or about to leave. This song captures everything Kate can’t articulate.

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” – Arcade Fire

Finally, because this is a book about childhood and about family and, most of all, siblings, the song that you should listen to after you finish and – if I’ve done my job – while you’re still imagining Kate, imagining those next few minutes and maybe those next few hours, especially if you stay with the idea of her long enough to envision her on the flight home, this is the song. This is definitely the song that’s playing as the plane takes off.


Kate — Charlize Theron

Nell — Liv Tyler

Elliott — John Corbett

Peter — Jason Seagal



My Dogs’ Life

IMG_0053   IMG_1544

It felt like the first day of spring.  Saturday, April 11, 2015.  Eliza, my 11 year old blonde cocker spaniel-golden retriever mix, and Abra, my 5 year old border collie mix, had woken me at 7 a.m. for a quick trip out to the front porch and then all three of us trooped back upstairs to my queen size bed, found a comfortable spot and slept for another two and a half hours.  At about 9:25, Eliza unfurled herself from the crook of my legs and hopped off the bed.  Abra shook her head and poked it out from beneath the covers next to my left side.  She did her little morning Down Dog yoga pose, waited for a bit of a belly scratch and then jumped down, tail wagging, waiting for me to put my slippers on and walk downstairs to let them outside.

It was a beautiful day.  Clear blue sky, warm sun.  I would get dressed and we would go for a long morning walk, maybe the farmers market.  The girls loved Saturdays because it meant three or four long walks.  One through Sayre School and around Central Christian Church to Esplanade and then Main Street and back up Limestone.  One down Second Street hoping to see and chase Abra’s friend Sassy before going to Georgetown Street and back down Short.  One around the campus of Transylvania and their home turf of Gratz Park where squirrels are most plentiful.


Abra, left, and Eliza: winter in Gratz Park

As I’ve done a thousand times, I let them into the back yard.  I got a glass of water, a protein bar, the newspaper from the front porch.  I called for them at the back door and they didn’t come so I gave them another minute.  When they didn’t come the second time, I went into the driveway, calling for them in my nightgown.  That was when the unthinkable occurred.

Four people stood in my driveway.

“Are you looking for a couple of dogs?”  The woman asked me.  She was someone I’d never seen before.


“We hit them.”

“You hit them?”  I asked.  I heard her, I don’t know why I repeated it.  My brain wanted to reject the information.

“Yes.  They were chasing a cat.”

A slim woman in black pushing a baby carriage came closer.  Her face showed great sadness.  I looked from her to the first woman.  The two men hung back.


“Please tell me they’re not dead.”

The first woman nodded.  “We saw the cat.  The cat got away.  We stopped for the cat.  But we didn’t see the dogs.”

“They’re dead?”  My voice rose in a quiver.  “They’re dead?”

The woman with the baby carriage approached me.  She whispered, “Can I give you a hug?”  I clung to her.  I didn’t know her, but she was my mother and my sister and my best friend in that moment.  “They are dead?  They can’t be dead.  They are all I have in the world.  Please tell me they’re not dead.”

Her husband, young, tall, capable.  “We saw it happen.  I — ”  He checked his wife’s eyes.  “I picked them up off the street and carried them to the sidewalk.  I checked their pulses first thing.  They were both killed instantly.  They didn’t suffer.”

“They are dead?  Dead?  My babies.  My poor babies.”  I cried.  I wailed.  I have heard the word keen but never knew what the sound was until I heard it coming from my own chest.  I needed to see.  I released myself from the bounds of this woman’s arms and walked toward the street and saw a swath of blood and gore several feet wide.  “Oh my God.  My babies.”  From where I stood, I could see the familiar curve of Abra’s soft, black fur covering her curled back, her tail tucked habitually between her front paws.  I couldn’t see her face or her distinctive ears or her bright, curious, loving cinnamon eyes.  I couldn’t see any of Eliza at all:  not her kind, devoted deep brown eyes, or her Grinch-feathered toes or her soft, floppy ears.

Abra, the Doodle, Abra Doodle, the Poodle, the Poo-Poo, Doodle Fus.  Eliza, Eliza Jane, Liza Jane, Smushy-Face, Grinchy Toes.

“I have to call someone.”  I stumbled into the house.  I called my mother, no answer.  My father.  No answer.  On the second ring, my sister answered and within three words, my brother in law was on the way to help.  Within ten minutes, my mother and best friend had arrived.  Then my sister.  Then more friends.  Shock, sorrow, sadness.

Throughout the week, I’ve had cards and letters and flowers and words of comfort from friends and neighbors and even people I barely know but who know me from seeing me walking with the neighborhood with Abra and Eliza.

“Where are the girls today?”

I’ve explained several times and without exception, have been met with real, compassionate tears.

My neighbor across the street called me on Sunday.  “I barely knew them and they always barked at me when they saw me as if they’d never seen me before,” he said, his voice muddy with tears, “but I loved those dogs.  They were the sweetest things.  I miss them already.  I know I’m supposed to strong for you and I’m failing in that.  I’m so sorry.”

One of my neighbors around the corner dropped off a card last night that brought me to tears again.  “I’ve been thinking of you and your pals.  I’m so sorry.  If they could talk, they would thank you for the years of love and for taking such good care of them.”

But you see, it was the other way around.  They took such good care of me.