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I am thrilled to welcome Erica Bauermeister to Diary of an Eccentric to celebrate the release of her latest novel, Joy for Beginners, in paperback.  Joy for Beginners is about a cancer survivor, Kate, who tells her six friends she will face her fears and go whitewater rafting in the Grand Canyon if they each accept a challenge from her.  As I said in my review, “Joy for Beginners is simply a beautiful novel about friendship and families and finding your way after marriage or children or illness causes you to forget who you are.”  Erica is hear to talk about a Grand Canyon trip she reluctantly took with her family and how it proved to be useful in the end.

Please give a warm welcome to Erica Bauermeister:

About this time, seven years ago, my family was preparing to go white-water rafting down the Grand Canyon. I cannot begin to tell you how much this was not my idea, how my stomach threatened to leave my body every time I thought about it. And while it should have been a solace to know we were going with a group of former Outward Bound instructors as well as time-tested guides, it only increased my certainty that my complete lack of knowledge would be abundantly on display.

But I was going because my husband and children were going, and I am, as a general rule, more protective than I am scared. So I bought a quick-dry shirt and pants and practiced shoving everything I would need for 16 days into two small dry bags. Worried about what would happen if I got tossed from a boat while wearing hard contact lens, I tried to get Lasik surgery only to be told my eyes didn’t qualify. Two days before we left, I was given soft contact lens and a couple trial bottles of storing solution.

I awoke the first morning of the trip in a hotel in Arizona. It was four am and the bus would be leaving soon for the river. I looked at my kids, sleeping in the double bed, and at my husband, competently repacking our gear. I went to the bathroom, put in the first contact lens and screamed.

It was like having acid poured into my eye. Actually, that’s exactly what it was; I had gotten the soaking solutions mixed up. After two agonizing minutes my eye released the lens and I put on the outrageously ugly blue cat-eye glasses I had for emergency-only use. I arrived at the bus fifteen minutes late, sweating and neon-eyed, and promptly spilled my cup of coffee onto the bus seat.

The novice had arrived.

But here’s the thing about challenges. When you’re supposed to do them, the right doors seem to open. The former Outward Bound instructors were down-to-earth and generous in sharing their knowledge. They handed me bandanas to wipe up the coffee and told me stories of their own disasters. Over the days, my husband’s face cleared of all the accumulated stress of work and life in the city. My children, who had barely ever even camped, dove into the experience with joy – climbing cliffs, paddling rafts, washing their hair in the thick, brown water. There were conversations around the cook table, hikes into enchanted slot canyons, and the stunning magnificence of waking up as the sun made its way into the canyon. As we traveled down the river, through millions of years of rocks, we shed parts of ourselves we didn’t need, found others we will carry with us always.

And yes, there was water. Big, heaving, brain-numbing water. Waves we had no choice but to go through because rivers only travel in one direction. But as a writer, the one thing you can always count on when you are in a sticky situation – when the train doesn’t come and you’re stuck in some town in Croatia, or a tree falls into your house, or a friend suddenly leaves sixteen puppies at your house – is the consoling thought: “I am SO going to use this in a book someday.”

Which I did, in Joy For Beginners. The fear I felt and conquered is the backbone of that book, and even though I am not Kate, much of her resolve came from my experience. But while any writer will tell you that experience is the gold we mine in writing, what was even more important happened that last morning on the river, when we woke in the pre-dawn light, packed our gear in mutual silence, and paddled the last stretch into the sunrise, the only sound a song played on a wooden recorder by one of the guides. It was a moment of pure, aesthetic beauty, but what made it profound was all that had come before, the sense of having earned the peace it brought.

Thanks, Erica, for sharing your story!  You made it work so well in the novel.  I’ve been whitewater rafting a few times in Maine, and now I’d love to take one of those Grand Canyon trips.

Giveaway:

Erica is kindly offering a copy of Joy for Beginners to one reader with a U.S. address.  This giveaway will close at 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, June 17, 2012.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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It was funny, Sara thought as she left the courtyard and headed back out into the maze of streets.  She couldn’t remember the last time she had really looked up and paid attention to anything higher than the top of her children’s heads.  She had spent the past eight years looking at the ground ahead for things that would trip them, or behind for things they had dropped.  The world had diminished to a height of four feet.  And yet here it was, with a sky full of birds.

(from Joy for Beginners, page 128 in the uncorrected proof; finished version may be different)

Joy for Beginners opens with a dinner party to celebrate Kate beating cancer.  Her daughter, Robin, wants Kate to accompany her on a whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, but Kate is scared.  Having survived a disease that could have taken her life, Kate doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks.  But she decides that she will do it if her six friends are willing to let her choose adventures for them to tackle.  Although their assignments don’t seem as risky as whitewater rafting, Kate chooses things that will challenge them, make them face life head on, and inspire them to become the women they’d always longed to be.

Erica Bauermeister tackles each of these women separately, creating a series of interconnected short stories.  She displays the strengths and weaknesses of these women, who have been there for each other through the good and the bad.  Caroline, who is struggling to accept the end of her marriage; Daria, who tries so hard to be unique and rebellious to hide her pain; Sara, who hasn’t made time for herself since she had children; Hadley, who’s been hiding from the world since her husband’s death; Marion, who is trying to settle into a house empty of children; and Ava, who still struggles to move beyond her mother’s death.

Bauermeister’s writing is descriptive, sensual, and insightful.  I was blown away by her vivid descriptions of food in The School of Essential Ingredients, and I wasn’t disappointed this time around.  In her hands, something as ordinary as gardening or baking bread is a thing of beauty, engaging all of the senses.  Her prose envelopes you in emotion, and you just know that she truly understands her characters and wants you to understand them as well.

My only complaint is that I wanted more time with these women.  Even if I couldn’t identify with their particular experiences, I learned enough about who they were before and how they came to be at this point in their lives to care about them as if they were truly friends.  When their sections ended, only hinting as to what came next, I was torn away from them before I was ready to say goodbye.  However, I appreciate how Bauermeister handled the characters and am amazed that she packed so much detail — in both what was said and what wasn’t — in so few pages.  Each of the seven women was distinct, and because Bauermeister takes such great care to distinguish them in terms of age, personality, and life circumstances and show how and why they bonded together, it’s never difficult to tell them apart.

Joy for Beginners is simply a beautiful novel about friendship and families and finding your way after marriage or children or illness causes you to forget who you are.  It’s painfully sad at times, but hopeful as well.  The writing is simply gorgeous, and I turned the last page feeling as satisfied as if I’d just finished a hearty meal of my favorite comfort foods.

Disclosure: I received Joy for Beginners from the author for review. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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