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Tony Gentry

By the Book: Rosemary Rawlins

Updated: May 17

I’m grateful to count author Rosemary Rawlins as a longtime friend. We met after publication of her powerful memoir Learning By Accident, which recounted her struggle in helping her husband Hugh recover from a brain injury suffered in a bicycling accident here in Richmond. The book is heart-wrenching, hopeful, true. It has helped so many people navigate the long months of brain injury rehabilitation in their own lives. Rosemary and Hugh came to lecture my occupational therapy students about this, we chatted, and thus began our friendship.

Over the winter my jaw dropped to read a second manuscript Rosemary was finishing, a work of historical fiction on a topic that might seem impossible to tell, the horrors of the Cambodian Killing Fields of the 1970s. Rosemary knows Cambodian immigrants who lived through that time, has visited Cambodia with them, has immersed herself in historical research, and she has magnificently condensed all of this into a riveting tale of one girl who comes of age across the years when Cambodia was tearing itself apart. By imagining the killing and the upheaval as seen through her innocent eyes, Rosemary is able to convey the personal, human cost of such brutality more powerfully than any straight history could. If you haven’t picked up All My Silent Years yet, it’s available on Amazon, or you can request it at your local bookstore. As they say, you’ll be glad you did.

All this by way of introduction to our By the Book interview:

What books are on your nightstand?

I am reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I often read two books at a time, alternating between them.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I read every day. It’s also a personal habit of mine to read each night in bed before I sleep, and the habit is so ingrained that I have trouble sleeping if I can’t.

My ideal reading experience takes place in a favorite cushy chair in my office, feet on the ottoman. I love being engrossed in a book on a rainy day, or reading at the beach in the early morning or evening when it’s empty. In the fall, I read out on my back deck.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

That’s like choosing a favorite child—impossible! But one book that has stuck with me for a long time is The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, not only for the story but the beautiful writing. I found her characters to be extremely well developed and their voices so distinct that I fell into the story and never wanted to come out.

Your novel might be considered historical fiction. Do you have favorite historical fiction books or authors?

Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Tara Conklin (The House Girl). I also loved Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. More recently, I have read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys byColson Whitehead, two powerful stories.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Favorite villain?

Again, I could not pick only one, but for heroine, I’ll say Hetty Handful Grimke in The Invention of Wings, a slave girl called “Handful” with a strong will and memorable voice.

Here’s a quote from Handful in the book: “I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.”

Favorite villain. The villains I cannot stomach are vicious slave holders and overseers. The tortures they inflicted on people is unimaginable and inhuman.

Character-wise, I’ll name Nathan Price, the Baptist minister in The Poisonwood Bible. He was rigid and abusive, a self-serving fanatical man who was cruel to his wife and daughters while acting pious and self-righteous. If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people hurting others in the name of religion.

Your first book was a memoir. Do you have favorite memoirs or autobiographical authors?

I love memoir! On top of the dozens of remarkable memoirs I’ve read as editor of the Brainline blog site (I have a written several book reviews on the site and you can find them here), here are a few other memoirs that I’ve loved over the years:

Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl for its immense wisdom.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, for the beauty of insight before death.

Educated, by Tara Westover, a riveting family story where education is only one of the themes.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, for its poignant depiction of a loving family’s dysfunction and how a child remembers that dysfunction.

Catherine Gildiner, Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls, for her humor.

Julie Barton, Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself. I am highly allergic to dogs, but I love them so much I get dog allergy shots. This book had me in tears until the end—a beautiful tribute to a woman’s best friend.

For my research on Cambodia, I read many riveting first-hand accounts of stories that occurred during the Khmer Rouge period including: Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, compiled by Dith Pran; and First They Killed My Father, a memoir by Loung Ung.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s a raw, honest, and wildly funny book about Chast’s caregiving experience with her parents. I needed this book when I felt isolated and frustrated about my own caregiving antics. A friend gave it to me at the right time, and it had an immediate impact. I felt lighter, less alone, and saw my situation as more absurd than annoying. Sometimes, books are pure medicine; they remind us that there’s love beneath all the mess.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Beautiful, impactful, and important in these times.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

It wasn’t a book but it was words, so I hope it counts. My daughters arranged for all of the people in my life to write a quote or passage that reminded them of me, or that they thought I would appreciate, and I received the passages in a gift box. I open it all the time and read the slips of paper; each one is uniquely thoughtful and endearing. The gift means more to me than any other.

Are you a solitary reader or do you share your reading experience in a book club or reading community of some sort?

I read a book a month with my book club: Wine, Women, and Words. This group is made up of mostly retired teachers with a few oddballs like me, and we always have lively, intelligent discussions about the books we read together. I also attend a monthly Women’s Journey group that focuses mostly on women’s issues and spirituality.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

If you ask me this again in ten minutes, my answer will change. I’d like to have several dinner parties by genre and one with poets, but here goes:

  1. Sue Monk Kidd (The Invention of Wings),

  2. Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), and

  3. Yann Martel (Life of Pi)

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. What makes a life worth living in the face of death to a young doctor and father facing a terminal disease? An exquisite exploration of the significance and meaning of life, of life choices and beliefs.

What do you plan to read next?

I just ordered Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kandi. I’ve been immersing myself in reading BIPOC authors to better understand recent events in our country and the Black Lives Matter movement.

By the way, here’s an interview I did with Rosemary about her new book. Enjoy!

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