Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Bookshop in West Sussex, England

For the most part, reviews for A Reunion of Ghosts have tapered off, but today I came across a new one from The Bookshop, a bookstore in England that looks just the way a book shop ought to:3c37a9_f6e6bafbe65c41b5bdd907b6440c3ad6mv2_d_2048_1731_s_2

I have to say that coming across a lovely review such as this during a week when I have been questioning everything including the worth of the work I do was very affirming. It reminded me that it is, indeed, important to put literature out into the world. 

When I write, I try to live up to the exhortation of my professor, the late James Alan McPherson, who one day interrupted class to urge us to “consider writing about something important.” Those words changed me and my work. Ever since, I’ve tried to take risks and tackle the hard stuff. Thus, a first novel about genocide, a second that I consider to be a biography of the 20th century narrated by three suicidal (if wisecracking) sisters.

Jim also used to characterize all his work as failures, even his Pulitzer Prize winning work, even the work that won him a MacArthur genius award. He meant it, I think, in the sense that all art falls short, fails to achieve perfection, fails to live up to the vision we had for it when we began. Certainly, in that sense, my own work fails too, and it fails far more than Jim’s ever did. So it means a lot to know, imperfect though it may be, it touched someone.

Anyway, the review:

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is an absolutely astounding novel and I urge anyone and everyone to go and read it. I bought this book simply because of its pretty front cover, but it is so much more than that: a novel beautifully written – startlingly so in fact – and drew from me both tears of sadness and laughter on more than one occasion. The novel is written as a joint suicide note by three sisters whose great grandfather invented poison gas for the Germans during World War One. It is evocative and chilling, hilarious and devastating, and brutally questions the difference between truth and fiction, between meaning and coincidence. READ IT. Please.

Career Girl Monthly: Mini-Review


Career Girl Daily ranks A Reunion of Ghosts number one in their list of must-read books. They say:

#1 A Reunion Of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

The blurb can’t do this book justice. Simply put, this book is a shared confessional of three sisters who have decided to kill themselves at the end of the 20th century. Sounds depressing right? Well, no. These three sisters have an extraordinary family history, starting with the man who invented chemical weapons. I read the front and was a little skeptical of a book described as ‘devastating’ but when I read other reviews touting it as ‘flat-out funny’ and ‘hilarious’, I realized there’s more to this book than the blurb. It’s dark, fascinating and hilarious.


Sunset in New York City: A Reading

There’s a scene in A Reunion of Ghosts where the three sisters narrating the book discuss the almost luridly colored sunsets over the Hudson River that they can see from their Upper Westside apartment. In fact, that scene inspired the jacket of the British paperback edition of the novel. Here’s the jacket next to the real deal.

Eng pbk                          ny_sunset_over_the_hudson_river_2_143

How perfect, then, that this Monday (August 8 at 8pm), I’m going to be closing out New York City’s summer reading series, Scribblers on the Roof, which takes place on the rooftop of the UWS synagogue Ansche Chesed, and where, I’m told, the backdrop to the reading is the topic of the sisters’ conversation itself: the sun slowly setting over the Hudson.

Reading with me that night is debut novelist Janice Weizman, whose historical novel The Wayward Moon received a Midwest Book Award and an Independent Publishers Book Award in historical fiction.

So…from sunset to the wayward moon’s rise. It should be a beautiful evening.

CWW Follow-Up

This post from the Council of Wisconsin Writers site includes more of Lee K. Abbott’s  kind words about A Reunion of Ghosts, as well as the excerpt I read from it:

“Enthralling Novel” Won Edna Ferber Award

CWW continues to recognize its 2015 award winners with the introduction of Judith Claire Mitchell of Madison, whose novel A Reunion of Ghosts took top prize in the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award contest. Mitchell, a UW-Madision English professor specializing in fiction writing, preceded A Reunion of Ghosts a decade earlier with her debut novel, The Last Day of the War. She didn’t have prepared statement when she accepted the Edna Ferber Award at the May Banquet, so she recaptured her remarks for this post with this:

“When I accepted the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award at the Council of Wisconsin Writers awards banquet, I spoke extemporaneously and emotionally. To be honest, then, I’m not exactly sure what I said when I stood behind the podium in that beautiful room and looked out at the members of the Council of Wisconsin Writers, this array of talented poets and authors and book lovers, some of whom I’m lucky enough to consider friends.

“I know I spoke a bit about Edna Ferber herself. Ferber, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, was a close friend of George S. Kaufman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The two also teamed up to write the plays The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door. As it happens, George S. Kaufman was my husband’s great-uncle and his legend looms large in the family. So receiving an award in Ferber’s name has double meaning to me: not only is it a tremendous honor to receive an award named for a great woman novelist, but this award has won me lots of points with the in-laws.

“But, of course, the more overwhelming and humbling aspect of receiving the Edna Ferber award is that it places my novel among works by the incredibly talented Wisconsin writers who have been acknowledged by the CWW over the years. Thinking about the work of such writers—including my fellow faculty in the UW-Madison Creative Writing Program, such as Ron Wallace, Sean Bishop, and Amaud Jamaul Johnson, and my former students, such as Lydia Conklin and Chloe Krug Benjamin—and looking out at the audience of awardees and writers, I couldn’t help but be mindful of the abundance and quality of literary talent in this state. To be welcomed into this club by the CWW and judge Lee K. Abbot whose comments brought tears to my eyes, is something for which I’ll always feel grateful”.

In selecting A Reunion of Ghosts as the winning entry, the Edna Ferber Award judge wrote:

“Lordy, what an artfully accomplished novel this is, not least because Ms. Mitchell has masterful command over two important features peculiar to the “willed word,” tone and point of view.

“First, consider her material: chemical warfare, The Great War, the Holocaust, adultery, dementia, mass shooting, the plague that is AIDS, a species of incest, murder by samurai sword, and suicide, lots of suicide. In the hands of a less savvy writer, such calamities, large and small, are but grist for the mill that is bathos, a sophomoric sentimentality and clumsy melodrama. For Ms. Mitchell, however, such is a chance to test the moral balance of the “imagined real world” through an unexpected instrument, humor. Yes, the book is by turns mordantly wry, even slyly cynical—not a laugh-riot, exactly, but rueful and arch bemusement, a kind of fatalism served up in puns (“no noose is good news”) and badinage and slapstick and linguistic hijinks and pointed but all-too-common absurdity. Charlie Chaplin, methinks, would approve.

“The point of view is likewise artistically felicitous, first person plural. No, not the fey rhetoric of royals of yore. Instead, Ms. Mitchell synthesizes, or fuses, the sensibilities of the three sisters at the heart of this instance of the “liar’s art.” Such a strategy occasions distance and intimacy, a way of examining the long-gone and the painfully present with fidelity and honesty. Furthermore, it permits her to conflate time in ways that remind us that structure, too, can be another way to make meaning. It gives her access to venues known and not, through diaries, news clippings, letters, historic documents—well, to anything that turns the world, no matter its era, into language.

“I am enthralled by this novel. I am beguiled. I am charmed. And, to be sure, I am humbled. A Reunion of Ghosts is a sterling example of what Updike argued was the work that fiction did best: to turn the there and then into the here and now.”

Here is the excerpt of Mitchell’s winning work she read for Banquet attendees:

Vee has stopped writing. All these months, while we’ve worked on this project, Vee’s been the most reluctant, not to write, but to write about Vee. “Can’t we just skip me?” she asks.

“You have to tell your story,” Delph argues. “That’s how these things work.”

Vee scowls. “Who are you?” she says. “The Emily Post of suicide notes?”

Even this evening, when we started writing about Vee’s marriage to Eddie, Vee sighed with great weariness. “All right,” she said. “Fine. Let’s just get through it fast.”

But now she’s stopped. “What’s the matter?” Lady asks. “Don’t you feel well?”

No, Vee says. It’s not her health. It’s what we wrote. It’s the last thing we wrote, the phrase “but then.”

“ ‘But then,’ ” Lady repeats.

“I know,” Vee says. “It’s ridiculous.” The word ‘then.’ ” But she’s never really thought about it before, she says. And now she has. The word then. It’s captured her attention.

Lady and Delph regard Vee with a sisterly blend of compassion and contempt. “You’re not suddenly taken with the word then,” Lady says. “You’re just avoiding writing about what we were about to write about.”

“No,” Vee says. “Really, I’m serious. Think about it.”

“Think about what?”

“Think about then.”

“I would like to think about then,” says Lady. “I would like to write about then. You’re the one who won’t think about it.”

“I don’t mean think about the time then. I mean think about the word then.”

“I know what you mean,” Lady says.

“Who’s on first?” says Delph.

“Then,” says Vee. When you think about it, she says, that four-letter word, that most quotidian of adverbs—it’s kind of astounding.

Then as adverb: I married my husband then. Then as adjective: I married my then husband then.

Then as noun: I married my then husband then and after then, I was happy.

“I can’t believe I’ve never focused on this before,” Vee says.

“No more gin for you,” says Lady.

Vee is drunk, it’s true. But so are we all. It’s only Vee who’s this animated, gushing, alive. Then! This amazing, enchanting little word. See the adverb then travel in two directions at once! Watch it spin around, encompass both the past and the future!

The past: I hadn’t noticed you then.

In this example, then means long ago and far away, it means a few seconds before I did notice you, it means that fall semester of college, that English class at Columbia where the professor, forced to admit Barnard women for the first time, refused to call on said women, thus reasserting the masculine hegemony, or as we put it back then, his male chauvinist piggery. And this boy on the other side of the classroom, this funny-looking boy with long hair and big ears, he raises his hand, ostensibly to comment on the use of kenning in Beowulf, but instead—ambush!—he goes, “Professor, you just called on me now, the very moment my hand went up, but you haven’t called on that woman over there who’s had her hand raised for half the class. How come?”

The future: And then I fell in love with you.

Here then means “next,” which, by definition, means in the future, means later, as in one breath later, the professor getting hot, growling, “I’ll damn well call on whoever the hell I feel like calling on if and when I feel like calling on them,” and the boy gathering his books, then walking out, and the girl who’s been raising her hand feeling obligated to gather her books too—the sound track to all this: Revolution has come! Time to pick up a gun!” as sung by the perennial protesters outside Schermerhorn—and then the girl chases after the boy, into the hallway, where she says—awkward and stammering, a disgrace to second-wave feminism, or, as we called it at the time, women’s lib—“Thanks, I guess.”

Then the boy proclaims, in a voice that echoes through the empty hall, “The dick-swinging dog shall sleep the sleep of the sword,” thereby doing a little kenning himself, and the two of them walk to their respective registrars’ offices together, first his at Columbia, then hers at Barnard, both the boy and girl dropping the English class and signing up instead for an introductory class in pre-Christian religion where they will learn that the Egyptians worshipped the scarab beetle because it laid its eggs in shit.

“From shit!” the professor will exclaim. “From shit came life! And then . . .”

Two phrases of note: and then and but then.

And then, Vee has decided, is positive. It implies something to look forward to: and then the girl went back to the boy’s dorm, and then the girl lost her virginity to the boy in the top berth of his rickety bunk bed while side one of Surrealistic Pillow played repeatedly until the guy in the room next door shouted, I get it, Glod, you’ve got somebody to fucking love, and then the boy and girl blushed and looked into each other’s eyes and made the same gargoylish grimaces of embarrassed horror, and then they began to laugh, eventually so hard they were crying and their faces turned red, and then, when the boy was capable of speech again, he raised himself up on one elbow and looked at the girl’s crimson and blotchy face, and then he said, “Wow, I always thought falling in love took longer.”

All the Gloom You Need

Here’s a new review of A Reunion of Ghosts that I stumbled across tonight. It was in Portuguese so I put it through Google Translate. I get the gist but I don’t think the program is going to be putting any actual translators out of work anytime soon. Also, I’m pretty sure the pull quote from this would be “able to boot melancholy smiles out of any cold heart”:

The Reunion of Ghosts had all the gloom I needed when I read it . Telling the non- linear story of three sisters, Membras a family marked by tragedy , the work of Judith Claire Mitchell is actually the letter of suicide Lady Vee and Delph Alter . Despite the grim subject, this book amused me a lot with his sarcastic humor and tired of life , and arrested me enough with the non- linear structure of the story of each of the Alter sisters. With surprise ending and quite realistic narrative of the life of women , The Reunion of Ghosts is a sad reading, questioning the meaning of life but still able to boot melancholy smiles of any cold heart .

“Best of” Round-Up

On this New Year’s Eve, I send out huge thanks to the publications, critics, booksellers, libraries, and bloggers who included A Reunion of Ghosts in their Best of 2015 lists. Today, there’s one more: the Jewish Book Council, where Reunion is named one of the 15 novels that shaped Jewish literature this year.

Here’s a quickly put together (because we’re heading out to see Star Wars!) compilation of those kind of enough to include my book on their best of lists (this is a work in progress; links to come):

Kirkus Best Books of 2015
The Guardian (UK)
The Jewish Book Council
NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge
The Columbus Dispatch
The Cedar Rapids Gazette
The Strait Times (Singapore)
The Philippines Online Chronicle
The Seattle Library System
The Halifax Library System (Canada)
Library Thing

Do I wish the New York Times was on the list? Yes. I absolutely do. But the perspicacity and depth of these reviews give lie to the belief that there are no serious book critics outside of the big publications, which is very heartening. That some of these critics found Reunion in the overwhelming pile of galleys they receive on a weekly basis, chose to read it, and then wrote about it analytically and with beautiful prose, means everything to me as the novel’s author, as an educator of young writers, and as a reader.

…and Another Best of 2015


Thank you, thank you to Margaret Quamme and the Columbus Dispatch, where my little old book is named best of 2015 along with work by Shirley Jackson, Mary Gaitskill, Michael Cunningham, and my former student Lauren Groff.

A Reunion of Ghosts (Harper) by Judith Claire Mitchell: Three middle-aged sisters prepare a joint suicide note that explains the sins of their family for the past four generations. Mitchell’s plot is thoroughly satisfying, but the tone of her novel — the ability to savor joy and sorrow at the same time — makes it remarkable. — M.Q.


More Best of 2015 Lists

Thank you to The Strait Times, the newspaper of Singapore and its neighboring nations, for naming A Reunion of Ghosts one of the three best book of 2015. Here’s what their book critic, Akshita Nanda, had to say about it:

A Reunion Of Ghosts is a woman’s history of the 20th century, a novel about scientific advancement, sexual inequality and the suicidal impulse of humanity to move from disaster to disaster in the name of progress. Yet it is more comedy than tragedy, despite being told from the point of view of three sisters ready to kill themselves on the last day of 1999.

Thanks, too, to Rob Cline of The Cedar Rapids Gazette for including Reunion in his top five of the year. He writes:

In Mitchell’s novel, three middle-aged sisters decide to take their own lives on Dec. 31, 1999. In the run-up to the fateful date, they write a book-length suicide note, written in a perfectly rendered communal voice, explaining their family’s troubled and troubling history. Mitchell, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has accomplished an impressive structural, aesthetic and narrative feat.

And thank you to my own publisher Harper Collins. Of all the novels their many imprints published this year, they named A Reunion of Ghosts as one of their best.

Also, to the many libraries, bookstores, and bloggers who have named Reunion as a best or a favorite: I am so happy to have been acknowledged by such discerning and well-read lovers of literary fiction.

Review: The Philippine Star

This column in The Philippine Star has its priorities straight. First it comments on the local bar scene. Then it gets to some novels. Of REUNION it says:

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell (available at National Book Store) Lady, Vee and Delphi Alter are the three middle-aged sisters who turn this darkly humorous novel into a suicide pact note. Great granddaughters to the infamous Lenz Alter — credited for inventing the ammonia gas during the First World War, the first use of chemical warfare — the sisters firmly believe that they carry the curse of the third and fourth generations for that which Lenz had created. But trying to put an end to it all at the stroke of midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, in New York City, is not as easy as it would seem. Seamlessly mixing historical facts (with a change of name) with fresh, illuminating fiction, Mitchell creates a world that is suffused with human drama, comedy and pathos, all in equal measures. While leaving a bittersweet taste, this one delights.

Review: The L.A. Times

I’m beyond thrilled to receive this review from the Los Angeles Times.


Judith Claire Mitchell explores a family curse in ‘A Reunion of Ghosts’